Dash – Slap

A post that deals with some concerns evident in ‘Dash Dash Dash’, a series of shows I wrote and directed in 2010

There is, of course, nothing funnier than a man covered in shit. It’s hilarious. What’s even more hilarious is when the man is first not covered in shit (because nobody wants to be covered in shit) then, because of a failure, he is suddenly covered in it. If he were to walk in covered in it that would be quite funny but not as side-splitting as when he comes in, with all his innocence, his arrogance, his complacency, his sheer deserving of something bad, his cleanliness, the fact that his things are in the right place and then he falls into a hole full of shit or, equally, a load of shit falls on him from out of nowhere. This is real humour.

Most of the people I know say that one of the toughest tasks they ever faced in a long life was learning to control their bodily functions. Before the Law was introduced, life was endlessly forgiving. In fact, the very concept of ‘forgiving’ was inapt. What was to forgive? You could do what you wanted, where you wanted. For a while, this looked likely to be the general setup. Then a reward system was introduced and you knew something was up because before that they didn’t need to reward you because everything was so dandy in the first place.

The purity & danger economy (see here and here (p. 150 et seq)) prevailed, however, and it was only natural that there arose a great nostalgia for the golden days of incontinence. This was a fraught state of affairs insofar as attempts to invoke such a return risked a possibly terminal social exclusion.

 

 

The clowns of the Zuni and the Yaqui and other Native American tribes had devised antidotes to such pomp that were a corrective to lifetimes of muscle control. The practice of ‘filth-eating’ by the clowns drew startled responses from the 1930s anthropologists who ‘discovered’ them:
“These masked men teased one another…they simulated eating and drinking the excreta they would pretend to catch from their wooden machete from the body of passing burro or horse or man or woman, even of one kneeling in prayer.” (The Sacred Clowns of the Pueblo and Mayo-Yaqui Indians. Elsie Clews Parsons & Ralph L. Beals. American Anthropologist, Vol 36, No. 4. 1934.)

 

 

 

Another commentator finds that the practices were not merely pantomime:
“The scatalogical practices among some of the clown societies of the Pueblo Indians, particularly the Zuni, are notorious examples of this clownish capacity for pointing to and containing the total human condition. One is initiated into the Zuni Ne’wekwe by a ritual of filth-eating – a strange sort of Eucharist indeed. Mud and excrement are smeared on the body for the clown performance, and parts of the performance may consist of sporting with excreta, smearing and daubing it, or drinking urine and pouring it on one another. Among the Hopi, a group of males known as ‘singers’ play about with vulva-shaped sticks during initiation ceremonies, singing taunting and obscene songs to the women and running after them to ‘bless them’ with filth. The women, in turn, being well-prepared, douse the singers with foul water or urine.” (The Spirituality of Comedy: Comic Heroism in a Tragic World. M. Conrad Hyers. 2008)

 

The clown, with his pants falling down, recycles in the name of pure symmetry:
“Ne’wekwe knowledge not only cures stomach aches but also enables clowns to eat any kind, or amount, of food or garbage, including human excrement, and to engage in outrageous human behaviour without feeling shame.” (The Beautiful and the Dangerous: Encounters with the Zuni Indians. Barbara Tedlock. 1992)

The business of running a tight outfit is onerous. The pants, and the hair, must be let down from time to time. Even under the patched and fraying canvas of the British travelling circus those big-shoed figures at whom the public (quite understandably) rarely laughs any more will enact great rituals of incontinence that reach the parts that the ironic quip cannot reach. In dashes Bonkers closely followed by Skanky and Roderigo. They are carrying ladders, planks, brushes and pots of paint. They are going to decorate something. Up go the ladders, between them go the planks. Skanky goes aloft with the pot and oh no…! Five minutes later they’re covered! What a mess! A veritable shit-storm!

The indispensable voidances passed from the circus as it waned and the variety halls and pantomimes as they gave way to black and white TV where, on Saturday night in the 50s with your Mum and Dad on either side, the diminutive redhead slapstick artiste Charlie Drake (catchphrase: Hello My Darlings! (you had to be there)) would take up employment in a pie, chocolate or, indeed, paint factory and, with complete inevitability, over the course of four or five minutes, move with polished incompetence to a condition of fully glazed muckiness. I wept with glee and, had I not sensed at some obscure level that the viewings were precisely designed to tone rather than relax the muscular clenching without which one cannot step forth into polite society, I would have wet myself.

 

In the sixth Dash show, ‘Gush’, is the funniest thing you ever saw. A man comes into a room and torrents of blood fall on him from above. Later on a woman takes the lid off a tin up on a high shelf and is covered in blue paint. Then a man is being kicked and beaten fiercely and yellow paint falls down on him. Then a woman tries to stop a man attacking her with a bottle and black paint falls on them both.

Well worth doing, I promise you. Murder to rig, though. The liquids, two litres at a time, were delivered from buckets suspended way up in the grid, where the lights hang. Each bucket was tipped by cords pulled from backstage. If the actors were more than an inch out of position the liquids dropped right beside or behind them without marking them in the least. Such was the volume of screaming, howling, banging and infernal 170 bpm Dutch gabber that the backstage crew couldn’t hear their cues and, until reliable systems were eventually devised, the actors had to shout key words repeatedly (‘Yellow!’ was one such cry) in order to get coloured in.

Fittingly, after having become a site for the unabashed display of fluid wastes, three of the figures on stage are garrotted by a psychopath. They let themselves go – what did they expect?

 

14.06.2010
photo from ‘Gush’ by Ed Telling

Undomain

David Lynch’s ‘Inland Empire’ (2006) is three hours and twelve minutes long. The first hour is inspiring, the next frustrating, the third (on a second viewing) tragic and beautiful. Back in March 2007 I wanted, after 90 mins, to run from the cinema but felt I couldn’t because I like Lynch’s work so very much. A few months later I found on two excellent blogs two excellent essays about the film: ‘Something got out from inside the story – Lynch’s Unhome Videos’ in k-punk here and the second, ‘Inland Empire’, in the blog ‘American Stranger‘. (The essay was removed from the latter site some time ago but I am grateful to traxus4420 for kindly sending me a copy. However, on revisiting Strength Weekly for a major refurb after ten years, I found, alas, that the copy had vanished. I’ll keep looking for it).

k-punk observes that the film ‘often seems like a series of dream sequences floating free of any ostensible reality, a dreaming without a dreamer (as all dreams really are) – no frame is secure, all attempts at embedding fail.’ The protracted absence of ‘a dreamer’ may explain why the movie exhausts at a first viewing. Girded for a revisit as a result of receiving illumination from the aforementioned essays, I bought the DVD and determined to go back down those dark, scratchy corridors in order to put myself in the picture.

It’s good that there are people in the world who will synopsise movies with labyrinthine and intractable plots in order that the rest of us may clarify just exactly what it was we just saw. Such exactitude is only notional in this case but a robust public service is delivered by Wikipedia here and provides succour and encouragement for the return match, as does fourfour’s wry frame assembly here, (scroll right down when you get there). which serialises the consternation that envelops each of Laura Dern’s three characters throughout the movie.

The Wiki plot summary is thorough but a further order of compression may prove more workable. Laura Dern’s character, the actress Nikki, is preparing for a role in a new film. The film is not as new as it seems, it’s a remake of an earlier Polish movie whose male and female leads were murdered. The film is cursed. Something gets out from inside the story or, as American Stranger has it, ‘the staged events of the film shoot bleed into the apparently actual events of the actors’ lives…it rapidly becomes uncertain which of the two ‘worlds’ contains the other.’ As a consequence of this osmosis and confusion, Sue – the character in Nikki’s new movie – stumbles into Nikki’s world and Nikki gets lost in the world of the enchanted script. Further down the line, in Hour 2, elements of the original film also draw Nikki in, to the extent that she (or Sue) finds herself, from time to time, in Poland, embroiled in a murder scenario. Hour 3 sees Sue, who has become a hooker, dying from a stab wound among homeless people at Hollywood and Vine. When she is dead, the director of Nikki’s film calls ‘Cut!’ and Nikki gets up. She wanders into a cinema where she sees Sue on screen, acting in the film she has just been working on.

Hour 2 is fairly gruelling insofar as standard physics, geography and history are out the window. But as k-punk remarks ‘…the space involved is ontological, rather than merely physical.’ Hour 2 is not fantasy in any genre sense, nor can it be domesticated with reference to the unfolding of any psychological pathology within the protagonists. If madness is at hand it’s an effect of the shadow of an old, old reality that, some would contend, predates the individual’s acquisition of language. Take away that acquisition and where’s the physics that would keep the geography in the right history?

If Lynch is not toying with the psychic Jurassic then there is another way of categorising the effect he delivers: the films are, of course, ‘dream-like’ and, in this instance, ‘nightmarish’. It seems an obvious thing to say, and the terms are usually scattershot across arts commentary as if they explained something. They usually explain little and constitute a classic passing of the critical buck. Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’ (1977) was more deserving of the terms insofar as people, objects and events in the scenario could be understood to stand for other less palatable ideas and urges, even if the act of interpretation itself was not a straightforward and convenient translation. The film is often described as Lynch’s ‘most personal’, suggesting that the dreamer himself is close at hand. If this is the case then the film has passed through him and can be passed through him. The absence of the dreamer, the absence of a conventional script, the low ‘strange object’ count (no severed ears, no babies made out of skinned lamb’s heads etc) place ‘Inland Empire’ adjacent to but not in Dreamland. Recalling k-punk’s description of the film as ‘a series of dream sequences floating free of any ostensible reality’ – the possibility arises that these are sequences that are more urgent than the urgently personal, their resemblance to dreams and nightmares is misleading, they are certainly unhome and uncanny but of the waking world.

Whatever – Lynch presents a take on a Place without Time and a Time without Place. Even he, according to reports, resorted to a degree of intuitivised jumblism on IE, starting the shoot without a script and delivering dialogue to the actors on a nightly basis. This is, literally, self-defeating and, no doubt, precisely what was required. It’s not that artistry must be defeated, however, it is applied later, after the contents have surfaced and must then be seized and shaped.

The movie depicts magical processes at work, insofar as ritual acts of concentration and refinement – as practised in rehearsal and discussion – are seen to dilute the barriers between categories of experience to the point where thought and desire actually reshape the world. Anecdote supports this magicality at many stages of the fiction-making process – writers are familiar with the conjuring of versions of their fictions into their everyday lives. Crudely – write a novel about someone breaking their leg and halfway through the first draft you sprain your ankle. (Note to young writers: this only happens now and again.) Not really magic but certainly a product of focused invocation.

A less debilitating aspect of fiction-making is seen in the business of affairs between directors, actresses and actors. There’s nothing like a collectively organised art-form for facilitating alliances and dalliances. Affairs spring up on film sets and in theatres as if there were something in the water. Attractive and usually young humans not only fondle each other in love scenes in a thoroughly professional way you understand but have often been led by their training to believe that the cultivation and maintenance of strong emotions (those which are relevant to the project in hand) outside of rehearsal and performance can only intensify and enhance performance. It’s probably true.

Similarly, given the great sense of responsibility, interdependency and attendant tension felt by directors and actors working on a project, directors and actresses/actors tend to fall in love. It’s a special kinda love, though, and not to be confused – as it often is – with setting up or settling down together.

We cannot, however, refrain from observing that Laura Dern, having worked on ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986) with Kyle MacLachlan – an actor often seen as Lynch’s on-screen alter ego – subsequently stepped out with him for four years.

We should also recall Lynch’s own relationship with BV star Isabella Rossellini and remind ourselves that Rossellini’s father was Roberto and her mother Ingrid Bergman. If physics, geography and history are removed from these genealogies then we may find support for the presence of a pervading psychoanalytical fantasy of generational transfusion wherein intimacy with daughters secures intimacy with their fathers and vice versa. 

The vice versa, in this case, would secure intimacy for the father with the daughter if the surrogate son were the prime physical agent. Much as film scripts may appear to transmit the genius of their writers, the empassioned claustrophobias of rehearsal give rise to the sexualisation of transmissions that may actually be more concerned with the acquisition of skills.

To attribute magical power to a film script because it contributes to showbiz romances is, however, needlessly whimsical. Notwithstanding the tiresome ‘excitement’ surrounding ‘the Scottish play’ (wherein awful things happen to actors performing ‘Macbeth’) (here, if you must), at the end of the day a bunch of people sit around and concentrate on a sheaf of pages, applying their various skills and sharing developmental aspirations. A reality is suggested then consolidated. The resemblance to magic is structural only.

Seen in these workaday terms, the phenomenon of ‘fiction leakage’ seems rather ordinary and predictable. In the case of ‘Inland Empire’, though, there wasn’t a script, despite the film being about scripts, and the pages came, one learns, in small instalments. Nor was there ‘character development’, that staple of the respectable fiction. In IE it’s location, location, location.

Laura Dern’s characters have a hard time whoever they are and wherever they are. This is because the geography is so fucked up. Dern herself is widely reported as not having a clue why she was where she was, in the course of the filming.

The spaces which constantly spook her are more than enough to be getting on with; character development is superfluous in these flared-out, migrained video hallways.

 

A reductive reading – not necessarily a bad thing – would see the spooking spaces as mental states inhabited by one person with three aspects (Nikki, Sue, the hooker). A slightly more expansive reading would posit a realm in which narcissism and restricted capacities for empathy enable the subject to experience others merely as elements of herself. These are psychologically wholesome readings insofar as they aspire to produce psychological wholes from psychological holes. They are conservative, however, and feel a bit old hat. Lynch has been there and done that (‘Lost Highway’ (1997) and ‘Mulholland Drive’ (2001)).

Anyway, things have moved on since the days of character development – the physics has changed. The artistry purportedly implicit in the gradual unfolding of character has been replaced by speedy teleportation. In LH and MD the shifts are shocking but they merely bisect the films. In IE shifts occur every few minutes.

IE is uncanny because the uncanny is premised on the familiar. What, then, is it that we recognise in all this punishing, protracted discontinuity? Dern’s characters struggle to escape places in which everything is in between, nothing is homely, nowhere is anywhere for very long, all is fiction and fictions contaminate all that they touch, including other fictions. If dependable identity is one such fiction then one of its functions is to innoculate the badge holder against less reliable badges. If you lose your immunity then other fictions become interchangeable, they have more in common than they have distinctions. If you lose your immunity you are both locked out and engulfed. You can’t get back home, even though there are doors and corridors that lead there. Immuno-deficient, you are entranced by anything that pops up and defenceless as it spits you out.

American Stranger says “Perhaps this is Lynch’s vision of how our world must end – ‘our world’ as a hyperreal, self-absorbed Inland Empire where everything is merely an advertisement in empty performance for everything else, an ultrasaturated luxury market poised for collapse into its outside.” A world of strident, heeby-jeeby micro-worlds choc-a-bloc with seductors and bullies, sugar highs and grinding lows, the cold sweat of homelessness and undomain.

As she dies in the street, ‘the hooker’ is told a story by another vagrant street girl. The girl tells the hooker about her friend whose vagina wall has a hole torn in it that leads to her intestine. System walls are breached. The systems work well when properly separated but once breached: contamination, fever, the long walks of the undead, ever between stations.

¶¶¶¶¶¶¶¶¶¶

The Falls

In those days Princess Margaret of the Royal Family would walk about unconcernedly with just one bodyguard, that’s probably him at the back, and she would go to the shops or have a cup of tea somewhere. You’d see her around and some people would say “Good Morning Princess” and she would smile briefly. When I saw her I would sometimes follow her and one day a blue car came up that I didn’t notice but she did and saved me. Apparently I went into shock and would not speak.

Earlier that day my sister, who was called Susan, was walking her dog Michael along in the dusty end of the town where there were no kerbs and you could start to see the countryside coming and there was a lorry that she didn’t notice carrying produce at speed and she was probably thinking about something and the roar was in her ears almost too late but Michael assayed the situation in a trice and used his shaggy paws in the small of her back and thank goodness both parties were intact as the lorry proceeded on.

Alan, Princess Margaret’s bodyguard, sped me towards Buckingham Palace where I could wait until I regained the power of speech. Neither Alan, nor Margaret (she said no need to call me Princess, little one) nor I were aware that a tiny girl who had been playing in the shadow of the V8 Pilot as it sped towards Kensington Palace had been scooped up by the speeding car and was clinging to the grille supported only by the bumper. The girl was Christine, Alan’s niece not that he knew this until he stopped having sensed that the car was overheating at which point he lifted her carefully up not for a moment taking his eyes off the Princess whom it was his main job to protect.

On our way to the Palaces Alan stopped to get a packet of Craven “A” from a café whether these were for the Princess or himself is not known. He was gone for some time and when he came back he was markedly dishevelled (ébouriffé the Fr) and he explained that even as he was concluding his purchase the ceiling had collapsed of the café and down into it cascaded a man and a woman in their pajamas that was what it was like then sexually who bashfully said that the vigour with which they had been making a love-making session had critically exposed weaknesses in the joists then the lath and plaster of the ceiling beneath that floor.

The thunderous café collapse placed in jeopardy structures along the street down to the park and the small menagerie from which strolled the lion into the room where swathed abed in swaddling lay like a minuscule jewel the child which only moments ago the lady had been singing to sweetly but now her open carry acquaintance strove to tame the beast and it could be said that it was this that enraged the lion I remember when my first daughter was born people said don’t let the cat sleep on her but Lulu kind of seemed to know which side her bread was buttered and was respectful. I mean I’m not saying you would want to put this to the test in this particular situation but maybe it just wanted to lick it or something.

I stood to one side of the great bedroom of Queen Elizabeth and her royal husband the Prince Philip as they looked lovingly down on either their first or second child it is not clear. They understood that I had been struck dumb by the accident but they said ‘Please hang around if you want’ and their quality was very restful. I was thinking ‘Hey, I could even pretend to be more dumb and get to hang with these for longer, just checking out the whole scene here.’ But you know it was an island of calm after all the dire happenings and I found a rising urge to speak and there was a loosening of the connection between my tongue and the cold paralysis occasioned by my inches away from near death in the street escape.

I told the young Royal Parents that I could not shake off the memory of an incident at my mother’s wedding where to the startlement of all present flames roared from her head and shoulders scorching her garments and hair. The Prince Philip asked me Were you in your mother’s womb at the time? I said I don’t know and The Prince said Do the Math. Queen Elizabeth the Queen said to him ‘Phil that’s a bit much isn’t it?’ He said Look would you like to be trapped in a small space for months on end? Don’t you think it would make you very angry? At which The Queen said ‘You’re not saying that this little boy set his mother aflame?’ Philip the Royal Husband said You know just saying

After what the Royal Prince had said I realised that in that part of my mind where the past resides I had no memories of my mother at all. Was this due to my remorse at my having caused her to combust from within or simply that I was still in shock from the blue car that had loomed and the Princess who had swooped and taken me up? Or was there concrete organic damage to key parts of the limbic system of my brain of which of course as a small boy I knew nothing but then I saw a fleeting image and knew that I had seen it many times before it was my mother in headlong descent pellmell holding two boys one me one who? A brother? Had I had one once?

Thank heavens for that! For a moment it seemed as if a terrible ugliness was abroad but into whose firm outflung arms should my mother almost at the flagstones tumble but those of a decent bloke called Paul Dexter who was coming back from a convenience store and became my father shortly thereafter so you could say she had fallen in love which is always reassuring and as for the little boys well you know the phrase My memory serves me well in this case we can add the qualification ‘but not accurately’ because those boys never reached the ground they are up there somewhere and sometimes on a quiet night you can hear them going ‘What the fuck?’

Over the Road

Between the ages of nine and eighteen I lived with my parents in a leafy road in a nice house and played with the kids from our road and the road round the corner. My friend Hugh’s sister Anna went to school with Rosemary who lived opposite their house with her parents who were quite old and grey and dour. The father was a bank manager. Rosemary didn’t come out to play much and when she did she was hesitant and awkward. Hugh and I paid her little attention.

Some years later I had been commissioned to write a feature film for television but they never made it but that’s not why I mentioned it. My parents were away for the summer so I returned to my schoolboy home and used the small room at the front upstairs that used to be the railway room as a study. I had a view across our front garden to the house opposite which was partially obscured by tall evergreens and firs. I had gathered from my mother that when Rosemary’s parents had died they left the house to Rosemary so she sold it, moved out from round the corner and bought the one opposite our house. It was a similar size to her childhood house and had a long garden.

I thought it was odd that someone would wish to live so close to their childhood home. My mother told me that Rosemary did not have a job but did quite a lot of work in her garden. It was clear she must have inherited quite a sizeable sum from her funless parents. My mother also said that the adult Rosemary was painfully shy but also, on occasion, very chatty. My mother was also very chatty, a skill she had honed in the course of entertaining the scientist colleagues who would visit our house from time to time as they passed through the country.

Eiry, my mother, would greet Rosemary cheerily in the street and sometimes they would stop to chat. Eventually, and I’m not sure quite how this came about, Rosemary would come to our door and ring on the bell and Eiry would answer and invite Rosemary in. Rosemary would always decline but seemed happy to chat, standing in the porch while my mother stood on the doorstep.

This was the situation I found when I returned after several years to my old bedroom and the railway room and set up my typewriter on a table and looked out over to Rosemary’s new house – the house that was new to me because years ago she used to live round the corner.

The trees were by this time, of course, taller and thicker than they’d been when I was living at home and going to school. And I hadn’t spoken to Rosemary for over twenty years. I knew she liked to chat and I kept my eye on the house in case she came out.

One day I spotted her working in the front garden. I went downstairs and walked onto the lawn on my side, pretending to inspect things. When she looked up I called out ‘Rosemary! Hello! It’s David!’ I wasn’t sure just how disinclined to socialise she might be. Would she scuttle back into the dark house? No. She greeted me pleasantly and told me that Eiry had told her I’d be working in the family home. We marvelled at how much time had passed and that we were meeting again and how were we and what was I doing and I didn’t ask what she was doing because I knew she didn’t work and to press beyond that didn’t seem right.

She was in her early forties like me, probably the same age, in fact. Her hair was straight to her shoulders and cut with a fringe. She wore a heavy pullover, a long full skirt and wellington boots. We chatted for a while. I wondered what the inside of her large house was like but I was sure I would never find out. It would have been nice to invite her over for a cup of tea but that too felt presumptuous.

I thought her life must have been strange and lonely – shaped by girlhood incarceration with her severe, unbending parents until they died at which point perhaps she had little spirit left with which to try again for a lost youth. I didn’t even know how long she had been in the new house although, on reflection, this would have been easy to ask compared with the array of straightforwardly nosey enquiries I was steadily stockpiling.

In these leafy streets not every house is pleasant. Not, at least, to the eye of one who in his youth was puzzled and fascinated by the ones with gravel front gardens delineated by lengths of black-painted diamond-spiked chain suspended between sets of creosoted fence posts. And there were, it soon became apparent, two sorts of trees you could grow in such a front garden. There were the trees of life, which shed their leaves consonant with the seasons, variously presenting buds, flowers, young leaves, full leaves in crown array, those leaves going golden or going brown and falling, bare wet branches, bark, boles, stumps, the fists of pollard, even sightly cankers.

And then there were the trees of death and shadow, that towered and towered, the yews with their red jelly bumbo berries, the spruce, the leylandii, all with dense sticks, not a sound, no nests, utterly unclimbable, if you trim them they retaliate with the scorched look, if you put your hand in them it comes back smeared with black dust or damp paste, they stop you looking at the lace curtains even if these are not obscured with poisonous clattery laurel.

Every third house bore some of these blights, even those of families with kids. Parents in those days, of course, were much older. They were crouched and stooped and spoke unclearly. Sometimes it got to the kids and closed them down, as with Rosemary, but for several of them, mostly brothers and sisters, they were merely constrained in their efforts at socialising. Glen and Raine, for example, were rarely seen but this may have been a class problem informed by parental disdain for playing in the street. The street was every bit as good as the garden and a close second to the fields and streams five minutes away at the town’s edge.

When I say class, we were all middle class round there but you had snooty, chummy, irascible, genial, loony and from a kid point of view as analysed later by the same kid grown up at least two of these might as well have been class distinctions. Not loony because loonies had their own unstratified class and, down our road, they pretty much left you alone without giving you attitude. Dotty Dennis, for example, found young boys pleasing and would have liked them to play in his shed, he said, but young boys were not taken with the notion and regarded the frail septuagenarian, who actually did wear a dirty macintosh, with unwavering disdain.

The most mysterious house, owned by the Lethbridges, was barely visible from the road, being surrounded on three sides by dense, tangled undergrowth that occupied, on one side, an area as large as the house itself. It was possible, therefore, to make Colonel Fawcett-like forays from the corner of the Lethbridge Jungle adjacent to the Orbells’ American-style unfenced front lawn, straight into the heart of darkness strangled by plants whose name I never knew and to this day do not. They weren’t exotic, just your everyday roamers, randomers and vagrants that must be closely surveilled if they are not to choke proper garden flora. But the clambering here was of the highest standard and one of the few times in my life that I have been surrounded on all sides with no room to turn by bushes. As we cracked and snapped our way down we glimpsed the Lethbridge house from time to time through the knotted vines and ducked down into the shadows. Their rooms contained furniture, appliances, washing up liquid and so forth but we never glimpsed any members of the family. They had a car which was sometimes parked on the gravel sometimes not. We saw no kids. We thrust our way right alongside the house, on into the untamed reaches of the lower garden, finally breaking through the final hedge into the playing field that stretched across to the railway lines carrying trains to Liverpool Street, Kings Cross and Bedford.

I never saw Rosemary’s back garden when I was a boy, partly because I didn’t want to look. It would have been easy to peer into it from the playing field – it was right next to the Orbell’s on the other side – but there was something not forbidding so much as unappetising about those cross-hatched glooms. I could also have walked round to the cul de sac at the back of Rosemary’s new house and made my way to the hedge there to see if her gardening style had moved on from her parents’ sombre planting. It would be hard to do this casually, however.

I spotted Rosemary in her front garden again and waved. She came to her gate in her usual outfit plus gardening gloves. We started to chat from either side of the road, how was my writing going, how was the garden. Somehow we moved on to what we were reading. This was clearly a subject not suited to discussion in slightly raised voices. Rosemary crossed the road. I moved forward to my gate. She was keen on thrillers, it turned out. American. Hardboiled. Noir. Dime, even.

My ascription to my neighbour of a taste for Trollope or Mrs Gaskell, neither of whom I had ever read and was therefore employing, albeit in my imaginings, speciously, was crumbling at speed. Woolrich – had I? McCoy is good. I recalled The Deadly Percheron. Had she? Oh yes, she loved Bardin. Then one of us brought up The Name of the Rose. Rosemary had enjoyed it but then there had always been much more experiment with thrillers and crime novels in Europe. The Erasers? Well, no, I hadn’t got round to that but I did like Jealousy.

Rosemary said she would bring some books over if I was interested. That would be great. Most of mine are in London I’m afraid.

The next day Rosemary came all the way to the front door and rang the bell. She had about five books with her. One was ‘Catastrophe – the Strange Stories of Dino Buzzati’. Another was Cornell Woolrich’s noir thriller ‘Deadline at Dawn’. I read most of them before I had to go back to London. I haven’t seen Rosemary for maybe thirty years. I’ve gone back to my home town now and again and strolled down my old street and hoped I might see Rosemary in her front garden. I didn’t like to knock in order to find out if she was in. This seemed a bit presumptuous.

This is What You Do, Boris

Some years ago I spent several months travelling in the USA. Often I got lost or couldn’t find places and would ask people to help me. I was helped many times by a number of solicitous and amiable people.  When I got back to London I determined to help any lost tourists I might come across and was quite looking forward to this happening. I joked to my friends that I had been hanging around in the West End hoping that people would ask me the way. When they actually did I was delighted to give them clear directions and wish them well. After such occasions I would feel a special pleasure at having rendered a service. It was a pleasure I would have liked to have had every day. On more than one occasion, however, I was not entirely sure of the accuracy of the directions I was giving but I did not let this deter me. The odds were that I was giving reliable directions and could go on my way feeling pleased and helpful. On at least two or three of these occasions I walked past some of the streets I had recommended to the tourists and found that either they were not where I had said they were or they were clearly not going to lead to the tourists’ required destination. There was definitely one occasion on which I directed a tourist in precisely the opposite direction to which they required. When I made these mistakes I felt regretful but I also noticed that my errors had not dimmed the feelings of gratification that I had come to expect. It occurred to me that I could simply offer to help people if they seemed lost and then give them random instructions in an amiable way. I would expect to feel useful and likeable. In fact it didn’t even have to involve giving directions  – I could just promise to get people something they wanted and not do anything about it. I’d still feel the glow that follows services rendered.

This is what you do, Boris.