Monday 1 July 2019

Left Field: CHAPTER 36 - American Paint

America: drive-ins, pink Cadillacs the size of swimming pools, the Wobblies, Martin Luther King, Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill, Indians. Even as a boy, I always rooted for the Indians. 

I fell in love with American literature when I was at Canford and asked the English master, Andrew Davis, why we couldn’t have something contemporary and relevant like James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain as a set book. Why, I asked, were they all British – Lord of the Flies, A Tale of Two Cities, Macbeth, of course. I remember hating Golding’s novel with its emphasis on how we are all born evil. He laughed and said he hoped I would overcome my infantile literary tastes. This only encouraged my passion for a hidden America that was ignored at Canford and marginalised in the States.

In the 1920s and 30s, American black jazz singers, Josephine Baker and Alberta Hunter, found their stardom, not in New York or Chicago, but in Paris and London. ‘The Negro artists,’ said Hunter, ‘went to Europe because we were recognised and given a chance. In Europe they had your name up in lights. People in the United States wouldn’t give us that opportunity.’

In the 1950s and 60s this happened again with the great blues singers who played to packed houses at London’s 100 Club and the Marquee. It was Europe and the UK, in particular, that gave them the recognition they deserved.

When these musicians arrived in London, their first booking was often at the Bromley Court Hotel, Catford, a short bus ride from my home. Blues greats like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley appeared there with British stars such as John Mayall, Alexis Korner and Spencer Davis.

With his pencil moustache, red Telecaster, sharp suits and from Rolling Fork, Mississippi – as far from Catford as you could get – Muddy Waters ‘Got my Mojo Working’.

The Bromley branch of CND used to hold meetings at the Swan and Mitre in the High Street, and I was delighted that being part of Ban the Bomb in south London meant I was among other blues fans. I remember one evening we cut the meeting short and decamped to the Bromley Court to hear Sonny Boy Williamson. I went home that night and dreamed of the Tallahatchie Bridge. 

One American’s arrival in Europe in the 70s was not as a jazz or blues singer, but as a ballet dancer. Anne Aylor was escaping from a border town in New Mexico where there was little culture of any sort. Her Dixie-born mother thought that ballet ‘was about as useful as a tit on a boar hog’.

After travelling in Europe, she ended up in London where she lived hand to mouth, working at a shop in Great Marlborough Street that sold brass and wind music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This poorly paid job was supplemented by even more poorly paid work as an usherette at the London Coliseum. But the 30-pence-an- hour evening job enabled her to see opera for the first time and, during the summer season, the great touring ballet companies of the world. During these years, she became a writer of short stories, novels and plays and then a teacher of creative writing.

In 1991, I was struggling to expand my ideas for Dylan Thomas into a full-length play. Michael Walling recommended that I attend a playwriting course run by Steve Gooch and Nick Darke in Cornwall. I booked.1

The week-long workshop was held at a beach house in Porthcothen. There were ten of us and one of them was Anne. She and I were always the first up. We exchanged life stories sitting at the kitchen table. I was fascinated to discover that she had Native American ancestry, describing herself as a ‘homeopathic Indian’. I laughed when she turned sideways to reveal her Indian nose. She said her maternal great-grandmother had been a full-blooded Cherokee and, although she didn’t know much about her father’s ancestry, he was hairless and dark-eyed. Both her parents were from Tennessee – Cherokee territory. She said that many whites from the southern States have Indian blood, whether they acknowledged it or not. ‘Take a look,’ she said, ‘at Elvis.’  

Anne talked about her career as a writer and ballet dancer. How she had hated her life in New Mexico and had escaped to California where she danced with the Oakland Ballet, then to New York and finally to Europe and London where she had been living for 20 years.

One morning at breakfast she told me that her play, Children of the Dust, had recently won a playwriting prize which resulted in its being produced by the Soho Theatre and that she was in the process of writing about the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. The title, she said, was Happiness is North of Here, a line from one of Tsvetaeva’s poems. Anne said that she shared many of the poet’s obsessions. She, like Tsvetaeva, always had to be in love, though not always with the same person. ‘I was madly in love with someone when I started writing this play,’ she said, ‘but like Tsvetaeva, the object of my obsession didn’t feel the same way.’

When she told me her hometown was where Billy the Kid had escaped from gaol, she was home and dry. The Balkans might have seemed exotic, but the technicolour deserts of the southwest US – that was exotic and here it was on the north Cornish coast. I fell in love with the look of her, just a little before I fell for all of her. Her mermaid hair reminded me of the pale, beautiful women in Gustav Klimt’s paintings.

Three months after the course, I received a Christmas card from her with a Zuñi prayer inside. It said: 

May you grow old;
May your roads be fulfilled; May you be blessed with life, Where the life-giving road Of your sun father comes out, May your roads reach;
May your roads be fulfilled. 

She’d sent the same New Year’s wish to several other friends, but because she’d signed it ‘Love’, I read more into it than was meant. I was so thrilled I put it under the mattress on my side of the bed so I could dream of her while I slept.

Anne had founded a writers’ group and, because she liked what she’d heard of my Dylan Thomas play, invited me to join. I went to several meetings before I had the courage to invite her out for a meal. I suggested we meet at Joe Allens, the show business restaurant in Covent Garden. After dinner and a bottle of wine, I told her that I fancied her like mad, that I had been attracted to her from the first time I saw her, that I had been faithful to my wife for all my marriage but, after witnessing the war in Croatia, I realised how short life was. I did not want to die with any regrets.

Anne was shocked at my proposal for a discreet affair, but her father, to whom she’d been very close, had died earlier that year from a long, wasting illness. After years of fear and grief, she wanted to live again.

A few days after the meal, I rang to see if she would meet for a drink close to the City Lit where we’d both taught. She nervously agreed.

When we met, she told me she had to go to John Lewis to buy a vegetable rack. I said I’d come with her, but why not first go to a hotel in Russell Square? I tapped my pocket. I had come prepared.

She was taken aback by my suggestion, but not to the extent that she refused.

The Hotel President shared an entrance with the Imperial 267 and I tried to look like a tourist when I asked for a room. I fumbled over our fake names as the girl at reception handed me a key to Room 303. Anne pointed to the bar. ‘I never drink in the day, but now I need one.’

Three stiff gin and tonics later, we made our way upstairs. When I tried the key, the door wouldn’t open. I called to a cleaning lady who was chatting to a colleague at the end of the long corridor. She opened the door with her master key. Inside the darkened room I could see clothes and shoes.

We stood there with no luggage and I said, ‘Those are not my shoes.’

The cleaner asked to see our key. ‘You’re in the wrong hotel, sir. This key is for the Hotel President.’

As we waited for the lift, we heard them giggling and started laughing ourselves.

In the right room, and with the vegetable rack waiting to be collected, I kissed her, or tried to. ‘I don’t think I can remember how to do this,’ I told her.

'Me too,’ she said. Anne sat on the bed, nervously facing the window. I wasted no time and started to undress. When she turned around, her eyes told me she was shocked to see my nakedness. Later, she told me she’d been hoping for a slow, romantic seduction, but since I had already disrobed, she had to undress herself.

The first time ‘the earth didn’t move’, but I had finally realised how hollow my marriage was and she, too, was in a relationship which was lonely in all senses of the word. That afternoon was the start of a love that had been sadly missing from both our lives for years.

On our way to the vegetable rack, I turned to Anne. ‘It’s been a long time.’

For you or me?’ she asked.

It was the start of a relationship that was to see me through the trials of a bitter divorce and much more. She helped me in my struggles with War Child, years of drama and trauma, and became a supportive stepmother to my two sons.

When I was Director of the Pavarotti Centre, she spent eight months there as a practitioner of Chinese medicine, treating the war-wounded and those traumatised by war with acupuncture. She also taught ballet at the Centre and got her students in London to organise donations of ballet shoes and leotards. Her classes were over-subscribed with young girls desperate to take part. 

When she left, a farewell party for her was organised. There were a lot of tears. It was not just humans that were sorry to see her go. Anne adopted a feral kitten she’d found sitting on the rim of a tyre to escape the boiling sun. She named her Juba and this animal had amazing intelligence. There were no pet shops and so no litter trays to be had in Mostar. Anne trained her to use the garden below our flat at the top of the PMC. Once she knew the drill, we’d let her out and Juba would go to the garden and run back when Anne jangled her keys over the third-floor balcony. When we weren’t there to let her out, Juba taught herself to squat over the toilet pan.

When we left Mostar for a few days, the cat was always there when we returned. That is, until Anne left for good in September 1998. I took Anne to Dubrovnik Airport for her flight back to London and, when I got back to the Centre, Juba had disappeared and was never seen again.

Anne has a way with animals. When we were staying with friends in Limerick, there were three horses pastured in a field behind their house. I watched as they approached her and took it in turns to nuzzle against the side of her face and try to chew her hair. When we got back to London, our friends rang to say that the horses had been wild before we came and, when the farmer moved them to a new paddock, he couldn’t believe they’d been tamed.

They say we all have an animal double. Anne’s is the American Paint. Mares from this Western breed are fast- witted, intelligent and independently minded. When you see them in a corral, they usually stand apart from the others as if in contemplation. When they do approach other horses, they like to rub their heads against the flanks of their companions. They are silent.

I cannot end this chapter without a story about one of the few books Anne brought to Mostar for her stay. In her suitcase was Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. A lover of Tolstoy, Chekhov and Nabokov, Dostoevsky was a writer she’d never been able to read because she found his prose too careless, too charged with melodrama and unbelievable coincidences.

Before I left for Bosnia to take up my post as Director of the PMC, I’d told her that the book had completely changed the direction of my life. That it was after reading this novel that I quit my job as a lawyer’s clerk and decided to do something more worthwhile with my life. That it was this book that was responsible for me deciding to try to make the world a better place. She was curious to find out why.

In Mostar she started and gave up, started and gave up. When she had exhausted all her other books in English, she was forced to try again. After struggling through the 600 pages she said, ‘I’ve spent weeks and weeks reading a book I didn’t enjoy and I am no closer to understanding why it affected you so much.’ 
Crime and Punishment?’ I said, pausing for a moment. ‘Maybe it was The Brothers Karamazov.’

She threw the book at me. 


1 After recovering from a stroke in 2001, Nick was diagnosed with cancer and died, aged 56, in 2005. His wife, Jane, and son, Henry, continued his legacy in film. Written and directed by Jane, The Art of Catching Lobsters is a moving account of the grieving process and was premiered on BBC 4 in September 2007. Nick was a playwright, fisherman, environmentalist and beachcomber. A great workshop leader, he had written a play for the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Dead Monkey, a dark comedy featuring a childless couple, their monkey and a sexual liaison between the wife and the pet. A film producer saw the play in Washington DC and invited Nick to Los Angeles to write the film script, all expenses paid. He returned from the West Coast to his Cornish cottage and Cornish poverty and waited for the call which would change his life. Some months later, a fax arrived from the producer. ‘Dear Nick,’ it said, ‘This is America. We can have a monkey. We can have a dead monkey, but we can’t have a fucked dead monkey.’ Nick was not one to compromise. It was the end of his Hollywood dreams. With Anne, a slightly different story. Her first novel, No Angel Hotel, was published in London by HarperCollins. When it appeared under the imprint of St Martin’s Press in New York, the title had been changed to Angel Hotel. ‘This is America,’ she was told. ‘A negative title won’t sell.’


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