PHOBIAS AND FETISHES
After a 5 month sabbatical , this blog resumes, and will appear once a week for the time being. The next post will be on Wednesday 28th December. In case you are wondering, the reason for the sabbatical was that I wanted my online novel Passion For Beginners immediately preceding this, to get as much attention as possible. Meanwhile, Merry Christmas and an excellent 2017 to everyone.
Once, over fifty years ago, I met a bald man with an overwhelming terror of tinned peas. His name was Watson Wilson, he was in his late fifties, a distant relative of my father, and he lived in Bath in the West Country. Just to clarify matters, and as he conscientiously explained, it was only when the things were served on his plate that he came out in cold sweats, and felt an enormous desire to run in an ugly panic he knew not where. So, rather strangely it seemed to me, walking past a colossal row of tins in a supermarket did not unnerve Watson in the least, and as he had no garden and neither did most of his friends, and as furthermore, they rarely if ever dined in each other’s houses, garden peas did not disconcert him either. What’s more, just like my mother up in neanderthal West Cumbria, his stout wife Madge did not possess a refrigerator in 1964, and neither did any of her friends, so that frozen peas were also not on his green and globular radar.
This was Watson’s only phobia, so I found out by gentle interrogation. The fact that something specifically arrayed like a nightmare on his plate could unman him, made me think he had possibly been forced to eat the bilious vegetable by a bullying parent or maybe some mean-spirited relative he was obliged to stay with during the holidays. But then I reflected he was such a stable and calm man these days, it was unlikely he had endured a traumatic or brutal childhood. Although he had sent me down on the train for a summer holiday, my Dad, true to form, hadn’t set eyes on or even corresponded with Watson for some 40 years (since 1924!) and he was the last person in the world to venture into speculative psychology. Like most West Cumbrians, and most contemporary Greeks for that matter, my father had virtually nil interest in cause and effect, and believed that things were as they were, and that effortful reasoning only confounded matters and made everyone concerned needlessly unhappy.
I was 13 years old in 1964, and curious, by which I mean irredeemably nosy about everything, and especially the world of people and their frequently startling and appalling ways. That partly explains why I wanted from an early age to be a writer, someone who in my book is ideally (qv my heroes Flaubert, Dickens and George Eliot) a massively nosy bugger who loves poking their snout into people’s far from private dramas. And I will gratuitously add at this point, that much of contemporary UK fiction indicates a yawning absence of pungent characterisation rooted in authorial nosiness, and instead a pallid tendency towards languid riffing on the minutiae of affect and disaffection between the amiable puppets on stage, whether they are supposedly pirouetting in 2016 or 1916 or 1816. That weary set-in-aspic poetic, I would assert, rules the roost these days, or alternatively we are treated to something that is all plot, plot, plot, and the characters, God love them, can all go hang…
They had just stopped hanging murderers in 1964 in Britain, and it was also the advent of the Beatles and the Stones and sexually explicit drama on TV, and lots of other powerfully magnetic freedoms if you were 13 years old. Which reminds me that Madge Wilson in that year unwittingly brought the intimate and embarrassing unspoken world into a vivid focus for me, as at 58 poor old Madge had an ineffable animal smell, a pungent odour about her that even I, a pubertal teenager, knew was not B.O. It was all amateur guesswork then for a 13-year-old boy from a remote province, but in hindsight I can say that her smell originated powerfully from you know where, and that 50 years ago it was relatively common for women from late middle age onwards to have that ineffable rutting scent about them. Not that I ever go around sniffing for the definitive evidence, but surely the opposite is true nowadays, as female hygiene is a standard item of self-awareness for women of all ages, and deodorants and sprays of all kinds are remarkably cheap. Withal and for that matter, there were thousands of well stocked Boots chemists 50 years ago, which surely must have sold something a competent remedy to Madge’s remarkably feral scent. The conclusion can only be that Madge didn’t notice it herself, as presumably neither did Watson, or assuming they, did both of them thought it inevitable and nothing could be done about it…
Watson was a sturdy and stocky man, though a little pale, who always seemed to be sitting down and never standing up. He had a very gentle voice and surpassingly gentle and light blue eyes. They were full of a kindness which issued from him as a generous and modest radiance, and he had not an ounce of pride or vanity. In fact, there was so much gentleness, you could have siphoned it off and bottled it and offered it to those sadly in need of the same thing. The same was true of Madge, though her tender kindness was more of the bustling and resonant type. Watson talked in something of an elevated whisper, whereas she was frankly assertive and always with a hint of teasing comedy whenever she uttered. They had no children but the walls of their cheap terrace were plastered with photos of beaming godsons and nephews and nieces and their offspring, and it was obvious there was a yawning hole in their marriage which they had courageously turned upon its head and made it a source of bounty for themselves and others.
Madge was also massive, a huge woman, while not at all obese, which is to say she was impressive and genuinely attractive in her girth and splendour, both at the front and at the rear, at the prow and at the stern. Her bosoms more or less dwarfed the dimensions of the sizeable and unfussy kitchen, and indeed outdid all other spheres in the whole of Bath as far as I could see, apart of course from the omnipresent celestial and thus invisible spheres. Her skirted backside likewise was like that of a stately ocean liner or the rear of a graceful she-elephant as it swayed in ceremony, albeit minus a howdah. Fittingly this vast and grand woman was enormously generous, not least and most pleasingly when it came to the meals she provided me. Every morning she gave me what I would call a Full As A Bull’s Arse Bath Breakfast. In those days, I ate meat, and on my plate, were bacon, sausage, eggs, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, fried bread, and best of all and wait for it…chips. Chips for breakfast! I’ll say that again. Chips for your breakfast, man, and am I dreaming? I didn’t know the phrase then, as I hadn’t read Henry Miller at 13, but these days I would whisper fuck me gently and fuckaduck. Bring it on, yes, yes, you are the one and only woman of my dreams Madge Wilson, as you give me more, much more, far much more, than is humanly conceivable! Because chips for breakfast is surely one of those things you always want and never get, just like sex at 4 in the morning (eergh, fuck, not now, maybe later, maybe not, zzz) or a last drop of delicious red wine at the bottom of the treacherous bottle, when you have all too obviously emptied it to its pitiful lees.
One night Madge and Watson took me out on the town for a treat of a high order. The gift of the uproarious gab, comedian Bob Monkhouse (1928-2003) was on at the local theatre, and we went there midweek replete with Quality Street chocolates, treacle toffees, and cans of Schweppes pop, and the Wilsons laughed their heads off unabashed at his stream of incredibly blue gags and sultry fantasies, of which perhaps I comprehended 10 per cent. In 1964 this incendiary thing would never have been allowed on his TV appearances, but this city venue doubtless doubled as a club theatre from the comedian’s long established reference points, and in club theatre of course you could do or say more or less absolutely anything, even 50 years ago. 36-year-old Monkhouse had a face which looked polished and buffed, then oiled to a gleaming shine, and likewise he had a sunny fluency and slickness that indicated an obvious terror of that thing called depth (just as Watson was terrified of that thing, called tinned peas) though give the comic his due he had plenty of width in the sense of phenomenally agile punning and his ingenious doubles entendres. Years later, I learnt that he kept written mementoes, such as every single theatre programme of every one of his shows, and visual souvenirs of all his performances meaning Super 8 films and later video recordings and DVDs, not to speak of tapes of all radio shows going all the way back to the 50s, and up until his death some 40 years after the Wilsons and I saw him live. It was all scrupulously catalogued and cross referenced to a fault, and as you can imagine he needed a small warehouse to store it… and though it obviously constitutes a unique documentary treasure trove for anyone interested in the period and the light entertainment mores, it also suggests a degree of fanatical obsession that borders on the…
Borders on the what?
And who on earth am I of all people to talk about obsessions?
One day Madge decided she wanted me all to herself and while Watson caught up on some jobs in his Bath backyard, she took me on the train to her home town of Bristol. Madge didn’t do things by half but led me on this red hot day to the zoo and then to the zoo café and there encouraged me to gorge myself on steak or plaice and chips or oh so healthy and robust spaghetti bolognaise and chips and rice, or whatever was dearest and grandest on the menu. And have those strawberries and cream for pudding, my darling, it’s almost your last day with us, so best to get your money’s worth. And oh yes, what would you like to drink, what takes your fancy, my pet?
I have no memory at all of what I saw in Bristol zoo, but I shall never forget looking in pained awe at the counter, at a bottle of Coca Cola, with its incredibly sensuous and highly sexual design, rather like an erotic version of a 10 pin bowling pin. Was there anything more curved and pleased with itself in the whole universe, except perhaps Jayne Mansfield (1933-1967) whose mesmerising backside I aged 13 truly believed was made out of solid 1000 carat gold? Hard to believe it, but not only had I never had a bottle of Coke, I had never seen nor heard of the world’s favourite soft drink. 50 years ago. It must for certain have been available even in bloody old Workington, but I who observed and noted everything when it came to sweets and treats and comics and brainless TV shows, had never once spotted its like. Instead up in West Cumbria it was the fabled lemonade lorry that was king of the road and majestic sovereign of the imagination, like a festive carnival totem, and where no less than four of the juggernauts raced and competed against each other to sell door to door the week’s supply. There was Underwood’s from Maryport, Brothwell and Mills and Cartmell’s, both from Workington, and Arnison’s from distant and lacklustre Penrith. We lived in a drab and dour pit village close to Maryport, so were the pampered beneficiaries of the best lemonade in all known universes, beyond all praise Underwood’s, whose munificent like will never be known again, and I, as child of the house, was, under moderate supervision, allowed to choose the flavours. Offered on a notional silver tray Underwood’s lemonade, orange crush, limeade, grapefruitade, raspberryade, pineappleade, American cream soda, dandelion and burdock, ciderade , I would have swiftly opted for 6 bottles of pinappleade and nothing else, as its suavely proud and exquisite deliciousness would have conquered the most frowning, pouting gourmet.
My mother tutted aghast when I tried this, lectured me sharply on my selfishness, and made me compromise with a paltry 3 of those and 3 of the rest. And as I said before, this confirms the eternal paradigm scenario that you never ever get exactly what you want, and no one will ever give me 6 perfect and complete in themselves bottles of pineappleade, nor their symbolic and luxurious equivalents (unlimited sex, unlimited wine, unlimited world cinema, a life subscription to the London Library, a free runabout ticket to every possible inhabited Greek island, about 100 such gems that is, and a whole week of listening to Miles Davis and nothing else.)
Mm. I thought I would just run it past you.