WHERE DARWIN IS BANNED

The next post will be either on or before Wednesday, 29th March

WHERE DARWIN IS BANNED

Almost exactly a year ago, there was a highly unseasonal sight in the Paradisos café, in the form of a couple of tourists, and clearly foreign ones at that. Most visitors to Kythnos are Greeks who, economic crisis notwithstanding, flood here during two weeks in the middle of August, and earlier for the festive Easter weekend. But no Greek in their right mind ever holidays here in March, and even those on business from Athens, part time teachers and driving instructors and the like, are few and far between. Nor were these two your paradigm laid-back youthful travellers, as they were both at a guess in their late 70s. He had long white hair, a raggy beard and moustache, thick and prominent glasses, and looked the image of an academic, probably retired. She was slim, quietly spoken and relaxed and possibly a little melancholy. For 3 consecutive mornings, they tucked with relish into a bacon and egg breakfast and from my distant table where I was working I decided he was posh English and she being so responsive to his jokes and sallies was no doubt his happy wife of 50 years. The Paradisos is quiet at the best of times, and inevitably we struck up a conservation once they heard the waitress Maria addressing me with a few bantering words of English. The bearded prof revealed himself to be a Scot from Edinburgh called Jack, and she was a Canadian from Montreal named Kelly. They were indeed man and wife, but after a previous marriage and divorce in both cases. Her first husband had also been Canadian but Jack’s earlier wife Trudi had been Dutch, and they both now had 3 grown up kids and multiple grandkids scattered all over the world.

Jack’s story was remarkable and sounded as if an extract from a novel, most apposite given that he had just had one published by a print on demand firm in Glasgow. Apropos which and before commencing his tale, he explained rather bizarrely that when it came to marketing and flogging his privately printed books, although he did bookshop signings he never did public readings, in part because of his extreme dyslexia. His novel you see was based on his redemptive life story, and he told it in the Paradisos with an attractive fluency as he was a compelling and humorous raconteur.  I was fascinated by this stranger, not to say riveted, until it came to a certain point near the end where I found I liked him rather less because of his sudden and unexpectedly hard and fast opinions. Kelly was effectively mute throughout his narration and I learnt little about her other than she had once, a long time ago, been a Montreal accountant. Jack, it turned out had been born in 1939 to wealthy landowning parents and had been sent to austere Rannoch public school up in the Highlands. That perhaps explains why by the early 1960s and with his parents divorced, he had become something of a random and unemployed drifter dwelling in a squalid Edinburgh bedsit. He had ended up with 2 unlikely bosom companions, one a man of 25 who called himself Tarzan and claimed he had been with the French Foreign Legion between the ages of 19 and 23. Tarzan was subject to bouts of near mania and rage where he ranted, albeit harmlessly because he only did it to the fresh air, and not to people nor animals. He was harmless and yet of course it was disturbing as perhaps just perhaps one of these day the peopleless void that he addressed would not be enough. The other pal was Loco which was not a reassuring name either, but he was less extreme and more of an odd job man and small scale drug dealer living in a slum in Leith. Of course, in 1961 when Jack was 22, only a few outre art students and Edinburgh jazz musicians, in imitation of the beatniks and Beat poets, experimented with dope meaning hashish, and it was a great deal more of a curiosity than it would be by the end of the decade.

The three all being virtually penniless conceived the idea of travelling through Europe, and soon set off with minimal budgets hitchhiking, and in Loco’s case doing some moderately profitable busking in cities like Brussels, Louvain and Cologne and whose proceeds he shared with the other two in the ratio of 6:2:2. Eventually they reached Stuttgart where they discovered a café run by Turks and where with like spotting like as it does the manager Nazim who was about 30, took them into a comfortable back room full of cushions and posters and handsome  carved chairs and offered them some dope. They sat there smoking joints and drinking beer and Nazim confided he had a steady stream of travellers from Morocco and the like, bringing him stuff to be dealt out here in Stuttgart and beyond. If these 3 friends were to make a trip out there and return with a load, then they would be well paid for it and Loco would no longer need to busk his limited repertoire of lachrymose Scottish folk songs in pouring rain to scurrying passers-by.

They set off hitching to Spain and made it to Algeciras where they had the bright idea of drawing straws so that only one of them would need to attempt the hazardous drug run. Three together would be conspicuous and if anything went wrong only one would get it in the neck. Hence it was, that Tarzan set off on his own, and being a reputed Foreign Legion graduate, as casually as if he were setting off to buy eggs at an Edinburgh grocer’s (recall that even in big cities, supermarkets barely existed in 1961). He took the boat to Ceuta and then using grudgingly loaned funds from Loco a bus to Morocco, whence he managed to hitch his way into the Rif mountains. A month later ferociously tanned and looking even madder, he returned unannounced to Algeciras with a great deal of block hashish strapped to his torso, underneath his impressively chromatic Moroccan clothes. To that extent, he preceded though was not the role model for the hero of the film Midnight Express (1978), where a young American is sent to a nightmarish jail in Istanbul for an appalling 30 years, simply for trying to do exactly what Tarzan was bent on.

Now all they had to do was get back to Stuttgart from Algeciras. They hitched as a cumbersome trio, Tarzan with his extremely precious load, but for some reason they kept getting lifts that went a generous distance, yet took them by a circuitous and at times lunatic route. They went from Algeciras to Madrid and then to the Lisbon, and then Caminha in the far Portuguese north, then back into Spanish Galicia and after a few hiccups and even a fight involving Loco and a woman in Bilbao, they arrived in southern France in the Basque-speaking Pyrenees. All of them exhausted and disorientated by now, they drew straws yet again and it was Jack was elected to take the dope the last lap into Germany. They were staying in a sweltering single room with 3 beds, and they decided to lay out all of Tarzan’s massive haul in preparation for Jack to rise at the crack of dawn to do the final make or break run.

When the Rannoch man woke up with thumping heart at what he might be facing, he noted at once that the dope had disappeared, as indeed had musical Loco and psycho Tarzan. After a petrifying minute or so, he concluded that the two of them had conspired to split the money 2 ways rather than 3, and to leave him here without a penny or a franc or a farthing. At first he was very angry, as well as direly wounded and confused, but eventually Jack felt the onset of a huge and rather euphoric, quite incredible relief. Far more important, he had felt the inklings of something he could not put a name to but which now 55 years later he would have described as his being affected by the Hand of God.

He was in his late thirties before he went through what he called the long night of repentance to become a convert, and then a few months later an Evangelical preacher in Edinburgh. Before that he had married Trudi and moved to Amsterdam where he ran an enormous 100 table café in a former warehouse, and which featured live jazz and became a legend in its day, second only to the Melkfabrik and other smoky and foggy alternative venues where youth could go and sprawl on floor cushions and use the stuff that Tarzan and Loco had cheated him of a decade earlier. Sadly Trudi had had a lengthy if well disguised affair with one of the jazz men, a tenor sax player called Ad from Rotterdam, and left Jack taking the three children. Crippled by that betrayal, and by the fact his rival had such an odd monosyllabic name, like a hiccup or a cough, Jack moved back to Edinburgh. There he met Kelly on holiday visiting her ancient Scottish roots, noted her skills as both an accomplished cook and an accountant which gave him thought as to their future career together, and after a few years they were married. They opened a discreet and extremely tasteful café in Morningside where emphatically there were no euphorics on display and which did very well, especially at Festival time. After about a year of that Jack had his dramatic late night conversion, and he took up a parallel and unpaid career as a preacher in a Hebron chapel in the bracing seaside annexe resort of Musselburgh.

All this was fascinating enough, even though he wasn’t the first evangelical preacher to have become so via an earlier life of aimlessness, crime and major crisis, and with a possible addiction to alcohol or drugs or gambling. Nonetheless with his professorial mane and whiskers, his literary bent and occasional swearing, I couldn’t seriously believe that Jack could be anything on the lines of a rampant fundamentalist. But alas and indeed he was, and I was for a moment truly confounded. I sat there comically stupefied as he loudly opined that women should never be priests because Pauline Scripture was against it, and moreover that the Epistles asserted that a priest can only be so if married to a woman of the church, meaning that bachelors, presumably even chaste and teetotal ones, were also forbidden in Jack’s comprehensive and exclusive schemata. Ditto and predictably enough that opting to be an active Gay was a sin, and that Darwinian Evolution which was at odds with Genesis was a risible lie. That being the case, those Neolithic cornpone states in the US where Darwinism was forbidden in the high schools, were all doing fine in Jack’s books…

I snorted incredulous and told him that once on a train I had met 2 young women Methodists who had not only become skilful preachers but had put their money where their mouths were. They had gone out into the field and done punishing grass roots community work with addicts and mental health cases in some of the roughest most criminal Manchester suburbs imaginable, Moss Side and the like. Were they and their remarkable courage and integrity, to be written off by Jack and his austere interpretations and exegeses? I also told him I had once hearkened to an English fundamentalist in his late 50s who had showed me a most charming scale drawing he had done of Noah’s Ark which he’d constructed by consulting the relevant verses in Genesis, then doing complex and lengthy computations with his calculator. He had got it to such a finely calibrated art that in his sweet little sketch he had put the two giraffes just over there in the middle of the vessel, where their necks wouldn’t be stooped, and well away from the two lions of course in case the latter got hungry. He was a nice and friendly and kindly sort of man, I added, but he was also barking mad when it came to reasoning and dispassionate intelligence. And likewise here we had professorial Jack pooh-poohing Evolution because of some supposedly spurious intermediate layers in geological strata, thus proving that far from being billions of years old they were only a few thousand, and hence consistent with comprehensible Old Testament chronology.

I paused and leant back slowly in order to gather my wits and powers of emphasis. At length, I raised my voice and advised Jack that only a tiny handful of the world’s scientists were so called Creationists and were regarded as more or less maverick nutcases by the rest of the science community. At that the bright eyed preacher leant back in his chair and gave me a warm yet guarded smile and said with musical certainty…

“You…you are so naive…

Meanwhile and vis a vis Jack discarding women as priests, and putting to one side their eligibility to preach or proselytise, what did his late 70s wife Kelly have to any about any or all of this? As you’ve guessed she was absolutely mute from start to finish, and sat there blinking cautiously while her Scripturally appointed and safely masculine husband gave forth from his stanchless well of eloquence.

But I do still wonder now that it is exactly a year later, what was really going on inside her head…

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