Saturday, 16 January 2016

Ghosts of London and Demons of Suffolk

 I was walking home from my job front of house at the Royal Opera House to my flat on the Ethelred Estate in Kennington. It was the mid nineteen eighties, at this time of year. I had a clear view right down Lollard Street. There was the school to my right, black railings all along in front of it, small houses to my left, no turnings onto the street. I looked down momentarily to check my footing stepping off the kerb at the turning into the school.  
  When I looked up again there was a woman walking towards me.  There was nowhere she could have come from to be there so suddenly. She was in a brown patterned summer dress, too thin for this time of year, and what looked like scholl sandals. She didn't look at me as she drew level, then passed by, stepping down off the kerb. 
  I realised that there was something wrong with not so much the picture as the sound.  I turned to look back at her. She wasn't there.  What had been wrong with the sound was that her scholl sandals, visibly flicking up and down against her heels, were making no sound. 
  I can't remember if I already knew, or was yet to hear, that a woman living near me on the estate had been murdered the previous summer.  Her family had last seen her as she left to visit a friend.  She was wearing a brown dress and scholl sandals. 

  Then there was the time I was party to the demonic posession of a copper birch tree during some Edinburgh preview shows at the Pump House, Aldeburgh. 

  Actor Dan Clegg sets the scene, in a good luck message he sent me for my show at the Festival last year.  

  Just being kicked out of my house - expected to live on the street like a common dog. Am now a psychiatric nurse, It's cack. Shall move to Birmingham in the coming months and whore myself out by the Bullring for half a crown and ten Berkeley Menthol. But bum that, what I was really writing about was to wish you luck in Aldeburgh. Oh, memories. Is the Pump House still owned by that Peter fellow, who put all the artistes up in various rooms in that pustulant collection of chalets he built himself? He went and shouted at poor Cal front of house for wasting all that ham after Neil Innes’s show. And there was a night that I still have twinges about. We were all having a chat together as we went into the main house to go to bed after Miranda’s show. We were hanging around the front entrance and suddenly, from nowhere, he, that Peter fellow, began playing that deafening monstrosity. I wasn't even aware that he was in the room until that point; I thought he'd sloped off to bed. It did rather seem like an eccentric thing to be doing at that time of night, when you have guests over.
  I remember saying to Miranda 'What the f*ck is that awful noise?' and turning to take in the full horror of what was Peter, seemingly squatting on the floor (in what I believe was his underwear), rubbing a large stick around an ugly bowl. Tibetan I believe. Quite inappropriate.

  Peter, who owned the Pump House, wanted it to be used energetically, as he put it, for experimental theatre work, development and spontaneity. He insisted that he would be a bystander: just the  bloke in the background who swept up when the artistic types had gone on their way. 
  Lizzie Roper and I did fourteen previews of our show Ballet Who?! at the Pump House in July 2001. 

  ‘It’s just standing there, after all,' Peter said.  
  He wiped his hands on his cords before pulling on his wooly cap to take Lizzie and I across a field to look at the space. As we walked, he refilled a pipe from tobacco in the breast pocket of his lumberjack shirt. 
   ‘I had to move that fence a few years ago so Sarah – I wouldn’t think you would know her – could keep her horse there, but otherwise it’s been untouched. As I told Iestyn, I think, I hankered for years to buy the Pump House, standing there uncared for on the edge of my land.’
  ‘And how shall we do this?’ Lizzie asked him. ‘A hire fee per day or a box-office split or - ’
  ‘That’s not my field - now, can I just show you: the catch on this gate opens this way: for some reason I notice town dwellers have a difficulty with these and with Suffolk latches and tend to bang them unnecessarily. No, not my field, the box-office or whatever you might be planning. I’ll just be the old codger who stays in the background while you arty types soak up the applause. Let’s just say it would be nice if I didn’t have to buy my own crates of John Smiths while you’re here. I’ll be very happy to see the Pump House being used for something creative.’
  ‘And it’s incredibly nice of you to let me stay here and everything, while we’re performing,' said Lizzie.
  ‘I leave that kind of thing to Iestyn to sort out. Very basic, just somewhere to get your head down between jaunts, as he knows.’
  He took a key from out of the trip-switch cupboard.
  ‘The Festival’s using the Pump House for various things in June, so you must arrange not to clash with them, of course. I can give you their phone number if you wish?’
  ‘I’m performing for the Festival there on the last weekend,' I said.
  Peter flinched and blinked as though I’d thrown something in his face.
  ‘I wouldn’t have thought what you perform would be quite the thing for their audience. I don’t go and see anything they put on over at Snape, of course, not my field. Over here, I get the impression from what they were hinting, that there’ll be more of a cabaret feel to what will be presented. I tend to only go out of my way to watch things where you have to, how can I put this: tease out a deeper meaning. An acquaintance of mine puts on such things over at Laxfield. And, do you know, when I talk to other people over a beer afterward, I find they’ve been responding to the obvious layers of the performance, what I call the everyday aspects, the story, while I’ve been getting, shall we say, more subtle deeper nuances.’
  We went inside. The air stopped just short of asthma attack waiting to happen.
  ‘This is the changing area,' said Peter, switching on a light.
  ‘The table and mirror are new,' I said.
  ‘Yes, I’ve been busy putting in what I thought would be needed. The lighting rig, for example. The biggest project has been the stage.’
  He led the way out of the dressing room into the main body of the Pump House.
  ‘I got that metal,' he said, nodding in the direction of the roof, ‘from old contacts in the building trade.’
  ‘Oh, is that what you did?’ Lizzie asked.
  ‘Yes. I had my own building business. In fact, I built all the dwelling part of the Slaughterhouse myself. What you see now is nothing like what was there to start with. All that was there originally was the shack where my father’s office – he started the business – was and some garages.
  He paused to refill his pipe. When he had lit it, he puffed his way through: ‘I took over everything when he died. And something about living in the town proper got to me. I don’t know, I felt I needed somewhere out of the prying public eye. We’re not actually in Aldeburgh here, you know. Where we are comes under the jurisdiction of Slaughden. Which is why if anyone were to pry there might be some useful confusion over planning permission. Right?’
  He chuckled. So did Lizzie and I.
  ‘One night I came down here pissed up from the pub, bedded down, and never left. I had some help putting the floors, and little by little as I thought it was needed, I either converted one of the garages or added another bit entirely.’
  ‘That’s amazing,' Lizzie said.
  ‘Well, you might say that. But building was what I did. Until I had what I would call my first mental explosion. But this isn’t the right place to go into that. In due course.’
  I noticed that Lizzie had her shrewd face on now, looking up at the lighting rig. Only someone who had exploded mentally would rig all the lamps to face away from the stage.
  ‘See how I’ve done this?’ Peter asked us, gently kicking the edge of the stage. ‘It took me hours and hours of concentration in my workshop getting the angles of this, the width of that, right. I found I had to draw up some quite detailed plans.’
  He crossed the floor to the main doors. Lizzie and I sat on the stage.
  ‘An acquaintance of mine, Jan, who paints, said the plans were quite architectural. We recently housed her exhibition in here. Her paintings are totally out of the norm for the area, so she didn’t go to the Thompsons or one of the other galleries, she came to me. Esoteric, you might say, but I prefer to call it quite definitely of this world.  Let me try and put this in a way that either of you might be able to relate to: quite definitely of this world if you have the openness, sensitivity, inner-feeling for nuance, to see it.’
  Except, I suspected, that wouldn’t fit on the flyer, so Jan went with esoteric.
  Peter was fumbling beneath a desk. He said,
  ‘I had the brain-wave of putting a mirror on the floor over in the centre of the exhibition, just beneath where she had arranged some of her paintings to form a kind of tree. People could look down into the mirror and see not only the paintings that they might see simply by the mere act of looking at them in the immediate, shall we call it, but they might also see them reflected with themselves in the frame. It was quite powerful, I thought. Wow.’
  ‘Did she sell much?’ Lizzie called out.
  ‘Not actually sell, but I overheard a lot of positive feedback.’
  He stopped fumbling. Lights came on. The Pump House walls were tiled in the deep red colour familiar from the older tube stations. The original stone floor had been retained.
  ‘What the f…’ Lizzie exclaimed. Peter and I followed the line of her gaze to some paintings on the wall.
  ‘Peruvian scenes,' Peter said. ‘A lot of people have quite powerful reactions to them. They’re both originals, not intended for the, shall we say, gringo market. This one’s a lake scene, water of course being strongly symbolic in all cultures, and the one on the opposite wall is an animals grazing scene. Showing the relationship between ourselves and the land, and the animals with whom we share the land.’
  The prints were gaudy, chintzy, obviously factory-made.
  ‘I was very honoured during my trips over there to be welcomed very individually by the indigenous people, rather than being treated as a package-tourist. "You not gringo", they would say to me. And they let me buy these examples of their real native art. As you might be able to see, they are obviously two of their more personal creative pieces. They’re not the kind of thing just put out on the stalls in the markets. I wrote my poem in Peru, I found the attitude prevalent there so inspiring. It’s framed and hanging at the bottom of the stairs to my place. People are also very moved, they tell me, whenever they read the poem. I think anyone can write if it’s from the heart because then there is the truth already there. Not in the way that you professionals can, shall we say, over-write all the deeper meaning out of your work, but something just direct and simple.’
  The first line of his poem is Oh, River, I cannot love thee more.

  ‘Now, is there anything else you need to see?’ Peter asked.
  ‘Lighting?’ Lizzie asked.
  ‘Perfectly functional.’
  Once we had turned the lamps to face the stage.
  ‘And would you have use for a glitter ball?’ Peter asked. ‘The Festival didn’t think they would and it would seem a shame to waste it. Picked it up at a car boot sale, thought it might come in handy.’
  Lizie said, 'Oh, now, asking either of us if we have use for a glitter ball; what are you like?’
  Peter laughed like a sea-gull crying.
  As we left him at the main doors to the Pump House, he said, ‘We’ve covered a lot of ground today, and I want to acknowledge that I’m taking you as seriously as I hope you’re taking me.’
  ‘Oh, absolutely,' said Lizzie.

  Lizzie and I crunched back down the Jubilee Walk. She said, 'So, basically, free previews, wahey! None of this paying the Hen And Chickens a hundred quid a night. We should clean up down here.'
  She turned to look back at the Pump House, with the marshes and the river Alde beyond.
  ‘Imagine them all coming down this track of a summer’s evening in their espadrilles, buying our sale or return from booze, paying to see our show. Bliss for all concerned. And it’s the cutest venue, piss-taking aside, in the most stunning setting.’

  Lizzie and I nearly didn’t get to do the full preview run.  We were three shows in that late July when Peter announced that he didn’t think we should monopolise the Pump House in quite the way we were doing, getting in there every day first before anyone else had a chance and putting our show on.
  ‘But doing the show every day is in the nature of a preview run,' I said. ‘And we’re not just getting in there first randomly every day and putting it on. Sorry, Peter, but I thought we had a definite booking with you, and we’ve put up posters round the down and handed out flyers.’
  He sucked on his pipe.
  ‘And you’ll all be finished by the beginning of August?’
  ‘That’s right, when we go up to Edinburgh.’
  ‘That’s not my field, you’ll have to cover that one.’
  Yes, it’s all arranged.’
  More sucking.
  ‘Okay, we’ll maybe leave things to go on as they are till you leave in August. But what I was hinting at before, lobbing in a pebble, is that perhaps something more informal might happen in the Pump House. Maybe not in your line of all worked out and set down, but something that could allow more unspoken nuance to come through. For instance, what if instead of you and Lizzie going on and as I say regurgitating - no, that’s not the right word - repeating the same show every night, people are just informally invited to turn up here and perhaps someone will have left a guitar on the stage and someone else would perhaps ask me to sing?’
  ‘Peter, we’ve got our shows advertised and there are a lot of ticket presales.'
  ‘I can't understand how you've been getting so many people in here each night.’
  ‘We slogged round with posters and flyers. And we’ve had articles in the local press. We’re on Radio Suffolk tomorrow.'
  ‘I think I heard a hint in the town that you might be doing such things. As I say, not my field. I’m just the man who stays in the background and clears up after you arty types have rushed in and rushed back out again. I think for my more informal event, we’d have to rely on word of mouth. Me just starting a whisper in the pub that something might be afoot down here in case people might want to have a wander down and have a look.’
  ‘We could tell them at our gigs if you like: to wait for something totally spontaneous and with deeper hints of significance to pop up on certain totally impromptu, carefully planned nights in August?’
  ‘Not my field.’

  Post show, post curtain down drinks and post Cross Keyes we were sitting outside the Garden Room. Fellow performers Miranda, Dan, Mags, Anne Marie; Lizzie, Peter and me. We’d already had Peter’s inevitable, 
  ‘I think I get more subtle nuances from the performance than perhaps does what I’d call the mundane thinker in the audience. I notice I don’t always respond as they do, to the, shall we call it, more bathetic, yes that’s the right word, as opposed to pathetic in the true sense of pathos moments. And I find I don’t laugh along with everyone else at the more slapstick, shall we say, moments.’
  Such as my fuchsia frilly pants rigged to fall down at the start of Giselle’s "Mad Scene".
  Talking technical shop with Dan later I said, ‘You can’t portray Giselle’s madness as modern and strident because in the choreography she brushes the cobwebs of her insanity away: it’s romanticised. Going mad in period, darling, not looking like she might go for an ECG scan. But to make it funny, staying true to the clown thing, I have to play it for real. I try to convince myself that my thought processes aren’t firing properly. That all that’s going on around me is being filtered through a bonkers filter. That I’ve got a sprained brain.’
  Peter interrupted the chuckling of the other thesps to say he was going to get another beer. As he was passing a copper birch on the way to his front door, he crunched to a halt and stared into it.
  ‘It’s all right,' he told us in the tone of voice you use to keep people calm in the face of disaster. 'This has happened before. I had it when the ayahuasca burned the sage leaves in the ceremony in Cusco. I’m just having a vision. Nothing to worry about.’
  For a few moments, he conversed with whatever it was that he could see in the tree; his tone going from neutral, through pleading to frantic.
  ‘Sorry, but it’s going to need a proper ceremony. Don’t worry. I've been fully trained. It won’t harm you in the meantime.’
  We didn’t dare breathe and definitely couldn’t look at one another while he went upstairs. In a couple of minutes he was back, dressed as Mexican Noddy. 
   And the ceremony began.
  He hunkered down and yowled something pentatonic. Imagine a frog in a horse blanket having a shit while singing Madame Butterfly
   Next he beckoned whatever it was out of the shrub.
  ‘Aa wooommmmmpppph!’ he shrieked, and braced himself against the impact of the shrub demon battening onto him.
  We couldn’t be arsed to get up and see what happened after Peter had gone for a shuffle-dance down the alley he called The Ceremonial Path, mown into the field on the marsh side of his property. The Hu ya na noon ya, Hu ya na noon ya noise he was making reached us for a good few minutes. When we knew he must be out of earshot, we looked at one another.
  ‘Just crackerfuckingbarrelloony’, said Dan.
  ‘Let’s not be sitting here when he comes back,' said Miranda.
  ‘Never give an audience to an hysteric.’
  We went into Lizzie's studio digs and pulled down the blinds.
  Some minutes later, Peter was back.
  ‘Oh, hi,' he called. ‘Hi there…’
  I heard him cross to the first Garden Room window, then the door to the Studio.
  None of us answered.
  ‘Oh, turned in obviously. Just wanted to make sure you weren’t anxious. I’ve exorcised the shrub spirit for the time being.’

  Which reminded me of when I worked at Spar on the Elephant and Castle roundabout. A mouse ran out from under a fridge in the stock room and my boss stamped on it.
  ‘There, that’s killed it for the minute.'





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