The Bowie / Rickman Coaching Encounters

The Bowie / Rickman Coaching Encounters 


Amid all of the fully understandable grief being expressed over the death of two of our finest British contemporary artists this week, and amid much exclamation that they should die at the same age of 69, there has been no suggestion that they ever met or worked together. While they died in the same week and at the same age, and held many common interests, no claims are made that they ever collaborated. All of this puts me in somewhat of quandary as I know for a fact that not only did they meet, but that I was an agent in their coming together. I have tried wrestled long and hard with my ethics code as an Executive Coach (Mastery level) as to whether to hold back on this revelation or not; but have decided that on balance perhaps the world needs to know of my intervention.  Perhaps too soon I know, but i must act as I so often tell me clients to do and ‘ask for forgiveness, not permission.’


Bowie I had been seeing each other on and off as client and coach for years and years. All of those bust-ups with managers that he had over the years do not come without a cost, and I was always there to help David mop up the mess.Rickman I met when commissioning some graphic art work from his Company Graphiti in Notting Hill, for a poster for the re-launch of Life magazine in 1972.  As he fiddled with the silk screen he mused some about wanting to become an actor, uttered in a voice so compelling that it was immediately clear to me the direction he must take, despite the risks involved in making such a career leap. I employed all of my best empathic listening techniques to persuade him of the need for this career volte face, to the extent that he dropped the poster on the floor to enlist with RADA directly. It was one of those coaching ‘critical moments’ that make this work so worthwhile, though the unsolicited invoice remains unpaid.


Alan never forgot this debt of gratitude however, and so it was in 1997 that he called me to ask for some guidance once more, as his career was somewhat in the doldrums and he was seeking fresh direction.  I explained to him that my practice had moved on some from one-on- one coaching to my innovative ‘Compatible Celebrity Co- Coaching’ (CCCC) approach,where i pair up somewhat compatible clients then leverage some profound common ground to reveal a necessary point of difference that each client must exploit in their own way. he said he had no idea what I was on about but that he would give it a go.


Needless to say David – always the innovator – was most enthusiastic to try out CCCC, as was delighted to hear that Rickman would be his CCCC pair, though he was puzzled as to the common chemistry, beyond a passion for art and design.  I spelled out to him that the common ground lay in the fact that they were both born within ten weeks of each other, of humble family origins, in unremarkable suburbs of London.  Both of these esteemed clients were then taken by this explanation, and before too long. with the fee structure settled, we were sat in a black cab doing a psychogeography of their respective childhood haunts, by way of evoking Freudian transferences and Jungian syncrhonicities.  I have to tell you that is was like “How Do You Think You Are?’ with Bow bells on.

There were many tears spilled but there was also good humoured banter.  With the ice well and truly broken and egos set aside we headed back to my basement consulting rooms in Earls Court to get down to the meat and potatoes of CCCC.
And so came the moment when each of them, comfortable in their overstuffed armchairs, faced each other to admit where they were currently stuck, and to work towards a fresh impetus. Continuing the banter from the suburban road trip, Alan quipped that Bowie ‘needed no lectures from him on ‘changes’, so chameleon like had been his career.’


 ‘You are a fine one to talk’ retorted Bowie, ‘ when you whole career launchpad is based on the ghost of a cellist making comeback after comeback to scare the bejesus out of poor Juliette.’ Soon enough however the conversation moved into a more serious exploration of things that were currently troubling them. Rickman talked of Michael Collins. He was left feeling so unhappy at the Hollywood ending of this film, one that he felt sure would have caused De Valera to turn in his grave.  He really did not want to spending any more time distorting the political truth in this way in the pursuit of his art. He would rather do fantasy than besmirch noble history. Bowie for his part was restless to move on musically despite the successes of Outside and Earthlings.


I felt a need at that point to insert my non – directive Rogerian wisdom into this pleasantly reflective but ultimately non- generative CCCC. ‘Look David’ I said, in my best 1997 Blairite voice,’You need to push the commercial envelope and be an innovator in other ways.  I suggest you sell your entire back-catalogue and issue some bonds – I know call then Bowie Bonds! – then you can leverage capital to put into new projects that take your fancy.’ “Great lets do it’ said David, ‘You just make it happen for me’, so I did. I asked Alan once more what was the height of his ambition. He said to play opposite Helen Mirren.

Bowie immediately chipped into to say that was his ambition too. I pointed out that this was every red – blooded British males’ ambition but there was only one of her to go around. My non directive advice to him was to go directly into Science Fiction, and stop protesting his birthright which was clearly to play sarcastic, sneering sci fi villains, and perhaps do some TV voice overs for the burgeoning financial services industry too, perhaps channelling a snake or a crocodile. He looked perplexed but thrilled at these prospects, and David was most supportive of this change. Mind you he would have been supportive of any change suggested to another.


We three met again to review progress in 1999, following the same format of nostalgic cab trip then back to the basement. Alan revealed that while many things had occurred since our last seance, the most notable had been playing opposite Helen Mirren. Bowie’s jaw dropped as a small gasp emitted from the normally unflappably cool white duke. Despite his best intentions Alan had found himself involved in two sic-fi films Megatron and Galaxy Quest, and had even signed up to voice- over “Help! I’m a Fish. ‘ His thanks to me for my advice on change of direction were profuse.

Once again they were not much use to each other on the advice front so i had to tell David to build on the $55 million he netted on the Bowie Bonds (minus my well deserved 15%) and go into online banking through the launch of – ‘oh i know the BowieBanc’ where customers have bank cards with his face on.  He mumbled something about wanting to make a new album but I told him in no uncertain terms that this bank project was priority.  As for Alan i told him that he needed to stop playing adult villains and start to become a children’s villain. Mystified at this, I threw a copy of the first Harry Potter masterpiece towards him.  Disdainful at first, as only Alan can do disdain,  he said he would follow my advice and after a short collusive phone call to Robbie Coltrane the rest is well documented history.


We never did meet again we three though i believe that the two of them did keep somewhat in touch, though i cannot be sure. Not even their families knew of these encounters. Perhaps it best after all that the deep secrets that are divulged in the executive coaches room remain buried for eternity.

Death of Wogan and Parkinson

Behind the Mask.


What a month January 2016 was for the culling of my erstwhile executive coaching clients. I had no notion that the passing of Bowie and Rickman would so soon be followed by Parkinson and Wogan. (Not Michael Parkinson that is, the greatly admired interviewer, comparable only to Wogan as a celebrity spearer, but Cecil the politician.) I was appalled as I think we all were by the outpouring of pseudo-grief from D list celebrities claiming association to the two greats that were Bowie and Rickman, when their real motive was to reflect glory by association upon themselves and their thin meagre second-hand lives. I would never presume to indulge myself in such a fashion.


By happenstance both Terry and Cecil came to me in late 1983, at time of profound personal crisis for each of them. But then as you know it is at that moment of crisis so profound as to be destiny altering that the great and illustrious turn to me, imperilled yet confident of succour and life long anonymity. In this instance Cecil’s crisis related to his being unceremoniously sacked by Thatcher the career snatcher. The story put about was that he had to resign as he had gotten his secretary pregnant.

This was partly true; but as only i can reveal, the whole truth was that Margaret was furiously jealous that her most handsome and most lustrous of ministers should be found so undiscerning as respond to a sexual magnetism other than her own, unassailably and indissolubly paired with Dennis though she was. For Terry’s part, he was deeply anxious in that he did not share the BBC’s optimism that his loquacious radio talents could transfer so easily to the constrained format of TV chat show. In fact, off air, Terry was a mass of neuroses.


In line with my group breaking Celebrity Co- Coaching (CCC) technique, I brought these two conflicted characters together in November 1983 in my fashionably tatty Earls Court consulting room to see what light they may be able to shine upon each other’s plight. What was immediately noticeable was the contrast between their respective private as opposed to public demeanours. Cecil in the confines of my sacred space was as knock-about funny and charming as Terry was anxious about everything around him, catastrophising that every element of his life was soon to be falling apart, not least his TV show.

Cecil, on the other hand had – with my support – discovered that he had progressed through the Kubler Ross grief curve in four short weeks and was well down the road of planning his next career as a whimsical stand up comedian ready to challenge the Ben Elton and the whole emergent alternative comedy scene. His only real obstacle was getting his name out there in this different context. And somehow to get beyond the perception that he was standing on the shoulders of Bernard Manning.

Terry was confident that he could get him a few Home Counties golf club gigs to get him going. As Terry stumbled on through his litany of misery, Neither Cecil nor I could divine why he was speaking in a mock Yorkshire accent, his mutterings barely comprehensible as he mixed personal reminiscence with lengthy, complex questions seemingly addressed to us both. When we were at last able to inquire as to this modality, he explained that he was modelling his TV persona on Michael Parkinson’s delivery, though the personal transformation project was in the early stages.

As confession fell upon confession, he also revealed that he was deeply concerned that his increasingly lengthy, hedonistic lunches with his fellow early morning performer Frank Bough were descending into stimulant fuelled chaos that were bound sooner of later to attract the attention of the paparazzi. Cecil with all his recent painfully won learning concerning press intrusion was able to tender some street-wise advice to Terry , such as always to use a condom.


In a well meaning attempt to rehabilitate Terry’s mellifluous Irish brogue, Cecil prompted that we make our way along the Fulham Road to the Chenye Arms, where George Best was to be found for a craic laden lunch. Terry was all for this, so long as he could bring Bough along too. And Kenny Everett, who was in his foam-rubber hands ‘let’s kick Michael Foot’ s stick away mode. And Ernie Wise. (All of whom later were to become long term customer’s of mine – word of mouth you see, the golden marketing rule.) In that sage company, Cecil found a safe place to try out some of his more outre far right alternative jokes, while Terry and George rehearsed some spontaneous repartee for George’s forthcoming slot on Terry’s studio sofa. I gazed fondly on this tableau, basking in the realisation that not only had I manifested this legendary event, but that all of the secrets divulged therein would follow me to my grave and beyond. `Cigars all round’ I should say say.Behind the Mask.


What a month January 2016 was for the culling of my erstwhile executive coaching clients.  I had no notion that the passing of Bowie and Rickman would be so soon be followed by Parkinson and Wogan. (Not Michael Parkinson that is, the greatly admired interviewer, comparable only to Wogan as a celebrity spearer, but Cecil the politician.) I was appalled as I think we all were by the outpouring of pseudo-grief from D list celebrities claiming association to the two greats that were Bowie and Rickman, when there real motive was to reflect glory by association upon themselves and their thin meagre second-hand lives.  I would never presume to indulge myself in such a fashion.   By happenstance both Terry and Cecil came to me in late 1983, at time of profound personal crisis for each of them.  

But then as you know it is at that moment of crisis so profound as to be destiny altering that the great and illustrious turn to me, imperilled yet confident of succour and life long anonymity. In this instance Cecil’s crisis related to his being unceremoniously sacked by Thatcher the career snatcher.  The story put about was that he had to resign as he had gotten his secretary pregnant. This was partly true; but as only i can reveal, the whole truth was that Margaret was furiously jealous that her most handsome and most lustrous of ministers  should be found so undiscerning as respond to a sexual magnetism other than her own, unassailably and indissolubly paired with Dennis though she was.  For Terry’s part, he was deeply anxious in that he did not share the BBC’s optimism that his loquacious radio talents could transfer so easily to the constrained format of TV chat show.

 In fact, off air, Terry was a mass of neuroses. In line with my group breaking Celebrity Co- Coaching (CCC) technique, I brought these two conflicted characters together in November 1983 in my fashionably tatty Earls Court consulting room to see what light they may be able to shine upon each other’s plight. What was immediately noticeable was the contrast between their respective private as opposed to public demeanours. Cecil in the confines of my sacred space was as knock-about funny and charming as Terry was anxious about everything around him, catastrophising that every element of his life was soon to be falling apart, not least his TV show.  

Cecil, on the other hand had – with my support – discovered that he had progressed through the Kubler Ross grief curve in four short weeks and was well down the road of planning his next career as a whimsical stand up comedian ready to challenge the Ben Elton and the whole emergent alternative comedy scene.  His only real obstacle was getting his name out there in this different context.  And somehow to get beyond the perception that he was standing on the shoulders of Bernard Manning. Terry was confident that he could get him a  few Home Counties golf club gigs to get him going. 


As Terry stumbled on through his litany of misery, Neither Cecil nor I could divine why he was speaking in a mock Yorkshire accent, his mutterings barely comprehensible as he  mixed personal reminiscence with lengthy, complex questions seemingly addressed to us both.  When we were at last able to inquire as to this modality, he explained that he was modelling his TV persona on Michael Parkinson’s delivery, though the personal transformation project was in the early stages.  As confession fell upon confession, he also revealed that he was deeply concerned that his increasingly lengthy, hedonistic lunches with his fellow early morning performer Frank Bough were descending into stimulant fuelled chaos that were bound sooner of later to attract the attention of the paparazzi.  Cecil with all his recent painfully won learning concerning press intrusion was able to tender some street-wise advice to Terry , such as always to use a condom.


In a well meaning attempt to rehabilitate Terry’s mellifluous Irish brogue, Cecil prompted that we make our way along the Fulham Road to the Chenye Arms, where George Best was to be found for a craic laden lunch.  Terry was all for this, so long as he could bring Bough along too. And Kenny Everett, who was in his foam-rubber hands ‘let’s kick Michael Foot’ s stick away persona. And Ernie Wise. (All of whom later were to become long term customer’s of mine – word of mouth you see, the golden marketing rule.)   In that sage company, Cecil found a safe place to try out some of his more outre far right alternative jokes, while Terry and George rehearsed some spontaneous repartee for George’s forthcoming slot on Terry’s studio sofa. I gazed fondly on this tableau, basking in the realisation that not only had I manifested this legendary event, but that all of the secrets divulged therein would follow me to my grave and beyond.  `Cigars all round’ I should say say. 

Walking on broken glass under Colombian stars

Walking on broken glass under Colombian stars

I met a Colombian bartender last night. They are not difficult to meet just as long as you do not chat to their girlfriends. I was singing along to Sweet Dreams are Made of This which was blasting out on his music machine. It made such a lovely change from all the rhumba and reggathon. He joined in lustily, commending my singing of the Dave Stewart part. He seemed in a trance as Annie sang, phrase after phrase repeated on his reverential lips. ‘So you like this group?’ I inquired.

His eyes lit up, bright and shining. He revealed that he not only liked them, but that they held a special place in his heart, as he had ‘learned all the English I know through listening to the Eurythmics. ‘Who am i to disagree with that?’ I said by way of joining this niche idiom. He asked ‘Was I waiting for a friend?’’Well everybody’s looking for something’ I had to remind him. He asked if i had any plans for the evening. I said ‘ i want to walk in the open wind i want to talk like lovers do.’ He pointed to the next table where a couple were enjoying a publicly intimate conversation in that achingly tender Colombian fashion.

As i gazed in envy, it started raining in my head like a tragedy, tearing me apart like a new emotion. He said ‘Don’t be down – hold your head up – hold your head up – keep your head up, keep moving on.’ I found this intervention really helpful. He asked who had done this to me. I said ‘She gave me such a bad time, tried to hurt me but now i know.’‘She sounds like she was a real thorn in your side. You need to be moving on. Have you looked up at the stars up here in the mountains?’

Gazing skywards i said ‘Yes they leave me feeling very small under the universe.’ He relied ‘The moon is pale outside and you are far from here. Why not get out of yourself, go out enjoy yourself tonight?’ These words felt a strange deception, be celestial intervention.‘Not tonight’ I sighed ‘ in fact I can’t wait until tomorrow comes. I worry about going out around here with so many drugs flying around.’ ‘Oh, so you just can’t get enough of the stuff? Why not try the club next door it is glamorous and sleek by design.’‘God no I went there last night. It’s hard and restrained and totally cool. It touches and it teases as you stumble in the debris.’

“Well it does need a different cleaning contractor. I’ll show you something good, I’ll show you something good. You can make a new start when your crumbling world falls apart.’ “Will it really take away my pain?’ ‘Yes just hold your head up. The miracle of love will come your way again.’ ‘ Well maybe. Meanwhile i will travel the world and the seven seas .. i need to go to a place where no one on earth could feel like this where i am thrown and overflown with bliss.’I am not sure if i have ever had such a clean, helpful casual conversation before, successfully working as it did the tension between lyricism and necessary restraint. Perhaps he has a friend who schooled on Van Morrison for a change in mood tomorrow?

Costa Rica – From Nighthawk to Night Walk

From Nighthawk to Night Walk

Our guide cleared her throat to deliver the first of her many unignorable instructions. ‘This is an eco tour and throughout this tour we demand eco- minded behaviour. This is a night walk as you might have noticed due to the lack of daylight. You must carry a torch. Torches will be provided. You may not use your torch unless i instruct you. You may not talk as it disturbs the animals. I will talk throughout to let you know where the animals were yesterday and the many months preceding. I will also speculate as to where you might see mammals tomorrow.’

In hindsight she might also have said ‘One thing i can pretty much guarantee is that you will not see any mammals tonight. But i cannot tell you that as you have paid $25 to see things other than trees and spiders and caterpillars. I have been guiding this night tour for 23 years and my script is finely honed. Questions may only be of the frequently asked variety and must be aways on topic.”You must wear rain gear as you are in a cloud forest where 90% of trees never see the sun, just as much as 90% of visitors to our biodiversity experience never see anything mammalian either. We are all in this together, the trees and us. You may see a tarantula.’

In fact we grow to learn that everyone sees the this tarantula though we are led to believe that we are the lucky plucky few. ‘Watch while I poke a stick in her hole. Watch her come out now.’ Just as she does everyday right on time. Showtime for Mimi the tarantula. Someone speculates that the spider is actually mechanical. Someone else suggests that she is on a sponsorship deal with a daily dose of crickets delivered earlier. We are told that she has ten legs and eight eyes. I hum ‘Eye of the Spider’ which adds some agreeable dramatic tension to Mimi’s suspiciously choreographed display.

Of all the myriad trees in all of the forest she suddenly shines her light into a random bush only to reveal with a gasp of astonishment the tiniest toucan in existence.’Look look’ she whispers in her best David Attenborough tone, ‘we are so lucky! We have stumbled on a sleeping toucan. It looks just like a tennis ball’. It is yellow, slightly fluffy ‘all curled up with its head buried under its wing as it sleeps.’ We stare for a while. It looks too much like a tennis ball for comfort. ‘Second service’ cries some apostate at the back who is promptly told to shut up. Mimi retreats inside her hole for another night.

A domestic cat follows us throughout the trip, its two (not eight) eyes gleaming a convincing green in the torchlight. Our guide is furious at this intrusive urban development, throwing rocks at the cat who nevertheless follows undeterred. ‘The maid must have let the cat out’ she chastises. ‘it will scare away all the birds.’ At this point we begin to wonder if this cat is a set up designed to explain away this prolonged outbreak of empty cloud forest syndrome. On the topic of cats, she went on to explain that the screech of the puma was closest in kind to the screech of a woman.

She told us that the early Quaker settlers always took a woman along with them on their forest forays just in case they needed to scare any animals away with her surrogate screams. Good to know that women have their uses even in the bush. Talk about performativity though. You could almost hear Judith Butler fulminating in the undergrowth.Away from the subject of woman there is much mention of Tarzan. Too much mention of Tarzan (but never of Jane.)

Clearly the Tarzan meme is assumed to bite deep across all cultures and age groups. Yet we have our worlds turned upside down when she tells us that all we know about Tarzan is wrong. He could not have swung from the lianas as these grow upward not downwards. She invites a teenage boy to demonstrate. His eager swing results in him crashing to the ground as the solider ants descend on him. She beams at his empirical proof yet we all back off, feeling troubled Which only goes to show that no one likes a smart arse. Our group suddenly communally bonded in resentment at having our Tarzan trope deconstructed.

The night-walk was never quite the same after that as dissent crept in among the rain- coated ranks, the ever more persistent rain dissolving any hope that was left of material sightings.She picks up a fallen papery leaf and asks us to sniff it, to taste it. We sniff but do not inhale. She sets the quiz question ‘guess which element taken from this leaf is one of the most common foodstuffs in existence?’ ‘Ketchup’ suggests one of the lads. ‘Chewing gum’ pipes another. ‘NO … come on, think .. which two shakers are most commonly found in a restaurant?’ Hardly able to hear over the rain, I ask ”In a rest room? I have come across many shakers in a restroom in my time, though some men just put it straight back.’ ‘Not a rest room’ she hissed. ‘Are you Irish? ‘ How did she know? Perhaps Irish are congenitally averse to quizzes where the answer is known only to the questioner.


Within sight of the lodge and tantalisingly near the safety of the bus she stopped us all in our tracks while reaching in her bag to find a surgical glove, the better to pick up what looked like a tiny tissue fallen in the undergrowth. Finger by fastidious finger she pulls on the glove, as if preparing to handle kryptonite. The rain is now at saturation level, certainly enough to dissolve the biodegradable Kleenex. ‘Is it a condom?’ asked one the liana lads excitedly. Seemed not as it is fully disintegrated before it could be quarantined, a precious five immolated minutes later.

Back on the bus she reminded us of all of the animals we might have seen had it not been for the rain and the full moon. Yet the lights of the bus seemed to pick up beast after beast as we struggled up the rutted track towards home. The driver looked suitably embarrassed, diverting his lights whenever he could away from the veritable carnival of the animals tableau that played out before our damp eyes. Perhaps it was not just homo sapiens who had grown to prefer an urban setting, socially alienating though it is supposed to be. Sometime later, I sought out a lonely bar to reenact Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’ meme, perhaps by way of exorcising this nocturnal immersive eco- experience and the debunking of Tarzan myths from my system. No room now for my new best friend to perch on the adjacent stool?

Costa Rica – Bonding in the Rain Forest

A time for bonding in the rain forest. 
The first week down from the mountains and into the rainforest has proven a time for bonding, or more properly a time for experiments in bonding, some of which have worked, despite the frequent rain delays making heart connection perilous. The bonding with a baby sloth got off to a promising start. We were both all gooey eyed at each other from the off, but, truth to tell, sloth bonds are slow in developing and with limited time, I needed to break eye-contact and head for more easily acquired intimacy. And she was a little clingy.  Iguana bonds of course are always colourful affairs but my are those creatures  elusive in their love.

They seem to shift affection at the drop of a leaf, throwing an invisibility cloak around them, without need for recourse to an un-friend button. Iguana bonds I concluded are momentarily rewarding but honestly the patience required and the potential for betrayal is altogether too high, even by Central American standards. By comparison my forays into parrot bonding proved immediate and so reassuring; though after a while having you every passing thought repeated ad naueum begins to have the obverse effect to narcissistic reassurance, causing you to wonder if any thing you ever say makes any sense at all. I decided in the end that parrot bonds need to be limited to moments of personal doubt alone lest blindness to new personal failings creeps in
Human bondage is a quite different matter.  

The owner of our current eco-lodge carries some promise of sustainable bondage. On the other hand he does erect barriers to trust building, perhaps by way of testing the sustainability and resilience of me as well as other guests.  For example while outlining the dangers in living in such a poor area with high crime and homelessness, he apologised for the temporary absence of his night guard, explaining that the said night guard had pushed his fingers into the fish tank on which we leaning, only to be bitten by the scorpion fish, and was now still detained in the emergency room.

Despite the exposure to more drug induced violence I  am moved to forgiveness on the grounds that this animated young man is more naturalist than hotelier. His main passion is the preservation of poisoned frogs, against whom for some reason hard to discern the local population have developed an aversion.  He proudly points out his tadpole breeding pond, parked right outside the room. He explains that while the green and black ones are deadly, the red and black ones are deadlier still.  Apparently the red and black ones, should they pass near your lips, would cause instant heart attack.  So there in one moment go all fantasies of princely manifestations, in face of such perilous outcomes. It may well be that in time i will bond with the owner, but never with his creatures. 

Panama Canal

In my mind’s eye my image of going to ‘see’ the Panama Canal involved sitting quietly on a bench beside a wide river contemplating the sonorous passing of vast ships against a verdant jungle background on the other bank. Little did I realise that the only real way to ’see’ the canal is to take a trip out to the Mireflores lock where you ascend a series of escalators and elevators to gain purchase on a wide high level deck all the better to view the ships as they progress through the lock gates. At first sight it looked just like the Kennet and Avon canal at Bradford on Avon except a bit bigger in scale, and rather more automated. 

Perched on the deck I was lucky to find a viewing spot by the rail, suddenly to be pressed on all sides by folks with lens endeavouring to snap the passage of a mighty cruise ship to the point where i felt I might be tipped over. My puny phone was no match for the endlessness of the competing lens’s on display.  On the ship the passengers pressed on deck to take pics of us taking pics of them, many of the posh ones in the cabins spying us through telephotos and long long telescopes.


Little was said as both groups warily filmed each other. As we grew more comfortable with the scene outbreaks of waving broke out between ship and gawkers.  So there we were consuming them as they consumed us, all as part of the Panama experience.  I guess for the passengers this ten hour passage was a highlight of the cruise, so we were predisposed to envy at what they had in front of them as they passed through lakes and rivers. On the other hand they could not get off and enjoy the full ‘canal experience’ that we had paid our $15 dollars to enjoy.

A film show introduced by a  Buzz Lightyear cartoon character with lantern jaw and deep American accent to match ( I guess a genuine Panamanian historian would have been a little too much to ask). Much of the narrative concerned Ohh Ahhh statistics relating to the undoubted engineering wonders needed to carve this passage out of unyielding rock river and forest.


One stat that was repeated was that each lock-gate weighed the equivalent of 300 elephants which struck me as a curious unit of measurement. All I could see thereafter was a picture of the three hundred noble creatures drowning helplessly as the weight of water hit them when the sluice gates above then were opened. Why elephants, which are hardly indigenous, or at least not since the Mastadon became extinct? 100 mastodon perhaps? 2000 sloths? 15000 pelicans which at least fly overhead and highly visible and measurable? Why animals at all? Why not the weight of Wales?


The canal experience was wonderfully done with much information on engineering but relatively little on the sociology or politics of the whole endeavour. We never found out how many died in the ten year programme of digging the passageway through rock and swamp, but we do know they were black.  Nor was there any mention of the current economics of canal but there was the suggestion of trickle down for all. On the subject of Noriega there was total silence.  I will retain the expression ‘trans- isthmian’ for the rest of my days however, looking to drop it into conversation wherever possible. In my mind’s eye my image of going to ‘see’ the Panama Canal involved sitting quietly on a bench beside a wide river contemplating the sonorous passing of vast ships against a verdant jungle background on the other bank.

Little did i realise that the only real way to ’see’ the canal is to take a trip out to the Mireflores lock where you ascend a series of escalators and elevators to gain purchase on a wide high level deck all the better to view the ships as they progress through the lock gates. At first sight it looked just like the Kennet and Avon canal at Bradford on Avon except a bit bigger in scale, and rather more automated.  Perched on the deck I was lucky to find a viewing spot by the rail, suddenly to be pressed on all sides by folks with lens endeavouring to snap the passage of a mighty cruise ship to the point where i felt I might be tipped over. My puny phone was no match for the endlessness of the competing lens’s on display.  On the ship the passengers pressed on deck to take pics of us taking pics of them, many of the posh ones in the cabins spying us with telephotos an telescopes.

 
Little was said as both groups warily filmed each other. As we grew more comfortable with the scene outbreaks of waving broke out between ship and gawkers.  So there we were consuming them as they consumed us all as part of the Panama experience.  I guess for the passengers this ten hour passage was a highlight of the cruise, so we were predisposed to envy at what they had in front of them as they passed through lakes and rivers. On the other hand they could not get off and enjoy the full ‘canal experience’ that we had paid our $15 dollars to enjoy. A film show introduced by  Buzz lightyear cartoon character ( I guess a genuine Panamanian historian would have been a little too much to ask) and much of the narrative concerned Ohh ahhh statistics relating to the undoubted engineering wonders needed to carve this passage out of unyielding rock river and forest. 


One stat that was repeated was that each lock-gate weighed the equivalent of 300 elephants which struck me as a curious unit of measurement. All I could see thereafter was a picture of the three hundred noble creatures drowning helplessly as the weight of water hit them when the sluice gates opened. Why elephants, which are hardly indigenous, or at least not since the Mastadon became extinct? 100 mastodon perhaps? 2000 sloths? 15000 pelicans which at least fly overhead and highly visible and measurable? Why animals at all? Why not the weight of Wales?


The canal experience was wonderfully done with much information on engineering but relatively little on sociology or politics of the whole endeavour. We never found out how many died in the ten year programme of digging the passageway through rock and swamp, but we do know they were black.  Nor was there any mention of the current economics of canal but there was the suggestion of trickle down for all. On the subject of Noriega there was total silence.  I will retain the expression ‘trans- isthmian for the rest of my days however. 

Medallin: in Search of the ordinary

This recent immersion, alone in four different cities, feels so far away from the rain forest and the cloud forest that had been home for three weeks. Those three weeks culminating in a week in the deepest forest where in an island of vibrant green we sang our songs.   That less than two weeks and four hotel rooms ago but now the ‘song viruses’ that were so plangent at he point of departure begin to recede. No longer do i waken to the inner sounds and commotions of riding my chariot in the morning lord. Confusingly today i woke to the strains of a Taaffe song ‘To the Hills’ that we did not sing at all this time around, but which by some miraculous circular process was released from my hippocampus. I found it on Youtube and it caught me right at the back oft the throat.  In the same way no longer do i awaken to the low frequency tremors set off  by the howlers in search of their mates who may stand mute, or to the demented parrot, or the incessant scraping of the gravel so beloved by the Godless Garden staff. Even that enervating sound you can miss, in time. 


In my minds eye I take the dawn walk to that grey barren beach, host to the four species of heron and the mighty pelican fly-by, the lesser- spotted Taaffe intently peering up the trees while Joy the dolphin plungers through the atlantic breakers, freshly arrived from the coral reef.  After a shower we take the walk up that freshly brushed gravel path past the purposeless less peacock and its friend the hen to the fork in the road between the food and the song.  This morning’s second song virus was Brendan’s ‘May it Fill your Soul’, a song which lurked in our goddess folders but never made it to to larynx nor even to the soft palette.  And so the dance goes on.  And none dispute the desert of a life lived without love. 


Since the sequential peeling off of our group from the interior of Mario’s splendid bus I have been alone and bathed in ordinariness. I am saturated in the detritus of the everyday. And it is someone else’s everyday. Here in Medellin residential towers, packed dangerously close to each other, creep up the mountainside, redolent of Hong Kong as the mist clings to the summit edge.  This Andean spectacle is ordinary to those now around me – but is it? How can i possibly hope to penetrate their knowing – why would i wish to?  Perhaps best stay in my room and read. Once more. This altitude caper makes me feel Methuselah old. 


Meanwhile when out and about walking the streets i find myself playing the comparison game. The unavoidable comparison game that makes Bogota the Hanoi to the Saigon that is Medellin, only without the water but with mountains as substitute. No Medellin is definitely Hong Kong no question. Panama City a scruffy Dubai with the uneasy relationship between new and old, between the have and have nots, but still the towers scrape the sky amid the heat in the same way.

 
‘Which do you prefer?’ they ask ‘The Pacific or the Atlantic?’  i reply ‘The Andes’ hoping that the question will go away. In my heart I know the answer is the Atlantic; how could it be other?  By that ocean was I born and there i return time after time to the Atlantic spume.  In that way the comparison to different faces and moods of the Atlantic is possible in a way that my Pacific or South China Sea experience can ever be. The five years in Cape Town where two oceans meet  allowed direct everyday comparison though somehow i always clung for comfort to the Atlantic side. 


It would seem in the explorations outside of our everyday that we seek points of comparison, points order to make some sort of sense of this overwhelming calamity that is someone else’s habitus.  The guidebook chides ‘you to go the must see! you must not miss! the cool people head to’ without suggesting the places where local tedium is best absorbed.  Bogota is smart: it concentrates all of its memorable edificios and museo and galleria and bibliotech  within a half mile radius of each other. Similar to London or even Paris.

It is possible to walk among all of those buildings, to feel you might know those figures from long ago, both famous and ordinary, and to walk in the footsteps, to follow that shadow .. but there it is,  that comparison game again.  Would it help to have brought with me one of the Cahuita Park guides to be my Crocodile Dundee, to try to make sense of this urban jungle and the creatures that hide within it? At least we cold have shared our confusion as we struggle to compare nuances of language, differences in currency and differences in material value, the McDonald’s index swinging wildly between countries.

 
I find myself tracing the Bruce Chatwin muse, ‘What am I doing here?’ In Cahuita we had a narrative, a waiting for the singing, a singing the singing,  returning from our bliss.  Here i meet some folk but mostly just here, waiting for the ordinary to come to me in miraculous manifestation. 

Medellin – Dancing my Descent into Degradation

Dancing my Descent into Degradation


Little did i know at the outset that what was designed to be a quiet Thursday evening in Medellin of detached social observation would descend by imperceptible degrees into the arms of the police. No one had told me that Thursday was the busiest party night, way busier than Monday but not right up there with Friday or Saturday. I had left it late to go out, having eaten earlier. My first port of call was a highly respectable salsa bar, where a smoothly competent group created the bongo beat while elegant couples sashayed from their tables to demonstrate faultless foot work in the small spaces available between the tables. Too soon the band stepped down for a much needed towel down, leaving me to join the paseo around the square.


I was torn from my reverie by the touch of a charming young woman in a tasteful shiny blue cheerleaders outfit, who pointed at a nearby elevator saying ‘You must go disco Blue. Look! Thursday is Ladies night, muchos mujer .’ Taking my ruminative chin stroking as assent, her rather larger doorman friend escorted me to the lift shaft, where I was transported into an overwhelming world of sound and light. After some minutes of adjustment to this sensory overload i began to discern human shapes amid the laser strobes, most of them male in form. On closer inspection I began to suspect that the prefix ‘Ladies’ to describe the night was stretching the use of the plural form beyond the point of elasticity. There were ladies, but only about four of them, each seeming to be surgically attached to guys weighed down with gold and a sense of their own irresistible attractiveness.


One lady in particular fulfilled the fantasy description often made of a Colombian beauty. Perfect cinnamon skin colour, Straight black hair impeccably coiffed and reaching down to behind her knees, her surgically enhanced embonpoint matching a rear that is was hard to believe was not equally augmented, not least to counterbalance her personal engineering. The only fly in her prefect ointment seemed to be the guy that was attached to her. Could he not read that she he was beaming distaste in her direction, from a height considerably above his? This I doubted as she was his extension of self, and his ego would not allow that this prize could demonstrate independent emotion towards him of any kind, let alone disdain.


At one point he took a break from drinking shots of Aguardiente to give her a swirl on the dance floor. (This local spirit is aniseed imbued, tasting rather like Ouzo but far less refined.) His dancing was manic, all latin heels kicking back to the calf between each hip swivel, his arms a windmill of movement. On the termination of each spin cycle she would take pause to pull down his shirt which was inescapably rising to reveal a conspicuously hairy Aguardiente gut. As the Reggathon beat stepped up he decided it would be cool by way of choreographed variation to kiss her between each heel click, not noticing how much this was alarming her, as between each kiss her strapless top shifted further down, needing to be hiked up for modesty’s sake.

However it looked as though he took this rhythmic hiking of boob tube as her innovative variation on his original routine, causing him to assist gravity by pulling down her top between the kisses while grinning ever more lustily until the sweat began to soak the floor.


At last she forced him to sit down, though he dwelled only for a short sweaty moment, before suddenly jumping up all the better to kiss her somewhere near the lips. Mercifully for her sake he staggered towards the banos, when she reached for her bag to find blusher sufficient to repair the major damage inflicted by the none to accurate rich man’s kisses. This den of conspicuous consumption, while full of sociological fascination, was leaving me feeling poor, ill dressed and ancient. To avoid further laser blindness and low frequency deafness I headed for the release from this Blue condition that the lift shaft might bring. I could not help but notice as I was leaving that all the cheerleader bar staff were dancing, were moving, all of the hostesses were moving, even the huge bouncers were throwing surprisingly lithe shapes.

In Colombia everyone dances. If you can walk you can dance. If you can talk you can sing.


Outside i congratulated myself on my disengagement from the scene, and serenely headed home. Yards from my hotel, a crowd were congregating around a doorway. I made the insane error of stopping myself, when four young women who had been sat on the pavement for a smoke stood up, took me by the arm and said ‘You must come in, you must come in amigo, this is Thursday night and this is the famous club Berlin!’

Compared to the Blue club security seemed really low at Berlin. In fact safety seemed very low. For $10 entrance there was a free bar until one thirty in the morning, when you then had to pay. I arrived at about 12.30 when the drinking was intensifying to ensure saturation point before the pay tills opened. Berlin was everything Blue was not, and in a good way too. It was in an old warehouse, with precarious mezzanines hung about the main floor, and was full of the young massed to dance and drink together in glorious discord. The DJ was not hidden behind pretentious glass booth. Instead he was astride the bar, running it long length with microphone in hand. One of his additional responsibilities to swagger around with a large children’s’ water gun filled with Aguardiente, which he squirted directly into eager uplifted lips, his fledgling fans clearly adoring his animism.


It was clear i was the only gringo in town and i was feeling my difference. Happy at first to have a table to sit at with my four charming chaperones , not least as there were very few tables, I noticed that a group of young guys with razor cuts, tattoos shown off under singlet vests over mean low slung jeans, were discussing whether this ancient gringo was in fact allowed to monopolise quite so many girls. Uneasy i signalled then over. I am told that if in doubt always talk to the guy first, never the girl. Dismissing me completely, they took a woman each, turning each round to begin their arrogant bump and grind routine.

The girls looked somewhat bored but compliant as the guys hips searched for closer contact, while still clutching their drinks (it is never a good idea to leave drinks alone in these parts.) The boys were in some reverie, while not failing to glance around all the better to notice other available ladies. Having staked out their turf with me in indelible fashion, they then at the end of the number simply disengaged from the girls without a word and went into sullen chat with each other before descending on their next conquests.


Puzzled a little by this brazen promiscuity, my minor outrage and sense of protectiveness towards the girls subsided as they themselves took off in various directions to offer the same anonymous twerking to men unknown. I surmised that the lack of any eye-contact allowed the anonymity of this dance to breed emotional disconnectedness. None too soon 1.30 came along, when we all sang the Colombian anthem. It was a raucous affair, backed by a soundtrack of a thousand trumpets.

Now we were in pay time, at which point the girls showed a new interest in me, and how i was doing, pulling me back to ‘our’ table in a nicely possessive way. It was just the five of us again. They then asked that i buy them a bottle or two of Aguardiente. I said ‘No.’ I thought this reasonable enough, not least as there were still a bottle to two of the free stuff on the table. I also felt that this would not be ‘just the one time’ that their innocent pleadings suggested. This was the thin edge of the lemon wedge in the Tequila.

Suddenly I was the bad guy, having badly failed their economic means test. They said i had to leave. Eyes were flashing, they spat, a coalition of hate and contempt beginning to form. Unmoved, i stayed in my seat, happy this time that the sullen foursome of lads returned to make their claim on the girls, alarmed as they were that i might have the insolence to be back in active service, when after all they had the monopoly on insolence. The girls took the remaining bottles with them, abandoning me to bottles of water alone to wash down my bitter tasting ostracism.


I was aware for a while amid all of this that in a group in the so-called VIP area – in reality a concrete platform fenced off by steel tubed railings – there was a man dancing with a lady who kept looking at me, trying to catch my attention. Avoiding his eyes at first, thinking he was giving me that ‘ are you looking at my bird’ stare, I then decided to move towards them, not least to avoid the growing hostility that was brewing in my corner. It transpired that far from him harbouring any evil intent towards me, he had seen me as a lone gent of a certain age of whom he had a favour to ask.

Intrigued by this, it transpired that the favour was that his dancing partner was his sister-in-law – that he was tired of dancing with her, that his wife was getting jealous – so he had co-opted me to dance with her instead. Suddenly partnered with this formidable lady who seemed to have stepped out of a Botera sketch, in that larger than life way, I discovered that it was not all easy going, and I could see why he wanted to move her on. She seemed none too pleased with this arranged marriage, though we danced away none the less in a distant fashion while the brother-in-law fed us Aguardiente and Red Bull to keep the rhythm going. By this time down on the floor everyone was now dancing with everyone else in a swirl of erotic motion, each doing the tour of the dance floor, moving from partner to partner until their dance card was full or they fell exhausted amid the ruins of the bottles.


The most contemptuous of the sullen boys, clearly realising that he had danced with everyone but one, and obviously a completist, jumped up into the VIP area to force my partner to dance. This was done full in my face, just to prove perhaps that it was not just the younger women who were off limits to me. MY partner was not amused by this peremptory advance . He roughly swivelled her around and began the groin grind, his arm somewhere near her throat. She pushed back with great force. Lucky for him the railings broke his fall. He shrugged and left, while giving me the death stare. “Look mate,’i rehearsed, ‘you could dance with her all night long if it were up to me.’

No need for this disclaimer however, as the kid slouched off to grab the only remaining girl of my former harem, as it was getting late and machismo demanded that he could not leave alone. I kissed the grateful brother in law goodbye about sixteen times then left with his retinue before i found myself walking on broken glass.Barely able to take breath, I almost made it to the nearby refuge of my hotel entrance, only to be forcibly befriended by Carlos and Pedro, who disallowed my wishing to go to bed at three in the morning as an absurd waste of an evening. They both spoke great English which was relief in itself after all the messes that my rudimentary Spanish had gotten me into. As i relayed the story of my evening, they demanded my answers in a friendly way to the usual foundation questions.


Did i love `Colombia?
Did i love Medellin better than Bogota ( The answer is always yes of course)
Do I love Colombians?
Do i promise not to mention `Estobar?


All of this epistemological common ground successfully established, they insisted that i spent the remainder of the night with them. What passed was somewhat of a blur. Carlos is an international professional poker player and that was interesting to say the least, though it made me a little wary of him, which was ungenerous as he was a lovely man with no axe beyond seeking my company to grind. Pablo was a translator who was unhappy in his marriage and was looking to fall in love. Everywhere. In the last cafe to close for the night we sat out facing the street while we sang along to ‘Sweet Dreams are Made of This.’ playing on YouTube. Exactly how big is Annie Lennox in Medellin?


As we sang, a group of older cigarette / chewing gum salesmen congregated outside the bar, along of the inevitable shoeshine man. (Earlier in the day i came across a hombre who placed on the floor an ancient bathroom scale, charging you to take your weight. I guess it beats fortune telling.) As the music played the old guys unconsciously moved and swayed to a memory perhaps of a tango youthfully, fervently danced. In Colombia everyone dances. Carlos is so proud of these guys. He so likes their quiet dignity, as do I. These are the real people, he explains, this is what Colombian authenticity is, not the emergent McDonalds way. Who am i to disagree?


Carlos fiddled with his phone and found a whole album of Annie Lennox, cranking up the really tinny volume, then forcing it into to my ear as we walked down the road, insisting that I sing for them both. All the bars now shut, we stumbled downhill towards the Parque Polado, one of the open Medellin amphitheatre squares where folks congregate and where beer sellers move among us all night long. There are bottle stores surrounding the squares that are open 24 hours. They have grills to separate customers from product, but the range and cheapness of what they have to offer is astonishing, with a bottle of Aguardiente selling for $10. At this point though the boys have decided that what they need is some dope.


In calamitous pursuit of the same we meet up with a bunch of lads who are clearly just getting warmed up, after copious pre-lash. The futile search for drugs causes the related conversation to turn to Breaking Bad, by way of a cinematic surrogate high. Carlos enthuses that his favorite song is ‘A Horse with No Name’ for the same BB series, and wants me to lead the singing in the square, once more sticking the phone deep into my ear. This transports all us back on the range, sat alongside Walter White in his broken down cruiser while we sang along with him beating the steering while in emphatic rhythm.. Deep into the second verse, we had not noticed the police moving in. Clearly any Breaking Bad song is taken as code for drug related activity. We are broken up and threatened with vagrancy charges. The others are nonchalant but I am left bursting with pride. Busted by the police at this age and stage. I shall savour this for the rest of my remaining. In fact if I were ever to be invited to a dinner party then this would be my staple.everybody dances

Lost in Riga

Untimely ripped from the photo sessions in the Anglican Cathedral and the rhapsodic family party that was flowing i am all too soon stifling tears of joy and wild gratitude as the cab speeds towards the airport, clutching for comfort a lone stem given to me by Katherina. Go back go back whispers the inner voicing haltingly there is no better place to be transported to than back among the cobbles and the echoes, the soft shadows of the old town. 

This plane cannot be the right place to be, raucous Russians cry down the length of the fusliage to each other while my body screams for sleep. Even Douglas my alter ego dozes fitfully beside me, ceasing to bother me for his anticipated prowl in the wild west end.  Eventually we spill out into Liverpool Street Station to have the gates of the last tube slammed firmly shut in our faces. Quite adrift i am lost in the many exits, to find myself alone in a desolate city square, only a small jar of honey from sister Katherina for sustenance and no clear way out of the money-making haze.

Three gates to the North, three gates to the South. A fragment of a song clicks in my inner juke box. ‘Where do I go now? Where do I go? What do i do?’ The beat builds, the mantra grows into a protective cloak that guides me towards a cab. I am not alone but surrounded in that empty square by the ghosts of circling singers chanting responses to my pleas for direction. Happy for the relief of the cab but in truth would have been content to have dropped my bag in the Square and allowed our Suskanouska lullaby to carry me into dreamless sleep. A sleep that would be blessedly free from the interruption of Mick and Bill’s synchronised basso profoundo snoring. 

Sunday morning and Hyde park and London in general is bathed in autumn sunshine as the city dwellers enjoy the days before the winter comes.  It is a city without scale though. I seek out the lanes, need to take stock of my situation in a cellar with dark coffee while crunching into a Mandelu Kroisante, allowing fragments of almond to fall into my lap. All the while as i wander, flaneur without purpose, the songs float in my head to the backdrop of Turner skies. ‘Follow your dreams, folllow your dreams, walking ….’  Louise is with me and as happy to let me drift as she is to hear fragmentary tales of our times together. I fight to suppress anxiety about the teaching assignment to be delivered on Monday to massed ranks of eager/ anxious students, an assignment that I had only learned of days before.  “That’s all right, thats all right’ I hum by way of reassurance.

We go into St Martin’s in the Fields amid the Pearlly Kings and Queens of London mass turn out for their Harvest Festival. It is so lovely to talk of them, to hear of their traditions and to try on the retiring Pearly King’s jacket. It weighs a ton and is a splendid extravagant useless garment.  He has to retire as his knees are gone, which is hardly surprising under the weight of all that glitter. He looks impossibly old and happily talks as if his work on earth is done now that his daughter is Queen. Then I find out that he is the same age as me.  Louise is keen to celebrate my birthday and become my own Pearly Queen. We retreat into the cool of the chapel, gathering prayers for guidance from above. I hum her the chorus of Bury me Deep which she really likes. The simplicity of that chapel is stunning. We try a few of those slow descending falsettos to the ceiling. They are returned with interest as they join all the other stray notes ever sung therein. The chapel is ‘very us.’

Monday morning and back on the tube heading towards my teaching fate. I follow a woman rapt in her earbuds who fails to notice that she drops her purse. A following woman picks it up, vainly chasing her saying muttering ‘excuse me, excuse me.’ I let out a full blooded Spooky ‘HIP’ causing the entire underground system to grind to a halt or so it seems.  I feel I should read the materials sent to me by the University but the file will not open. As i walk up the hill among the commuters coming at me like Alto’s out of their factory Mandy sings in my ear ‘you know it is gonna be all right.’ Wrong words but right sentiment. I liked the way those tenors made their own stuff up.

The unfamiliar staff room is full of first day of term anxieties and no little rancour as lecturers revive grievances hibernated during the summer.  I am tempted to try to make sense of some of this emotional swirl, to blend but decide that such effort will only disipate my energies and the prevailing sense of being carried by something more divine that I feel. “Lead us not into temptation but give us some kind of explanation …” I know it will be fine once i have the students alone, all to myself.  I want to be ready.

There are 35 of them, similar to our number, average age 27, no one from the UK, but from 15 different countries and every continent speaking over 50 languages between them. They will be together for a year and are just beginning to absorb the reality of this transit. By way of introduction to me and to their task I tell them of our Riga experience. I relate a tale of a group similar in number to themselves, thirty five strangers coming together over the course of a week to seek harmony and explore potentialities, both musically and in other ways, where music is the metonym. I relate that part of our challenge was to learn songs in Fijian, Georgian, Latvian, Russian, even English.  And i say that I am still buoyed by the fact that we achieved that, culminating in our concert in the Cathedral but in truth much else was realised besides; such as getting to know ourselves and each other at that really deep level where embarrassments and inhibitions were momentarily laid aside. 

I suggested that if we could achieve that in only one week then how far might they go in one year. After several hours of exploratory exercises, moving around the room in different constellations, they spontaneously settled in their chairs in an open circle without bidding but with a perfect sense of timing recognising that the formation process was done for now. We sat in silence but our eyes alive, pleased with ourselves. I asked what they had learned so far about how they would proceed to work together. One student from Morocco said ‘it is simple. We need to learn to blend.’ 

Spooking the Spooky Men.

Spooking the Spooky Men.
I had not known what to expect of the Spooky Men at the Sidmouth Folk Festival last year. But then I was at  a stage in my life when expectations of almost anything were proving either exhausting or dangerous.  if i did have any expectations then they were of what the evening would not be rather than what it would be.  i was not expecting the Spooky’s to be at all Spooky in the Halloween sense of domesticated terror, though i would have been happy to have been properly spooked as the morality folk tales were wearing a little thin . I thought that the Spooky Men might be fun a change from the many different brands of competing seriousness and claims for authenticity that are often served up at folk festivals, love them though I do. they certainly didn’t sound as though they were working to preserve any art form that was in immediate danger of extinction. 


As the show rolled i realised that one thing that I was not ready for a stage full of intimidating men in black chanting Georgian folk song, while wearing curious hats. This wall of bass was highly striking and augured well for the evening ahead. Nor was i I expecting a series of songs loosely linked through the theme of the state of contemporary manhood, or lack of it. i was drawn in by this performance as it unfolded, finding myself touched as much as tickled by this blokish tableau.  I enjoyed in particular the anarchic, mock threatening tone of the show and the conventions that it sought to subvert, conventions of folk performance as much as of gender representation. 

As the curtain fell to a rousing ‘Parting Glass’ I  felt impulsed to join the band at the merchandising desk, an act i normally eschew for fear of uttering inchoate sycophancy while buying a scrawled upon CD that i might rarely listen to later. i decided then in the moment  of approach not weakly to declare my fandom but rather to approach this long line of Spooky’s in an idiom resonant with the mood and pitch of the show.

 
I moved towards  the nearest available Spooky men whom at first sight was possibly the most intimating of them all, resplendent in viking hat and sleeveless wife-beater tee shirt, Seeking an entry point for our exchange i found myself asking him in mock earnest tone the question ‘What are the twelve themes of the spooky men then?’  He regarded me in silence, a look of incredulous contempt spreading slowly across his face. ‘What do you mean the twelve themes?’  he snapped. ‘Who told you about the twelve themes? and how do you know there are twelve?’

Suddenly if felt as if my attempt at unbalancing the Spooky’s with an amateur version of their own destabilising techniques might be working against me, the blackened boot now firmly on the other foot.  ‘Well’ i declared with a confidence i did not feel, biding my time while reaching for explanation where none existed, ‘you sang about twelve songs and each song revealed a theme. So tell me the themes please!’ I was happy with my retort – even i it i was only playing for time – and awaited his response, as he rocked a little on his heels.  At last he said ‘ i am not sure who told you these things about our little secrets but perhaps you know more than you are letting on. So tell me before we go any further – and by way of a test – what is the first theme?’


‘An easy one to kick off with then’ i breathed, hardly daring to take the pause that might betray the fact that i was totally at sea’ The first song was about the mess. It referenced the inevitability,  the sheer ineluctability of the occurrence of mess when men are around. In line with this universal truth your Spooky Men show and your project also begins with the mess. It recognises that all creativity begins with disruption. And of course all men are uniquely good at disrupting things, learning from their earliest times as little boys there is nothing they like better than transgressive interruptions.’ 


‘I see’ he growled, ‘that might make some sort of sense. I think i had better pass you over to the next spooky to take your inquiries on.’ Without further ado i was passed along the line to a guy in a pith helmet, nicely offsetting his back kilt. I Introduced him to him the notion of the twelve themes,citing theme number one, ‘the mess’ as an example. He maintained the same pretence of surprise as the first Spooky. ‘So you tell me’ he grunted’ if you know so much these themes then tell me about number two, the theme that is so much elusive than the rather obvious  nursery slopes of knowing that is theme number one.’


‘Well actually’ i said hitting my stride with a welcome second wind ‘ theme number two is not that inaccessible.  The second song was of course about ‘concrete’ and as we know men love things to be concrete. Academic males even overuse the  term ‘concretisation’ to evince their need to make theory tangible. We men like to take our reality solid and durable. we like nothing better than to make the mess concrete. We love to kick the metaphorical tyres before deciding to buy. We are desperate to know that that we can touch the mess; that we can feel the goo solidify before our very eyes as it sits inside the pattern and grows comfortable with the pattern.  it all begins with the mess, then the holy mess is made concrete. Nothing can break through the concrete not even interrogators skilled in breaking down the most impenetrable of defences.’

This seemed to silence him, as he rubbed his impressive stubble by way of a dismissive gesture pulling the next available Spooky into the conversation. ‘I think you may be getting close but something we treasure almost as much as concrete you have yet failed to mention? Well have you? Come on! come on.’ 


‘Patience please as I come to the blessed theme three, that of course of ‘tools’, of ‘being tooled’, of mastery over the universe and not only that but mastery over the tools themselves which is no mean feat.  You Spooky Men have nailed, glued and screwed the theme of tools. This is about the hegemony of tools that take men beyond the ape – and that amazing antipodal thumb that allows us to wield them.  Through the wielding of tools we men sense the reassuring presence of a power higher than ourselves. And at some level there exists a belief that this control is extended beyond tool use to a place deep within the inner silverback that prowls beneath our supposedly domesticated skin.’

I am treated to an impassive stare from Spooky three in what i would like to believe is mute acknowledgement of this underlying truth. He heads off to sign an album cover while pushing another sung-out Spook in my direction.  With his head inclined towards me he listens with a sigh to my treatise on theme number four,  the theme of mens’ perpetual struggle with the conflicting instincts of ‘flight or fight’, that primitive instinct that remains so close to the surface despite all our efforts to concrete our expression of emotions. He realises that a checkmate could be in play here. I seem him conjecture that if he moves away he confirms this hypothesis; and equally if he stands up and confronts me he does the same.  Barely holding himself together – for the evening has clearly taken its toll – he summons the energy and restraint to ask levelly ‘What then is number four if flight and fight be three? what more can there be beyond fight and flight?’ 


‘Ah well,’ I say, trying hard not to introduce that slow tone one might use with a particularly slow child ‘Remember that piece where you all mess around, joking about the ridiculousness of mens’ inability to express emotions? Well you made a good enough fist of explaining that men do this in their own way and often through the concrete when they check each other out by dint of comparing possessions or competencies. This is not so much sentimental muteness as a registering that men – albeit dimly – do it in different ways. And that is number four.’ 


‘Oh I see, well i have things to do, why not chat to my mate about these themes he is younger and i feel he will know all about them. Me i need a drink.’ The next Spooky up does indeed seem younger, barely shaving and does seem less resistant to my inquiry than some of his more world weary mates. In fact he shows interest in the revelation of the first four themes and asks with interest about theme five. We talk of the oxymoronic quality of ‘epic futility’ and ‘pointless grandeur’ that seem to marks men’s passage through their life’s course. Given that he was not really that scary of countenance, I felt able to say that in our culture and perhaps in others it might seem that all men the bogeymen.

And that in exaggerating spookiness then the Spooky’s demythologise the myth of the bogeyman that lurks in hearts of all men. the myth of the bogeyman is revealed in the exaggeration as bogus. and perhaps the heavily ironised ‘magnificence’ of men cloaks a true magnificence that is beyond the hunt for the mythic mastodon. I ask if it is true that he ‘gets no satisfaction?’ He says that at times he does but says that Jagger was touching a raw and enduring male nerve – and that that song deserved a more bass-based treatment than it had ever received before.  
he seems to resonate with this interpretation – i take a risk and ask him if he feels ‘pretty enough?’

He looks a little wistful, perhaps illustrating a further theme that is revealed. That not only is not okay to be ‘pretty enough; but that deep down few men feel that they are. As a reflect on this with my young muse i am hit be a powerful sense of poignancy.  I feel a need to reach for the Spooky caring circle of loving and feeling, though i know in realty that no such succour exists. but then that is two more songs down now, and i am nearer my quota of twelve and out before i am thoroughly found out.  As I look around at the now empty hall i see the opportunity to get away and allow these Spooks to let down their armour, if they ever do. But my exit is blocked by the Spookmeister, the man in the furry flying hat who leads things from the front the man whom i learn is called Stephen.  He asks why it is that i have been bothering his merry band, and could I tell him what these twelve principles are all about?

 
I said that i was surprised that he did not know, but was happy to rehearse the themes excavated to date, and to relate them to the corresponding songs in the play-list.  ‘Okay’ he said impassively, ‘So if that i what in revealed then it is deeply in the realm of Freudian slippage as no such listing of themes has been recognised before. But if i were to continue to indulge your conceit, then pray tell me the remaining themes?’
Frozen for a moment, immobile in the face of the unsmiling face of this man who seemed so funny when on stage,

I reached for new explanation, then felt a powerful channeling of a force beyond my consciousness that began to speak to truths that I could not have known of before this attempt at post-show knockabout began. I said of course that my indicating that there was any such listing of themes – with the hint that there might be a hierarchy within such a listing – was in fact an ironic device to parody the male propensity for categorisation and codification. for in truth there is no taxonomy of Spookiness. You invite listing but you resist it and subvert it also. It is not a matter of lists but of layers, of layers that build through the cumulative impact of the songs rather than an atomisation that attributes individual meaning to individual songs.  


Stephen continued to stare unblinking and unimpressed.  In the silence I channel on now into deeply speculative territory.  ‘So it is beyond a listing or even of the cumulative impact but in the underlying prospectus of the project the underlying predicate. Which is that presentation of this spooky work is a strong paradox that lies in the fact that such scary men can express themselves through such wonderful harmony. The harmonic presides angelically above the mess the disruption – yet it is fragile and could break down at any time. Therein lies the contradiction of male vulnerability because it is beautiful and that is why it is so seldom seen, like the desert orchid.  And the males in the audience Stephen cant you see they long to join you?’ 


‘yes I think i see that yet is not that simple to join us it is not that easy to clown about in this way’ he mused.Exactly! And that is why it is not clowning at all but it is deadly serious in a funny way. the other contradiction would seem to be that deep down and in quite a feminine way you do care for your audience. Within the disruption lies a caring, and within the seeming wholeness you acknowledge that amid tis seeming wholeness of performance that there is something missing or lost there is something left behind. The struggle of the band to keep it all together is quite compelling amid the truth that are always working with incompleteness. This is the rarely acknowledged masculine double narrative.’
‘And the tools?’
‘Yes of course the tools bring their own problems of adaptation and of classification too. those are the problems of finding the bits that fit, the tool bits the drill bits that fit.  And amid all of this toolbox talk there is a voice that speaks to the wider fit; the fit between men and women. Perhaps what is needed a tool that is an adapter – between the male and the female parts,beyond men are from Mars.’
This is actually quite interesting’ says Stephen, looking interested. 


‘Well so you should be interested as the other paradox lies in your display of leadership and all that says od heroic models of male leadership. You demonstrate sublime leadership in the conducting of the songs yet you allow and encourage subversion and undermining of yourself at the same time. You Stephen seem to crave control yet you are never really in charge. every time your back is turned then things happen among your merry band of men – they really do. Don’t fence me in was an excellent song to remind us of towards the end – a fine resonance of Dennis Potter and his anti-hero stricken with psoriasis in his hospital bed.  the way we are locked in one way of another. 
He asks that I write this down for him some time. And so a year of so later I do. But not because he told me so to do. but because to had to be done. I would not want to be seen to be joining the spooky stalkers.  
Daniel Doherty
9th October 2012