SOME BRIEF TRAVELS IN THE
HEARTLAND OF ENGLAND
In the Fall, I went to England
alone. I made the trip to visit my
mother primarily but I traveled around the whole time and managed to see all of
my English friends. It was funny but
after being away for so long, all my friends there were people that I'd met on
our recent travels. After a sleepless
night flight, made even more disorientating by a series of meals, supper,
dinner and breakfast all in the space of six hours, I arrived in London. My brother Phil met me at the Airport on a
cold gray morning. We had a slightly
bleak cup of tea together in the cafeteria at Charing Cross Station and then I
went straight to my friend Howard's house in Brixton. Over the years since we had met Howard in India, he and I had
exchanged letters and tapes regularly and he had definitely become one of my
points of reference in England.
Nothing much ever seemed to change
around at Howard's. The old gas fire
still roared and spluttered in a vain attempt to keep the chill of the English
winter out, the teapot was always full of hot black tea and there were always
plenty of biscuits to eat. Life moved
slowly on Mayall Road and each time I arrived there, it was almost as if I had
never left. In many ways, Howard and
his friends personified the disenchanted English. They seemed thoroughly alienated and marginal to society in
their lifestyle but at the same time were quintessentially English in their
loyalties, especially to certain television programs. Somehow they still held onto the British concept of the whole
wide world being their oyster. Howard
managed to escape the country quite often and always headed to India where he
could live like a rajah until the money ran out. His tales of impoverished adventures and inspired survival on
the trail were legion. I had long
wanted to get him to come to America for I felt that his dour Northern anarchy
would flourish there. This time, I
found him living with a woman. She was
a redheaded Cornish woman called Nicki whom I liked immediately. Nicki was relaxed and cheerful and had a
job. I could see that Howard was a lot
happier and more directed. His two
friends had moved out and moved on and there was a room there that I could
always stay in.
But I was in England to see my
mother and took a slow cold train down to St Leonards by the sea. She had sold her little house in Rye
Harbour and had bought a flat near to Hastings to be near to my sister Kate. As always, the first twenty-four hours we
spent together were fine, for Joy and I actually have a lot in common. We were both artists with a keen eye for
details and an interest in humanity in all its myriad forms. She seemed a little older, more bowed and
more white-haired but obviously was living in a much more convenient place than
before. Her new flat was on a corner
halfway up a little hill which lead down to St Leonards' shopping street and
from there down to the boardwalk and the sea.
I stayed in the tiny spare room where I slept on an excruciatingly
uncomfortable mattress on the floor.
My own batik self-portrait hung on the wall in front of me. It still looked quite strong but after the
first night, I took it down and stacked it face turned towards the wall. Joy showed me around her world on the
first day there and we ritualistically ate fried eggs and chips at her local
restaurant. I was the youngest
customer and the newest song played on the cafe's tape-recorder was written before
I was born. Joy was anxious that I
liked her town but all I could see was the decay and dissipation of all my
earliest memories of England and of the Empire that once had been. The weather was truly dismal, most of the
people looked gray and pinched and the area was run down. There were lots of shops for sale and the
sea front, once the sparkling facade of a flourishing resort, looked
seedy. Several hotels were closed and
boarded over. I took a long walk
through the fog along the sea front, which ran from St Leonards to Hastings, past
the long pier which still smelt of fried fish and chips and was mostly
deserted. It felt pretty depressing
but that only spurred me to walk faster, my leather jacket zipped up against
the cold and a wool cap down over my ears.
At the far end of the boardwalk, I passed by the cafes and antique shops
and arrived at the part of the beach where the fishing boats were pulled up out
of the water. There was a curious,
dark group of wooden structures, looking rather like an old medieval settlement
that was actually a bunch of sheds where the fishing nets were hung to
dry. In front of them, I took the
short funicular ride up the cliff face.
From the green fields on top of the cliffs I had a panoramic view across
Hastings to St Leonards and beyond.
Even on such a dismal winter day, I could see the white capped waves
rolling in across the North Sea and a few fragile-looking boats out on the
horizon. The sun broke through the
mist and clouds for a minute scattering gold light across the water and showing
up the long precarious shape of the pier against the sea and the sky. Sunlight fell full onto the hotels along
the boardwalk and for a moment Hastings shone like it must have one hundred
years before. Then the clouds closed
together and the grayness resettled over the huddled town. I knew that I didn't really want to live in
England again. I walked on down the
long series of steps which lead back to the dark drying sheds and the desperate
little shops that still sold sticks of sweet rock with the word
"Hastings" through their centers.
Inevitably, I quarreled with Joy at
the end of my second day there. Her
flat was small, her needs were great and there was no space to escape. I had learned on my last trip to England
that three days was the optimum time for a visit. After seeing sister Kate and prowling through the gloom of the
town one more time, I literally had to flee back to London on the afternoon
local train. Howard and Nicki were
away when I got back to Brixton but they had given me a key to the house and I
rested up there, watched English TV and communed with the cat. The following day, I took the Tube into the
West End and from there walked right along through Hyde Park to Nottinghill
Gate and then down to look at Portobello Road Market on a busy Saturday
morning. At Portobello Gold, the pub
where the Ibiza crowd in London used to hang out, I ran into my old friends
Richard and Renee. Later I met Selvin,
our friend from Koh Phangan there. I
couldn't stand the bar scene in the pub for long and Selvin and I quickly
escaped and went to visit Bill who still lived just around the corner. Bill was completely unchanged, but still
talking about the changes he would make in his life and still smoking too
much. He was surrounded by cats and
unfinished projects and was maybe just a little thinner and older than when I'd
last seen him. We drank tea and I lent
him $10 before we left to take a tube across the Old Street.
Selvin wanted to take me to the
Whirligig Club at Shoreditch Town Hall.
It was a "rave" scene that he'd talked a lot about, a club
that opened just once a week in an otherwise quiet and respectable
setting. It was certainly unlike any
other club that I'd been to, for it was a "Family" club. There were no age limits at the Whirligig
and children of all ages were admitted as long as they came with a parent or
grown-up friend. As we waited in line
to get in, a ten year old boy came up to me and asked me if I would be his
Daddy and if I would take him in with me.
His request was both funny and moving. By the time we finally got into the club, Selvin and I had
collected a family of four, two very young boys and two slightly older girls
who promptly vanished as soon as we got onto the dance floor. The Whirligig was held in the auditorium
of the Town Hall where a huge parachute was hung from the center of the
ceiling. It stretched out to the
corners of the room so that all the straight lines and right angles of the room
were lost. Projectors threw patterns
onto all the walls and the stage was packed with frenetically dancing
figures. The "house" and
"ambient" music was deafeningly loud and the hall was packed with
dancers. Around the dance floor,
alcoves and carpets provided people space to relax. The cigarette smoke was
incredibly thick. It seemed to me that
everyone was smoking at least two cigarettes and three joints and pretty soon
my eyes were running badly. The
American ban on public cigarette smoking and the thinking behind it have yet to
impact at all in Europe. Any protest I
made about cigarette smoke while I was in England was dismissed as American,
"New Age", rubbish. As an
ex-smoker who's proud to have kicked the habit, I couldn't help thinking that
all these nicotine addicts looked desperate rather than cool with their
constant cigarettes. I wondered if
they'd go on smoking if they knew how badly that they smelt. But I danced a lot that night and enjoyed
the closing "chill-out" ritual at the end of the night when all the
dancers sat down on the floor and the parachute was lowered on top of
them. Then people stood all around the
room holding the parachute by its edge and slowly flapped it up and down to
cool people down for at least an hour.
Selvin and I staggered out into the London night and walked for miles
along the river all the way to Soho before I caught a bus from Trafalgar Square
back to Brixton.
I spent another day in London
walking vast distances across town before going back down to St Leonards to
stay with Joy. I found myself
terribly unhappy there, alone and alienated, only managing to escape on my long
walks along the front and around Hastings.
I was missing Catherine badly but managing to keep in touch with her
through faxes, which I would send her from the local print shop in St
Leonards. On my sister Kate's birthday
at the end of October, Phil and Diana came down from London to visit. They confided to me that they were planning
on moving down to live in Hastings in the New Year. They both wanted a break from Hackney, which I could well
understand and Phil felt that he needed to live near to Joy.
Kate's birthday supper saw the
dysfunctional family in full swing with Phil getting drunk and aggressive and
being viciously rude to Joy. Friends
of Kate's were there too and they slipped away in confusion at some point. I walked the bitterly upset Kate home
later. I always felt that my family
had lots of things to talk about and many deep issues to air but was mostly too
uptight and British to ever deal with these problems. Probably we will never be able to resolve any of them but will
always try to maintain the thin layer of veneer that separates us from one
another. But the problems are there
and the cracks show every time we are all together.
Phil having disgraced himself somewhat, I got to be the good guy
for a change. I had a moment of real
intimacy with Joy the next morning at the train station as I waited to catch a
train back to London. As we kissed
each other good-bye, I knew that in spite of our lack of communication and all
our arguments, my mother wanted to see me.
I pledged to come back to England every year from then on.
The following night was Halloween
and Howard held a big dance party in his basement. There had been subtle changes in the house over the past four
years. The basement, which had once
been a dark damp black hole, was now a large, white, open space with a solid
concrete floor. Howard brought in four
DJs and a lot of sound equipment for a "Pagan Rave" which started at
nine PM and ended at nine am.
Somebody had crashed in my bed early on and I ended up sharing my bed
-in shifts you understand- with in turn, a dreadlocked rasta, a young pair of
loving neo-pagans and a sleeping-it-off drunk. Mostly I ended up dancing like a maniac pagan to the on-beat
electronic thud of techno-tribal rhythms until I couldn't stand the music nor
stay on my feet no longer.
I was beginning to run out of time
and decided to make a lightning tour of England's Midlands in my last week in
the country. My first stop was in
Coventry where my young friend Selvin lived.
I think that this was probably the first time that I'd spent time in this
corner of the world and I found it a little depressing. Coventry was cold and gray and the sun
didn't shine much while I was there.
People seemed paralyzed generally and it was as if the city was on hold
in time. Selvin and his young student
friends spent most of the time at home, getting high, watching television with
the thud thud of house music a constant backdrop to their lives. I spent a day walking around on my own and
had a look at the famous Cathedral. It
was built thirty years before and was radical for its day, but a vision of
sixties' tack in the Nineties. Even
Graham Sutherland's celebrated tapestry, which hung above the altar, looked
dated with its central theme of nuclear threat all but irrelevant today. On my second night in Coventry, I stayed
up late to see the US Presidential Election returns come in and Bill Clinton
win a clear victory over George Bush.
I am not a great fan of any politician but wished Clinton all the luck
in the world. I knew that he was going
to need it.
A two hour train ride took me to
Leicester -it was Wednesday, I knew it must be Leicester- where Nick and Tad
from Bali met me at the Station. They
had returned from a couple of years living in Legian where Nick had worked as a
computer programmer and where Tad had started her own kids' clothes
business. They were in the middle of
readjusting to their re-entry into the Mother country and were living in the
guesthouse on Tad's mother's property outside of town in a little village
called Drayton. Nick and I spent the
day cruising Leicester, going to the Museum, Art Gallery, shops and cafes. It was a lot easier on the eyes and the
senses than Coventry but I couldn't imagine living in either place. Drayton Village on Guy Fawkes Night was a
lot more fun with fireworks and a family party for people who really liked to
have a few drinks, eat and cut loose.
This was archetypal English countryside and Nick and I took a long walk
around little back lanes, which eventually lead us to the Nevil Holt School, an
ancient very traditional public school for boys. No, Drayton wasn't yet quite living in the same time frame as I
was but it was restful to drop off there for a couple of days and to hang out
with old friends. Nick showed me some
new tricks on his computer and I photographed some fantastic fractal images
from one of his programs that I planned to use with the Retinal Blowjob.
After my short expeditions into the
heart of England, all that remained before I flew back to the States was a last
weekend in London. My old friend Chris
flew over from Holland to hang out with me for a couple of days and it was
great to run around town with him.
We'd known each other for about thirty years now, had been great friends
at University and of course I'd gone out to Ibiza to visit him when my marriage
to Elspeth broke up. In a sense my
whole odyssey and subsequent life as a batik artist had started with
Chris. I've always felt that I've owed
him a great deal. He and I did a lot
of errands together and I bought a copy of my father's last book, a new
addition of Shakespeare's Narrative Poem.
I also bought a big box of crackers to take back with me. For some unknown reason, Americans, who
love the tradition of Christmas so much, have yet to discover crackers. We paid a last visit to Bill in Nottinghill
On my last day, we took Maria and her little son Luke out to an
Indian curry at lunchtime followed by a great walk on Hampstead Heath. In the evening I took Howard and Nicki out
for another curry. This last curry
meal was easily the most expensive Indian meal I'd ever had but also one of the
best. Many of the dishes were new to
me and I swear that one of the sauces, which came in paper-thin pastry cases,
made me high somehow. Before I left, I
had long telephone talks with my family and felt that the visit had a fairly
The flight back to Washington was
very easy and Catherine was there to meet me at the Airport for a loving
reunion. Winter had struck while I was
away and the house was much emptier and quieter. Gareth and Pam had moved into a house of their own. These were rather strange last days at
Gesundheit, with Patch away much of the time, Lynda laying low downstairs and
Catherine immersed in her college course.
We were moving gradually into transit mode ourselves, with a move to Kelly's
house in a few weeks and a new chapter in our life about to begin. I walked straight back into my regular
Lightshow night at the Fifth Column Club but I was working with worse and worse
bands it seemed. But I got a gig to
do a "rave" party at George Washington University late in November
and that went well. I was back to work
in the Studio, painting a landscape in acrylics and also working on a couple of
new batiks, both inspired by our stay in Bali. I wanted to do a piece about my English trip, perhaps a view of
the pier in Hastings, but I realized that it had all been a mildly depressing
experience this time. I didn't really
want to delve back into it so soon.
Catherine was hardly to be seen
around the house as 1992 drew to a close.
The Washington Project of the Arts asked me to perform with the Retinal
Blowjob at a series of performance events that they were putting on under the
banner of "Cabaret ReVoltaire".
That kept me busy for the next three weekends. Each event was to be in the spirit of Dada (whatever that meant)
and I was invited to provide visuals for some of the acts and to put on a dance
at the end of each night. Most of the
acts each night were hilarious and some were funnier than others. A few were horrific like the piece in which
two actors took on the roles of Ken and Barbie dolls. Barbie proceeded to pull Ken verbally apart against a rear movie
projection showing Nazis explicitly castrating a prisoner. It was excruciatingly painful to watch and
there wasn't a man in the audience who wasn't squirming in his seat. I don't know if there was much pure
surrealist performance each night but I do know that one piece affected me
quite directly in a tragi-comic way.
Two friends of mine acted out a rather silly but very funny piece in
which they started off squirting Miracle Whip cream into their mouths. But they got carried away a little and
started to cover each other with cream.
It was pure slapstick rather than Surrealism and we all laughed a
lot. Only when the show was over did I
realize that my brand new leather jacket had been commandeered as a prop and
was smothered in sweet sticky cream. I
had only bought it the month before and was really angry for awhile.
Kelly of the "Tree of
Life" showed up suddenly in December and we went to his house one night to
meet his new girlfriend Rosie whom he'd met in Nova Scotia whilst building his
boat. A pleasant woman about his age,
she had decided to leave her home, her job as a social worker and her life in
Halifax to start a life with Kelly.
They planned to make their home on the boat together. I gave Kelly my acrylic painting of the
boat and we arranged to move into his house on January 1st, so that his two
daughters could use the house over Christmas.
But not all went so smoothly for us
that month for Catherine discovered that she was pregnant. She had another abortion. It was all over very quickly but it upset
me greatly, more than I realized at the time. It was of course unthinkable that Catherine should have a baby
at the start of her college course and I totally supported her decision to
abort the baby. But the episode,
together with other experiences seemed to make the possibility of my ever
having children increasingly remote.
I was beginning to think that I would never be a father and would miss
out on the most central of all adult human experiences. But of course, having lived without having
any children for so long, I could probably go on living without them for awhile
longer, despite my fantasy of being a father in my old age. I did enjoy my freedom, wanted to keep on
traveling the world and kids would make that much more difficult. But, at the same time, it left me having to
deal with a wonderful and terrible freedom at a time and age when I wasn't at
all sure what I wanted to do with my life.
I was Jonathan, ex-patriot Englishman, world traveler, music lover,
artist, best friend and lover to Catherine.
I'd spent the last twenty odd years ceaselessly making batik paintings
and I was feeling deeply tired of the technique. Batik no longer seemed relevant to my life or times. I was only too aware how incredibly
fortunate I was to be able to even consider changing my work and career at this
point. Most men had kids and mortgages
and payments to make. They often just
seemed to be hanging in there by the skin of their teeth. Most men my age were working to support
their lifestyle and to keep a car on the road so that they could keep on
working. In varying degrees, they
loved and cared for their children, worked to support them and in varying
degrees identified themselves as fathers.
Workers and Fathers! That
seemed such a solid and uncompromising identity and one that echoed Sigmund
Freud's assertion that a normal person should be able to love and to work
well. I thought that I'd learned to
love and loved to work but had no idea what work to focus on.
Christmas came and went and I
deliberately spent it alone at Gesundheit while Catherine went home to her
parents for a few days. I kept busy,
was working hard to finish up the latest batiks and started to pack up our
things. It was a Christmas to forget
though I spent it profitably.
Catherine and I got away together before New Year and drove to a State
Park Lodge near Berkeley Springs in nearby West Virginia. We were the only people staying in the
large wooden building. There was a
thin coat of new snow on the ground and we walked around the golf course there
early one morning leaving two neat sets of conferring tracks behind us. After breakfast, we took off for Berkeley
Springs for a hot bath at the Spa there.
On the way home, we had a look at Harper's Ferry, a little town steeped
in history. We walked across the metal
bridge at the meeting of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. On the far side of the river, a trail lead
back towards Washington and we resolved to bicycle up to Harper's Ferry
sometime. We were terribly happy
together, Catherine and I, and it seemed like our love would conquer all that
day. The following day, the last of
1992, Catherine and I got dressed up to go out but finally stayed at home and
had a New Years Party for two.