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UNCOLLECTED GUARDIAN PIECES

JTS columns from the Guardian newspaper

 
19. Theda Bara of the North


I've always liked the idea of gardening
more than the actual gardening. Ours was the only landscaped vista on the council estate. On Cambridge chalk and gravel you could grow successfully things like strawberries, anemones, asparagus and celery, which make odd bed-fellows, especially on a grave. Whatever the plan and however well I began, by the time I'd raked out the lumps I finished up with a great long loaf of a garden.

"Who you got in there, boy?" the neighbours used to say.

I was talking about this with Ellie's grandad, who's about 80 and growing everything. I must be coming to that age where you start thinking about your marrows. The thing was we got stuck in the snow on a mountain track on Sunday. I don't know whether you know Blanchen-So
mething? It's in Northumberland.

"You'll do alright," Ellie's dad kept saying when we were sliding backwards. By this ti
me I didn't have a lot of confidence in Darryl; he's been going there for 20 years and it had taken us three hours to find it. "You be digging it out," he said, "we'll go and knock 'em up."

You leave Sunderland in bright sunshine to give the old couple a happy fa
mily surprise - three grown-ups, five kids, two dogs, one of them sick everywhere, and with your dynamo on the blink - and you finish by knocking them up in the dark.

"We should have co
me yesterday," Amanda said. They might have got lucky and been out shopping.

When a fa
mily's socially-orientated, actively pacifist, music mad, talented, morally liberated, satirically funny, kind to the point of love and still content to live in a coalminer's cottage - don't expect too much from their map reading.

"Why don't you co
me up here?" Ellie's tiny telephone voice had suggested, fed up with limping half a mile to the box and finding me in the bog. "It might give you some new material. Instead of sitting on your harse and writing about the wallpaper..." Their dialect's a bit funny but they don't mince anything that's better in lumps. And it's perfectly true at the only thing I knew about people from the far north-east was, they're five feet-one-and-a-half.

"Read
A Terminus Place" Lee suggested. His first novel is largely about people north. Both my sons have family ties in the north through spending too much time in Swiss Cottage. "What are you two doing this weekend?" I asked them. We were playing darts in the Coach in Heath Street. The great thing about Saturday is that it starts on Thursday in our family. They were driving to Wales to look for their cottage again. They bought this cottage in Wales and now they can't find it.

To find Ellie's house read "How Green Was My Valley". Single-storey terraces, now sprouting penthouses and kitchen-bathroom conversions. Between typing I can hear the sea and somebody's tin whistle. There's no television, but two guitars, a cello, violin, uke and clarinet. The walls are smothered in poems, drawings, utterances, quotes, favourite cartoons...

Elderly tramp to second elderly tramp: "Then I didn't know whether to take up law or
medicine".

Living at close quarters, sharing a bunk bed, catching the rages and jokes, I a
m back in the thirties and I have a family again. Wealth is a sheet of white paper and some crayons and poverty is having nothing to think.

"I was a child genius," Ellie confessed, showing me some more of her poetry. "Now I'm just another bloody genius." She had to shout the news in a roo
m already rocking with Saturday genius.

Saturdays always had your heart turning up at the corners with blazing a
mbitions. You could make a novel with a John Bull printing set and write your own rave reviews. On Sundays you had hay-fever. At 18 your friends were Communists while you were only starting to play with the subject. The wartime selection board at Adastral House understood my taking Melody Maker and Practical Wireless, but why Action, the Mosley organ?

"Are you a Fascist?" asked one kindly member.


"I don't know," I told him, frankly.

They gave me the job as a radio lab assistant grade 3 out at Bawdsey Manor but by the time I was due to start I'd forgotten about it. Same with many other jobs and opportunities and special offers that I'd written away for on Saturdays, determined that next week's going to be different. Anyway, they probably sent Fascists to the top of the radio masts.

"Listen to A
manda!" cries Diane, laying aside the cello. Everybody listen to Amanda: she is playing a duet with herself on two recorders, treble and descant. "I can do that!" shouts little Lorraine. "Piss off," says Ellie with authority.

Later she is explaining
middle-aged me to her friend Penni at Ellie's old stamping ground the Ceolfrith Art Centre where she all started. Apparently Sunderland artist Mike Holland has won 100 award for a painting now hanging in the Mall Gallery in London.

"No good talking culture to Buggerlugs, cher. He doesn't know the name of a single painter." "Beethoven," I said, not to let her down. "But Jack's such a baby, petal. You just want to
mother him. He uses cotton-wool instead of toilet paper - tell her, cher..."

I had to keep telling Penni things and showing her things and corroborating our recent past, like a Hylda Baker stooge, but I enjoyed it.

"What sort of things do you write?" asked Penni.

This I don't enjoy. Never show the warts first. That rings bells; wasn't it Jack Trevor Story's fa
mous novel, "The Urban District Lover"?

"Albert said: 'I've got a position to keep up. Don't want people laughing at
me. I don't like people laughing at me.' He remembered the crowd in the garage. 'I'm not a bloody comedian.' Unknown to Albert, he was a comedian..."

Rough, tough, cynical, freaky or straight, the North-east is warmer than wallpaper. "Come back in the Spring. Stay here and write a book," said the grans; though their favourite author is Anya Seton. "Come back next week," says Darryl and Ruth. He's getting clarinet evergreens with guitar chords so that we get roughly the same key.

Saturday's child has
more music in her heart than ever comes out of her fingers. Lay our opposing talents end to end and we'll just about play Chopsticks. My favourite kind of movie is "Hot Millions" in which con-man Peter Ustinov beats the machine and gets away with a fortune, not forgetting the girl. The moment when Maggie Smith plays the flute to him and lets their sausages burn, suddenly had me and Maggie holding hands.

"Don't ever get ro
mantic about me, Piss Face," said Ellie, as we drove back through Durham, her family listening politely. "I've got too many important things to do with my life. Ah'd get in a git raght panic if youse stopped loving Maggie..."

The night the car hit Ellie, all it was was a date. Now it's turned into the girl who came to dinner. We're coming up to our third, rather sentimental X-ray next Monday. "Don't you think I've got a Theda Bara pelvis?" she asked about the last one.

She's five-foot-one, pretty as a plum and git freaky. People are inclined to clear their throats when she looks as though she's going to say something.

"Having seen the light, Albert was ready to illuminate the world..."



(The Guardian, Saturday 24 February 1973)

 

Jack Trevor Story's texts copyright   the estate of Jack Trevor Story 2002. Not for reproduction. Copyright in all work by Jack Trevor Story is the property of the author's heirs. Permission for use of this material can be obtained through Jackie Edwards (Story), Peter Story, Lee Story or Michael Moorcock. Reproduction of copyright material whether in text, visual or audio form by unauthorised sources strictly forbidden.

 

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