ODE TO JOY

It was the little square of blue sky in the grey Belgian summer of 1979 that made Thomson suddenly say to himself, "Today I am going to get something done."
The little patch of blue, smaller than the big flapping flags, distant as the memory of a holiday past, not quite masked by the concave glass and steel facade of the inhuman Berlaymont Building, reminded him that life was not all traffic and concrete and people pushing by, oblivious of the seasons.
His usual feeling on the short walk from metro to Berlaymont was of sullen regret and sometimes of real nausea at being cut off in his cell in this the brain cell of Europe from fresh air and from the sight of trees. He was hermetically sealed from the sound of birds, lulled into stupor by the hum of air-conditioning and a worse conditioning of the mind from the dreadful inertia of this great European paper mill. Often he had imagined passing the entrance and redescending on the other side to the metro, to the station, to the distant coast and a day at the seaside.
But Thomson was a realist. He knew he could not run away. He must face the problem. He would get something done.
The idea was so novel that he smiled as he entered his office. He had already decided what he would do. Nothing earth-shattering. One man among ten thousand was unlikely to make any radical difference, but what he intended doing was bold enough in its context.
"I will get a letter out," he said aloud, "in one day."
Faced with this self-imposed challenge he felt the return of a lost sense of purpose. What a challenge it was! A letter normally took three weeks from pen to post. To attempt it in a day was audacious. A telex took a week.
Seized with a sudden fever of excitement Thomson picked a letter out of his tray. It was dated over a year previously. The writer had probably forgotten it. But this year’s correspondence hadn’t filtered through to him; this month’s probably still lay unclassified, unopened. Thomson looked at the letter. After all it was the act of replying that mattered, the gesture. He would get a letter out the same day.
The correspondent was asking whether a project qualified for funds. A simple question. Had anyone in the Division been asked it on the telephone he would not have hesitated in replying that it did. It took Thomson three minutes to write thanking Mr. Flanagan for his letter of the previous June 13 and informing him that in principle and subject to certain safeguards his project did indeed qualify for EEC funding. He said no more. His aim was simply to get a letter out.
He looked at his manuscript. It seemed all right. Then he remembered it needed a reference number. The lascivious and hairy division archivist issued reference numbers. A kind of female Rabelais without a sense of humour, Fat Bertha wielded considerable power by withholding numbers from officials she disliked. Thomson had found that by laughing at the coarse stories she tromboned down the corridor he sometimes got a number within a day or two of asking. But since she could never trace any past correspondence, he suspected she made them up haphazardly and, on this occasion, saw no reason why he should not do likewise. Thus in the first half hour he saved three days. He was determined to get his letter out.
When he walked into the typists’ room, two elderly women who were chatting in Italian broke off in mid-sentence and wished him Good Morning in French. He knew one of them typed only Italian, the other Italian and French if pushed which she seldom was. Indicating an empty chair he asked,
"Where’s Nicole?"
"It’s Monday," replied one woman.
"She never gets back until mid-day on Monday," explained the other.
"Gets back?"
"She spends weekends in Paris. She hates the Belgians," said the first witch with a mixture of envy and approval.
Thomson tried the typist in another section. A girl with her right arm in a sling was chatting to a second on the verge of popping out to a sale. Thomson therefore tried the third girl, a young, happy-go-lucky Belgian called Véronique who chewed gum and dressed according to the latest film she had been to.
"Écoute chérie, tu peux me rendre un service, hein?" asked Thomson with a nuance of the Flemish intonation which characterises much of Belgian French. She smiled big-mouthed, pushed gum and spittle forward between her teeth on the tip of her tongue.
"Bien sûr pour toi," she simpered, but when he asked her to write a letter she reacted more spontaneously. "Tu es fou! Aujourd’hui! Toute de suite!" as if the idea of work on a Monday was madness.
"What else have you got to do?"
"Nothing!"
"Look, this is very urgent," he begged. "I need it now. Before lunch."
The two other girls stopped their clothes chat and stared. Then they understood: this was an example of the famous British sense of humour. They tittered. Wrong. Thomson was serious. The girl pouted, completely taken off guard by his totally unjust request.
"Okay, for you" she said grudgingly. She took the letter from him and then screamed in pain "Oh ça, non! It’s in English!"
Thomson had foreseen this objection. Sixty per cent of the Division’s correspondence was in English but there simply was no English typist. He pointed out how short the letter was, that he had carefully printed it in block capitals. He put his arm round her shoulder as he might to coax a difficult child. If she needed any help she was just to ring him.
"I’ll help you," said the girl with the broken arm. "I’ll take the left hand; you take the right Véronique, eh?"
"Voila," said Thomson embracing both girls.
Véronique brightened immediately. "It’s not a letter, it’s a duet," she laughed. "Okay, just this once, huh?"
"Thank you, thank you very much," said Thomson, backing out of the door. His plan was progressing well.
When the letter was returned to his desk, however, it contained two faults. Project had been typed without the ‘c’ and safeguard in two words. He caught Véronique, the two-armed if single-minded typist just as she was leaving for lunch an hour early. The others had either not returned from shopping or had left for lunch. Véronique was not pleased to be told the letter was
incorrect.
"What does he want," she asked of the empty room. "He gets a letter in record time, does he expect it to be perfect at the first attempt? Besides," she added to Thomson, "a ‘c’ is on the left hand side. I didn’t type that."
"And safeguard?"
"Eh bien, we both did that," Véronique admitted. Thomson stood there silently. Véronique relented. He smiled his thanks. But an hour later, just before the real lunch break she entered his office and slammed the file down on his desk.
"I won’t be back after lunch. All this pressure is giving me migraine. We’re not slaves, you know."
"Bon appétit," said Thomson who was so pleased to get his letter back, all nine copies of it in white and pink and green and yellow flimsy that Véronique’s troubles barely registered.
Now an ordinary official in the Commission of the European Communities was not allowed to sign his own letters. In the normal course of events a communication written by Thomson would have gone to his section head for initialling and two or three days later to the Divisional Chief for his signature. It was then returned to Fat Bertha and then sent to despatch section in another part of the zoo. Thomson’s battle was not yet won if he was to get his letter out that day.
The next messenger would not be round until mid-afternoon. Thomson, therefore, defying union rules, carried his file the ten metres down the corridor to his Section Head, an overweight French woman with a sulky expression and an I don’t give a damn attitude to her job, but who really was very cooperative and friendly with anyone who kept work away from her. Relieved that Thomson only wanted her initials she scrawled them without reading the letter, adding with a shrug of her massive shoulders, "I don’t mind killing myself, you know, but Van Dyke is away on mission this week."
Van Dyke was the Divisional Chief, who on the strength of a semester once spent in the United States, regarded himself as an authority on the English language. As a matter of course he returned all letters for amendment. Thomson had developed a technique for coping with this. He put up his clear and simple letters to his chief leaving opportunities for Van Dyke to expand them with redundant verbiage. He then corrected his Chief’s more glaring grammatical mistakes, adjusted the vocabulary and spelling and put them up again. The Dutchman’s authority was thus never challenged, he was happy in his belief that his letters contained no definite errors and although any native speaker could see they were "not English", neither reasoned Thomson, was Van Dyke.
Van Dyke’s absence removed one source of delay but posed a difficult problem. Who was to sign the letter? By mid-afternoon as people were beginning to return from lunch, Thomson hit upon a solution. He would go upstairs. There was one magic word which might do the trick.
Thomson decorated the file with slips of pink paper bearing in all the languages of the Community the word "urgent" in black letters and white paper bearing the word "priority" in red. He knocked and entered the Director’s outer office. The personal assistant continued what she was doing without looking up.
"Is Monsieur Cameleone in?" asked Thomson putting a great sense of urgency, even a little breathlessness into the question. The PA tilted her hair-do and eye-lashes into the vertical and pretended she had only just noticed Thomson.
"I beg your pardon?"
To repeat his question would have been tantamount to dropping a service in the first game. Instead he marched purposefully to the Director’s door. The woman despite her tight skirt and high heels reached it before him and barred his way. It was more than her job was worth to let someone interrupt the Director’s afternoon activities.
"He’s in consultation," she said.
"Adolphe," replied Thomson serving his ace. Adolphe was the Commissioner, the Almighty, the God of the Directorate-General. It didn’t do to invoke his name too often. If taken in vain it could mean the annihilation of a petty official like Thomson.
"Very well," said the secretary, "I’ll see if he is in."
"If he could just sign this letter in the absence of Mr Van Dyke."
Silently the secretary took the file.
"Adolphe," whispered Thomson.
"Adolphe," she repeated crossing herself and in less than a minute returned with the letter. He’s signed it," she said in a human voice.
"Adolphe will be pleased," smiled Thomson wiping his forehead with the back of his hand.
"Merci Madame," he said.
"De rien, Monsieur….Monsieur?"
"Thomson."
"Monsieur Thomson," she said staring after him in awe.
Thomson for his part almost skipped down the corridor and back to his wing of the building. He was humming as he entered Fat Bertha’s boudoir, the archives redolent of sweat and sweet perfume. To his amazement Fat Bertha was standing there in her underpants out of which great sprigs of pubic hair pushed towards fresh air. To be fair, she was partly concealed by the drawer of a filing cabinet and doing nothing less innocent than changing a pair of tights. Nevertheless Thomson realised such an encounter could prejudice his whole working relationship with the Divisional Ogress not to mention delaying despatch of his precious letter. Too late to retreat, he stepped forward to support her by the elbow as she poked one toe into a new pair of fish net tights.
"Madame, allow me," he said. "This is the moment I’ve always been waiting for."
"Thank you Monsieur Thomson," she barked, not the slightest bit embarrassed. "You arrived, how you English say it, in the knickers of time."
"I’m only sorry I was too late to help you remove the other pair," he said chivalrously.
"Perhaps that can be arranged," she replied coyly.
"Another time, hein?"
"There’s a greedy one!"
"This letter. It absolutely must go out today."
Fat Bertha froze immediately, fastened her skirt in silence, "I’ll see about that" she said at last. "When a letter goes out is my business, hein. No one tells Bertha what to do."
"But you don’t mind them asking?" Thomson said, kicking himself for his haste and trying to imply as much double entendre as possible.
"Ask as much as you like," she brayed with a toss of her mane.
After much nail-biting Thomson found by the end of the afternoon that she had dealt with the file, false though the number was, and put the sealed envelope out for the messenger to take in the morning to the Despatch Section.
Everyone had gone home. Thomson retrieved the envelope and slipped it into his pocket, intending to post it himself on his own way home. On the metro he took out his wallet to look for a stamp. There was none. At this sickening discovery his euphoria dissipated like mist in a breeze. He saw the events of the day more clearly. True he had beaten the system, by cajoling, by cheating he had beaten the system for a day. He could never repeat it. And then he saw that he hadn’t really beaten it. He had played along with it, compromised. In a sense it had beaten him. Tomorrow he would return. Nothing would be changed.
By now he had passed the stop where he normally left the metro to take a tram to his outlying suburb. He alighted at the next stop, surfacing in an unfamiliar part of the city. He hesitated a moment, took the letter from his pocket and stared at it. Then slowly and quite deliberately he tore it once, twice, put all the pieces together and tore them a third time. He dropped them into a convenient litter bin at a bus stop and strolled off leisurely down the tree-lined avenue which faced him, cheerfully whistling part of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the European Anthem, Ode to Joy.

(This is a chapter from my book "Some of Them Were Human", available as an ebook)

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PRODIGY

One of the oddest tasks I have been asked to perform was to weed out the papers of the British Council’s Bombay registry. I was asked to keep only files of historic interest, rather a subjective criterion in the circumstances.
Among reports on visits by artists and academics long forgotten I came across a letter from the London to the Bombay office. “It is a great shame,” concluded the writer, “after so many people here and in India have done so much for him, that he has not shown the strength of character to overcome his initial homesickness.” The letter concluded, “However one cannot but wonder, brilliant performer though he undoubtedly is, whether his lack of character would in any case have prevented him from reaching the top.”
Curious, I turned back through the file and found the subject of this correspondence was an Indian boy only twelve years old when that harsh judgement was pronounced. The boy had even earlier shown exceptional promise as a pianist. When no one in Bombay had been able to give him any more professional help, his father had used all his influence with the result that the boy had won a scholarship to an English public school and the best music tuition available. The correspondence covered nearly two years and one or two of my British Council forbears now retired appeared to have taken an active interest in the case.
On arrival in the U.K. the boy had stuck the school for less than a term. One can only imagine the teasing and torment he faced, an Indian, probably pampered and unathletic, as a new boy in the tribal surroundings of a cold public school.
This file had a mild human interest but I could not claim it was of historic interest. I laid it on one side to think about. I was still thinking when Vasudev, a colleague came in to my room.
“Have you heard of —-?” I asked
“Why?” was his guarded reply.
I passed him the file and asked, “Did he become famous?”
Vasu flicked through the file and asked, “Well, what does it say here?”
“It ends abruptly with his disastrous return from England.”
“His return from America was more disastrous still. He was killed in a plane crash.”
“Good heavens!”
Vasudev suddenly became very talkative. “Yes, he got a scholarship to the USA. He liked it there very much. He was doing well. Making a name and all that. He was on his way home for a holiday when the plane crashed into the sea. He was only nineteen.”
“You speak as though you know him.”
“He was my brother’s son, actually.”

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Another Kind of Fear

There are many kinds of fear: living in a war zone in anxious anticipation of bombs and mortars; life with an abusive partner; fear of bullies, fear of muggings and fear of dangerous dogs. Then there is the dread of failure, bankruptcy, illness and death; the fear of loss; the fear of the unknown.
There is also fear as entertainment: movies about ghosts, zombies, haunted houses and pursuit; fear of the irrational. This is more a pleasurable thrill than real fear.
You might even choose fear as recreation. You might play a dangerous sport such as rock climbing, rally driving, white water rafting or ocean racing. You might go on a safari or a trek to test your survival skills and your courage. Here the challenge is to overcome the fear.
But there is another kind of fear much closer to home: a clammy fear that sits on your chest in our bedrooms in the night. It is also irrational but it leaves you tense, short of breath and with shivers shuttling up and down your spine. It begins with the ticking of the clock. A ticking you had not noticed before though you were well aware of the clock on the dressing table. In the darkness and silence of the night the tick tock is strident. As you listen and register the sound it seems to get stronger. Every so often the tock seems explosive in the still night. Then you hear a creaking in the room. Unless it is in the walls. Building and furniture expand, contract and settle depending on the temperature, you tell yourself, all the while straining to hear a repetition. You sense a shuffling sound. This is more frightening and is definitely in the room. Mice, probably, you reason. You turn over, bury your head in the pillow and pull the sheets over it.
You are so tired all you want to do is to escape into sleep. But sleep has been scared off. You are wakeful and exposed and half paralysed, though your rational mind insist there is nothing to fear.
The clock ticks on. You listen again for the other sounds and instead hear a tap dripping in the bathroom, or perhaps it is the shower. Behind the plastic curtain a dribble of water gathers in the rose, increases in volume and splashes into the tray. You cannot have turned the tap off firmly enough. Unless someone else…
Suddenly all is quiet as before until in the thick darkness you become aware again of the clock. The steady, unstoppable ticking. It is not the clock that is frightening. As it relentlessly counts off the remaining seconds of your life you understand everything now: it is fear of time itself. The ticking of the clock is just a cruel taunt, a reminder of your life reaching its end.

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BINGE READING

When I was a teaching fellow at Monash University, along with other staff members I took a module on critical theory. At that time the likes of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault were all the rage but in order to focus, our study of them was applied to the works of Racine. This meant first reading and re-reading all of this classical French author’s plays. I had only done such a thing once before when my special subject for my BA was Jean Anouilh, a contemporary French playwright now forgotten. With one exception, it was another fifty years before I again tackled all the works of a particular author at one go.
The exception? Well, a few years later I found myself organizing a lecture tour in India for William Golding. The only book of his I had read was Lord of the Flies. I hurriedly borrowed all his other novels from the British Council library in Madras, now Chenai. Reading them was time well spent even though in the event Golding became too ill to travel to India.
Fifty years after my MA the Kindle was invented. Libraries were being closed down but I could get all I wanted on line. Moreover if the author was dead it cost nothing to download his works. I found this out when I wanted to check up on a Sherlock Holmes story. I discovered I could get them all for free. I “bought” them and read the lot, one after the other. Very interesting it was, too, to note all the discrepancies.
A little later the film The Great Gatsby created a lot of attention. I had devoured that and Tender is the Night as a teenager and wondered if the novels would make the same impact in later life. I was again able to obtain all of Scott Fitzgerald’s work free at the click of a mouse. I re-read these novels and others and also found some of his short stories equally fascinating and revealing. The major impact, however, was made by my own total immersion in the work of a single author and his imaginative world.
I suppose young readers of the Harry Potter books did this, but that was just one long story, really, told over several volumes. I read only the first out of curiosity. It was all too much like the school I went to, minus the magic, and I gave up. However I have become addicted to JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike thrillers, very much for adults and a world away from the fantasy of Harry Potter.
Last Christmas I was in France and as much by accident as design I was given and I bought several books by Marguerite Duras. She has written far too many even for me to binge on entirely but my diet was a sampling of the different genres she worked in: film (Hiroshima Mon Amour), reportage (La Douleur) and pure fiction (Emily L). There are three more of her better known novels I intend to devour when next I can get to a French bookshop.
However in January this regime was changed by events. I have always loved the theatre and Norwegian literature. Reading a review of the London production of Little Eyolf I realised that I had never read or seen it. It was not in my Norwegian collection of Ibsen’s plays. Kindle offered me an English version of it and I was able to watch a Norwegian TV production. (NRK’s equivalent of Iplayer contains a treasury of TV productions dating from the 1960s. Rather in the manner of the BBC’s sorely missed Play for Today series. Oh for the days when drama meant drama and not film or soap!) Then I went to the Almeida theatre to see their version in English of the play and witnessed a near perfect production stripped to the bare essentials.
No encouragement was needed to apply the same approach to The Master Builder which has been adapted by David Hare for the Old Vic. I read it on Kindle, watched an excellent Norwegian TV production and in a few days am going to London in great anticipation. Already I feel this play, rather less well known than most of Ibsen’s others and a bit different, is perhaps his masterpiece. It mixes idealism and realism, psychology and drama in equal measure and the story telling is at once economical and gripping. All this (I hope) without loud music, special effects, projected film and the other elaborate distractions that directors seem to need to underpin most of what is currently on in the West End. I am already feeling a hunger to re-read and watch Ibsen’s better known plays. I doubt, though, I shall ever return to Racine. And as for the New Criticism, I have no more idea what that was all about now than I did then.
.

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SOME EARLY CULTURAL EXPERIENCES

When you reflect on your life in maturity one of the surprises is to realize for the first time that a particular event that occurred years ago was a turning point, that a certain experience was a highlight never to be surpassed.
When we choose a job, when we choose a partner, or if we suffer a serious illness or accident our lives will change. But I am not talking about such obvious choices or happenings. I am thinking about things the significance of which we do not appreciate at the time.
I should like to start with some of the cultural highlights of my life. They did give huge enjoyment at the time, but only in retrospect do I understand their full impact. I would not remember them at all if they had not made a lasting impression, though at the time I was not to know this.
I hasten to add that there is no trace of nostalgia in what I am about to write. There is wonder, perhaps, and regret that it is unlikely that I shall enjoy the intensity of such pleasure again. I have already lived too much, seen too much ever to enjoy anything again as a fresh experience.
My first example, then. But first I must set it in context. It was my first real cultural experience and goes back to my childhood. Every Christmas my parents would take me and my brother to see a musical in London. At that time the musicals in vogue were charming, middle class and undemanding. We saw Salad Days by Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds one year and Follow That Girl the next. We were mildly entertained. (Anything was better than Peter Pan!) There was no amplification and certainly no special effects as you get in the deafening musicals of today. These were restrained, polite, whimsical and sweetly sung. Then, in 1958 everything changed. We were taken to the London production of West Side Story. It was quite different: vigorous, energetic with witty lyrics by Sondheim and wonderful music by Bernstein. . It dealt with gang warfare in New York (based on Romeo and Juliet). There was dance, there was love, there was violence all taking place over a vibrant score. I, too, fell in love with Maria. I was utterly transfixed. At the end I could not move from my seat. I had never experienced such emotions, such a thrill. I do not think I had ever before been transported outside of myself. Although my parents and my brother thought the show very good it did not affect them as deeply. I was still frozen to my seat, mesmerised when I heard my mother asking in a worried voice, “You did enjoy it, didn’t you William?” I could not speak. If I could my fifteen year old self would not have found the words to express my feelings. We were not a touchy-feely family, but I could hardly believe it when, before we had even filed out of the theatre, my brother was asking whether we would be stopping for fish and chips on the way home. The whole show had apparently washed right over them with little effect. I did manage to buy the recording of the London production and to some extent to relive that spell-binding night.
Many of the experiences I am about to relate happened early in my life. In callow youth we are a blank canvass. Everything is new, exciting or appalling. As a country boy whose only encounter with city life was the occasional trip to London, my introduction to civilisation and in particular with architecture, happened first in Vienna.
In the sixth form I went on a week’s course at the Sorbonne in Paris where for the first time I listened to lectures in French and enjoyed the rigour of literary criticism well beyond the capability of my ageing French master at school. For that week in Paris I stayed in the huge dormitory at College Stansislas. There were two wash basins for over thirty students, no showers or baths and no laundry facilities. From Paris unwashed I caught the train to Vienna where my parents had arranged an exchange with an Austrian boy. He, his mother and his little sister met me at the station. They must have been surprised at my appearance. Not only was I dishevelled but I was thirsty and starving. Although I had had a sleeper I had been too timid to find out where and how and in what currency I could buy provisions. Not only was I tired, hungry and dirty but at first I could not understand a word of my host family’s Wiener dialect. At school we had learned hoch deutsch. I managed to convey to them that I needed a bath and that I was famished and they could see that I had no clean clothes.
Washed and fed I soon settled in and quickly adapted to their way of speaking and of course they could speak High German when necessary. There was one minor problem in that Toni had to return to school earlier than me and during the day I was left to my own devices. This led to the second cultural experience I wish to relate: the discovery of the city, in particular of baroque and rococo architecture. It seemed terribly over the top but full of energy.
My interest had already been kindled by a book a family friend had given me. Edward Crankshaw was an editor on the Observer and was making his name also as a historian writing about the Hapsburgs. The book he gave me, though, was one he had written in Vienna in his own youth. His love of the city and enthusiasm shone from the page. I read it as his autobiography and as my personal guide book. I lapped it up during the week. My Austrian family took us all on excursions at the weekends. I knew the Stefansdom, the Karlskirche, Schönbrunn and other palaces well before I had visited Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral or Windsor Castle. I knew Paris and Vienna better than London which lay on my doorstep.
My third example took place a year later when I was studying for AS Level exams. I was hoping to get into Cambridge when Nottingham University accepted me on the A levels I already had. This was a gift out of the blue. I loathed school, in particular the CCF. Nottingham’s offer released me and in mid Spring term I walked out carrying my cap and gaiters which, when I reached home I took down to the bottom of the garden and ceremoniously burnt on the bonfire. How my parents squared my sudden departure with the school I do not know. As for me, I got a job with the local builder as a labourer.
In those days before mechanisation, being a labourer was hard work. All drains and trenches and foundations had to be dug with a spade, bricks and bags of cement had to be unloaded from lorries by hand. It was exhausting work but I loved putting my young body to the test and listening to the men’s yarns as we ate our sandwiches and drank sweet tea.
My second example relates to this time, but not to the thrill of receiving my first pay packet in cash in a brown envelope. £12 for a week’s work was more than I had ever seen. No, it was what happened every evening. Bathed and aching I relaxed with the BBC Third programme. They were running a world theatre season and every night broadcast a performance of a wonderful play. I heard works by Brecht and Pirandello and discovered Beckett and Pinter. I was totally converted to theatre. As a result when I went to Nottingham to read French I chose as my special subject the theatre of Jean Anouilh. To my great good fortune my time at university coincided with the opening of the new Nottingham Playhouse run by Frank Dunlop and John Neville. Students could get in for three shillings and I drank in everything they put on. I have never since lived near live theatre that I could afford on a regular basis.
Connected with this, though, was my third experience, short but vivid. I wrote and put on my own plays at Nottingham and the first night of my first play was creepy and unexpected. It was a full house and attended by the warden of my hall of residence. Inexperienced as I was I had given little thought to audience reaction. My concentration was on the play itself and the actors. So when the audience began to laugh in the right places and to become involved, I was amazed. Sitting among them I stared around not at several hundred young men and women, but at some single, living, breathing entity. I was in the belly of a creature, a dragon or a snake that was devouring my work. I do not know why I was surprised but that image has stuck in my brain and I have never since been able to sit through any production I was involved in as writer or director without a feeling of nausea. I even feel nervous at first nights of plays by established authors.
The fourth experience I wish to recount also happened while I was a student. In those days Israel was a small, albeit threatened state. As part of a public relations exercise it recruited British students to spend their summer vacation on a kibbutz. You did not have to be Jewish, you would be housed, fed and given one aerogramme a week and a tube of toothpaste in exchange for working inside the kibbutz or on the land. Travel, however, was not included.
Never having been outside Europe I signed on. The cheapest way to get there was by train to Athens and on by charter plane. There was a popular book called Europe On A Dollar A Day. Moreover I was told I would be able to sell my blood in Athens for £5 and again in Tel Aviv. Naively believing the book and the myth I set off. It is not this adventure I wish to write about now, but an experience that took place on the journey.
On arrival in Athens I found that hotels cost well over a dollar a night but that I could sleep on the flat roof of a private house for far less. I shared this open air dormitory with about half a dozen other itinerants. In the morning I sought breakfast in a café and decided, since I had a day free before my flight, to walk up to the Acropolis.
I knew from pictures what the Acropolis was and what the Parthenon looked like and went with no expectations other than those of the curious tourist. I reckoned that if I simply continued uphill I would find the site. I wound my through the narrow streets in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Acropolis and orienting myself. My first sight of the Parthenon was more than a glimpse. I must have rounded a blind corner, for suddenly in all its dazzling entirety, seemingly pristine in the early morning sunlight, floated this enormous, perfect building. I do not understand why it took my breath away so completely. It was both real and larger than life. It had a startling presence. It was a vision, far more resonant than any picture I had seen of it. When I was up among the ruins I was able to see the imperfections and the decay, but that first sight of it from below remains as fresh in my mind fifty years later as it did then. It must have been an aesthetic impression of some kind but I do not know why I was so completely overwhelmed by it. I have since admired other great buildings, ancient and modern and in various cultures but none has stunned me with such a visceral impact.
My fifth experience was as deep and more protracted, almost a revelation and long lasting. Again, I should put it in context for today the experience will seem commonplace. When I was a young man before mobile phones and the internet, travel was an adventure, foreign countries exotic. People dressed, ate, shopped and spoke differently in different countries in those days.
When I lived and worked in India we could not phone either home or our London headquarters. Communication was by the written word or by telex if urgent. Newspapers came by air weekly. I mention this only to emphasize how much slower it was to access information. So although I was well read and educated by now, all that reading and education was Western education. By Western I include the Christian and classical traditions. I had no knowledge of Indian culture, not of its religions, its music, its architectures or its languages. And being in South India there was Dravidian culture with its own temples and dance forms and quite different languages to absorb.
I spent a heady three years assailed by a hundred influences from this new and hitherto unknown world. A little later the Beatles and Ravi Shankar were to introduce mainstream Indian culture to the Hippie West. Dirty, doped up white youth came and contaminated the coast of Kerala and Goa. As for me, although I tried to learn Tamil I also discovered the rich vein of Indian writing in English and spent a lot of my leisure time in the fictional town of Malgudi created by R.K. Narayan. The main result of my exposure to the ancient culture of India, though, was to put my own recent civilisation in context. I hope I began to shed my youthful arrogance and the superiority complex imbibed unconsciously with my European education.
My fifth great cultural awakening can be summed up, albeit tongue in cheek, by “girls with red hair.” From India I went to Norway where I spent four years. I was fortunate in obtaining a scholarship to learn the language intensely at the Oslo University summer school before starting work. Quite early on I went to the Munch Museum and was hit in the gut by the artist’s expressionist paintings. I had not seen his work before and on this first visit to the gallery I was assailed by the full force of his angst, his jealousy and his lust and other strongly painted neuroses. Many of the women had red hair, even the sick girl. Then, when my Norwegian was good enough I started to read Knut Hamsun. More suffering but one breathless, romantic novel full of summer yearning appealed to me at that time. Victoria, the inaccessible heroine loved by the passionate narrator of course had red hair.
Perhaps related to this turbulent period in my own life, but hardly a cultural experience, is one bizarre memory. I had gone away for the weekend with a fellow student from my language course. After a night together in a fjordside hotel I woke to find a head of red hair on my pillow. In that half conscious state between sleeping and waking I recoiled, wondering why I was in bed with my brother, also a redhead; or even with the golden cocker spaniel of my youth. It was a relief to find a few seconds later that it was my zany friend, Ingeborg, still thankfully asleep.
All the redheads of my youth will now have grey hair but nothing will dim the effect of Edvard Munch and Knut Hamsun on an equally troubled soul.

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MY BOOKS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE AS EBOOKS

In addition to my two books currently in print and available as ebooks as well, ie STORIES FOR SALE and A LITTLE BOOK OF PLEASURES, some of my earlier work, now out of print, I have made available Amazon Kindle:

NO TIME FOR POETRY

My first published novel and well received in 2002 it is set in South Sudan. At the time of writing it during the Civil War I called the capital Gondo (Juba) and the country Equitoria.Now 10 years or more later South Sudan has gained its independence (but not much else) and I can come clean.
The adventure/love story is complete fiction but I was surprised how few people grasped the satire of British Aid that it contained. Perhaps because the humour is lightly sketched. The definition of an aid expert when I was there waws was "someone who has flown over the territory twice: preferably once in daylight."

SOME OF THEM WERE HUMAN

This, too, is fiction, though in the form of the diary of one year in the life of a British Brussels Bureaucrat. It describes with disbelief and affection the lives of the European men and women who inhabit one corridor in the huge and anonymous Berlaymont building. It revels in the linguistic richness of this European village in the sky, its excesses and its pathos. The more discerning reader might notice the experimentation with different ways of telling stories. Satirical, perhaps, but it shows the humanity hidden behind the cliches of our insular British media.

RUNNING OUT OF SPACE

I make no excuse that this is an attempt at a literary novel. At the same time it is an adventure story that takes place in many real but exotic locations.

All these books are quite different, the one from the other. Try one and you will enjoy all the others!

williamwoodswords.com

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LISTENING TO THE TORRENT

You climbed steadily upwards: an easy stroll along a stony track at first. At the head of the valley you left the footpath and chose to follow the stream, if follow is an appropriate term to describe clambering in the opposite direction to the tumbling torrent. You stayed as close as possible to the cascading water but as your ascent became more acute the stream poured towards you over waterfalls and the bare rocks were too wet and steep to climb. You headed away and struggled sometimes through waist high ferns, sometimes over thick grass set with bare stones. Never, though, were you out of earshot of the beck. There was no other sound in the landscape than the mountain stream. The air was still, the sheep silent, birds distant and no sign of human presence.
As you neared the top of the climb there were more sheer faces, more waterfalls before you reached your goal: a large, black rock pool beneath a high and full curtain of crashing water. Over the centuries the stream had worn into the mountainside and in its fierce career had dug a deep bed into the ground. Consequently on either side of the water course there was now a steep and grassy descent to its banks.
You lowered yourself down with care and found a slab of rock at the water’s edge large and smooth enough to sit on. You settled down and began to eat your packed lunch.
Conversation here would have been impossible. The tons of water continuously falling into the deep pool kept up a constant splash and roar, the churning currents adding their own sound effects. But the outflow from the pool of this same mass of water made even more of a noise as it rushed over the boulder strewn bed and through the rocks down a steep, winding cataract.
The rock basin was as large as a public swimming pool but more irregular in depth and shape. At the lower end where you sat the water was still and safe to swim in though very cold. Towards the fall it was hard to swim against the strong flow and to approach the swirling maelstrom. From time to time a veil of spray covered the whole scene but did not mute the thudding growl.
Replete from your picnic and tired from your exertions you stretched out on your back and allowed the fitful bursts of sunshine to warm the rock and you.
Then you heard it. The sound, the voice of the mountainside, contained far more than you had hitherto taken in. There was the almost regular bass beat of the falling water and the counterpoint of its hurried exit down the mountain. If the waterfall itself was a double bass, the cascade was the timpani. But there was more. Indeed at first you thought you did hear human voices. You raised your head but realized it was only the ringing resonance of the rocks as they were struck and played by the heavy, rushing mass of water. The more you listened the more you heard and soon the most extraordinary perception became clear.
Closing your eyes you could imagine you were in the middle of a fairground. You listened to the lilting rhythms and the raucous music of the carrousel with its galloping horses rising and falling in harmony with the rising and falling roar of the big diesel driven generators. The vulgar blasts from the sideshows and the hum and throb of the crowds created a muted symphony. The gurgle and babble of the mountain stream linked these disparate effects.
You knew you were miles from civilisation, from engines and electricity, but you felt that if you looked hard enough just round the corner of that grey rock, you would see the garish lights of the fairground with its seething crowds and its brash, distorted music. It was the hubbub that brought these two scenes together.
Long before mankind had invented his noisy entertainment, nature had created this wonderful, chaotic cacophony.

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Work in Progress

FAILING

Oh, give me my memory back
And I don’t mean nostalgic flashes
Of distant childhood days
Or rose-tinted souvenirs
Of errant, youthful ways.

No, I want to hold on to the plot
Of the latest film or book
Long enough to give the whole work
A considered, critical look.

Of course I’d like to remember
Where I parked the car in town
The jacket in which I left my phone
And where my glasses have gone.

But most of all I want to recall
Where I left my fictional hero
In the novel I’m trying to write
And what, was it only last night,
My literary intention was.

Because reading yesterday’s 2000 words
Intriguing though I found them
They might have come from another’s pen
For all I remember the writing.
Oh give me my memory back
At least ‘till I’ve finished my story.

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FROM THE MADDING CROWD

In the last few months I have seen the restored 1960s film version with Julie Christie, re-read Thomas Hardy’s novel and most recently watched the latest film with Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba.
What the experience shows more than anything else is how our attention span has reduced over the last few decades. The new film version, though compelling, is little more than filmed summaries of enough of the key scenes from the book to hold the plot together. It omits some big set pieces, such as the travelling show in which Troy performs his Dick Turpin routine. It makes changes that do nothing for the story. e.g. the shooting by Boldwood of Troy loses all motivation and effect from being shot outside. It is less plausible than the original where Troy is dragging his wife away from the party by force. The ending is sentimental kitsch. It is extraordinary that such a cliché, the couple holding hands and walking figuratively at least into the sunset should even have been considered. Was it just to please an American audience? Hardy’s and the older film’s ending with a quiet and unpretentious marriage works much better.
The original film retained the chronology, the highlights and most importantly much of the original dialogue of Hardy’s novel. It was a truer adaptation. The new film is much shorter and faster moving as required by a TV age, but it feels like a mere précis of the work. Its strong point, however, is Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of Bathsheba as a wilful, independent woman. Julie Christie did this but came over more for her beauty.
Some films improve on a book they are based on, but in this case the book wins hands down. An early Hardy, and the only one with a happy ending, it is a remarkably well paced love story. All three suitors, not to mention Bathsheba, are rounded, three dimensional characters. So much of the dialogue among the rural workers as well as between lovers is gripping and entertaining. Like all good dialogue it reveals character and advances the plot. Hardy’s natural descriptions are renowned and the early film in particular tried to replicate some of them. Hardy’s set pieces, too, the fire, the sword play, the storm etc. are masterful. One, the opening of the coffin to discover the dead child beside its mother, was on first publication deemed too shocking and Hardy had to excise it. When he became famous he reinserted it in the novel. The early film evokes the atmosphere and Bathseba’s emotions fully; the second film is too rushed to make the same impact. Re-reading the passage in the novel I find it still shocking to this day. The best thing about seeing these films is that they sent me back to the book, the reading of which after many years is a rich experience.

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La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats

After reading Keats’ poem at my poetry group last night I went to bed and dreamed the following poem almost fully formed. I had to get up and write it down before the strange woman disappeared. There is nothing autobiographical about it and only a tenuous link with the first belle dame. But in the night she haunted me in the same way.

You had no time for books
Or poetry
Never made sweet moan
With me
Nor lingered long in bed.

Belle dame of sport extreme
You thrilled
And frightened me at times
Took me
For a nightmare ride.

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