LONDON, NEW LIFE: Parts 21-22
November. Autumn leaves on the ground and I'm back to the single life with all its possibilities and all its fears. I have no money, I'm confused, sad, curious, excited. I gravitate towards Hampstead since I have a few friends there and I find a cheap bed-sitter in the neighbourhood of Swiss Cottage. Coin-meter for electricity, small gas fire to huddle in front of, shared bathroom down the hall. An extract from my diary at the time:
I wake up in a new room. Faded sepia wallpaper stained with strangers' stains, greasy cooking fingers, hair inexplicably stuck to the wall, remnants of strangers' lives hiding in bottom drawers, blonde hairpins, strangers' dust to be swept out and replaced by my dust. An English room, London room, Hampstead room, silent as the grave, grey birds perched on grey branches against the grey sky, melancholy with an un-modern sadness, a monochrome sadness, a romantic, barrel-organ kind of sound. And me, Natalie, in this room, far from my origins, gone the Paraguayan sun, the Mediterranean sun, the American assurance and all my busy kin-folk, gone the man that was my husband - was I ever married? Gone my childish games with God, building blocks for temples, all gone. Only myself and the room and my clock-ticking brain still caught in its routine convolutions, performing its trained seal tricks over and over again, slowing down now, aware that the audience is no longer watching.
I wish I could be swept by a monsoon wind, released from my hold on the everyday, taken over by vastness, by rage - not somebody else's, my own. Great white expanses of canvas upon which to imprison my vision now, not the next day but now, forget words rooms places faces upstairs downstairs receipts lists plans landladies jobs groceries clocks shampoo lipstick mirrors kisses heels clicking down the street the past the future the whole kitchen sink of it, overturn the table and really get going, crack the whip and watch the thundering hooves come charging in at my command and line themselves up for my brush.
My priority is to find a job, any job that will pay the rent and also allow time for what I call 'my work' even though it consists mostly of ideas for work. I'm hired as a sales assistant in a leather fashion shop on the Edgeware Road and in quiet moments (of which there are many) I draw my two fellow workers and the stern, slender Swedish manageress always dressed in tight kinky leather top to toe. This job doesn't last very long and is only one of many that, with freedom as my hidden agenda, I take on in my search for the perfect mindless bread-winning activity. As I begin to feel at ease in my neighbourhood, a house on Adelaide Road and a nearby pub called The Prince Consort become the hub of my social life.
How can I possibly choose for this memoir among the myriad impressions, thoughts, people, events, passions which filled my days and nights in those years? I've tried making a video which embodies the feelings with Nina Simone on the soundtrack and incorporated some drawings, paintings and photos.(link to be restored)
The present gets in the way of talking about the past. I want to be truthful but this gets in the way too - how much truth is enough truth? I'm looking at my past with present eyes and they see differently from what they saw then. I could simply copy my diaries, chronologically dipping into the big pile of red or black notebooks in which I obsessively recorded every fluctuation of emotion like a weather log but that would be too embarassingly confessional. So, I'm trying to stick to the story.
Once settled in my Hampstead room, I got in touch with a young English poet I'd met in Rome months earlier. He had been with a girlfriend, I with my husband, and the four of us explored some Roman markets together. The poet and I had exchanged glances, nothing more. But, you know, messages can be morse-coded by the eyes alone and there was no mistaking the erotic charge that flickered between us. Thus, meeting up in London on the pretense of "having a drink" inevitably extended into dinner then into bed then into one of those things, one of those bells which now and then ring, just one of those crazy flings. The poet had broken off with his previous girlfriend but neither of us was interested in committment anyway. We spent long weekends making love in my room, walking in the park, going to parties at literary friends of his and talking. Unlike my silent husband, the poet was a talker, a maker of well-turned phrases, and this was a novelty, especially since many of his fine phrases were about me. I was not in love but flattered, my confidence boosted. It lasted on and off for a couple of months and then we drifted apart as easily as we had drifted together. Other eyes were now holding mine.
What is it about me and Older Man? Make that charismatic older man. Preferably dominant, as well as charismatic older man. Must I accept tedious Sigmund's explanation? The father, always the father, or the mother, at the root of our troubled sexy psyches? How boring. I have a better theory: past lives. In one of my past lives (Egypt?) I had a passionate love relationship with an older man. We were totally meant for each other. Then I betrayed him with a younger man, just for fun. My true love never forgave me and swore to punish me in future lives until I learned the lesson. That's why I fall for older men who respond to me, to some extent, but are somehow inaccessible or unavailable. Wait: my theory doesn't apply to Reg since, although he was definitely older was not dominant and was both available and accessible. OK, there may be a few glitches in my theory but they could be ironed out if I had the time or inclination. Anyway my theory is no longer valid since I'm now an Older Woman and any man appreciably older would have to have one foot, or both, in the grave.
But that was then and young poet was instantly forgotten when I came under the spell of a certain charismatic, dominant older man. I can talk about him now because he's no longer on this planet. He deserves a book all to himself instead of featuring only as a character in my story. If he had written his autobiography, I would have had only a very small part in the last few chapters and being discreet, he might not have mentioned me at all. Never mind, eh? That's what he'd say. I raise a toast to you, dear T, all the lives you touched are grateful to have shared your table.
I'd never met anyone like T before. He was a cockney lad and proud of it, sometimes playing up the nasal twang for effect even though he could do 'proper' English when he wanted to. He had been asked by the BBC to record a series of radio broadcasts about his working-class London boyhood because he described it with such humour and authenticity. The broadcasts were made before I knew him but I was given a tape of some of them and have chosen an extract to share. In case you have trouble understanding the cockney pronunciation, think Michael Caine and you'll get it. The talk starts after a short silence.
Leaving aside for a moment my own involvement, I want to try and bring T to life here because he was such an interesting character. You could not be in his presence for more than a few minutes without becoming part of his world. He saw you, noticed some significant facet of your personality and most likely invented a new name for you. You felt immediately at home with him, literally, because with no further ado you'd be sitting at his kitchen table along with a crowd brought home from the pub, eating a big dinner cooked by him with great flourish and much laughter. He had an actor's stage presence without actorish narcissism or mannerisms. No one who met T even briefly ever forgot him, not only because of the fascination of his stories but because each person felt uniquely recognised, included. His sense of observation was acute, noticing everything, absorbing detail like a painter or photographer, both of which he was. How he took on those roles is in itself material for a novel or a film.
A large part of T's early childhood was spent in hospital, having operations to repair the damage done to his guts when a lorry ran over him as he was crossing the street. He had an impressive network of scars over his chest and belly as a reminder. Bright and curious, he absorbed every scrap of information that each new experience provided. He knew all about plants, about buildings, was an expert framer - he showed me how to separate a sheet of shimmering, trembling gold leaf from its 'book' and lay it down gently on the bare wood - and he could repair almost anything. His first full-time job was with London Underground, working on the tracks. But in his spare time T began to paint and to exhibit in the amateur shows at his workplace.
I don't know exactly how old T was when he first met M but probably in his late teens or early twenties. She was older and inhabited an intellectual upper middle-class world totally different from anything he knew. T's mother was the cleaner in M's Kensington home and that's how M happened to hear about her creative young son. M was a sensitive sculptor but had, above all, a gift for detecting and encouraging genuine talent. When she saw T's early paintings she immediately took him under her wing and thus began a Pygmalion-like saga, with the genders reversed. Under M's tutelage T began to attend art classes, visit museums, theatres, concerts. She told him what books to read, what music to listen to, but with his usual apetite for knowledge, T soon out-distanced his mentor and a few years on, there wasn't much in the cultural lexicon that he hadn't assimilated, whilst never losing touch with his cockney roots. His paintings were austere, beautifully constructed still-lives and he could have made a career of it had he wished to. But he didn't have that ambition and his daily job continued to be with London Underground. Until he took up photography.
Perhaps it was because Miss M gave up sculpture and started taking photographs that T gave up painting and became a photographer. Or perhaps there were other reasons. In any case, he imbibed every conceivable book on photography, bought a good camera and all the gear, built himself a darkroom and off he went, becoming so proficient that he eventually landed a job as photography lecturer at a prestigious art college where he was in his element, an intuitive and effective teacher, adored by students and staff.
The reason my path crossed T's was one of those coincidences which would seem contrived if you put it in a novel: M was the sister of my husband's first wife (who had died in Canada). When I moved to London I naturally contacted my stepson, with whom I was on friendly terms. He was studying music and lived near his aunt M who lived in the same house as T but in a separate flat. M and T's lives had become intertwined but they were not a couple in the usual sense, though most people assumed they were. So, in a roundabout way, it was my marriage to Reg which led me to T.
I was immediately accepted and welcomed in the social circle over which T expansively presided and where M was always a quiet but strong presence. The first time I walked into T's basement kitchen - it might have been Christmas, or maybe New Year's eve - there was a party going on, music and drinking and dancing. I remember his eyes, and my mind going into a spin, feeling something like: this is the start of something big.
Contact sheet, photos by T.
"Contacts" - Acrylic on canvas. NdA
Love is merely a madness; and, I tell you, deserves a dark house and a whip as madmen do: and the reason why they are not so punished and cured is that the lunacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love too. (Shakespeare: As You Like It)
When in love, truly, deeply, madly - especially madly - the painter-part of my brain tends to go sulky, timid and passive. Unlike Picasso, damn him, whose every love affair produced surges of visual invention, I haven't got many images to show for those periods of my life taken over by the monsoon wind. On the other hand, verbal brain cells go into overdrive. Words flow out of feverish head into ever-ready pen, covering acres of paper, journals, poems, letters, filling up daydream and nightdream space. It's a kind of disease. No, not kind of: it is a disease for which there is no cure but time. I have caught and embraced this illness three times and that's more than enough for one life. I never wanted to be cured and neither common sense, morality, feminism, literature, art or psychology made the slightest bit of difference to my symptoms, too painfully ecstatic to be relinquished for the sake of mere contentment. Today, in the future of that past, I'm cured, but I cherish the residue of that dis-ease, the rich compost heap in which I hope some exotic flowers will grow before my time is up.
Courtship, dating, romantic build-up? I don't think these rituals were ever part of my experience of grown-up relationships. For me, there was either something or nothing, immediately. It didn't happen often but if I met a particular kind of gaze (always a male gaze) set into a particular kind of face, that was it. In spite of all the Hollywood movies which had accompanied my American adolescence, I didn't believe love and marriage went together like horse and carriage. Love and sex, yes. Sex without love, okay, occasionally. But real McCoy lovers' love without sex? Inconceivable. The desire to be bodily joined, in-corpor-ated with the bearer of The Gaze was overwhelming, irrefutable and distracting.
What with insecure part-time jobs, nightly socialising in the pub and the distraction of desire, I'm not doing a lot of painting. I blame it on not having enough space in my bedsitter and T offers to let me use a spare room in his flat as a non-live-in studio. Yes there is a not-so-hidden agenda in his offer but it is necessary to tread carefully, not rock the boat, the boat being the peculiar long-term structure of his rapport with M, more solid than many marriages, without being either marriage or cohabitation. T occupies the ground floor and basement of the house while M's apartment is on the top floor. In theory, they live separate lives but beneath the theory flows a silent, sometimes turbulent river of mutual dependence, history, affection and antagonism. I like and respect M even if there are sides of her I can't relate to. If she knows (of course she does) of my infatuation with T, it's never mentioned and in any case we do not see each other as rivals. In my thoughts of T there is no design or plan or visualisation of some kind of joint future. As far as I'm concerned it's all about now, and the more now the better.
I start to paint in the spare room where T has set up his old easel for me and I embark on a series based on London Underground, enchanted by its logo and the colours of the advertising posters that line the trains and tunnels.
"Angel Station" - Oil on canvas. NdA