Ghost Runners of the White Mountains

Ghosts. Do I believe in them?

I arrived in Center Barnstead in the fall of ’84. I was optimistic, full of ambition and while it wasn’t exactly a case of go West, young man, I figured that part – heading out to LA – would follow soon enough.

David Andrews, Center Barnstead, Fall '84

Nestling in the bosom of the White Mountains, an eternity from the nearest Interstate highway and with a population of 4,558 souls, CB –no-one calls it Center Barnstead, apparently – had ignored time. And time itself has obliged and passed by. That’s how the local denizens liked it. Or so it seemed to me.

It was said that even the Sioux Indians, hungry, bullied, harassed and despondent on their long journey north back in the day, gave CB a swerve. Actually detoured to avoid the place.

I’d been in some one horse joints before, but nothing quite prepared me for this.

live free or die number plate

Nonetheless, the settlement, buried in the deep cleavage of the Live Free or Die state, the one which puts the red into redneck, was where I was destined to spend a couple of months, rehearsing a couple of plays with a US theatre outfit ahead of a national tour.

At least my timing was good. The legendary explosion of colour which emblazoned the region as the dying embers of the summer months turned gently into autumn had turned CB’s environs into a gigantic canvas. It was impressive. Which is just as well, as there was not a lot else to do but gape at the light show nature had laid on for me.

Coming as I did from a perpetually dank and dingy low-rent part of north London, where I had been holed up trying to figure out which turn to take at this still relatively youthful juncture of the journey we all undertake, the dramatic change of scene was good for my head, and, I hoped, good for my wallet. I was after all being paid to rehearse out here.

As I settled in and became a little more familiar with the sparsely populated town, I struck up a few passing acquaintances.

There were a few characters, the usual bar flies with their tall stories, and then there was George.

I liked George, a genial old guy of indeterminate age but I put him at around the late 70s mark, sporting a solitary tooth which protruded like a Cornish crag, glinting occasionally under the generous camouflage of an enormous snow white walrus moustache.

Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath
Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath

George, invariably decked out in a pair of ancient, perhaps once a paler shade of blue dungarees – of the vintage sported by Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath – ran the town’s only gas station, which doubled as a grocery/diner/hardware store.

Arch Rose Gas Station

Always up for a chat, George would lock onto me with his one good eye – lost the other to a fragmentation grenade just after D Day, he quietly confided early on in our acquaintance – and we would chew the fat. George was puzzled as to why a ‘youngster’ like me was detained by CB.

George as a young marine WW2
George, France, near Bayeux, June 1944

Well George, just happens to be where fate has deemed I should go.

But nothing – he pronounced it nutin’ – ever happens, here, son, was a familiar, oft repeated refrain, the way that people approaching the winter of their lives have of forgetting that they had already voiced a sentiment many times over.

Fact is, he cackled, one morning when I popped in for a coffee, needing a pick me up after a fencing rehearsal, last time they had a recorded happenin’ in the area was back in the winter of 1953. Yessiree, 195…3, said George, in a singalong voice, emphasising the ‘three’ in the final syllable.

What happened George, I asked, sipping a harsh black coffee, someone raid the Coca Cola machine out the front, I teased?

Well, said George, straightening up from behind the grime encrusted counter and clearing his throat – a frequent task given that the former combat marine was a three pack a day man (gave ‘em up when I got to 70…the Krauts couldn’t get me but the smokes would sure as Hell’d keep ya warm….)

Somethin’ and nutin’, said George, shuffling out across the shop floor and beckoning me out into the warm late October breeze.

Coupla kids on the run from a job in downtown Boston, he said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the great city…got busted on some stupid job up in Concorde.

He spat and paused to focus that one rheumy eye on me, gauging as to whether he still held my attention. Didn’t get nutin’, mind, they got plumb rumbled right away, and when they were trying to git the heck our of there they’d fired off handguns – Colts, they both had Colts – at the cops.

Somehow those boys managed to show the Heat a clean pair of heels, boosted a pick up and tore out of there like their asses were on fire.

Critters had been half starved apparently when they pitched up in CB, George gestured expansively at the gently rustling trees framing the store, stole some eggs from the Thomsons down yonder chicken coop.

A long pause, as I feel the coffee buzz and as George, invariably struggling to get enough air into what is left of his lungs….we-llll, they got cornered out in that field back of the Thompsons.

Pointing a bony claw out across the pot holed automobile port in front of the store, George pauses again, like a stand-up comedian, warily biding his time until delivering the punch line of a rambling joke to an indifferent audience…and then all Hell gone done broke loose. There’s prowl cars all over the town like a rash, and cops with tommy guns and shotguns and using loudhailers to get the kids to turn themselves in.

American 1950s cop and car

And then these two kids come running out from cover, they’s ain’t no more’n nineteen or twenny years old these two young guns, and there they are the two of them, caught plum in those prowl car headlamps, and looking for all the heck like Butch Cassidy and the darned Sundance Kid, blasting away with those handguns, blam, blam, blam…George trails off, looking down at the dark stain oak boards, liberally puckered with ancient fag butts trodden underfoot, transported back through the miasma of the decades, fragile vocal chords notching up half an octave…and then the heat they opens up, there’s at least a half dozen tommy guns laying down the fire …and those kids, well, he whispers…

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KidThey was blown into the next world, son.

George fell silent, looking across the dirt road to the blinding colour of the trees, draped in shadow and framing the store and the White Mountains beyond.

You know what though boy….whatever it was those kids did, whatever wrong side of the tracks they found themselves on, those kids, they was…well, they was brave. Damned if they weren’t. Now long dead and in the ground. They buried ‘em around here somewhere, long forgotten now – unmarked graves, no-one thought too much about the whole sorry business back then. Life was cheap, seemed that way after the war n’all.

Outgunned, outnumbered they was son…ain’t the size of the dog in the fight though, George spat. It’s the size of the fight in the dog, know what I’m sayin’ boy?

I nodded, trying to imagine this deathly silent homestead being turned into a combat zone all those long years ago.

In the silence that followed his graphic recounting of that one-sided shoot out at Center Barnstead in the winter of ‘53, I wonder, was George thinking, about how the years had closed and how much closer to his maker he was now.

I stand before you as an old man who don’t got many years ahead. Most behind. I know I don’t got a lot of time left, and I ain’t gonna pretend I’ve been no stranger to violence. I killed men, said George, flatly. I killed men – German fellas – sure enough in the war. No choice. Had to. He paused, reflected, the store radio crackling, playing an old hillybilly-type dance tune. Killed a lot of men, oh yes. We all did things…saw things, we….He fixed on me, searchingly, that watery, ancient eye locking on, refracted in the gloom.

Hillbilly Dancing

They say the ghosts of those boys can be seen around here from time to time, whispered George, a shadow passing over his deeply tracked countenance. Terrible thing….terrible, terrible thing…

His voice trailed off and George, shuffling back into the store, glanced over his shoulder.

You believe in ghosts, young fella?

I made to answer, but George was gone, the swing doors gently clacking together in the morning light.

*******

THAT fall of ‘84 it suited me to end up in this deadbeat drive by going nowhere joint.

Not that CB didn’t have its charms. And the odd well known inhabitant, funnily enough. JD Salinger, already long in the tooth by the time I showed up, lived close by. The reclusive legend scuttled around the even tinier hamlet of Cornish, New Hampshire. That was cool, I thought.

I had joined an American touring theatre company. Shivering in a vile flat in north London, the seasons changing and a long harsh winter blowing in just around the corner, going up for endless auditions and being told I was too big, too young, too old too whatever the fuck by some casting director or other and pulling construction shifts for terrible money by day.

So when I did get a call from a guy, Danny Shapiro, who had seen me in a show, asking if I could audition for this adaptation of old Brit yarn The Adventures of Robin Hood why yes, I said. To my astonishment I got the gig, cast as the mad, evil (and very funny) King John, and was on the next flight – more or less – out to Boston.

I hooked up with these American actor dudes for a six week rehearsal period before we hit the road to wow the Stateside audiences. Could be worse, I thought. And besides, I could well end up in LA, maybe I could break into the movies.

Well, I could dream. I passed the days outside of rehearsals with one hour pace runs, followed by hitting the rusting old weights out the back in the barn where we ran through the shows.

There were worse places to be in the world. I liked watching the trees change colour, like in front of my very eyes I kid you not.

How do they do that? There is, I learned, an imperceptible trigger that makes the chlorophyll break down as the trees stop producing the food. So the green disappears, to be replaced by the hues of red, yellow and orange that gives New England that, that look.

Man, those colours. George at the store says you never know just how vibrant the colours will be – depends on other chemical processes, he would muse, pointing a gnarled, heavily mottled and tremulous hand out of filthy, ancient windows and squinting into the midday watery sun. You see the red in those maples?  Just how darned brilliant red depends on how much sugar is produced in the leaves and how it gets all tangled and trapped in the chill of an autumn night.

White Mountains, New Hampshire, with orange foliage

He would look at me, triumphantly, as if he has just stumbled on and finally unlocked the secret of the universe. The more sugar that accumulates, he drawls, the brighter red the leaves turn. That’s how the good Lord made it all happen, George would sigh, perhaps anticipating a pop up appearance from the Man himself.

Y’all ever meet any famous actors, son, George wanted to know. Funnily enough, just before coming out to the States I had auditioned at the Haymarket Theatre for Charlton Heston, by now an ageing bear of a man, who was in town drumming up talent for a newly polished version of The Caine Mutiny, the old Humphrey Bogart vehicle, that he was to direct.

Charlton_Heston

I had no idea I was going to be doing my stuff in front of Chuck Heston. My agent, an imperious septuagenarian and former starlet who was prone to shouting down the phone at me as she was deaf as a post, had advised that a ‘big star’ was coming into town and that she had secured an audition for me.  What she had failed to advise was that Ben Cross, fresh from his Chariots of Fire success playing Harold Abrahams, was also going up for the play. I was, once again, about to be blown out of the water.

But I got on well with Chuck (you should address him as Mr Heston, the ASM beaned as she ushered me onto the vast space that was the Haymarket Theatre stage). The first thing I noticed was that he was sporting a particularly brutal hairpiece, slightly crooked, looking like one of those South American flying squirrels which had taken a leap out of a kapok tree and landed fortuitously on the open plains of the great man’s generously proportioned dome.

Charlton Heston in Ben Hur

As a child, I had gasped at Chuck’s skills as the slave chariot driver in Ben Hur, and gazed agog at the big screen of the Burnt Oak Odeon as he flagellated himself in Bible bashing epics such as The Greatest Story Ever Told. And now here he was, flashing me that crinkly smile, one actor to another, the difference of course being that the great ham Chuck was one of the most famous men in the world with a huge body of work under his belt and millions in the bank, and I was me.

Out in the States in CB, I was happy enough. Some days I would join Jonny Shapiro, the younger, tearaway boxer brother of Mike Shapiro, our director for the tour. Jonny was staying awhile, wanting to train out in the White Mountain hills for his next fight. For a boxer, I always thought Jonny Shapiro sure went about his training schedule in a funny way. I would nod to him in the mornings when on my way to the first rehearsals of the day, and Johnny, blowing moodily on a Marlboro Lite and yawning out on the front porch, would nod back.

One gloriously beautiful afternoon in late October, when the colour burst trees were at their most majestic, I finished a rehearsal session early and decided to hit the dirt track for a run. Jonny spotted me pulling on my battered old Nikes, and asked if he could tag along.

Sure, why not I said, glad of the company, but convinced he would be bored with me after the first quarter mile. I fully expected him to take off and leave me flagging in his dust trail. But, to my pleasant surprise, he stayed with me. I was running a lot back then, more than used to knocking off anywhere from seven to ten or so miles, and I could crack a pretty decent pace for a 95 kilo guy.

On that day we stopped off after around three miles and got down to do a bunch of push ups and endless sit ups. Jonny would shadow box while I was doing my sets, and he liked it when I told him I thought he looked like he could do a lot of damage to anyone he met in the ring. A light heavyweight, coming in at a similar 95 kilos to me, the dude looked badass alright.

Ok, let’s hit it again, said Jonny, and then he took off, going from a steady run into something approaching a sprint.

I couldn’t keep up, no matter how hard I pushed myself, arms and legs pumping as fast as I could get the oxygen into me, and Jonny rounded a gentle bend in the road and ran out of my line of sight. As I approached the bend, I felt a sudden chill despite my exertions, as the late October sun on my back faded to be replaced, instantly, by a disconcerting mist – like the pea soupers which suddenly sweep in from the sea just when you do not expect it.

Getting the rhythm of my breathing back, I blinked through the gloom and saw not Jonny but two men, jogging slowly in unison with one another, their backs to me, making an easy pace. They were not wearing running gear. I thought, that’s, like odd, they seemed to be dressed as if of a different era, indeterminate but they both looked to be running in faded dungarees, bluey/grey…a bit like the ones George favoured.
ghost imageAs I ran and kept the runners in my sights, I thought I heard music coming from somewhere behind the densely packed white cedar trees lining either side of the track. It sounded like that slow, waltzy, lazy country music that diner jukeboxes were fond of stocking.

The men seemed to pick up their pace, then slowly, imperceptibly, but definitely, began to fade into the very road in front of me. Hey. Hey!! Hey, I called out, trying for all the world to catch up. I thought I saw one of the runners slowly glance over his shoulder, jet black hair cut razor short at the sides but a fringe lopping down over cobalt blue eyes. I thought I saw him nod, silently. I thought I saw a smile.

Hey, I shouted and waved, hey…HEY!! And then I was looking at a deserted road ahead.

The flame lit cedars bending and whispering to me, the runners now gone and silent as time itself stretching and stretching to the beyond, and as the music died,  to be replaced by a mournful rustle of thousands of junipers, larches, hemlocks, pines and cedars, and amid that glorious nature I thought of George 40 years before, and the young men who had fallen beside him on fields of combat and how they were now ghosts themselves.

I thought of the ghosts that had begun their eternal parade through my own life as I looked up and down that road, those who I had known who I would not encounter again in this life.

And I thought of a harsh day in the winter of 1953 when two young men made a bad call in CB and had their numbers punched, and the shadows were lengthening ahead of me and time beats on knowing we have all of us made a mark somewhere in this world and who knows maybe in the next.

the ghost road


And the sun also rises…..

I am detained momentarily by Waterstones decision to give Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast the full ‘rediscovered classic’ marketing treatment.

The book – an autobiographical memoir of Hemingway’s time in Paris in the years after the end of the First World War – is a rich evocation of a battered city getting back on its feet in the aftermath of the carnage of the great conflict.

A moveable feast book

 

As anyone familiar with Hemingway’s work will be aware, drinking and the culture of drinking is deeply ingrained within this homage to a giddy, exhilarating time in the Nobel prize-winning writer’s journey.

And, as our alcohol industry begins to count the cost of the Government’s revised guidelines for booze consumption and more normalised habits are resumed following the gimmicky ‘Dry January’ pressures, I wonder what Hemingway would have made of it all.

Hemingway-drinking

At least by rooting himself in various European capital cities in the 1920s, Hemingway escaped the worst of the Prohibition laws which pervaded his US homeland from 1920 to 1933.

Al-Capone-mugshot

Promoted by the “dry” crusaders, a movement led by rural Protestants and social Progressives in the Democratic and Republican parties, and coordinated by the vigorously enthusiastic Anti-Saloon League, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the banning of hooch in the States nearly 100 years ago bears worrying resemblances to the current witch-hunts we are seeing perpetrated in some quarters over here.

we want beer march during prohibition

As someone who participated in a wholly dry January, I can see (and feel, more to the point), clear benefits from laying off completely for a month. But we also need to be aware of how well timed government PR can be used as a stick to beat and shame the extremities of so called drunken Britain.

Drunk_woman_vomits

Our A&E wards continue to creak and shudder under the weight of the weekend binge boozers imbibing like there is no tomorrow, and the drain on the country’s finances is severe. So something clearly has to be done.

Around 80 per cent of all weekend admissions to A&E are alcohol abuse related. That is not why our NHS was set up. And it is not why we send our young people through seven years of complex medical training.

So I am all for radical moves to try to head anti-social drinking off at the pass. And I would be more than happy to see outlets promoting ultra-strong, impossibly cheap alcohol to be castigated for the part they pay in encouraging the appalling sights we endure on our streets and in our hospital wards as a direct result of exposure to dirt cheap rocket fuel.

old style pub

But as I see more and more for sale signs outside local neighbourhood public houses, and the culture of supermarket driven home drinking sales soaring at the inevitable cost to local pub culture, I kind of miss the way it used to be.

One of my clients recently opened a new craft beer brewery, based in a lovely part of Shropshire and marketing home grown ale at reasonable prices to reflect modest margins.

But the Government’s gloomy announcement at the beginning of the year, that we are all going to Hell in a hand cart if we have more than five pints/ a bottle of wine a week or thereabouts, coupled with the rigours of dry January had a major impact on business in this critical first quarter of the business cycle.

“Not so long ago demand for craft beer was insatiable. Now beer and wine suppliers are really feeling the pinch. It is literally as if the tap has been turned off.

“The timing could not have been worse and it is particularly difficult for the small independents,” said my client, the tone of resignation hanging like a pall of dark cloud over a Sheffield coal pit.

I think back to my national newspaper reporter days, hunched over a keyboard, invariably swathed in reams of dense tobacco smoke while fellow reporters twitched and paced around in anticipation of ‘lunch’ – a euphemism for a three hour drinking session interspersed with a pork pie and a packet of crisps, perhaps, but lunches on the publications where I cut my journalist teeth were primarily liquid.

old newsroom

As a financial writer I was privileged in that my invite to lunch usually came from City-based fund management firms, bankers and players. Fast buck merchants, as one of my former colleagues would have it.

I wonder what the team who came up with the current abstemious alcohol guidelines would have made of those sessions in the late 80s-90s?

Those stories you have read about drink soaked hacks, slurring and stumbling back from epic sessions on the sauce, sometimes ending in clumsily thrown punches following some perceived insult or other, are, I can report from my front-line experience, by and large true.

After months of attrition, I decided to trade the lunches for the sobriety of the gym. I took up marathon training. It worked, more or less, as I managed to evade the worst excesses that characterised that era of heroic Fleet Street drinking.

I suspect that the carnage I witnessed from the microcosmic realms of the newsrooms were replicated in other notoriously heavy drinking industries, such as insurance and, back in the day at least, private banking.

Postcard A Happy New Year 1912

There were many stories, and I shall not detain you here with them, although I can share with you my encounter with the senior news editor of a major Sunday newspaper which occurred early on in my career.

It was a Friday morning, and I was assigned a ‘Royal number’ – which is newspaper code for fact checking and reporting on the financial comings and goings of a prominent member of the Royal Family.

The story – if I got it right – was destined to be the splash (front page) for that coming Sunday. I just had to qualify various issues which the newspaper’s legal team was understandably twitchy about.

news-scoop

Dozens of rapid fire phone calls later, I wrote the story and filed it. I thought it was good.

Minutes later, I was aware of a large, thick set man in his late 30s, hovering behind my chair, breathing very heavily. And reeking of alcohol. Ah, Friday afternoon. Late. Probably just back from the pub. Correct, Andrews.

Did you, he snarled, waving a wad of closely printed A4 pages under my nose – write this, this CRAP??? Now ferocious, his intonation rising to a bellow, the news editor then proceeded to go berserk. I feared he would punch me.

What’s the problem, I asked. You don’t rate it…?

Fortunately for me, my entirely sober desk editor intervened on my behalf, claiming my work to be one of the better financial stories they had encountered for many a long month.

I was, reader, vindicated. My story led the Sunday section, and was followed up by the rest of Fleet Street and TV news after publication. We were not sued, and my reputation as a splash breaking journalist was beginning. I became pretty good mates with the legal team on the newspaper after that initial incident, and, as I rose through the reporting ranks, the trickier, hard to break major financial stories were invariably assigned to me.

North_face_south_tower_plane_strike_9-11

And while nothing was perhaps quite as hard as reporting on the state of the world stock markets in the immediate hours following the September 2001 plane strikes on the World Trade Centre, toughing it out with a drink-hammered national newspaper editor will always stay with me.

I wonder how Hemingway would have dealt with it? I think I can guess….


Then cometh a horseman….

Horse Riding on misty beach with rocks

I was an actor.

Post graduate drama school training after university. Immersed in the method as taught by Stanislavski, with ambitions to get to LA and hit the big time.

img008

A few hysterical months as a stand-up comedian, occasional Tarzanogram and endless fringe theatre jobs, and I finally secured the elusive Equity card. I was a professional. Finally. Now for world domination, I thought.

As with all the best laid plans, mine were derailed very early on. The freezing winter of 81/82 pretty much did for me. Having played a singing, dancing bear in a fringe pantomime production at the Grove Theatre, Hammersmith, I began to have second thoughts about my career path when I could not afford to buy a hot dog (they were 37p…I still get a Proustian whiff of those sizzling onions as I emerged blinking into the London gloom) from the stall which lurked tantalisingly outside the theatre.

Finding the rent that winter was a nightmare. I remember one day in desperation joining a concrete laying gang. For a 10 hour, back breaking shift in the pouring rain I was paid £18. I spent most of it in the pub that night and then suffered a terrible bout of flu’ which laid me up for a month.

I did get a few breaks – one of the Chariots of Fire producers, Paul Knight, cast me in a couple of episodes of the popular kids’ series Robin of Sherwood, which first screened in 1985. Can you ride a horse, he asked, barely looking up from his desk.

No. I mean…yes, I mean. I could learn.

Learn to ride David. Learn to ride. Script will be in the post. Filming starts at the beginning of June. We will be in touch. And with that I was dismissed. Around ten riding lessons later, I am on the set of Robin of Sherwood, filmed mostly in and around the Cheddar Gorge, a few clicks from Bristol.

You can check me out getting an arrow through the chest, courtesy of a grumpy Ray Winstone, who was cast as Will Scarlett and spent much of the shoot getting hammered in bars and clubs in and around Bristol. Ray didn’t like me very much. I think he thought I asked too many questions. Was too full of myself. Mea culpa, probably. I can’t remember exactly. It was a long time ago.

When my fleeting appearance in Robin of Sherwood was finally broadcast I thought I had the acting business cracked. A steady flow of work in theatre, commercials and then a call to join a US theatre company.

Touring shows around the East side of the US got me a little closer to LA, but only in the geographic sense. It wasn’t long before the phone stopped ringing once again and I was grubbing around from fill in job to fill in job.

the road
Bar work, hod-carrying, teaching, driving, I took whatever came my way. But it was only when I started filing copy for movie and stage magazines that I gradually made the transition from an occasionally working actor to an always employed journalist.

Comedor

But I always regarded myself as an artist, one way or another. I know I was side tracked into journalism and then formed my own PR consultancy, but hey, a man needs to make a living. And you try bringing up two kids on the typical actor’s income.

MozartBeing an artist and grinding penury often go together. Mozart, on his brief stay in Soho, literally starving, stealing food where he could find it. Know the feeling, Wolfgang.

Van Gogh, constantly in poor health through lack of regular nutrition and damp living conditions. James Joyce, forever dreading the rent collector’s knock on the door and wondering how he would clothe and feed his young family.

Van Gogh

The poet Rimbaud, half crazed with malnutrition despairing of another freezing winter in a hostile and unforgiving Paris.

Dostoyevsky, skeletal and ill, the bank account and the cupboards bare, all hope long since evaporated.

F Scott Fitzgerald

F Scott Fitzgerald, before the spectacular success of The Great Gatsby, reduced to begging in the streets to help fund the next marathon drinking session.

Suffering for one’s art is a cliché. Oscar Wilde, while entertaining lavishly in the salons of Paris, would remark that when bankers got together they liked nothing better than to discuss art. But when artists got together the theme was invariably money, the folding stuff, and the lack of it.

Art and artists come in all shapes and sizes. Along with the painters and illustrators, poets and writers, musicians and composers, filmmakers and dramatists, there are the actors, the thespians – the grubs that populate this seductive world.

Back in Shakespearean times, which is around the time that theatre troupes were properly established in a more or less coherent form, medieval actors were the absolute dregs of society, occupying a social standing barely elevated above common thieves and pimps – the so called travelling players, nomadic performers typically regarded with contempt, fear and suspicion.

Fast forward a few hundred years and actors are still having a rough time of it.

Despite being unequivocally aligned to an industry which contributes billions of dollars to the global economy, recent data reveals that over 75 per cent of actors earned less than £5,000 from being on stage or in front of the cameras last year (2014). Less than £5,000. That’s not even £100 a week.

David with Omar Sharif 1993
David Andrews with Omar Sharif , 1993

And despite the undeniable glamour that is invariably associated with this penurious world, Casting Call Pro (CCP), a professional casting website, found that just two per cent of our thespians earned over £20,000 in 2014. A further one in five failed to secure a paid acting job at all over the last 12 months.

Track back to 2013 and another bleak statistic is revealed: 46 per cent of actors made less than £1,000 from acting jobs and a further 30 per cent had made a paltry £1,000 to £5,000.

So many a bitter thespian eyebrow would have been raised by the recent revelation that Daniel Craig, the actor par excellence du jour, has trousered around £39 million from his latest outing as 007.

Thirty nine million pounds. It might not be enough to get him onto next year’s Sunday Times Rich List, but it will keep the diminutive performer in Aston Martins and Omega Speedmaster wristwatches until they are banging the nails in.

The sheer imbalance in the harsh realities of this precarious world become even more pronounced when you look at the vast fortunes amassed by the likes of Robert Downey Jnr, a man alleged to make north of £50 million every time he climbs into an Iron Man whistle.

Robert Downey Jr

These riches of Croesus are rewards granted to just a handful of actors, who by some fortuitous route or other have managed to achieve the near on impossible – make it big in Hollywood.

Millions chase this dream. Millions fail. And I speak from experience.

There are lots of actors based in Brighton, where I rest my head. Many is the time I would overhear conversations in my local gym, of glum faced actors, sighing in between grunts on the bench deck.

The subject is invariably the next job. Where – if at all – it was coming from. News of the steady success of the wider economy to those who have staked all on a career on stage – and screen, if they are fortunate – does not register.

The phone seldom rings in these conversations I overhear, and I know only too well how useless and bleakly hopeless one feels at these times.

A couple of older actor chums of mine, both at one time very successful in their own right, with lots of high profile film and TV credits between them, recently had to move out of Brighton to a much cheaper area as the strain of bringing up young children on irregular or entirely absent incomes began to tell.

An actor who was in the same couple of episodes of Robin of Sherwood (The Swords of Wayland, check it out on YouTube) as me went on to become a household name. He now lives in Brighton with teenaged children and rarely works. It is hard. Someone else usually gets the job. Unless you are Brad Pitt.

Tales of bailiffs pounding on the front door looking to take away the television or whatever else might be removed to cover the mounting debt pile are common. I wonder how in 2015 anyone could really live like that. The nobility of art must seem distant at these times.

But in the purest sense of the pursuit of art and beauty actors, and fellow travellers like writers and musicians, have a sense of destiny. One which does not rely on being glued to a screen full of figures day in day out.

Worship of Mamon, then, is not a good reason to pursue a life in art – whichever discipline it might be. Art should be for art’s sake, and if you happen to strike a chord along the way, then that is all to the good.

Mark RothkoI think of Rothko, finally, after 30 or so years of struggle to make his voice heard, drawing the knife deep into the vein below the elbow, despite having had the success of the Seagram Building series of works and the spotlight of fame slowly panning in his direction. And of Van Gogh, whose poverty was so pitiful that days would pass when he would lie in a semi coma, too weak to call for help. How he would have laughed to think his canvases are now being fought over in auction rooms around the world, the stratospheric price tags only within reach of the oligarch and the billionaire hedge fund founder.

And I wonder, glumly, what will happen to the mass rank and file of artists in a world so determined to be seduced by the cult of ‘celebrity.’

Daniel Craig got lucky, by some miracle of fate and happenstance, and has made the transition from ‘actor’ to ‘celebrity’. A man who has been able to command astonishing sums of money by being cast in the role of a 1950s fictional Secret Service creation.

It may not be art. But it is a living, of sorts.


And as the day fades to night - Bernie K and the N4 Crew

gym equipmentJames Dean Rebel Without a CauseYOU don’t go for a workout at a gym these days. Not if you are in the City of London, at least.

No, head for 1Rebel in the Square Mile – it’s a ‘destination’, rather than a gym, they say – and you’ll be hammering out Rebel Reshapes or Rebel Rides with Jean, or maybe Vivi, or one of the many other gorgeous ‘personal trainers’ on hand to separate slickers from their hard-earned.

1Rebel, gleaming, flash and sleek, rather than shabby and sweaty – which is how I prefer my gyms – comes with a glittering price tag.

At £20 a pop for half an hour’s pumping on a spin bike, a bloke with a French accent shouting at you, 1Rebel is at the front line of the so called ‘feeder’ businesses which infest the City.

The financial community, the money men and women, are prime targets for the hangers on, the flotsam and jetsam which attach themselves, barnacle-like, to the underbelly of the financial district. And the wholesale narcissism sweeping through the reflective edifices in 2015 provides rich pickings.

Investment bankers who back in the day would be hitting the wine bars bang on the nose of 12.30 are now more likely to be reflectively downing a kale smoothie and wondering if they can crack their 40 minute 10k time on the run home from the office.

And whether they can blast out a quick Rebel Reshape with Jean and the crew before the markets open the following morning.

The City, currently enjoying an unprecedented period of growth, generates significant wealth for the UK.

Lloyd's logo

According to Brookings Institution, London boasts the fifth largest city economy in the world, after Tokyo, New York City, Los Angeles and Seoul with an estimated GVA of £309.3 billion in 2012 (latest data available), and a per capita GVA of £37,232. By way of comparison, London’s economy is roughly the same size as that of Sweden or Iran.

With the vast majority of that wealth being delivered by the financial services sector, and most emanating from a three mile radius of the London Stock Exchange, we can expect to see plenty more of the 1Rebel-type set ups spring up.

Easy pickings are on the doorstep.

IT was a different kind of economics for the gunslingers who hung out in the sweat-stained ‘gym’ perched more or less precisely in the centre of north London’s Finsbury Park in the mid-80s.

dumbells

Well ahead of the so-called Big Bang changes ushered into the City in 1986, I was scratching a living as a freelance writer, filing copy to any organisation which would have me. It was a hand to mouth yet exciting time, when I never knew where the next buck was coming from.

The dominant economic narratives of the day for me were the exchanges which took place in that tiny, grimy work out space in London’s then very down at heel N4.

Like most areas in the capital outside of the traditionally posh addresses – the Mayfairs and Knightsbridges and Kensingtons – which have always been affluent, one way or another – Finsbury Park was a dump.

A seething cesspit which made downtown Detroit look glamorous, as the annoyingly good looking American actor who frequented the gym and had a small part in the expensive TV series Tender is the Night (1985) memorably observed.

F Scott Fitzgerald autograph

The actor would invariably be among the dozen or so mostly black faces peering out from the gloomy interior. The rank stench of ancient sweat ingrained deeply in the walls and embedded into the pores of the grips on the free weights and primitive multi gym set up.

My routine in those days would be to pester news desks for commissions, file articles and features I had on the go, before hitting the gym for a lengthy work out.

gym equipmentWe were all mostly on nodding terms, and would from time to time help one another to bench press the heavier weights. None of the regulars worked 9 – 5. Some of the guys had literacy issues. I remember composing letters to landlords, helping them work out bills they did not understand. That kind of thing.

We were a community of sorts. We got along well.

Along with listening to the handsome American actor grumbling about how dirty and tired London – and Londoners, I presume – was, I would nod in silent assent when Bernie K (we never knew what the K stood for), but everyone referred to him as Bernie K, talked about how hard it was to make a living in a London which was on the verge of great change.

The age of the Yuppie was imminent. And there was no place for Bernie and his crew in their narrow focus universe.

Man, Bernie K would quietly observe as we gently jogged around the warm up track ahead of hitting the weights, s’getting harder and harder to make a living in this town. Think maybe I’ll be one of them trainers…

Trainers? The only kind of trainers I knew of back then were the trainers you put on your feet before doing the road work.

Man, you know…one of them personal trainers…those white dudes over there – Bernie K nodded his glistening shaved head in the direction of the City.

Dudes are paying dudes to train with them, said Bernie K, flashing a huge grin at me while simultaneously twirling a finger around a temple, the universal language for nutcases.

Bernie K, who looked like a scaled down Muhammed Ali, rippling, precision defined abs, sharp as a pin, could not get his head around why anyone would hand over hard cash for a training session.

Motherfu**ers got more money than the good sense they came into this world with, he said.

In 1985, when the notion of a personal trainer did not really exist outside of the smarter LA gyms, Bernie K had a point.

The ramshackle crew who frequented the Finsbury Park recreation ground in that summer of 1985 paid 30p a pop for use of the track and ‘gym’.

If there was a shower room, I never noticed it. There were no ‘celebrity DJ playlists’ such as 1Rebel advertises.

Our accompanying sound track was invariably supplied by Jones, a massive black guy and integral member of Bernie K’s crew. Jones particularly liked to work the heavy bag which hung ponderously in one corner of the cramped space.

He showed me how to put compelling combinations together on that bag. How to develop rhythm and technique over timed three minute, hard hitting sessions. How to dance around the bag as it swung towards you. Hit it man. Think of it as a muffaf***er you don’t like, Jones would advise.

Jones, 6 5’, buzz cut, heavily pock marked features and always chuckling with one of those infectious laughs, had the biggest arms and chest I had ever seen on a man.

Grahic of man in suit with shades

Enormous strength, honed and chipped in that stinking, fetid gym for which we paid 30p for the day. He carried an early style boom box cassette player everywhere he went, blasting out LL Cool J at bone shaking volume. I can still hear it.

It’s now 30 years since that summer faded into 1985s grey autumnal mists, and I often wonder how Bernie K, Jones and the rest of the crew fared as the London we knew as young men gradually gave way to the dominance of the City and the gentrification of the streets we once owned.

Misty countryside

What I do know is that, like me, they would have a good laugh at the 1Rebel £20 Destination Reshape sessions. And the ‘celebrity’ playlists.

Yo, I hear Jones cackling down the years. Yo, you want to train?? Man, you just get on and work that bag bro’.


The Box Man of Bohola

THE farm where I spent the lion’s share of the summer of 1966 nestles at the top of a densely overgrown lane on the outskirts of the tiny hamlet of Bohola.

Bohola Farm

Steeped in ancient Gaelic history, Bohola, located in the far west of County Mayo, Eire, with a population of a little over 200 mostly agrarian workers, survived plague, famine and long centuries of indifference to its fate.

It has changed little since my mother was born on that same farm in 1918, just as the First World War was coming to a close. I don’t know exactly which day or month she was born, for accurate local parish records did not exist back then.

When I travelled with my mother via an early Aer Lingus flight to Bohola as a child, the farm was running a modest dairy operation, overseen by Uncle Bernie, one of her eight brothers. Like my mother, they are now all long gone, but with the recent passing of a family member on the Irish side of my family, I was reminded of an event which took place on the farm all those decades ago.

You could say it was my first insight into the machinations of capitalism – or perhaps more accurately, how the long reach of capitalism serves even the tiniest of outposts.

Men at Bohola Farm

As a commercial centre, Bohola has little going for it. A solitary public house serving cold Guinness to farm workers at the end of a long day in the fields. And a village shop, administering to the basic needs of the community. There is a Catholic church of course, and many a stern sermon has been addressed to the tiny Bohola populace from its pulpit over the centuries.

In order to secure anything more than the everyday bits and pieces, you’ll need to travel the seven miles or so to the small town of Kiltimagh, a beautiful spot, terribly ravaged by the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s.

Which is what I ambitiously decided to do back in that long, drowsy summer in 1966.

England had just won the World Cup – not that the news travelled particularly quickly to the farm on which I found myself that year, for there was no means of receiving news from the outside world.

Men at Bohola Farm

I was baffled by the fact that there was no radio, and further mystified by the worrying absence of a television. Nothing. There was not even a toilet. I remember when I first enquired as to the whereabouts of the loo in the rambling old farmhouse. To be met with lots of chuckling and rolling eyes and thumb pointing outside gestures.

So outside in the fields was where you had to go to relieve yourself. Maybe find a spot in one of the outhouses if the weather was inclement.

You get used to it, cackled my Aunty Bea, toothlessly beaming through a fog of Sweet Afton cigarette smoke.

I doubted I would ever get used to crouching down in a field under the mournful, watching eye of the dairy herd, but as the days passed and the summer ebbed and flowed, sure enough I began to adjust to the rural ways of this mythical part of Ireland, where leprechauns were said to congress with fairies, and heroic knights once fought against invaders from many foreign lands.

And where many children and their parents starved to death in their thousands in the pitiless famine that decimated the local population between 1845 and 1852.

bicycle against farm wall

On the day I set out to Kiltimagh, on a bicycle so ancient and rusted I had little faith it could support the 14 mile round trip, the children in the farmhouse were in a state of heightened excitement.

Cousin Bernard is coming down from Dublin and he’s bringing a picture box with him. A picture box! Who would have thought such a thing, they sang and chattered all around the farm.

I had no idea what a picture box was – what on earth could they be referring to, I wondered. But, as the miles crawled past on my epic trip to the town of Kiltimagh, I thought less of the mysterious picture box and more of the Victor comic I hoped to pick up that morning – assuming I made it there and back, of course.

Bohola Lane

As luck would have it, the comic was in stock, and the old bone shaker held up for the long cycle ride back to the farm.

When I finally arrived, exhausted, back at the ranch, the yard – normally alive with the sound of many young children yelling and shouting – was oddly quiet.

Where, I wondered, was everyone? Not even a chicken pecking at my feet. How strange.

Children watching old television

On entering the farmhouse, it all became clear. Sitting proudly on the kitchen table, a somewhat fuzzy black and white picture weakly penetrating the gloomy stone floor and walls, was a television, a huge aerial protuding ostentatiously from its rear.

A television, transported all the way from a tiny warehouse in Dublin, to a farmhouse in the back of beyond which did not even have an outdoor toilet, let alone an indoor one.

Sat spellbound in front of the box were assembled children, quiet for once, looking as if they had been visited by a magician. Which in a way they had, in the form of my cousin Bernard, who had come down on a surprise visit with his miracle gift.

Bernard, who was eventually to become one of the UK’s most successful businessmen, building up and selling the construction company he inherited from his father – my uncle – had lavished what was then an unearthly amount of money in Ireland, a country where television sets were in the mid-60s as rare as hen’s teeth.

And this is where capitalism will always win, reaching out, feeling and probing for demand for its goods and services in the most unlikely of places.

You can call the story of my cousin Bernard and the television a parable of sorts. We had both made journeys that day. Me to the paper shop in Kiltimagh, and Bernard from Dublin to the miniscule hamlet of Bohola.

But I will remember cousin Bernard’s visit for another reason.

Unbeknown to me, when I was glued to that television set along with all the other kids, Bernard had felt the irresistible call of nature, and had crept out to one of the barns to relieve himself.

Like televisions, toilet paper was scarce in that part of Ireland in 1966: well, there were hardly any toilets, were there?

I later found my unread Victor comic in the barn. Well someone has found a use for it, I thought grimly as it was buzzed by flies. But no-one would admit to purloining it, leaving me with one of my earliest lessons, that investments, no matter how small and desirable, are never guaranteed to bring any dividends whatsoever.

I recall my howls of anguish at finding the comic in that barn. A comic I had sweated for – exchanged my labour for, in a way – on a windy day long ago in the far west of Ireland.

Bernard was well on his way back to Dublin by the time I had made him for the culprit. Probably never gave it another thought.

And just as it was an early lesson for me, it was also an example of one of the primary edicts of success in business. Seize the opportunity when it arises. Because you may not get another chance.


Day's Journey Into Night at the end of the A43...

“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.”

Marcel Proust

PROUST, as we know, built his life’s great work on memory. Our memories are triggered by random events, smells, signifiers, casual observations, arousing and unsettling our sub-conscious minds.

As we begin the transition from autumn to winter, I find myself thinking about the day I first began writing for Credit Management magazine, back in October 1988.

It seems like an eternity ago. But I remember it well.

In those days the publication was based in Easton House, a rather gloomy, former manor house, perched on the edge of Easton on the Hill. The house seemed in stark contrast to its environs, a picture postcard pretty, medieval village, lying just to the south of the market town of Stamford.

With a scattering of pubs, a fine, 12 century church and post office and very little else, it was an unlikely setting for a group of financial publications. But there it was, nestling in deep countryside, the centuries having quietly passed by. Not a lot happened in Easton on the Hill.

I recall the drive that first day, in my ancient Alfa Romeo, stuttering up the A1 from my flat in north London for an ‘informal’ interview with the then editor, Richard Smith.

I was rightly apprehensive of the impending meeting with a seasoned financial journalist.

 

Because:

a)     I knew nothing about finance. Zilch. Nada.

b)     I had had no formal training in journalism

c)      I was entirely unfamiliar with the content of the magazine

d)     I could barely work a computer

e)     I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a journalist anyway

And I think now, these many years later, that the only reason I was invited to an interview is that the magazine was located in such an inaccessible part of the world.

That, plus the fact that my CV was a masterpiece of invention. The snippets of experience I had managed to acquire had been beefed up to such an extent that even I had become to believe I could turn around financial press releases.

Perhaps the editor took the view that he would be lucky to get anyone at all to make that journey to the middle of England. In those days it was rare for writers to be allowed to file stories from external locations. It was technically very difficult for one thing. There was no email, and faxes were labour intensive.

As I sat before him in the tiny smoke filled room which passed for a ‘newsroom’ – with its smattering of early Amstrad desktop PCs – Richard Smith, puffing furiously on a sodden, hand rolled cigarette, looked at me sceptically.

I guess he thought that the fact that I had driven for the best part of two and a half hours through driving rain to get there was reason enough to carry on with an interview.

“How much financial writing experience have you had,” he asked, knowing, I felt sure, that I had had precisely none.

Not a lot, I replied. A more truthful answer would indeed have been ‘none whatsoever’, as my journalism experience to date back then consisted of an abortive few weeks at a local agency, filing dire stories to a ferocious, alcoholic news editor who would shout and roar at me for my inability to write what he termed ‘colour stories’.

But, I added, I’m a fast learner. And I can write.

Richard rolled another cigarette. There was a palpable silence, broken only by the mournful tolling of the bells in the church tower. The rain thudded insistently on the grimy panes.

“Ok,” he said. “You’re here now. Let’s give it a go.” And with that he sprang up from his chair, picked up an alarmingly large pile of press releases – to this day still the source of much of the information we read in our daily news services – and pointed to a spare desk , adorned by an off white Amstrad and a calculator.

“You can work here. I’ll need around six stories by close of play. If you can deliver the goods, you have the job. It’s £75 a day, plus travel expenses.”

Well, reader, needless to say, I did deliver the goods – don’t ask me how – especially since I spent an inordinate amount of time attempting to figure out how to work the Amstrad.

One of the first stories I ever wrote for CM was about credit unions, and I see – with more than a fair degree of irony – that these venerable old institutions are once again coming back into favour, as the likes of Wonga and the other avaricious so-called ‘payday lenders’ come under fire for their usurious interest rates.

I also wrote many a story about the creeping rise in interest rates. Little did I realize at that time that the mortgage I had on my London flat, arranged at 6 per cent in 1986, would soar to just over 15 per cent in 1989.

Now, in 2014, there is talk once again of a base rate rise. As we know, the Bank of England base rate has been kept artificially low to stimulate the economy, but now as we emerge from recession, and rising property prices once again set off alarms in the Bank of England monetary committee, governor Mark Carney has signaled a rate rise is on the way.

A rise – even a very modest one of 0.25 per cent – would have a cooling effect on a housing market which has seen, in the south east at least, prices rise beyond the reach of most first time buyers.

A recent survey reveals that the average first-time buyer salary in London was £44,513, and yet the average first-time buyer home reached a record £251,061 at the end of August.

Doing the maths, the first time buyer needs 5.7 times their annual wage if they wish – as I did all those years back – to buy a place in London.

But as these lending ratios are now outlawed by the Bank of England, the requirement will be for ever larger deposits.

I can’t for the life of me see how prices can keep going up at this rate. Who is going to be able to afford to buy a property? Inherited wealth, plus the lucky few who may benefit from generous parental help, maybe, but the reality for most UK citizens – we are not concerned here with overseas buyers investing into the capital as a safe haven for their money – is that home ownership at a relatively youthful age, is a bleak and distant prospect.

While it seemed a struggle back then, I think now to how lucky I was, that my generation did not face quite such an impossible task, getting that first foot on the housing ladder, being able to buy somewhere they could call home. Not being obliged to pay through the nose for an ill-maintained buy –to-let joint designed to keep the landlord in well-cushioned clover in the retirement years.

And I think back to my early days in that smoky Credit Management newsroom, cutting my teeth in financial writing before I made the transition to national newspapers, gazing out on the damp, undulating fields surrounding Easton House, my face reflected in the blinking green glow of the Amstrad screen.

And I can hear the chuckles and chit chat of my fellow journalists, some, including Richard Smith, who took such a gamble on me, sadly no longer with us, and I think, my, how things have changed.

 

David Andrews August 2014


Arbeit Macht Frei and the sounds of silence

The gates of Hell.

We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can also play Bach and Schubert. And go and do his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning

– George Steiner

At Auschwitz we endeavored to fool the victims into thinking that they were to go through a delousing process. Of course, frequently they realized our true intentions and we sometimes had riots and difficulties due to that fact. Very frequently women would hide their children under the clothes but of course when we found them we would send the children in to be exterminated.

– Rudolph Hoess, Auschwitz Kommandandt

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Technically [it] wasn’t so hard—it would not have been hard to exterminate even greater numbers…. The killing itself took the least time. You could dispose of 2,000 head in half an hour, but it was the burning that took all the time. The killing was easy; you didn’t even need guards to drive them into the chambers; they just went in expecting to take showers and, instead of water, we turned on poison gas. The whole thing went very quickly.

– Hoess, explaining how the camp gassed 10,000 people in one day


TO write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, observed the German radical philosopher Theodor Adorno.

Like so many Germans who came of age in the post war years, the era when that nation was attempting to come to terms with the legacy of the Final Solution, Adorno wrestled with perceptions of art and beauty.

How, he asked, can we have any appreciation of beauty in the world, visual, written, audio or otherwise, after the de facto horrors of the death camps?

It is a question that perhaps has no answers. And it is has long perplexed me.

Which is how I find myself in a Soviet era, bright yellow tour bus headed out of downtown Krakow bound for Auschwitz-Birkenau, the extermination camp situated around an hour and a half’s drive due east from the old city.

There’s no seatbelts, and as I doze fitfully, I wonder abstractedly about my chances of survival should we lurch off the pock-marked E40 highway winding between Krakow and Oswiecim.

The coach judders and groans its way towards the camps on an uncharacteristically warm Polish March day. The dangerously obese man slumped in the seat in front of me doesn’t smell too good, and there is a barely discernible aura of apprehension among my fellow travellers. This is after all not any old coach outing.

It’s an uncomfortable journey, but then I’m not racked into a cattle truck with no food or water for days on end, as was the case for the majority of the 1.1 million Jews who were gassed in the camps between 1942 and 1945 after being shuttled from varying locations throughout war-torn Europe.

Drawing up its meticulous plans for a Final Solution, the Nazi hierarchy needed a location both remote yet with good transport links in order to execute their ambitions to wipe out the Jewish race in Europe.

With around 11 million Jews to murder, their plans were ambitious, but workable in that robust can do German way, which had seen the country recover so spectacularly well following its collapse in the aftermath of the WW1 defeat.

Pragmatic Nazi planners and architects must have been delighted to identify the drab town of Oswiecim, with its excellent railway system. The middle of nowhere but easily accessible for locomotives and their doomed human cargoes.

As we approach the town and its principle attractions, a deafeningly loud, Soviet era television perched precariously above the driver’s head booms into life.

The black and white screen flickers and crackles. Haunted faces – we don’t know them, but know them so well in that silent argot of the Holocaust – unravel in front of us. Rare footage shot by a Soviet cameraman in the first wave of the camp’s liberators show the dead and the nearly dead.

Their faces…we know them…

We know those sunken, bewildered eyes, the shredded striped uniforms, the shaved heads, the skeletal frames.

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And while the ubiquitous images, documentaries and movies which accompany reams of Holocaust-related literature are intrinsic to our latent 20th century Western experience, the suffering which projects from the tiny coach screen into the consciousness of its captive audience nonetheless draws gasps and cries, as we are taken from one grainy chamber of horrors to another.

The coach finally sighs to a stop in an inauspicious coach park corralled by a couple of shabby fast food joints. My fellow travellers look apprehensive, some appear distressed. The film was harrowing, and along with the airless coach and the sudden warmth of this late March morning, the grim intent of the day finally registers. Auschwitz has been there, buried, recessed in our collective consciousness. Now it is here, looming in front of us.

On this bright spring day it looks innocuous. Ordinary. We could be outside an Asda superstore. The ‘banality of evil’ phrase coined by Hannah Arendt, in her reporting on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem resonates.

On arriving at Sobibor, that other terrible place of industrialised death, the investigative writer Gitta Sereny observed that the main impression she had was “one of beauty.

“The quiet, the loneliness, above all he vastness of the place, which left everything to the imagination.”
At first glance, there was nothing beautiful about Auschwitz.

Outside the camp entrance, there are several high-spirited groups of German schoolchildren fulfilling their curricular obligations. The Germans are obsessed that contemporary and successive generations know every ghastly detail about the plans of their forebears to wipe out a race of people.

In their designer clothes, equipped with the innocence of their teenage years and the benefits of enlightened diets and affluent homes, the kids look like they could be off to a beach party in Ibiza.

Not so the older visitors, the Saga-style tourists here perhaps to tick off another must see landmark, or maybe to witness what their mothers and fathers and relatives fought for.

Among the grey hairs there is a good deal of hardcore smoking, steeling themselves for the journey that lies beyond the gates – the gates of Hell, as they are known.

One couple who look to be in their late 70s, silently puffing away with a familiarity of those who have spent a lifetime together, exhibit the grey, heavily tracked skin of the two-pack a day smokers.

The woman is wheezing painfully in between nicotine draws. I wonder if she is about to go into cardiac arrest, let alone make it around the camps. I can’t see any mobility scooters to hand.

Auschwitz, the original camp – formerly a Polish army barracks – has significantly smaller land mass than nearby Birkenau, which my guide advises is the size of around 197 football pitches laid side by side. That sounds like a lot of walking.

The first encounter is with the Arbeit Macht Frei sign, which was bizarrely stolen a couple of years back. What do you do with a sign like this? Sell it on the black market to a fanatical Holocaust denier? Try to off it to an unscrupulous dealer? For one thing the sign is huge – far bigger than it looks in pictures. So familiar is this symbol of Nazi repression that its familiarity comes almost as a relief. I’m in the right place, kind of relief.

Dozens of people are standing under and around the gently swaying sign, clicking away with mobile phone cameras, chattering excitedly.  There are no black people here, I think. Not a single black face have I seen on this entire trip.
Curiously, there are no Japanese people either.  Not that I can see, at least.

The camp is not a high point of a European cultural tour, I guess.

I am more interested in the spot a few metres inside the camp entrance. A sign – there are lots of signs in Auschwitz – explains that this is the spot where guards would carefully position corpses, several at a time, which inmates would be obliged to shuffle past to and from their daily work details.

A few metres along again from that sign is another sign. This time its muted matter of fact everyday English explaining that here is a replica of the gallows erected for multiple hangings of prisoners.

I tried to imagine dragging my exhausted body along that pedestrian highway to Hell at the crack of dawn, everyday, somehow completing a 12 hour shift of numbingly hard labour on starvation rations in extreme temperatures. It gets down to minus twenty in the harsh eastern Polish winters, and up to 40 plus in the summers.

THE SS, said my guide Szymon Fliapek, squinting against the watery sunlight, were endlessly inventive when it came to devising ways of killing Jews and other inmates in Auschwitz. ‘The ones, that is, who were not sent immediately to the gas chambers,’ he qualifies in impeccable English.

Szymon has encyclopedic knowledge of the labour and death camps, which opened fully for business, as it were, in March 1942.  Several of his relatives were detained in the labour camp, somehow surviving to tell the tale. He peppers the more formal structure of the tour with personalized anecdotes handed down through generations of Poles. There is no love of Germans, even now, you sense.
As we tentatively step, blinking in the half darkness, into the innocuous looking Block 11 of the former Polish army barracks, Szymon explains that they were once doubly feared.

They housed the nightmarish starvation and suffocation cells, specially reserved for those who the SS guards preferred to suffer in the extreme, rather than administer the usual bullet in the back of the head.

“There’s been a lot written about Auschwitz-Birkenau – but you won’t find much on these cells. Remember, the SS didn’t have a lot to do out here – working out ways to guarantee appalling suffering appealed to the more creative among them,” said Szymon, pausing to examine some graffiti on the walls, dating back to 1942.

There were, as we know, innumerable daily horrors visited on the prisoners here, or in the ‘sister’ camp Birkenau, a few short kilometres away. But Block 11 goes directly in to the darkness, to embrace the worst of all our dreads and fears. It’s a horrible place and even today you can feel the dank, penetrating cold emanating from the bowels of the building.

It’s a relief to get outside.

‘It was a badge of honour for the SS to exercise the maximum humiliation on Jewish prisoners while busy working and starving them to death,’ said Szymon, as we shuffle in muted silence to the next block, wondering what new extremes of suffering we were going to encounter.

Being so organized meant the Nazis went to fastidious lengths to photograph all new inmates coming into the work camp. I gaze at row after row of pictures of inmates ‘processed’ through the camp between 1942 and 1945. The clarity of the images is startlingly good.  Zeiss lenses, I wondered, thinking of the photographer painstakingly positioning his tripod and ordering the traumatised subject to stand upright and look at the camera. He would not have asked them to smile.

‘Labour’ camp,’ snapped Syzmon, his eyes roving along the hundreds of gaunt images, ‘is meaningless.

‘They were not here to work – that was of course a pretense. They were here to be humiliated – it was a Humiliation camp.

Concentration camp is the polite term. I prefer not to use it,’ he said, his voice trailing off to a whisper.

I pause to look at the image of a strikingly handsome young man. In the now familiar striped garb of the camp uniform,  Stanislaw Milobedzki look to be almost breaking into a smile – presumably to the consternation of the official camp photographer.

Stanislaw, I note, was born on 7 July 1922. He died, according to the caption beneath his picture, on 7 September 1942. He would have been in the camp for a matter of weeks. It occurred to me that Stanislaw was more or less exactly the same age as my son, when he either succumbed to disease – typhus and dysentery were the big killers – or was executed.

Syzmon our guide notices me studying the rows of the doomed – ‘remember, it was not a work camp. It suited the Germans to say it was a work camp. But we all know it was a death camp as well as a humiliation camp. Very few came out alive.’

One man who did come out alive was the commandant, Rudolph Hoess. But when he was arrested shortly after the war ended, Hoess, found guilty for the mass murder of a million plus Jews, was taken back to the camp he formerly ran and executed in the grounds.

A replica of the scaffold from which he dangled stands more or less equidistant between the house the Nazi once occupied with Frau Hoess and their five children, and a gas chamber.

Like the gas chamber, the gallows looks unthreatening today. More unnerving is the extended scaffold which was the site of group hangings. The latter is adjacent to the area where the camp orchestra would play as the prisoner work details filed in and out.

It is bizarre to think that lovely orchestral music was played with gusto in this place. But it was. If there is a soundtrack for Auschwitz-Birkenau, it is not that of Bach or Wagner, but the reverberative roar of the locomotives chugging the final metres through to the selection ramps.

Or the guttural shouting of the SS guards, the cracking and stinging whips of the kapos, the frenzied barking of ferocious dogs, the screams of thousands of half starved, confused and terrified prisoners as they are jostled and separated from loved ones.

On the day I visited, more or less 70 years to the day that the first transports packed full of Jewish families wondering if the promises of ‘resettlement’ were to be a reality, I stand on the spot where the selections took place.

In the movie versions of Sophie’s Choice or Schindler’s List, the ramp area is perpetually packed with terrified people, jostled and shoved and ordered to their deaths.

No more the wind

Tren-Auswitch

But standing there in the silence of that March day, where the birds do not sing, and the trees seemed bent under the horrors that have been perpetrated before them all those decades ago, there is no screaming carried on the wind by the ghosts that have passed through on their final, desperate journeys.

It is the silence which resonates. It is eerie, partly because we are in the middle of nowhere with not a building in sight out of the camp complex, and partly because of our knowledge now, that 70 years ago this was the spot where SS doctors would choose who was to live and who was to die within hours of arriving at the ramps.

I am reminded of Samuel Beckett’s, “Silence, yes, but what silence! For it is all very fine to keep silence, but one has also to consider the kind of silence one keeps.”

We are also a very short distance from the main, gigantic crematoria where up to 10,000 people a day were being gassed in the two vast crematoria complexes in Birkenau. The numbers are hard to compute. Ten thousand people a day.

That’s more than the entire population of Guernsey, murdered in a single week. A process methodically and exactingly carried out, week in, week out for the best part of three years, before the Red Army eventually liberated the camp in January 1945.

Now, walking back towards the dread Gates of Death, flanked by the infamous twin command towers, the experience is numbing, like an anaesthetic that is in the system and has muted all nerve sensors. There is a blank bewilderment at the sheer scale of the mechanics of  human endeavor which was channeled not so long ago into creating this killing factory.

A brief detour through the ‘hygiene huts’, where hundreds and hundreds of prisoners would have to go through their morning ablutions squatting side by side with one another leaves one nonplussed.

After bearing witness to the crematoria and the huge so called ‘shower’ areas, where 3,000 Jews were gassed at a time, there is almost a sliding scale of horror-ometer, where it is impossible to comprehend how the process could have not just been allowed to happen, but so meticulously planned.

I felt the need to go to the toilet when walking through one of the communal wash huts. It would not have been easy for  inmates back then to simply relieve themselves, said our guide. They were only allowed to go twice a day, once in the morning, once in the evening, that was it. Being caught performing a bodily function outside of those times was invariably punishable by death. But most of the inmates were racked with disease, and diarrhoea was a constant. What do you do if you are suffering from diarrhoea and you are forbidden to use the toilet, asked Szymon?

‘I’ll tell you what you do. You go in your pants. And that is what they did. And then, after 12 hour work details on little or no food, they would have to lie in a bunk in their own filth shared with many others.

‘And they called these the lucky ones.’

As I walked out of the gates for the first and last time – for I will not be returning – I felt relieved. Relieved I had seen it for myself, with my own eyes, and not just relied on the testimony of others. Relieved that I could now, finally, attempt to process how this epic, concerted attempt to wipe out an entire race of people had taken shape, how it physically manifested itself within a supposedly civilized universe. And how it had very nearly succeeded.

And I felt relieved that I had walked in the steps of the doomed. Because it is there and it exists and, while we wish it hadn’t and many people now and after us will attempt to persuade us that it did not exist in the way we know it existed, we know. And we can only know by being there. So you should go. You’ll find that once is enough.


…so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

There was a guy, wiry, hyper – South American – who tended bar in Long Island. A run down, paint peeling, one horse joint just south of the Hamptons. It was late October, 1984. Back in the miasma of time.

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I was working in the States. The days were getting shorter, the leaves turning. It was getting cold. The local bar flies joshed with the barman. They called him Chilly. I assumed this was because he came from, well, Chile.

But I was wrong. He was Chilly because he kept saying, ‘…man, I am SO chilly….damn if it ain’t cold up here…really chilly..’

I can still hear the plaintive shiver in his voice. I think Chilly, and his fixed, incessantly beaming grin, was probably an illegal alien, but, working in a country of around 260 million people, he probably thought he had a good chance of getting away with it. After all, millions of South Americans slip through the borders and take the kind of jobs most Americans do not want to do. Chilly, I recall with some clarity, earned five bucks an hour back then. We argued one night (Mexican beers were involved…) about the relative wealth of America vs the rest of the world.

‘Man, c’MON!! This is a rich country man. They can afford to pay me more’n five bucks an hour!

He probably had a point.

I sometimes think back to that time, and the tour that took me through the dying coalfields of Pennsylvania, still lyrically beautiful, straight out of the set of The Deer Hunter. You could almost see the ghost of Christopher Walken hypnotically dancing to a Polish country tune.

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Then gliding down through zones of acute economic deprivation in the redneck towns of West Virginia, framed by the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains. With trepidation into the inner, black dominated ghettos of Philadelphia and Washington DC, witnessing the dreadful poverty of isolated homesteads in Maine and upstate Vermon – where I helped one tragically poor family move a massive, antiquated fridge from the 1930s into a dank kitchen – and I think back to that time long ago when I argued through the night in a backstreet bar in Long Island about whether America was a rich country.

According to US data intelligence agency Y Chart, the typical American earns $23.58 an hour, or around $39,000 a year. That compares more or less with the £26,000 a year which is currently defined as the average wage in the UK.

But as we know, the gap between America’s wealthy and that country’s poor is inestimable. If you are born poor in America today, you are likely to stay poor.

Poverty

One of Obama’s promises to the American people when taking up his second term, was to help usher in a revival in American manufacturing.

“If we take an entirely new and different direction in energy, in trade, and in labor policies, we will see more manufacturing jobs come back to America than those that are leaving America. I am absolutely convinced that with the right policies and leadership we can see a resurgence in American manufacturing.”

Fighting talk. But do the millions of unemployed workers – 8 per cent of the population at December 2012 – the construction workers whose tools gently rust through lack of use, the factory hands restlessly idling away the long days, do they I wonder share this vision of resurgence?

Obama’s first term coincided with an unprecedented economic crisis, the depths of which rocked this vast society to its very core. In the space of a few short years, the country has lurched from the shattering blow of 9/11, to war with Iraq, war in Afghanistan and other myriad combat zones peppered around the globe, to, ultimately war with itself. An economic war, still being played out by the haves and have nots, following the collapse of the banking system.

Obama’s speech writers may have reached for all the superlatives when talking the re-building talk, picking themselves up from the ashes, and creating a full employment economy once again, but let’s hope the unparalleled greed and cunning which powered the ugly edifices of the US banking industry is reined in. For as we know, it was ultimately the investment banks running unregulated and out of control, which took us all down with them.

Whereas prior to the recession Public Enemy Number One for many underemployed and low paid Americans was cheap immigrant labour – guys like Chilli looking to improve on life in the village back home – these days it is more likely to be the faceless denizens of Wall Street.

Interestingly, the first Wall Street movie in 1987 heralded legions of admirers for the Gordon Gekko lifestyle.

Applications for investment banking jobs went through the roof. The ‘lunch is for wimps’ philosophy tunneled deep into the New World pysche. Corporate raiders like Gekko – ‘if you want a friend, get a dog…’ – were the go to guys. America in the late 80s, having dragged itself out of the gloomy pall on successive recessions in the 70s and early 80s, once again embraced rampant get rich capitalism on an industrial scale. Rich was good. Yo! Rich was what we want to show the rest of the world. Richer than those fuddy duddy Europeans, infinitesimally richer than the Chinese and let’s not even go there with the Russians.

But as 2013 dawns on the Land of the Free, the tables have been turned. The high fives are notably absent, and the yo’s a muted whisper.

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Now it’s the Chinese who are in the driving seat. South Korean manufacturers are outgunning the US’s once mighty automobile industry, and while Silicon Valley is designing the Macs and iPhones, it is the two bucks an hour workers in the hi-tech factories of Shanghai who are making them.

Millions of Americans, however, still have their dreams.  A new dawn may well be approaching for them. This is a country famed for its can do optimism, after all.

F Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby embraced the American dream.

He, Gatsby, ‘believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter. Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’


Bad day in Upper Gardner Street

After four months or so of brutally hard hod carrying – where I was earning £46 a day back in 1980 – I was offered a job as a supervisor on the Government’s Youth Opportunities Scheme, known back then as YOP.

The money was poor compared to running up and down ladders with bricks and muck in my hod, but I thought here was a chance to give something back to the community, helping out these kids who were deemed unemployable. Most had left school at 15, as you could back then.

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I think back to when I was 23, having just left university. I had moved to Brighton, where I had many friends, and decided to work for a year before going on to a further degree in London.

Some of their own volition, but most because they were thrown out, branded as trouble makers. Most also came from broken homes in the problem areas of Brighton. But one thing they all had in common was that they wanted to belong somewhere, to be part of a collective enterprise. I suppose it is human nature.

I was put in charge of 17 boys in all, with a brief to go out into the community and do up dilapidated buildings which could then be used by local people.

Most of the work was straight forward painting and decorating, and the boys were given a small wage each week, more or less equivalent to today’s minimum wage. It was designed to be a learning experience and help prepare them to enter the work force.

Every day we would go out in a Ford transit-type van, descending noisily onto whatever project we happened to be engaged in. Sometimes the boys would moon out of the windows at startled passers by, and as their boss I was supposed to be unamused. But it was a laugh, and we bonded.

Lunch times were a challenge however. The boys were supposed to bring a packed lunch, but many did not have anyone at home to prepare them.

One boy, Trevor, often missed out on food altogether, having to scavenge what he could from his reluctant peers.

One day he did, to my surprise, actually have a modest lunch box with him. This relatively unusual development was the subject of much speculation by the other boys. What was in Trevor’s sandwiches – you don’t want to know – that kind of thing.
We were giving the old Brighton Boys Club in Upper Gardner Street a lick of paint.

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All was going well – the boys were by and large hard working and keen – until Trevor suddenly announced he had had enough, was starving, and was going to have an early break. Retrieving his tupperware container, he tore into one of his sandwiches. It may have been spam. I do not recall.

What I can recall is that it was far too early for a break, being around 12 noon, and lunch time was never before 1pm, starving or not.

With 17 boys – all ravenously hungry seemingly all the time – it was important to keep to the routine. So I asked Trevor to put the sandwich away until 1pm, when we could all eat.

No, he said, glaring at me like a feral dog protecting a bone. Fuck off. You can’t make me.
Trevor, please put the sandwich away, or I will have to send you off for the rest of the day – you will lose half a day’s money, and it could compromise your place on the scheme. I mean it, I said, trying to sound more authoritative than I felt.

Trevor, who had severe learning difficulties and an absentee mother who was known to be a working prostitute, was a strong kid with a shock of bright red hair and a face bedecked with large freckles.

He leaped up, furiously masticating on the remains of the sandwich, and seized a fire extinguisher from the wall.

Put it down Trevor, I cautioned. But Trevor was by now determined to show who was the boss, and instead of putting the extinguisher down, lifted it above his head and stumbled towards me, snarling, trying to catch his breath. I. WANT. ….TO…EAT…MY… SANDWICH, he screamed.

Many of the other boys found this hugely entertaining, and there were shouts of do ‘im Trev, go on, do ‘im. It was as if i had walked inadvertently into a dog fighting ring,  and Trevor, playing to an enthusiastic crowd, strutted like a victorious gladiator in a particularly bloody arena.

Looking back now down those long years, I can tell you now that all notions of the romanticism of youth and my desire to put something back into the community left me. I wasn’t much older than those kids, and I was about to sustain perhaps a severe head injury.

It didn’t seem worth it. You’ll want to know what happened, did Trevor go the whole hog and launch the heavy extinguisher at the side of my head.

He wanted to, but ultimately thought better of it. Even in the heat of Trevor’s rage, my assuring him he would be locked away for a good while if he went ahead with the attack managed to seep through. I held my ground and talked Trevor down.

There were no mobile phones in those days with which to summon the police, so it was with great relief that i warily watched Trevor lower the extinguisher to the floor.

I resolved not to let the incident – terrifying though it was – put me off my job. But in truth it was never the same again. The trust had gone.

Having reported back to my boss on the episode, Trevor was quietly removed from the programme. I recall him mournfully taking his leave of our base camp, never to return.

I wonder to this day where he and all those other boys are now. Did they ever make it into the work force proper, did they grow up to have families and ideals of their own?

Or did the hand they were dealt simply mute all enthusiasm for life, take away any desire to progress in the world of work.


Not not while the runner….

I’d seen Bernie out on the track.  I didn’t know he was called Bernie back then. He was, if I’m truthful, intimidating. Very muscled up looking black guy loping around, occasionally breaking into a sprint, then turning off the juice, easing back into the pace. Then the after burners would kick in and he would flash round. Fast.

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He looked good. Like a confident guy who knew he had it. We would nod to one another from time to time. Both of us would use the track to warm up, him looking far more purposeful than me, then slope into the falling down hut which passed in those days for a changing room.

The track and ‘facilities’ were located in the middle of Finsbury Park. It was 1983 and this down at heel part of London had not yet opened its doors to the investment bankers and marketeers. Not a particularly welcoming part of the world. But we made the most of it.

The ‘changing room’ was, we all agreed, far too grand a way of describing the space. Blistered, peeling paint, and on the floor something that may or may not once have resembled a carpet. So worn and grey and holed and shot that it had long since thrown in the towel.

The smell of ancient, unwashed foot traffic, so ingrained, pungent, that it would waft out through the vandalised door, then to linger trackside. It was, we all agreed, inescapable, infecting as it did so resiliently every fibre of our clothing. Hanging fastidiously on the damp walls, obdurate and oblivious. But still we came. Because that stinking changing room harboured a medieval looking device, a multi gym machine. You know the kind of thing – or perhaps you don’t – this was after all 1983, when work out machines were primitive.

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There was a 30p charge to use the multi gym. Supposed to be. No-one ever seemed to come and collect it. I had never encountered anything like it back then, happy enough as I was to plod around the track, maybe throw in some bad form push ups and grunt through a sit up routine. I had some idea that maybe, somehow, a six pack would magically appear. The kind of sculpted abs that guys like Bernie casually sported.

As i became more confident with how the machine worked, began to up the weight on the bench press stack, I started to feel more at ease in the company of the few souls who drifted in an out. One day, Bernie, heaving and struggling, trying to shift 100 kilos on the bench, asked me to spot for him. I obliged, and we got chatting.

The usual guy stuff. I was trying to make my way as an actor, having just left drama school and acquired my Equity card through persevering with a truly terrible stand up comedy routine. I had plenty of time on my hands. Bernie, like me, was doing casual bar shifts, but what he really wanted to do, he confided in me one rain sodden day, as we huddled in the gym doorway gloomily contemplating the rain hammering down on the track, was to be a trainer. Maybe a boxing trainer.

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I nodded. Sounds good. This was in the days before the now ubiquitous concept of personal training took root in our now bloated work out culture. I got to like, do exams n’ stuff, he explained. Trouble is I ain’t too good with the words, you know what I mean? Man, I need a job because I am like getting married and stuff and I want to bring home the bacon like any man does, but man I am no good with putting those words down on the paper.

You know what I mean, Dave? No-one called me Dave in those days. I was always David. Bernie preferred Dave.

He looked at me solemnly, coal dark eyes searching for some glimmer of a solution reflected in my face. I nodded earnestly, grim in my tacit agreement. Bernie, look at you man, you look like a god walking among men. You just need to get that foot in the door. You’ll blow them away fella, make no mistake. Bernie was unconvinced. He and his girl planned to get married that autumn, and we were already at the beginning of the long, sultry summer of 1983. You’ll be fine, Bernie, I breezed, making heavy with the reassurance.

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One of the reasons Bernie and I used to hook up on the track or in the stinking gym most days back then was that we were both out of work. I was going to endless auditions, occasionally I would, much to my astonishment, land a job. But they were few and far between, until one day I was called in to read for a part in a new tv series.

It was going to be about Robin Hood, said the producer, – ‘for ITV! Prime time, Saturday night!!’ – who was preoccupied with working on Chariots of Fire. He didn’t look at me when he asked me to read, and he apologised for the fact that the casting director was not present that day. She was, he said, staring at a script sprawled out on his desk, unwell. Womens’ stuff, he winked, looking at me for the first time and flashing a wide smile, revealing, grey and chipped molars.

A few days after reading for the part – to play a medieval assassin equipped with the useful ability to kill people by teleporting destruct thoughts directly into their brains (a talent which i have often wished in later life I did indeed possess), I was called by the producer. David, can you ride a horse, he drawled, gruffly, I thought. Yes, I lied, I can ride. Excellent, he said. Filming starts next month. We’ll be in touch. I called my girl friend, told her i had a job, that I was actually an actor after all. A working actor. I just need to get some riding lessons going. And then I hit the gym, wondering what it was like to get onto a horse. Worse, what it was like to fall off a horse.

Bernie was on the track, ambling one moment, turning on the heat the next. I  chugged along beside him, telling him I had landed a job that morning, that I would be going away for awhile…that I wouldn’t be making it to the gym for a few weeks. Yeh, what you doing, you like going somewhere nice. Out of town, he asked. Just down to Bristol I said. Never been there, but if you getting out of town it gotta be good, man, no? Yes, I said, I guess it has to be good.

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As we came off the track, headed for the gym, Bernie said it was too nice to go inside, so we went through a push up and sit up routine track side. It was a beautiful early summer’s day, what clouds there were occasionally eliding and fragmenting. Man, dig this weather, said Bernie. You get into shape, work on the abs and the guns, and you get the tan. Now Bernie was black, very black, I didn’t think he would be too bothered about a tan. Not me, brother, it’s whitey who needs to go to work. Tan up, man, feel good.

Over those languid summer days we worked out a lot together. Occasionally we would be joined in the sweltering gym by one of Bernie’s chums – I remember one guy, also black, in good shape, who set himself the target of 1,000 sit ups and 500 push ups a day. Obsessive. Ma-aaan, I ain’t proud of this stomach man. It just ain’t coming together. And so on in that vein, self critical, constantly pushing. It felt like, well, like family.

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Every so often an actor who’s name I have long since forgotten, American guy based in London, very cool, would drop in to lift some weight. Mid 30s, he was in a big tv series, Tender is the Night, playing one of the lead characters. And while clearly way ahead of me in terms of career success, always had a lot of time to share some tips of the trade, and I would make him laugh with my stories of harrowing auditions with openly hostile casting directors.

So with the passing of those languid summer days, we became an unlikely alliance in that intimate, cruddy space. The camaraderie was indisputable. But we all knew it was not going to last. As I prepared to go off to Bristol to film Robin of Sherwood, Bernie came into the gym one morning, and solemnly advised that he had a job. Got this personal trainer gig, dude. Down in Brixton. He pronounced the second syllable with a fierce emphasis. Bernie’s manor was north London, and hoods like Brixton he could do without. Not into all that brother shit, you dig what I’m saying?

The last time I ever laid eyes on Bernie was out on the track, him loping around effortlessly, barely breaking sweat even after punching in with the after burners, me, grunting and heaving myself around, as I did. Work on that, dude, throw in some more fast time, you’ll soon be up there. We parted that day, for the first time shaking hands, some slapping on backs. Take care dude. Keep on, he said, flashing a huge white beam. And then he was gone, jogging off through the park, back to tell his girlfriend about the new job. She’ll be pleased dude. I’ll be the man.

I’m still trying, Bernie, still trying.