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Looking for the Ringmaster

March 27, 2020

In the early 1980s there was a spy series on British television called Smileys People. George Smiley, a crumpled understated Englishman was the central character, who wore thick black- rimmed spectacles, a tweed hat and a beige Gannex mackintosh. There were also a number of other intriguing personalities of various nationalities – his partners in espionage. Their collective headquarters was located at Cambridge Circus off Charing Cross Road, London. The building accommodated a utilitarian interior, echoing minor public school, the pre-Oxbridge warm up. Rope pulley operated fan lights above frosted glass doors under which the tired mannequin-patterned linoleum tiles leached out into the corridors. The hard chairs and long dark boardroom tables, buzzing strip lights and cage rattling lifts, their concertina sliding doors opened with brass handles. The international language of institution comforts both the eastern bloc émigré, settled and loyal, and the old school day boarders. There were always secrets, umbrellas and the ongoing mystery of who was the mole, the double agent.

Walking to the new Foyles bookshop now located within what was the Central Saint Martins art school, I was looking forward to buying some fresh reading material and seeing my friend Patrick who works in the fiction department. Patrick would make an excellent spy; he melds and has the presence and non-presence when required. I’ve observed this at events we have attended, he is especially good with clipped diction and eyewear, he also wears the right type of fawn mackintosh. Patrick’s partner is Austrian, charming, intelligent and very engaging. She would be the perfect fellow operative. Patrick had suggested I read The Pigeon Tunnel an autobiography of John le Carre, the writer of Smileys People. Following this I read Looking for the Ringmaster by Tony Pelmet, recording the escapades of a 1960s French circus owner, Paul Gerard. He was a world class high-wire walker and also a Soviet agent, code-named ‘The Angel’, masterminding a spy ring throughout Western Europe. On the ground floor of Foyles I enjoy browsing the coffee table photography books, particularly the ones documenting the United States through the lenses of Robert Frank and the comparatively recently discovered Vivian Maier. This disappearing America reflected in the plate glass of Midwest mom and pop dime stores with land barge sized cars out front and tarpaper shot gun shacks out back. The black and white images of New York city, many non-consensual, reveal a purpose and glamour – a woman stares out from under a delicate fascinator on a steaming street corner – now you see me, now you don’t.

In the refurbished coffee bar on the fifth floor I can’t help but make comparisons to Rays Jazz Café in the old Foyles. The new café is much brighter, the Shoreditch hipster jam jar lights with glowing amber filaments are strung across the food bar and oversized typewriter letter keys ornament the open plan entrance. The blond wood is reminiscent of the bright, spacious design of the Ocelot bookshop on Brunnenstraße, Berlin, occupied by the requisite bearded young men intently staring into their MacBook’s, a coupling interchangeable with any European capital. I used to enjoy perching on the window stools looking out on Charing Cross Road from Rays, sometimes with a live music accompaniment. I miss the elevated vantage point. Spies and jazz. The new café overlooks the rear of the building and from the gent’s toilet as I wash my hands I can see the pit where the old Foyles had stood. Bidding farewell to Patrick and leaving Foyles, I Uber over to Edith Road, West Kensington to see the Doc as he’d phoned earlier saying he had a present for me, and would I collect it. During my journey I watch episode four of Smiley’s People on my iPhone 6.

George Smiley is driving into a highly industrialized area near Lubeck, Germany, in a lime green Opel Ascona searching for a character code-named Leipzig. Smiley negotiates challenging situations seamlessly. He is the wise man. I find the rhythm of events soothing.

Up the steep steps to the pillared front door, I drop the solid brass ring knocker. The Doc opens the door and I follow him down a tall wide hallway into a high-ceiling room, the walls of which are partially stripped giving the effect of arrested decay rather than a contrived shabby chic. The original pine floorboards are stained and bare. Doc is medium height, thick set and always makes me think of what John Belushi would have looked like if he had lived. “I told you I have something for you and I certainly do”, he said in his quiet, well-modulated American accent, “but first I want to show you something”. Dust motes float in the afternoon sunlight before blessing fragments of a remaining chandelier. A number of tin strip edged tea chests, black-stencilled Chai en Chine, are stacked in a few oí the corners draped with blankets. The Doc hits the play button on an ancient video jukebox and a song from the 1980s, Bela Lugosi’s Dead, by a band called Bauhaus starts pumping out from the stylised chrome facia – orange flashes on the edge of the cabinet light up but only on one side and the screen, sticking up from the top of the jukebox, projects a flat rinsed impressionism. “It’s a Rowe AMI, I bought it at Lott’s Road auction, I love it!” Doc flicks the beak of a stuffed robin on an oddment-cluttered mantelpiece, causing the little bird to fall over onto a dusty red Dinky fire truck minus ladder and tiny tyre. I tend to notice these details.

Leaving Bauhaus to haunt an empty room, Doc indicates that I should follow him upstairs. The entire first floor is an open plan gallery space with a huge picture window looking out over the garden. The space is filled with a warm embracing intimate light which graduates upwards into a parachute-size faded heavy red canvas of what was originally a circus big top. A bright aluminium pole, badged and custom built by the American Airstream caravan manufacturers, pins the remnant to the ceiling. Vitrines are placed around the edges of the room, displaying various artefacts associated with real and imagined circuses. The musky scent of the heavy fabric breathes out an ecclesiastical high Church fragrance; a well considered ambience contrived to show off the unique exhibits to maximum effect, which include a cabinet filled with small shoes and gloves once worn by performers in Tod Browning 1932 film Freaks, and an intriguing glass case containing a section of wire proudly mounted on a hardwood plaque. Surrounding us the gaudy coloured framed posters on the walls announce the American Ringling Brothers, Moscow State Circus, Circus Roncalli, a German circus now using virtual reality animals, to the defunct British circus of Billy Smart and of course Cirque du Soleil.

“Before I give you your present, I need to explain a little of the background. ‘Hal’ Halvorsen a one-time colonel in the United States Air Force, was affectionately known as the ‘Berlin Candy Bomber’. When the Russians blockaded Berlin from June ‘48 to May ’49 everything had to be airlifted in from coal to food, clothing and building supplies – everything. The planes they used were the C47’s, you know – the Dakota DC 3, and Halvorsen would see the children standing on piles of rubble waving – remember he was making numerous approaches to Tempelhof Airport.” The Doc paused and looked at me. I was sure I could see him welling up, but gesturing with his right hand he continued: “He started by throwing them out a few sticks of gum and candy from the side cockpit window and then he upped his game. He and his crew collected handkerchiefs from other servicemen to make small parachutes in order to float down little bundles of sweets. The kids also called him ‘Uncle Wiggly Wings’ because he’d dip the wings of the plane to signal to the children that he would be dropping supplies”.

It was a fabulous story and the Doc knew I was passionate about this particular aircraft. He beckoned me closer and lifted the lid from a brass-edged box of dark polished wood, revealing what resembled a slightly battered sliding window pillowed on black velvet. “This is definitely the pilot side window of a Dakota that Halvorsen threw candy from”. I didn’t doubt the Doc for a moment. This clearly industrial object looked beautiful under the subdued lighting. I knew he took his collecting very seriously; all his finds were original, most of them irreplaceable. We’d been friends a long time and had previously exchanged small mementos, but this was such an overwhelming present. The story of how he acquired it was equally fabulous. The original owner of the Halvorsen artefact, Hans Lubin, had been a driver for Siegfried and Roy, the flamboyant German-American duo who for over three decades had their own spectacular magic and big cats stage show in Las Vegas. This was to tragically end when Roy was bitten on the neck by a seven-year-old white tiger called Mantacore. Lubin had been ground staff in Berlin during the late forties, maintaining amongst other aircraft Halvorsen’s Dakota. There had been a problem with the sliding mechanism on this particular window. Lubin replaced it and had kept the old one as a memento. After Lubin died, his son Thor had been in touch with the Doc, mainly because of another item he had found amongst his fathers’ possessions. What had initially appeared to be some twisted cable was actually revealed as a genuine length of the high-tension wire Paul Gerard made his escape on from Paris back in 1962. The American security services were on to Gerard who had been passing information to the Russians regarding the logistics of American bases all over Europe. On this particular evening he’d been performing on the wire and from his vantage point noticed a number of bulky men in suits within the audience (the Americans weren’t noted for their discretion). Using a gaff hook, the riggers left strapped to a supporting pole, Gerard tore a hole in the big top canopy and made his escape. I looked up at the canvas in the Docs gallery and straining my eyes I thought I could see a skilfully repaired, almost imperceptible tear.

In the final episode of the series, George Smiley entices his Russian spymaster equivalent Karla to defect to the West. Berlin a cold misty winter night, two Mercedes taxis with teardrop headlights illuminate the cobbles at a crossroad. Men in overcoats drinking coffee from small cups and smoking American cigarettes watch a checkpoint from a Turkish café window. Karla had palmed George Smileys lighter, an engraved present from his wife, at a meeting in New Delhi many years ago. As Karla is escorted away in a huddle of security he drops the lighter, George acknowledges this action but walks away in the opposite direction.          

On the tube home from Barons Court to Aldgate East, I heard an elderly man with a French accent excusing himself as he got up from his window seat, the aisle passenger making way for him to get out. He was agile and smooth; I would have said he was early to mid-eighties. I noticed his shoes, they were fine supple leather with what appeared a very soft sole, like a dancer’s shoe. As he alighted the train, his red silk handkerchief fluttered to the floor and I could make out a white embroidered letter P in the classic French Aphrosine font. I tend to notice these details.

The Front Room Drinkers

December 20, 2019

Come Back to me and then Go Away

The roll call of my dad’s front room drinkers was never ordinary. Tug Wilson, a second engineer, was always sailing under a Panamanian flag. He was small, wiry and bearded, originally from Newcastle. A self-exiled shipboard saver, he would blow everything on Gloria during his shore leave way before Tom Waits ever sang about it. Tug would die, drunk, crushed between his ship and the dockside. Then there was the showman Tony Pelmet with his stock saying: “it’s nice to be nice”. He had a fabulously detailed tattoo of a fox disappearing up his arse and could play piano, tell jokes, handle himself and was proud of his traveller heritage. Tony had run a number of pubs for a Greek Cypriot nightclub owner who my dad had once worked for arranging door security. Ronnie Flexor, the one-time tennis pro and trainer to the Las Vegas bodyguards of reclusive Howard Hughes had bloodshot eyes and tiny burst capillaries spidering his nose, spreading onto his cheeks like a Venetian mask. Most of Ronnie’s income now came from the rents of a house he’d converted into bedsits. There was a distant sad divorce and disputed family money.It wasn’t just drink that united these misfits, what they all had in common was they were either leaving or had been left by their partners, lovers and wives.

Kenneth Price

May 19, 2019

Letter From the Tate: No 2

Dad

April 19, 2019

Paul King

Born: Dumfries, Scotland 07/08/31

Died: Torquay, Devon 21/04/10

July 1993, he drove me from Torquay in a black Sierra with a big hotel laundry bag full of my possessions to a rehab just outside of Bristol.

Over ten years previously he stood my bail for robbing a chemist in a north Devon market town. I was in a paper forensic suit while a solicitor explained the situation down the phone. I heard my dad say: “Of course I will…”

It didn’t get any better for a long time, but he never turned his back on me. He gave me money when I was down on my luck and took me for a haircut one day saying “Come on son look like you’ve got something about you…”

I miss hugging him and kissing his medicated shampooed head.

Letter From Tate

December 24, 2018

Christmas Time

December 24, 2018

‘The Clock’ is an art installation created by Christian Marclay, a Swiss American turntablist. It is a magnificent 24-hour montage of 10,000 individual television and film excerpts featuring clocks synchronized to real time. Apparently, the hardest hours to source footage were between 4 to 5 a.m.

John my best friend was the illegitimate son of a successful Torquay bookmaker whose convent educated daughter would do very well by marrying a famous game show host. John had a made-up double-barrelled surname and shocking ginger hair. He lived with his mother and her boyfriend in a flat with dazzling white net curtains, above a fruit shop exhibiting night-time empty greengrocer display grass.

Christmas 1971 sleighing into 1972, I’d go from Johns to the nightclub where my dad worked. There I experienced waitresses in hot pants and tootie fruity ice cream in polystyrene boxes and helped the Hungarian chef who sold my dad an Omega watch.

I held on like a sailor going over the equator for the first time as the hands of clocks revealed hours on this my maiden voyage. Earlier than paper rounds and later than owls and all my classmates slept while I was somewhere I shouldn’t be – somewhere that filled in the night and never left me.

Christmas Time 1971.

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Time

September 25, 2018

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Considering time, there are certain combinations of numbers that are not striking in a visual or a spoken manner; for example, 3.39 a.m. does not command attention. However, 2.30 a.m. has a certain ring to it. As for midnight it doesn’t even have to try – hands up like a numerical ballet performed by Merce Cunningham, praising the darkness for all manner of possibilities, trysts, tricks, trauma, black taxi travel and an hour over the late rate.