“You’ll need a fleece.”
“A fleece?” Tessa looked at me, baffled.
“You know, a fleece? You do have a fleece don’t you?” She didn’t, and wasn’t sure what one was (but she is my unfailingly classy friend). I’d looked up weather in Costa Rica for our immanent trip: San Jose the capital and Monteverde Cloud Forest areas predicted a week of thunderstorms and heavy rain. Tortuguero on the Atlantic coast didn’t feature on my weather app, nor did Corcovado in the far south on the Oso peninsular. So, a real adventure then, into app-unknown territory.
“Better pack our umbrellas,” I said, “and some walking trousers and boots”. I was remembering my last visit to a rainforest, in Thailand, where leeches lay in wait, waving up from the leaf litter like little brown shoots. Clever little brown shoots that are also able to lurk up trees, detect the carbon dioxide in your out-breath and drop on you from above. I’d watched with horror as they tried to wiggle in through the loose weave of my Bangkok hippy trousers, and the sarong I was using as an ‘umbrella’. I lasted less than 24 hours before I fled for a beach.
“I thought I’d wear my white linen trousers” said Tessa.
“I think we’d better make a trip to Cotswold Outdoor” I said, moving on down the list from Rickshaw Travel, noting to self to pack my snake bite kit (which is at least 20 years old and I don’t actually have a clue how you use it, but the bit of string and blade look handy)) and an extra supply of anti mozzie lotion.
Tessa met me at Cotswold a few days later. She’d brought her friend Barbara, another Fine Artist, along. Barbara agreed linen trousers would be perfect in the heat “nice and loose and cool.”
Loose trousers? In the jungle. White? “The list says you see more birds and animals in muted colours,” I said.
The shop was full to the gunnels with ski wear, it was, after all, December. No thin fleeces, no muted long sleeved cotton shirts, but a distractingly lovely rack of down coats on sale. Tessa didn’t like the look of any of the walking trousers.
“I think what you need is a cashmere cardigan” said Barbara. Tessa’s eyes lit up.
“But….” and I gave up.
So it was with great relief when Tessa arrived at my cottage , on the morning of our departure, in a pair of walking trousers, boots and thin grey fleece, and unloaded a funky zebra patterned suitcase.
Settled on our beds in the Gatwick Marriott we ate our sandwiches, watched the news, listened to the Archers and turned in at nine ready for an early start in the morning.
Letting down her hair
Bianca was at the door. I smelt her as soon as I opened it: rose and lavender with a hint of mothballs. Rose was that day’s theme. A floaty chiffon scarf around her shoulders, rose coloured. A gauzy print dress, rose patterned on deep purple, the asymetric hem falling in as yet unfashionable waves. All topped off with a large straw hat encircled with faded silk roses, crowning shining plaited coils of fox red hair.
Purple was the background theme of my childhood, much favoured by members of The Order of the Cross. Their scriptures, invented in the 1930s and 40s by the Reverend J.Todd Ferrier (‘Our Friend’) were heavy tomes covered in …purple damask. Order members were all pacifists and vegetarian. On Sundays at the Sanctuary (an upstairs room above my father’s surgery) my parents and their friends, fellow members, would in turn transmogrify into preachers, cloaked in soft purple satin robes. During the long and incomprehensible services, with wheezing hymns pumped out on an organ, I watched the coils of incense rise. I listened to the caged budgies in Gloucester park opposite, and felt the hard rush seats barcode my bare thighs and dreamt of escape and the nut roast for lunch.
Bianca was just one of the colourful characters of my childhood, where a FatherMother was worshiped instead of god, Christ was ‘The Master’ and where angels hovered everywhere. Androgynous pictures of them in floaty garments hung over my parents’ beds. A Guardian Angel, I learnt, was always there to protect me. (A dangerous idea for an adventurous child addicted to the Famous Five books). Bianca, of all the members of The Order, transfixed me. She sits here by my desk. A little cloth sculpture by a fellow member. Her hands are suspended in front of her chest; the knitting needle pins that held a tiny ball of wool have fallen out of them long ago. Her neck is broken and her head would lol onto her chest without the strip of masking tape that holds it up, so you can see the coils around her head. Nevertheless she is every last stitch the Bianca I knew.
A ‘grunge’ dresser long before the word was invented, before charity shops existed, she would trawl jumble sales to assemble her outfits; topping them off with gaudy paste broaches. She already seemed ancient when I knew her – but then most grownups did. By the hairs on her chin, and freckled arms, she must have been in her mid 50s or 60s when my five year old self opened the door to her.
In ‘reduced circumstances’, I believe Bianca lived in a grace and favour caravan in the woods next to Resthaven, an old people’s home near Stroud. On Wednesdays she would take the 56 bus from Pitchcombe to our house in Gloucester to help my mother with the ironing. Ours was a busy doctor’s household. In school holidays there would be shirts for four brothers and my father to iron, whilst my mother fed sheets through a rotary iron. But on quieter visits, when my big, rowdy, messy brothers were all away at boarding school, I would have quality time with Bianca. I would be ready for her with a little hoard of gold coloured hairpins clasped in my hand, pins that she had shed around the house the previous visit. Pins that held the coils in place.
Taking a break from the singeing hot kitchen, Bianca would retreat to the cool of the downstairs cloak room, which smelt of damp woollen coats and air-wick loo freshener. There she would indulge me by letting down her hair. Hair that when released fell heavily down to her ankles in fiery Rumplestiltskin waves from the plaiting. She brushed and brushed it till it shone and crackled letting me feel it’s silky softness. How I envied that hair. My brother Ian once found me sobbing in front of the slightly foxed bathroom mirror after the savage haircut my mother favoured. “No one will marry me now” I wailed. It became the family joke for a while, making me blush to my roots each time it was mentioned.
I asked Bianca one day “Did you ever have a fiancee? Didn’t you want to marry?”
“Oh dearie me. What a question. Well as a matter of fact I almost did. He was an emperor and a king you know.” My eyes widened. “Black and beautiful and his chest was covered with gold medals and chains. A neat silver beard – oh he was so handsome. “
Emperor (and self appointed King) Haile Selassie was exiled during World War II to Bath, in the West of England. She told me that at the time she was a companion to *Lady Macaulay and often attended elegant social events with her. Presumably it was at one of these events she met Selassie. I found this picture of her in fancy dress. She stands on the far right, hair not yet ankle length, but well on the way. I imagine him transfixed, like I was, by her long red plait, and graceful bearing.
“He proposed to me darling, and gave me a black-stoned ring. I had to turn him down. He was King of Ethiopia. It’s very hot there. I didn’t think the sun would suit my complexion.”
Many years later, when I was in my 30s, it fell to my mother to clear out Bianca’s possessions when she died. A kindly duty she often did for friends and one I was always eager to help with because who knows what treasure might be unearthed? Bianca had ended her days in a high ceilinged, but small room in Faithful House in Cheltenham. A home for elderly nurses who were on their uppers. The staff were rather keen for a quick and thorough clear out, she had piles of suitcases in her room and in their storage. I searched every little faded box, tissue paper screw and suitcase for that ring. I didn’t find it. Perhaps she gave it back? What I did find, however, was pure gold. In a long box, wrapped in tissue, tied at each end with a pale blue satin ribbon, was folded a fox red plait.
*A Wiki search for information on a Lady Macaulay has sadly revealed nothing. However I did find this woman, a writer, Dame Rosa Macaulay, whose home was completely destroyed in the blitz. Might she have fled to Bath at that time? She too was drawn to deeper spiritual dimensions. Macaulay was never a simple believer in “mere Christianity”; her writings reveal a more complex, mystical sense of the divine. Her unusual take on Christianity would have been right up Bianca’s street, she would have made a perfect companion. Like Bianca she too was a pacifist and between wars was a sponsor of the pacifist Peace Pledge Union, until she recanted in 1940, after her home was flattened perhaps?
I want to believe this is the Macaulay that Bianca companioned in Bath. Who could not resist someone who writes this memorable first line from her book The Towers of Trebizond: ‘”Take my camel, dear”, said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’
On Friday 21st January 2017 I shared on Facebook:
“It’s like when a close relative dies. You half wake and it’s a good day, a normal day. And then you remember….It’s the worst reality show ever. (Or ever, ever, as Trump would say).”
I spent the day on a ‘craft project’ and kneading bread. The bread rose exceptionally well.
Next morning, Saturday 22nd January, if not literally painted in wode, I rose fired with enthusiasm, shining out my inner wode, in Pictishwoman mode. I travelled with friends to Bristol to share the love, communality, humour and determination of 1000 women, partners, children, grannies and babies because I had to add my voice. I had to say this is not normal. He is not normal. Times are not normal. But together we are strong and we won’t be silent.
Knowing I was joining with millions of women all over the world, made me feel just a little bit better. I had to be with the truth tellers. People who can count, and do count in more ways than one. Who see black and know it is black. Who see white and know it is white and won’t be told otherwise. But don’t misinterpret this. We know a ‘race’ is something you run and is otherwise completely irrelevant to our friendships .Who know a combover con when we see one, and come on, really, we couldn’t give a fig about the size of your genitals Mr Precident (yes I meant that spelling). As one banner said ‘Melania, Blink if you need Help’.
Can it really be so hard to find a slice of genuine New York cheesecake in New York?
Buoyed by the prospect of a free sail-by of the Statue of Liberty, I headed south again, down to the Staten Island Ferry. I couldn’t help congratulating myself that despite rubbish forward planning I’d already seen a fair proportion of my ‘musts’ on the tourist trail: the Flatiron, Greenwich Village, Ground Zero and Wall Street. Curiously, I hadn’t seen a single power dressed businesswoman striding out in trainers (or what we call ‘daps’ around here). Perhaps New York women are over that fashion, or did I read it’s coming around again with trainers that cost near on £200 a pop?
Acutely aware that my possible ‘date’ for the evening, Bernt, hadn’t called , I hunted around the cafes in the ferry terminal. ‘Why would he call?’ I kept reminding myself. He doesn’t know me from Eve, I’m just ‘another nifty aunt from nowhere’ (my eldest brother Michael’s expression when introduced, aged about 7, to yet another of my mother’s friends. That was how it was in the 50s. He probably felt we had enough natural aunts already, what with Grumpy Helen, Posh Helen, Mamie, Peggy, Eileen, Margot, Margaret and Mildred. So what if he didn’t call? I could always seize my courage and make my way to the Duplex Bar.
I guess a ferry terminal is not the best place to source a genuine New York cheesecake. It’s not often I eat half a cake. I’m more a have-my-cake-and-eat-it person, and worry about the pounds tomorrow. Be warned, don’t waste your money on what looks like very nice cheesecake there. If anyone can recommend where to buy the genuine article I would be so grateful. Better still, since it might take me a while to return, I’d appreciate a recipe. I want to match my memories of the cheesecake I used to buy when I was flat sharing in the Cromwell Road in London in the 1960s. It was the lightest, slightly lemony, most crumbly taste of heaven, not a hint of the cloying stodge I chucked with a heavy clunk,in the terminal bin.
The ferry was packed to the gunnels, except that instead of guns the side decks were crammed with tourists. Being short and, yes, nifty, I’m pretty adept at worming my way to the front of crowds. I soon had a good position, if a bit hemmed in by hugely enthusiastic Chinese neighbours, taking selfies and shuffling around like penguins to each get a shot with a New York backdrop. Security had been tolerably lax getting on the ferry, but I was amused to see that we were accompanied by outriders in true western style, but in a speedboat, complete with machine gunner at the fore. It occurred to me that if there was some kind of trouble it could be a pretty confusing and messy outcome, but that’s life post 9/11.
At Staten Island we all disembarked and re-queued for the return ferry. Coming back we passed closer to Lady Liberty, who was looking spectacular in the glowering storm light, which only enhanced the green of her copper. This may seem incredibly naive to Americans, but I didn’t realise she was so big. So big that if you are feeling energetic, and if you’ve sensibly booked in advance, not only can you climb up 354 steps inside her to her hat (which it is a kind of viewing platform) you can even climb into her newly renovated 24 carat gold plated torch handle. She is the inspiration of Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, a French sculptor. Frustrated by the lack of liberty at home he thought ‘Damn it,’ (or something like that, ‘Zut Alors’ maybe?) ‘I’ll make a statue called Liberty and give it to the Americans, they appreciate what liberty is all about, and who knows, perhaps we’ll get it here one day.’ At the time it was the largest metal statue ever constructed. Her big toe alone could sleep a large man and a close friend. The words on the base say “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (Certain elements of the US Government might like to remember that.)
And just as I’m taking pictures and marvelling at Liberty, and being squished by Chinese, my phone goes off, with the sound of a nightingale. They like that.
“Oh! Bernt! Pardon? What did you say…I’m on the ferry. No, the FERRY. You can? Tonight? That’s fantastic, so kind of you. Six? Oh dear, I may have a bit of a struggle…. Where did you say? What was that? Where?” The sun comes out and picks out a building reflecting my renewed hope for the evening.
I bought with me a little strapless polka dot number, á la Sex in the City style in case such an occasion should occur, and some little strappy heels. But there I was on the ferry, miles from the apartment, dishevelled, blistered and a bit stinky from a day walking around the city. I really wanted to go back to the AirBnB to take a chance on the overly-shared bathroom being free so I could tart myself up for the night. If Bernt was going to have this nifty aunty foisted on him, I did at least want to scrub up and not embarrass him…I’d heard he was a pretty stylish fellow. I panicked. It was already 4.30 and I hadn’t yet faced the subway, but it was clear to me that I was going to have to.
I had wondered when Francis told me the subway was “complicated” and there wasn’t much point in explaining it, why? I soon found out. I’m an intelligent woman, much travelled, and fairly savvy in foreign parts. I could not work it out. I wasted a precious 15 minutes trying to get a ticket for starters, until I found the one native who wasn’t in a hurry who gave me a bit of a hand. (Bless you, I hope you read blogs about New York.) But once I got underground I was completely stumped. I’d like to tell our moron mayor of London, who is considering getting rid of all the staff booths on the London Underground, to please go to the New York subway, without any minders, and find his way from Staten Island ferry port to Chelsea. He won’t find maps, they don’t seem to exist. Ha, we’ll see if you change your mind then, Boris. I went up, then down, and across, getting more and more panicked and flustered like a proper old lady. It was hot, and dark, and garaffitied and scuzzy and totally confusing and I kept remembering my Enneagram teacher’s son who was shot for no reason on the subway. I yearned for a nice simple map like our underground map. I was near to tears, wondering if that was how my life would end up, bumping around the subway, lost, hot, tired and hungry, till dementia set in. Then an angel appeared, on two sticks, thin, greasy grey hair, limping painfully, a sheen of sweat on her brow. “You lost honey?” I could have kissed her. She limped her way to the platform across from the one where she was catching a train, and showed me which train to take. Only when I’m on it did I realise it actually wasn’t. Not really her fault, she did her best. I took another another: that wasn’t right either.
By five thirty I was totally fraught, and realised the only way out was up. Above ground I established which way was north and started walking, intermittently taking calls from Bernt, and catching only the odd word because the traffic and the sound of people talking on their mobiles was too loud. He was trying to telling me the name of the restaurant. Finally, in a side street I found a spot quiet enough to catch it: Gene’s. All hope of freshening up for the evening lost, I swallowed my pride and hailed a taxi. Would I make it in time?
People ask me what I do. I say ‘I’m a writer’. By which I mean I have an incredibly clean oven, the loo seat that used to slew off sideways when I sat down is now fixed, and the water butt that was banging around the garden in the recent storms is back in place, if somewhat leaky. Oh yes, when you are a writer the sourdough rises.
So, New York. Just writing those words revives the feelings I first had when I decided to finally go. To face my nemesis, my almost lifelong ambition. I wanted the art. I wanted the culture, and I wanted to make myself enter a world completely different from mine and know I could not only survive, but enjoy it. Yet that one fact hung over me still. The son of one of my teachers when I studied the Enneagram in California, was shot, for no reason, on the subway in New York. I figured I could deal with rude natives (as it was rumoured here in anally politeBritain). But what if I got lost? Wandered into the ‘wrong’ neighbourhood? I was a mere three hour train ride from the city, ticket paid for, accommodation booked. It wasn’t a fantasy any more, it was tomorrow’s challenge and whilst the noises were encouraging, there were some eyebrows being raised at the huge gathering of Jane’s relatives in Lexington when someone mentioned my plan.
“Wow, on your own eh?”
“Well good for you.”
“Oh you’ll be just fine” seemed to be the consensus But then , “where did you say you were staying?”
Having inspected the walk-in wardrobe the size of my sitting room footprint and some. I could tell these people were not likely to pitch up in a hostel. Certainly not since Uncle Phil (Tropeano, now 91) did a little experiment one day. He was an agricultural engineer, trying to make a machine that would make fog (to cool vegetables) and whoopty-do came up with the first snow machine.
Phil and his brother impressed me greatly. I want to grow old the way they have, and at 91 and 90 I have a few years to practice. Here’s Eddie texting his girlfriend in the old people’s home where he lives, a picture of his cocktail. How cool is that for a nonagenarian? He has a plan, that worries the family slightly, to buy an RV so he can drive out to the coast in the mornings and have breakfast watching the ocean. I can understand that, he used to be a Techie guy in Falmouth, Cape Cod. I bet he misses the breeze.
Phil laughed generously at my recounting the joke the elderly Mr Holbrook used to make when asked how he was “well my dear, put it this way, at my age I don’t even buy green bananas”. I tried to explain AirBnB to them.
“You stay in someone’s house. People who have a spare room, let it out for a reasonable price – all done online”. They looked impressed, especially when I said I was paying around £62 a night (faintingly cheap for New York). However, when I said I would potentially be sharing the bathroom with 8 other people, a fact I’d only discovered the night before I left home, when all was signed, sealed and paid for, their expressions changed. A bit like mine did when my host said “oh you won’t be the only guest, we actually have four double bedrooms for rent.” Panicked, I’d emailed back immediately to ask the number of bathrooms, and discovered the do-not-disturbing truth. Was this a cosy arrangement, with a pair of friendly New Yorkers (gay men I hoped from the cleanliness of the apartment in the pictures), or was it a major business? Still I’ve slept on everything from a mud floor in a desert bar in Morocco, to a tent with an elephant scratching it’s belly on the side. Surely I could do an Air BnB in New York?
I was awake with the crack next morning and showering wondering if it would be my last for a day or two. Nick emerged in plenty of time to drive me into Boston for the 7 am train to New York.
The Horsley family has a habit. We never leave the house once. It’s those moments when you’re half way down the path and you suddenly remember you left your phone behind. Then your umbrella, shopping bags, or the directions to where you are going. The worst of us can do it many times. Ask Jane. She’ll tell you. Why is it that wallets get lost mainly when there is a pressing reason for them not to, like catching a plane, or taking the red-eye train to New York? We turned every corner of the house upside down. Tipped out those areas where things gather and conspire, lifted sofa cushions, looked in bins, in coat pockets, under and over the car seats and trunk – we even checked the cutlery drawer. “You’re efficient Nick, don’t you think it’ll be in your man-bag?”
“Nope, tried that”.
Sick with nerves that I’d miss my train, this went on for about half an hour…every so often me repeating my refrain. This was my nightmare situation. I hate arriving in a last minute dash. Get stuck in traffic with a flight to catch? I’d rather sleep on an airport bench. I tend to arrive insanely early. I set three alarms (watch, iPad and clock) at increasing distances from my bed, and still I spend half the night awake and worrying I’ll oversleep. (My ultimate alarm clock bought in a Bangkok supermarket the night I escaped from Mr Prong, has finally died a death. A trumpeting cat figure that played reveille loudly, repeatedly declaiming WAKE UP, WAKE UP, until I hit the button, the eyes on the cat clicked open and it said “Goo Morning.” My my mainstay for 20 years, I miss that clock. )
Nick found the keys. They were in his man bag. Half an hour later he delivered a nervous wreck to the station just as boarding began. Ten minutes later we pulled out, with me reclining in the most comfortable train seat I’d ever experienced, settled on the left side, so that I could watch the coast all the way down to New York. New York! I was on my way.
Blissfully aware that it was Friday the 13th and that this was, in ancient times, a power day for women (was it guys, d’you think that spread the rumour of bad luck?) , I selected my route to the Museum of Fine Arts from Aquarium via the Boston harbour walk. It was my second day in town, and I was thirsting for art. I’d managed to shake off the bad taste left by the girl in Urban Outfitters the day before: “CLOSE THE DOOR.” I did an about turn and, morphing into a snotty Englishwoman snapped “the phrase is PLEASE close the door.” I guess the heat got to us both.
The harbour walk is intriguing; who owns these fancy boats? Do they fret over never finding enough time to spend on them like people with holiday homes? Or is it just one way to splash out their zillions so it doesn’t pile up too much. Do they wake thinking ‘there’s nothing I really need or want today’ or do they wonder what happiness-trinket they can buy? There aren’t so many Bill and Melinda’s, I fear. Boats like these must cost a packet just to park up. Then there’s the staff, the gold taps, scrubbing brushes for the decks, bikini clad lovelies etc let alone the cost of actually going somewhere. Still, it’s better than hoarding your pee in jars , or leaving your toenails unclipped and curling like a goat’s Howard.
I got lost. I always do. Some people plan their journeys scrupulously. I wing it. Somehow I managed to turn “no problem getting to MoFA, just follow the Harbour Walk and there you are” to a hot and bothered realization that if that were true I should have found it an hour ago. Sometimes you want to climb up a hill to see where you are, especially among the skyscrapers. It’s amazing how many Bostonians don’t have a clue where their best asset is. When I did finally arrive, and saw the size of the museum I immediately regretted my strategy. I didn’t need a day, I needed a week. More organised people would have catalogued the art they saw in a little notebook, and be far more informative. I have to apologise. All I can do is show you pictures of some of my favourite pieces of art, and hope it inspires you to go to this aptly named museum.
My appetite had been whetted by adverts all around town for the ‘Hippy Chic ‘exhibition currently showing. I have hippy credentials, but you know how they say ‘if you remember the 60s you obviously weren’t there?’ That doesn’t really apply to me. I remember them well. I did my best to conform with the non-conformity, I even inhaled, but only socially, like I might share a bottle of wine with friends now. It wasn’t a lifestyle choice to live in a fug of marijuana and procrastination. I had too many nappies (diapers) to change. I had my first baby when I was 23, and like to think I was a responsible mother. I breastfed, but only till they were about 6 months old, not until they could toddle up and ask for it before they went to school. I thought at one time it would be interesting to try LSD, but only if a responsible person would mind the children for 4 days. I couldn’t find one. Then I looked up the effects of LSD in one of my father’s medical books and found it produced a so-called ‘pink spot’ in urine just like they find in schizophrenics. That was enough to put me off. I don’t suppose a real hippy would have been. However, it does mean any comments I make about the exhibition are from someone who had a clear perception at the time. Now, honestly, did any of the people you know look like this?
See the bag she’s holding? That’s Biba. I still have my Biba dress, it’s somewhere in the attic in the grandchildren’s dressing up box. It was a floor length purple sleeveless vest (that’s an English vest, not American) and it came from the original shop round the back of High Street Kensington (someone’s front room fitted out with old fashioned wooden hat stands). It cost eighteen shillings, which at the time was just under a pound. I wore it bra-less, though I only just fitted the criteria we used then: if you can hold a pencil under your breast without it falling down you are not pert enough to go bra-less. This dress is very lovely, but it wasn’t on the streets of Gloucester at the time, or even the London I remember.
Look at the hair on these guys. All the models in the exhibition had white hair. Maybe they were appealing to those of us who were hippies at the time, and like me are snow white now – but it wasn’t what we looked like then and the image jars. Hippies had natural coloured hair or hennaed hair. Even the bleaching was from hanging out in the sun in parks or the first free festivals getting stoned. Hair dyes weren’t available like they are now.
Well, almost unavailable. Old ladies went in for purple or pink rinses on their permed grey hair in those days. Most didn’t even wash their own hair. They would go for a shampoo and a set to the hairdressers once a week. (What happy days those must have been for hairdressers.) It would be set like concrete, stiff with spray, just like a pan cleaner with a faint hint of mauve or pink. Hippies let it all hang out. We didn’t use hairdressers. A few went in for frizzy afros, but the rest of us just grew it. However, I went through a phase of mixing undiluted purple and pink rinse and achieving a maroon streak in my tangle of sun bleached mousey hair. Being at a ballet school, with access to stage make up I also went in for green eyebrows and lashes. I used a tin of Caron D’Ash pastel crayons to improvise wild eyeshadow. Come to think of it, I was way ahead of my time. I dyed Aunty Mamie’s old silk stockings magenta and green. In winter I wore a long white crochet version of an Afgan coat (all the rage) and a tiny shetland jumper that just covered my breasts and left my midriff bare to my low slung loons even when it was way below freezing. Hippies I knew improvised, but maybe I just mixed in the wrong circles. I don’t remember smart hippies like these.
These were some of my favourite paintings and sculptures
The trouble with having a big cup of tea, healthy bodily functions, and a hesitancy to use the onboard facilities, is that it takes forethought to make arrangements. i.e. if you see Jane head off in the dingy for the loos in the harbour, and you don’t anticipate your need to join her, you have to wait it out.
When the harbour is a few minutes ride away and involves hooking up, ‘bathroom’ visit and showering too, you have to bide your time. Nevertheless, once we were all sorted out, we worked out that we’d have just about enough time to take the dingy onto the opposite side of the ‘hook’ for a swim with the harbour seals, and make it back in time for the afternoon whale watch boat on one of the Dolphin Fleet. The advantages being that spotter planes guide the boats to whale sitings and they are much more stable.
The introductory talk on board seemed designed to kill all hope. The humpbacks, we were told, were feeding further north this year because of rising sea temperatures. If we saw one whale we’d be extremely lucky. See two whales and we’d be unbelievably fortunate, but the company did good work monitoring the whales and supported their conservation. With the $40 plus fee justified we set off with somewhat deflated expectations and the knowledge that we had at least seen a couple on the way down (even if it was so briefly that we couldn’t be 100% certain which type). Even so, I thought ‘yes, but they haven’t factored in Jane’s whale singing and my dead father’s skills in making things happen.
As they say in the brochure ‘passengers forget themselves in the passion of the moment’. We all did try to pay attention to the very interesting talk about whales; the ‘baleen’ display (the giant hairy cartilage filters in a whale’s mouth that sift plankton); statistics to make you weep, and the jar of plankton (muddy looking water), but 200 or so eyes were mostly glued to the sea. Mine almost hurt with the concentration, and my brain strained from willing the whales to appear. (Think of the wildlife photographers who do this for a living. They must edit out 99.9% of the material they shoot for two or three minutes of spectacular tale slapping.)
Jane sang, I veered from one side of the boat to the other squashing into any little gap at the rail. Suddenly a cry went up around the boat: “DOLPHINS” and a school of twenty or thirty white-sided atlantic dolphins did their thing, speeding along at a lick, slicing through the water, racing the boat, and seeming to share our delight in their sleek antics. Patrick Leigh Fermor in his book Mani described them thus (and in no way could I better his description): ‘they were beautiful abstractions of speed, energy, power and ecstasy leaping out of the water and plunging and spiralling and vanishing like swift shadows, soon to materialize again and sail into the air in another great loop so fast that they seemed to draw the sea after them and shake it off in mid-air, to plunge forward again tearing two great frothing bow-waves with their beaks…’ and more (he wasn’t stingy with his sentences). We were thrilled. If we saw nothing else, we were still thrilled.
Then, amazingly, it happened: “WHALE” came the cry, and the boat emptied out on one side and we crammed over to the pointing arm. And that’s when we saw the rarest whale on the planet, critically endangered, one of only around 320 left: a North Atlantic Right Whale. So called, poor thing, because it has just the right sort of oil, just the right sort of blubber, and it’s easy to kill. There it was, right next to the boat, all 60ft of it, head full of callosities, looking like a bad case of barnacles, but these are what makes individuals easy to identify. She was miles off-course, unexpectedly around on the Stellwagen for that time of year, and alone. It was a deeply poignant siting, and brought tears to my eyes. I felt very humbled, privileged, and I understand this is a common experience.
In the distance we saw another Dolphin boat turn back and speed forward purposefully. We followed and soon heard a blow. Two blows. It sounded like an air ballon firing up directly overhead, only these spouts shot up from the sleek heads of two enormous whales, pushing 90ft long, characteristically slithering in and out of the water right by the other side of the boat. These were two Finback Whales, not prone to the spectacular tale slamming of the humpbacks, barely mentioned in the Dolphin Fleet leaflet, but awesome in a different way. Bigger: Finbacks are the second largest animal on earth. Faster: these are the Formula Ones of the Atlantic. They have asymmetrical markings on their sides; their left sides having a darker swirl of colour than the right, sleekness emphasised by white lower jaws. I tried to get a picture, they put on a bit of a show for us, but they were so fast, most of my pictures came out like this:
It took me a while to spot these calling cards. So huge are Finbacks that for a few moments after they surface and plunge they leave these ‘footprints’ behind on the surface.
I could return home happy. I’d seen whales. I’D SEEN WHALES. Who knows how long we’ll have them? I would hope enough people are interested to protect them and enjoy them like I did. I’d like my grandchildren in Wales to see whales. I’d like my grandchildren in Germany to see whales. (I can’t wait to show them the footprints to prove that Granny did.)
First, though, there was that 8 hour return trip to Boston to contemplate. Would I be hideously sick like I was on the way down? Should I sneak onto one of the fast ferries that plough back and forth to Boston from Provincetown? I have to admit I faced the prospect of the return sail with great trepidation. But am I one to take the easy way out?
ps Francis. I know you are itching to hear about the incident in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where I didn’t see a single picture, but I did have a unique experience lying on the floor in the middle of the snail staircase with a charming man, but you’ll just have to wait. There’s a couple, maybe three more blogs in this series until we get there.
Oh my. The phallic tower of the Pilgrim Monument announces Provincetown appropriately. Arriving there is like being launched into a gay pride march, only, thrill of thrills, the day we arrived happened to coincide with the Lambda Car Club rally. Not just any vintage car rally, a rally of the cars of my dreams. Since I was about eleven I have swooned over Elvis and I dreamed of owning a car with wings, preferably pink, but anything pastel would do. The closest I got was a series of Morris Minors (which are not really a car for a soggy country; I know of a man who wrote his thesis on the flora and fauna of a Morris Traveller, the half timbered variety) but they have a particular charm, a certain smell, and an unmistakeable voice of their own. This rally of 50s American cars made me almost weep with envy. Pink, sky blue, orange – winged, bedecked with rainbow flags, and fabulous guys dressed to match. If the drivers of the orange car with the blow up model in a headscarf in the backseat wish to replace her with flesh and blood, I’m your woman.
My only beef was the beef who kept getting in the way every time I tried to photograph these gorgeous hunks of metal.
I play a ‘which would I steal’ game in galleries and museums (though in truth I could no more actually do it than steal a paperclip). This sky blue one is a strong contender, closely followed by the pink winged.
These guys were having such fun. My friend says ‘every mother should have one’ (about her gay son) the pride is all hers. I can see why. Nowadays, since most straight people have grown up and got over themselves, gay men are having a blast. It was not always thus (I recommend Stephen Fry’s excellent documentary on the history) and Provincetown seems to be their mecca. The population statistics are telling: 3,562 residents in winter, 30,000 summer visitors. Not all of them are LGBT of course. We all want to have fun.
The accessory du jour In Procincetown is what I call ‘armpit warmers’. Little dogs that once upon a time would have snuggled into arm pits clothed in mink, downing cocktails with ‘mummy’. Pampered pooches have reached new heights of indulgence in the gay community. Cooed over, beribboned, collars a-sparkling, you wonder if some of their little paws ever reach the ground. I saw several being wheeled around in dog carts, some even had prams,
see the green one in this picture? It might contain a child, but that’s not what’s in there. All I can say is that I wish them walks. Mud. Waves to splash in, and bones as big as a fist.
Talking of fists, bend your arm and take it out to your side. Now make a fist and curve it right over. This is the shape of Cape Cod, sticking out of the East Coast of America somewhere between Boston and New York. Provincetown sits in the curve of the thumb where it joins the palm. Behind it are rolling dunes; pure Edward Hopper landscapes, with lone lighthouses, and windswept clapboard houses. (That is, Edward Hopper in his beach-time holiday mode, not his peeping-tom city mode
Now I haven’t cycled for quite a few years, though my last bike did have gears (rather inconveniently placed somewhere low on the frame). It rested in the shed, a promise of a fantastic arse and super-fitness, but really just a rusting guilt trip. However I was up for a bike ride on the dunes, as long as I could walk up all the hills (but probably best not to tell the surgeon who hoovered out my knee a few months back).
What better way to cool off after a long ride through cranberry beds (Nick: yes, they’re cranberries. Me: are you sure? I survived, so I suppose they were) than a dip in the ocean on the north side of the fist.
Then Jane saw this sign. But why would we let a silly little thing like a Great White Shark spoil a lovely dip – especially as I’d missed out on one off the boat in the middle of the atlantic. Besides, I didn’t think a Great White would mistake me for a seal considering my neon-bright costume. (Thank you Sandra Dee, it was a good exchange for the scrape on my new car. She does mail order lingerie by the way, and for all those trannies among you, she can accommodate all shapes and sizes).
Back in town, knees intact, butt intact, and relishing the thrill of once again defying death (Vee: I’m not coming on holiday with you, you court danger) We loaded up on pizza and chilled beer with a slice of lemon (bet that’s making a few englishmen cringe) and planned a fun night out. Would it be Lip Schtick ‘One Boys Journey to Fabulous and Back’ or Electra ‘Living the Legend’ at the Post Office Cabaret? It’s obvious now, but I hadn’t realised Bette Midler was a gay icon. Electra did a very fine job of impersonating her, though it would have been a lot more electrifying if I’d known some of Bette’s songs, been a little less straight, and the seats a little less hard for a saddle sore bum. However we particularly liked the bit at the very end when Bette morphed into Elton John. How clever, we thought, then remembered he was a man. Watch a drag artist long enough and you forget.
We slipped (quietly as was possible when you motor) out of Marblehead harbour. It was 4am and we were fuelled by hot tea and enthusiasm. The sky did a spectacular show of stars – not that we needed them. Nick’s boat has instruments, unlike the Daily Mirror kit boats I sailed at school. Instruments to show you how deep the water is, and how fast you are going. It can even drive itself, though I’m not sure it can detect huge ferries or buoys in the water, or even boys in the water. There is room below deck to sleep six very friendly people, to pee and cook. There is a fridge for the wine and I believe you can shower in the loo, sort of. As we passed out of the harbour, into open waters, Jane pressed a button, and hey presto a sail unfurled, Nick killed the engine and we locked onto the wind. The wrong type of wind.
Seasickness can be more or less controlled if the boat dips and dives up and down. You know what’s coming next, and with eyes fixed on the horizon it’s doable. Pitching side to side is also doable. (I once survived a rusty tub in the gulf of Thailand that did this, disappearing between enormous waves.) What I couldn’t cope with was a combination of those movements making the boat do a corkscrew motion, despite wearing a sea-sickness patch behind my ear, acupoint wrist bands, and popping homeopathic pills. The earl grey tea churned in my stomach. I tried to put a brave face on it, if not a pink, healthy one. ‘Eight hours’, I kept thinking, ‘eight hours and there’s no escape’. ‘There better be bloody whales’, I thought. Eventually ‘I’m going to be sick’ predominated.
By 7 am my bladder dictated the course of events, just after I’d tentatively enjoyed a bowl of muesli and felt a tiny bit better. I may be very close to Nick and Jane, but not close enough to pee in a bucket in front of them, though it was kind of them to offer. Besides sitting on a bucket in the small space between benches, where, because I’m short, I could barely steady myself against the opposite bench, seemed an impossibility. I don’t think even a penis would have helped. (Yes, yes, I have penis envy. How could I not with four brothers boasting about how they could make their pee foam?) ‘Down below’ was where the worst of the churning happened and I’d put off the moment for three hours. Things were already banging about in the cabin, and I joined them reluctantly, zig zagging my way down to the loo at the bow end. There’s that moment when you think, shall I sit on it, or put my head down it? And then there is no choice.
Crashing into my berth, clasping the bucket kindly presented by Nick, I wanted to die. I’d been looking forward to this? Nevertheless I shouted up “I’m coming up” heave “if there’s a whale” heave, “I don’t care how bad I am, call me. Bleauch”. My vision of a quiet sail in glorious sunshine, lolling on the bow in my cozzie, taking the occasional dip and coming up laughing couldn’t have been more deluded. I was right, I wasn’t much use on the boat. In fact I must have made the trip very unpleasant for them too.
After what seemed like hours, Nick called down “we’re just about at the Stellwagen Bank”. This treasure of a marine reserve, just north of Cape Cod is apparently one of the best places in the world to watch whales. Protected by a submerged shallow bank, where mastodons once trod, whales now feed in the abutting deep waters. If there was a chance of seeing Humpbacks, this was it. Excitement is surprisingly reviving. So is fizzy orange juice and cheesy goldfish biscuits. My eyes haven’t worked so hard since I lost a contact lens in the main square in Marrakech. I scanned and scanned the sea around us. Jane sang whale songs. Nick used his binoculars. Hope was palpable; possible disappointment, the other large mammal in the boat. The tension was unbearable, though fortunately the sea was much more bearable. We had the right sort of wind at last. Then I had an idea. My father, dead some 48 years, regularly finds me parking places. I wondered if he did whales too? And he did! Right by the boat. Two of them. They can’t have appeared for more than a few seconds, but believe me that is enough. It’s the hugeness of these mammals, when most of the time you just see gulls on the sea or the odd fish. To know they are there. That they exist. It’s impossible not to be awed. We couldn’t positively identify which whales we had seen, maybe Minkies, maybe Finbacks? Whatever. I could die happy.
We sang more whale songs and celebrated our luck, scanning all the while. “Fin” I shouted. A large black fin, unmistakable in its pointyness, but surprisingly floppy cut through the waves right beside the boat- a basking shark, passing us and passing us, and passing us; meters of the thing. (A basking shark can grow 14 meters in length.)
The sight of it made me very glad that I wasn’t having a little dip. Even though they don’t eat people, I didn’t relish the idea of meeting a thing that big swimming along with it’s mouth agape. It might just want a proper meal for a change. Plankton doesn’t look particularly filling, it’s hard to believe it can nourish a creature that large. However it was satisfying to imagine entertaining my grandsons with tales of the great-big-enormous-shark by the boat.
“There’s the tower” said Nick. Most Americans get the answer wrong when asked where the Pilgrims first set foot in the New World in 1620. Those who have visited Provincetown can’t fail to clock the 252 feet high Pilgrim Monument that marks the spot. It also marked our final destination. We’d taken just over 8 hours and put 55 miles of heaving sea behind us. There was Provincetown, Queen of the East Coast, or should I say ‘Drag Queen’.