Saturday, 24 May 2008

Barcelona, February-May 2004

(In the spring of 2004, in preparation for the Barcelona Connection Festival - which would frame the new co-production of an adaptation of George Orwell's memoir about the Spanish Civil War Homage to Catalonia - I conceived a project involving four Newcastle-based poets Julia Darling, Bill Herbert, Linda France and Colin Teevan and the photographer Sasa Savic. We made two separate trips to Barcelona sponsored by Easyjet in order to create  our own homages to

 Catalonia, and I called the project Flying Homages. Northern Stage actor and musician Jim Kitson came on board to set some of Julia's poems to music  and Mark Lloyd and Peter Peverley joined Jim and the poets in the performance of these poems and songs on the stage. The project later lead to a commissioning of a musical from Julia Darling A Manifesto for a New City - which was the last thing she wrote before her death).

This entry features poems by Julia Darling, Linda France, W.N. Herbert and Colin Teevan and photographs by Sasa Savic. 


Linda France:


Homage to the Earth Solid and Beautiful under my Feet


As soon as we land, my feet taste

the difference in the Spanish earth.

My legs grow heavier, longing to plant

themselves in that dark ochre and grow

like a plane tree in the city’s squares,

dappled with sunlight, bearing globed fruit.


With every step a rose blooms

from the stone flags.  The tight buds

of my toes uncurl; my heels spur like thorns,

click like castanets.  I step

on all the cracks and feel the stretch

inch its way slowly up my thighs.


The Passeig de Gracia is a meadow

of sea creatures and figs, beachcombed leaves.

I steer myself across it; nothing to do

but buy a pair of new brown boots,

made for walking.  Their iguana tongues

lick my calves into life, root me.



Julia Darling:


(The Manifesto For Tyneside Upon England . MAY. 2004)


Friends. I am inventing a life in which your ingredients are returned to you!

Our lives are run by car parks, carrier bags, suits and credit cards.

This is my homage to you.


And from this evening I am removing power from our city leaders

and this city shall be run by its artisans and makers, by bread-kneaders

and stone masons, sculptors and chocolate fanciers, by egg painters and flower arrangers, 

blacksmiths and magicians.


The air of the new city shall smell of pies.


There will be many bicycle repair shops and free bikes.


The city shall be filled with the sounds of making, of sparking metal, of whirring minds, of fresh cheese, of new poetry.


We shall all discuss small things.


Each of us will learn a contemporary dance.


There shall be lesbian happy hour between six and seven.


Schools will be small. Doctors will be cheerful.


Everyone shall make their own coffin and use it as a table.


We shall be encouraged to grow English apples and raspberries.


Plain English shall be used at all times.


Porridge and soup will be plentiful.


We shall know our saints.


We shall know our devils.


Visitors, who will come in droves, must bring gifts to the great hall. Perhaps food, chocolate or wine would be appropriate. These gifts shall be shared equally. You cannot enter the city without a gift. 


Julia Darling:


Imaginary Travel


I imagine Tenerife, Majorca, Istanbul. I cut

Pictures from old magazines, of deep blue pools.


We have the travel club. We wear sunglasses.

There is the travel agent still, the well thumb brochures.


At night we sit and recall the Torromolinos of our childhood,

straw donkeys, tang of foreign chips and suntan cream.


Amazing how we used to jump on planes and land.

And it’s so much safer to pretend. It fills me up.




Colin Teevan:

Darling, you and your Darlingists and Darlingistas – we know who you are!

Ha! I knew your revolution would not have the courage of its convictions.

A dissident, an escapee of your night of the long pinking shears

Has made it here to Barcelona Libre


Needless to say,

It was not just his suit that was all cut up.

Is that any way to treat Mark’s and Spencer’s finest off the peg?

He barely had a leg to walk in.


But he also confirmed that you’ve begun to doubt the fairness

Of your edicts and your actions

And that your utopia has broken into factions

Of those who have tailors and those who’ve not.


Sympathy is the chink in the city manager’s psyche.

With us, nature’s true managers and administrators,

Sympathy is most unlikely.


And daily, Darling, do our numbers swell in Catalonia.

With exiles from your makers’ Utopia.

Suffer the marketing men, the bookkeepers to come unto me,

For theirs shall be the kingdom of Barcelona.


We have been given space by the Casa de la Ciutat

To found an academy of middle management

Fancy that, eh?

A master race of committed committee men and women.


They have also approved our plans for urban renewal

We’ll rebuild the place in our own likeness, Darling,

You’ll see that a city

Must be built without any pity.


Alderman Gavin de Earl Grey



W.N. Herbert:


In the rainy placa de Jordi Orwell
around the chocolate table in La Concha
where all the colours muted out of its fawn fitting
are turned up on the little TV to their tangerine max
even as we’re being cheated for squid & tortilla
I realise that this dark and shabby weather is a dalek
designed by Picasso, bringing us our bill
on a salver made of compacted salt and slavers.

The pigeons puff out feathers in the gaps
in the wall of Sant Maria del Mar, become
cubes of fluffy rat flesh; bagsnatchers leap prams
in the slick treets outside the Catedral
where the smell of rain mingles with incense
at the entrance to the cloisters. A girl kisses
the hand of the man holding an umbrella over her
and I go in: the bishops are balanced on
tilty cubist beds but do not slip from the walls.
the Roman geese that fill the garden have
little tufts like candle flames on their warning heads.
Two men lower a stick over which
holy vestements have been stretchered
into a brazier and a flame shoots up, Pentecostal.

In El Quatre Gats, Picasso kicks me in the back
so I can hardly walk past the Clansman Bar
(Partick Thistle Nil v. Celtic this Sunday)
to his Museu, where an origami Velasquez states
‘I don’t have an imagination
I have an inquisition’ stuffing doves
into shoeboxes yolked with Provencal dawns.

I bow beneath the interrogation of the rain.


As we walk across the mirroring ripples of the Ramblas’
wavery paving stones, Julia says
‘There’ll be no silver cowboys out in this.’
I look for Orwell’s rifle and can’t see him cross
the river full of folk.

Linda France:


Homage to a Woman with a Space Where her Heart is


after a sculpture by Miro


Up in the white maze of the rooftop

her body is blood and lipstick, varnished

against the elements – small curves

for hips, her torso an open fan.


Her face is woven tortilla and she wears

a sitting bull in hair that isn’t there:

crescent horns balancing the smile

of her waist, her invisible arms.


Blue sky paints itself in the empty moon

of her heart, a fat plume of cloud

feathering the space all around her,

inside her and all the way through her.


Behind her there’s the shock of two

small footballs that make her buttocks –

one red, one green: the place she’s kicked,

the place she bounces, cushioned by air.



Julia Darling


Learning A Disappearing Language


I am a bus driver

And I am being made to learn –

What is the point?

I have been taught to say

Hallo, how are your family?

Is it far from here to the mountains?

I am a stranger in this land.

Do you have a glass of water?


The words are gluey, they change

Within a minute of hearing them.

And I have no one to speak to,

So I must practise as I drive.

Hallo, how are your family?

Is it far from here to the mountains?

I am a stranger in this land.

Do you have a glass of water?


The passengers nod obligingly.

They seem to like the babble.

It’s like a waterfall, said one,

or a Chinese whisper.

Hallo, how are your family?

Is it far from here to the mountains?

I am a stranger in this land.

Do you have a glass of water?


Linda France:


Homage to the Rain in Spain Falling Mainly on the Plain


For two days the rain washed everything

she didn’t need away.  Its fingertips

rinsed her face.  On her tongue it tasted

of nothing at all: just liquid, falling

to fill the spaces she made with her shoulders

as she hopped over puddles and avoided

the spray from cabs too close to the kerb.

Dark men stood in doorways selling umbrellas

against drowning.  A high-tailed rooster

shook his spurs and crowed.  Santa Maria del Mar

launched a small metal boat lit by candles

to save her.  Even though it felt like

tilting at windmills, she climbed in.

Its name on the side in gold was Esperanza.

Her whole life flashed before her eyes

and she cried ‘Mother!  Mother!’, naked

as a baby she’d wrap in soft white cotton.

She sailed with all the people of the world

down Las Ramblas, the stream of birds

and the stream of flowers, the small canals.

She would wait in that shallow place

between hope and despair, watching raindrops

rip holes in the net of the sky like diamonds.



W.N. Herbert:


Memo to George


The throat of a young Italian speaking
a language you do not understand.
The difficulty in obtaining a pistol.
The appearance of shabby overalls
on rich people, car mechanics, lice.
 The woman walking down the street in furs,
with her poodle, between the crossfire
from the Cafe Moska and the belfry.
The language of your own newspapers
which you do not understand.

The wound appearing in your own throat.



It’s like a language that you used to speak

quite fluently, but then you moved away

from the household of her hips, and as the weeks

rephrased as years you couldn’t understand,

the patois of that profile and those hands

began to slip until you couldn’t read

her in the phrases of those other throats

who conjugated you in warmer beds.

You realized that you no longer dreamt

in the sharp vowels of her breast and hair;

the names of her mind’s streets had all turned gray

and you could only speak a dialect

which let you say you loved her all the more

though in the wrong case, and the perfect tense.


Colin Teevan:


Darling, Darlingists and Darlingistas

And associated Herbertists and France-oists

Each day brings news of our advances

And, with them, the diminuition of your chances.


A bus driver showed up babbling Sanskrit

Saying he had been forced to learn it

And give up his football of a Saturday afternoon.

Soon, he won’t be able to converse with his family.


A modern tragedy in an ancient tongue.

Darling, what function does it serve

To preserve dead languages in the heads of public transport workers?

Departments within your infrastructures soon won’t be able


To communicate.

Too late you’ll find you have built a tower of Babel.

Functionality, streamlining and simplicity

These are the watchwords upon which to found a city.


Where once Barcelona had two tongues, 

Now thanks to my rationalising intervention, it has one;

English, why attempt to buck a trend?

I’m assured by our marketing men


That soon all the world shall talk the same

Same questions, same answers, same desires.

This is the functional, streamlined simplicity

To which the modern manager aspires.


Alderman Gavin de el Rey.

Julia Darling:


The Meeting of the Property Developers At Midnight


 She took away our suits, and then our phones.

Our accountants were driven off in a bus.

We were not allowed to walk in our own foyers.

Our screens are dark as night. It’s medieval.


Those glistening buildings were our life’s work,

and they brought prosperity, purses, force,

clean young men,  sharp stiletto shoes.

No one warned us that the river smelt of war.


They make us sleep in dormitories, they say

that we must build rooms for the potters,

and poets will be the new architects. I say,

‘God help the tenants of the future.’


I’ve agreed to do a course in silver-smithing,

But everyone knows this madness won’t last.

Soon they’ll be no porridge in the mornings

Then they’ll ask where the clever boys are?


W.N. Herbert:


Homage to Jamon


I saw a pig’s trotter sticking in Julia’s ear

in the Can Massano restaurant

as though she was receiving messages

from Radio Free Trotter,

from irate carcasses,

and all coathooks and handles became

deep-fried curlicue aerials

of pigtails and pintles.


Didn’t you always want to be

in telepathic contact with a pig?

Haven’t you heard them transmitting from the pirate sty

how they were our irresistible substitute

for eating each other?

Don’t even vegetarians snort and roll at night

In lucid morcilla-devouring visions?

Haven’t you awoken from the cut-throat dream

knowing exactly what parts of everybody’s flanks

you’d slice and cure and eat?


Tell me you’d not drink Circe’s flask

of soya milk-based smoothie juice

laced with extracts from medieval parchments

from the Ars Compendiosa Inveniendi Veritatem

and let yourself become

an edible one?

A delible mark on the plates of Catalonia,

a delicacy who can describe its own consumption.

Think of the colour of your own serrated flesh:

the honey and beetroot varnished pane

you’re sure they fitted into wattle hut frames

back when you’d slit your own throat at Michaelmas

and salt your quartered hanging flesh

and seal your house against the sleet

with drumskin meat, snow-fat cataracts

while you became your own hamfisted, stock-bone furniture.


Praise to the horizontal humans

who make lampshades from their own jamon

who make magic lanterns from their spinning hips

and crackling, on which they cast

the movie that we still can’t watch

in which a well-stropped cloud is drawn across

the eyeball of Sylvia Plath.


 Colin Teevan:


Greetings, Darling and your dwindling Darlingians.

Rumour has it your Utopia’s on its knees.

You should have known.

Utopia means no-place, don’t you see?

Meanwhile, we have assumed complete control of Barcelona and it environs

And concluded our most ambitious programme yet:

To drain the colour from the place.

What is the point in all those primaries?

What is the point in light, in fact?

Even their football team now play in stripes of black and white,

La Rambla is now a tatty Ratner necklace of chain stores,

And the once proud population of artisans,

Exhausted by their siestaless days,

Console themselves on weekend nights by drinking

Newcie Browns or Bacardi Breezers

(We make the Newcie Browns by mixing tea and cava

And leaving it to stand in the sun to warm and lose its fizz)

And then they eat chips, and totter home through vomit dappled streets

And they might get lucky and have a shag

Or a fight,

Or both.

All of which helps keep the economy turning

(Though in truth none of us knows how or why)

Meanwhile, your revolution like the cava fizzes out .

All ideas have their sell-by-date.

They become hard and rigid

And become a stick with which to beat the people.

Only management is eternal.


So, the twinning mission complete.

Barcelona has fallen,

It is now Newcastle upon Med.

All changed.

All except the bridge at Pont Vell.

Well, we like our bridges.

The one weakness we retain for making things.

Besides,, they get us from A to B.

Progress. They signify progress, you see.

And I look forward to progressing home

And reassuming my seat in the Great Hall.

Then you, you weavers of words and instigators of ideas,

You shall be the first against the wall.

Gavin I, El Rey.


Julia Darling:


Oh Dear


My manifesto came undone,

I  forgot some parts,

like income, revenue.

We lasted for a month or two

There was a coup, and now,

there’s a new man with a megaphone.

My standards went downward.

The artists kept arguing.

The earnest and the logical stepped in

And soon we were outcasts.

Begging for someone to let us in.

But friends, we had polkas, hot salsas

I danced like a horse! I stood, that first night

on the steps of Swan House Roundabout,

I could taste invention. It tasted like nails.



Linda France:


Homage to What Fire Makes Possible


I lost myself in the crowd gathered around him

as he rose from the pavement like a flame.


Whatever dark magic he was making,

I felt the spark of it ignite my belly


as I stared at his, tight and rippling.

His hips slid away from him


as if he’d had enough of them,

brown chest rearing like a small horse.


His rough hands made the signs for gallop

and bridle.  I caught the fire in his eyes


and felt my body loosen, letting go

into the orange tongues of my own death,


the limits of my flesh and my open heart

that will never perish.  I couldn’t tell


anymore what was blood and what was drumming.

My fingers were burnt twigs.  Everything


was filled with the light of its own colour

and nothing I looked at would ever be the same.

The Chekhov Carver American Trip - Part 2: Yakima-Port Angeles-Seattle, 18-21 January 2004

The American Dream-Travelogue


Part 2


In the episodes so far: Neil, Margaret and Duska have been wading through dirty American snow, examining outdoor swimming pools and wonders of American suburban architecture: some extremely unusual buildings and constructions of various sizes and designs. Having arrived into the US, they spent one whole day in Yakima on a Raymond Carver pilgrimage, and in the company of accidental acquaintances – mainly exceptionally charming queens with dogs (that’s gay men with house pets, rather than any particularly Chekhovian ‘ladies with lap-dogs’). Margaret has been commenting on various experiences with great insight and wisdom; Neil has been wielding his video camera and Duska has been wearing a nicotine patch and having vivid dreams. They’ve seen some amazing sights and heard fantastic stories… 

Sunday, 18.01.04


I look out of the window at the thick sheets of the falling snow. It’s strangely comforting. It’s not until Bob rings to cancel our breakfast trip to Toppenish – another Indian reservation – that I think about this snow as an obstacle or a problem in any way. He has given me the airline telephone number, and because I’m not quite ready yet, I make the mistake number one and ring Neil asking him to contact the airline and check whether our flight is still going. Half an hour later, all three of us meet in Neil’s tastefully re-arranged hotel room to take stock of the situation. After a long and tense wait on the phone, Neil has been told by the airline representative that the flight is still scheduled, BUT that it could all change any minute. Plagued by endless ‘what if’s, our view of the situation is steadily deteriorating.


Led by Neil, on our way to breakfast we’re all envisaging the scenario of being stranded and having nowhere to sleep when Alaska Airlines decides at the last minute that they are not flying today. This is despite the fact that we’ve just walked across the hotel courtyard and could very clearly see that what we were facing was really just a harmless idyllic spell of snow rather than a celestial aberration. Over a postprandial cup of coffee Neil concludes his grand prophecy of doom with an effective flourish: ‘And if you remember, we’ve known that this would happen all along; we said ages ago that we would get here and just spend four days stranded in an airport!’


The spell broken, Margaret attempts to introduce the subject of the benefits of meditation. She remarks how thinking positive thoughts can sometimes lead to positive events and how even seemingly negative situations can sometimes lead to positive opportunities. Neil says – ‘yes, but being stranded in an airport is just so boring’. We decide we should just turn up at the airport and let the staff on duty deal with our accommodation in case of any cancellations.  


Cut to: we’re all sitting at an airport café with a nice view of the runway. It’s a perfect, clean winter day. All our luggage has been checked in and we’re recounting the events of the previous day with amusement and a sense of satisfaction at having done everything there was to be done in Yakima, and more. We speculate about Port Angeles and what that would be like. The detour to Port Angeles was a last minute idea as Carver’s widow Tess Gallagher only responded to us several days before our departure agreeing to see us. Carver spent the last years of his life in this place, so we build Port Angeles in our imagination as a really elegant, bohemian place with lots of nice fish restaurants. Harrogate comes to mind as a means of comparison. We’re also fretting about meeting Tess because Neil found her scary on some photographs and we’ve been warned about her highly eccentric, whimsical nature.


Then at one point, by some strange association of ideas Margaret asks Neil to tell us his story about the Bamboo House. Now, all I can say is – if you’d like to hear this (rather beautifully told) story, you’ll have to ask Neil to tell it to you himself. I only know that for some bizarre reason – or a set of reasons which might include jetlag, tiredness, stress, nicotine withdrawal and god knows what else – on this particular occasion, the telling of the story almost ends up in flying cups and saucers. Even the unsuspecting waitress doesn’t know how lucky she is that she gets away with just being called ‘dirty’ behind her back.


In other words, all of a sudden all hell breaks loose at this tiny little airport in the middle of nowhere and it has nothing to do with natural disasters. The long and short of it is, we all board the plane without talking to each other. Neil and I are sitting next to each other in a way which Margaret later describes using the word ‘ice’. Across the isle, Margaret is talking to a rather animated woman. I’m reading Carver. The Gazebo story. It strikes me that the hotel in which the couple in the story live and work could have been the hotel which we stayed in in Yakima. Then I read another one about a historian, whose wife has written him a letter (in unrecognizable handwriting) before she leaves him. There are some horses in the story – just like the horses in Call if You Need Me – only this one is perhaps a bit more Chekhovian. And it says something really interesting about how when your partner leaves you, you lose a bit of your history. Carver’s stories rarely ever make such observations, they just leave it up to you.


When we arrive in Seattle, Neil tentatively begins communicating with Margaret. Because Margaret makes an effort, anyway. I’m just being stubborn. My explanation is: I have already offered an apology which has been dismissed, there’s nothing else I can do. An hour later all three of us are sitting next to each other on a heated bench at Sea-Tac’s bus terminals – Margaret in the middle. Margaret tells me that Neil is worried that we may not be able to record the interview with Tess Gallagher because while the video camera seems to be playing back the images, it doesn’t do voice. I say I doubt that a video camera can’t pick up sound and that even if we’re not getting it in playback it doesn’t mean it’s not recorded. Margaret asks Neil whether he’s heard that. He says no and – before leaving in utter despair – Margaret asks us to sort out why we’re still sulking with each other. It takes some dramatic gut-spilling from both sides, but ten minutes later the storm has cleared and we are all on our way back to normal. I suggest we ring Northern Stage tomorrow and check how to use the camera for sound-recording.


When our bus to Port Angeles arrives it actually turns out to be a taxi-van. There is a slight problem with our reservations not having come through, but we eventually get in. We’re quite exhausted and the journey turns out to be quite long. Neil is dozing off or looking through the window. Margaret and I continue our conversations about the difference between playwriting and novel-writing which we’d started on the transatlantic plane. For some reason I’d been going on about John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation. Now we are talking about novels. We make some crucial illuminating discoveries. Then we chat. Because I recently took my mother to London to visit her aunt – which occasion generated an avalanche of stories – I’m telling Margaret about my family tree. I remember my distant cousin Lidia whose wedding I was taken to when I was a child. The groom was robbed on his wedding day, there was a fight, and we all drove home embarrassed.


By the time we are dropped off at our hotel it is completely dark. This too is a Red Lion (like the one in Yakima), only it feels completely different. The reception is a tiny little drop-in point and there are no pretentious foyers which only mask the basic nature of the rooms themselves. On the contrary, the rooms here are actually accessed from inside long corridors, feel warmer and look much nicer than in Yakima. Margaret and I are sharing a room because of some booking alterations we had to make at the last minute before departure. There are certain recognizable trademark features, but this room is more spacious and very comfortable. There is a self contained balcony overlooking a massive car park positioned at the bottom of a slope lined with evergreen trees. It has been raining, you can smell the sea and for some reason I feel like I am on a school trip. By comparison, Yakima felt like an accidental destination.


Margaret discovers that this time round they went through her bags at the airport. She’s got a leaflet informing her of this and has also found holes where somebody must have poked latex gloved fingers in her face cream tubs.


When we come down for dinner, the lady at the reception desk recommends some fish restaurant which she describes as being orange on the outside. We don’t quite know where to go but as soon as we venture outside of the hotel compound we realise this is more like Blackpool than Harrogate. The orange restaurant is lit with neon lights and is basically a small American diner with tiled walls and a couple of small aquariums by the entrance. I remember Dr Bob Plumb recommending oysters from the Pacific Ocean and noting that they are ‘the size of a dick’ in Seattle. I also remember my Russian friend Masha being sick from the Pacific oysters on several occasions so am very much repelled by the idea of any seafood. This leaves the option of fish and chips which appears in this restaurant’s menu in any number of guises. Over the meal we discuss tomorrow’s conversation with Tess as well as the actual play and what shape and form it might take. Margaret is eager to start writing as soon as possible. Back in the room, Margaret and I spend another hour drinking decaffeinated coffee so I can get over my nicotine craving. We talk about exes and relationships. 


That night I dream I am at a party. Margaret is this really glamorous film star and I am secretly really proud to know her. The party is also a film screening. I don’t remember anything about the film that was screened but it had Margaret in it.


Monday, 19.01.04


There are two sections to the hotel restaurant. The one overlooking the sea is not being used for breakfast but we manage to persuade the waiters to set up our meeting in there. There is a great amount of anticipation as we sit at the table, Neil’s camera ready and waiting in between plates. When she finally arrives we recognize her face from the pictures we had seen but she has cut off her hair. I’m thinking that she still looks attractive as she informs us that she had just come back from Ireland with her companion who is Irish and a painter. We spend the next couple of hours getting gradually elated through sheer indulgence in our shared favourite interest. Tess is very kind and giving and generous, extremely sympathetic to our idea and full of enthusiasm for it. She tries very hard to give us detailed responses to all our questions, the only catch being that she makes her own presence felt in all her accounts. She tells us how she met Ray at a conference and how they lived distances apart but caught up with each other eventually. She tells us how she helped him stay away from the bottle. She tells us how she was the first reader, editor and curator of his work. They researched some subjects together – gazebos were her interest to start with, for example, and that’s how he got the idea. But she also paints him occasionally with the mysticism often afforded to a writer – she tells us how she was reading one of his stories to her sick sister and the sister demanded that they ring him and find out what happens after the story ends. Most interestingly, even though we had been fretting about how we would ask her about Carver’s death – death being one of the main themes of our project – she volunteers the story herself. She tells us that on the night of his death Ray had been lying in a bed they’d set up in the living room of her house. Funnily enough, the film of The Lady with the Lap-Dog with Marcello Mastroianni was on television that night but Ray was bothered by a raccoon that he saw through the window. He kept asking for it to be sent away and Tess’s mother tried to get rid of it with a broom.


She regrets that we haven’t got more time because she would have taken us on their favourite walk or maybe even to the house. We regret it too – to say the least. The parting is quite drawn out. Chatting, we find out that she is on a cusp between Cancer and Leo. Ray was a Cancerian. They were both very home oriented, and her favourite meal is breakfast. In preparation for saying our goodbyes, we are talking about her coming over to Newcastle. While talking about it I also mention Thomas from the Box Office who buys Carver’s books for Christmas presents and who was so excited about our trip. We give each other hugs and as soon as she’s left we are bursting with impressions once again. Can’t wait to see Neil’s recording…


We pick up our bags from the reception and board the taxi-van. The driver is really laid back and tells us about the passengers he needs to pick up on the way (we’re the first). We ask him how long it would take to get to Seattle, he calculates that he’d get us there by about 5.30. We’re disappointed by the prospect of travelling for five hours and not being able to see much of the city when we get there. He says it’s a bank holiday today, everyone is off work but the shops should be open till late. We set off and Neil and Margaret are restless because we are going very slowly. The first port of call is the shuttle’s own base, a tiny office in the middle of nowhere where he is meant to be picking up a passenger who doesn’t turn up. Then we drive through a pretty town and into a residential area where we pick up a middle-aged couple. The driver is very happy as he finds an eager conversation buddy in the guy, who sits next to him; the woman sits behind the driver but in front of us and takes out her knitting. The three of us at the back are still talking about Tess Gallagher, discussing Carver’s death, discussing Chekhov’s death the way that Carver imagined it in his story Errand; generating wonderful ideas for the show, but not being able to write them down because we all suffer from car sickness. Margaret says something about using a raccoon hat in a way which is both Russian and American. We generally find a lot of Russianness in this experience of America anyway. We’re hoping to find a lot of similarly unimposing Americanness in Russia. We wonder what we should call the piece – whether the title should be a fusion of titles from both writers perhaps? I think it should be a fusion of their names and that we should just call it the Charver Project. Eventually we arrive at some retail park and find a black guy waiting for us – he was the passenger that never arrived at the shuttle’s base.


We pass some fantastic landscapes on our way which we weren’t able to see in the dusk of the previous day’s journey. This is definitely an area of exceptional natural beauty – I later find out that Port Angeles is at the foot of Olympia mountains and on the edge of the strait of Juan de Fuca – this is actually the American /Canadian border at its western-most end. As we drive down to Seattle via the Sea-Tac airport we actually drive along the strait and sometimes it looks like a series of lakes. Every so often we are shrieking at each other – ‘Look!’ The knitting woman in front of us responds to something we say and Margaret starts up a conversation with her. She – I think her name was Janet – tells us about how they are on their way to their holiday house in New Zealand and will be staying there till April. They used to have a holiday house in Hawaii but decided to sell it around the time of some natural disaster. She tells us that the place where they live now and where we picked them up from was called Blyn. Blyn is in a bay and well sheltered and that’s why an awful lot of pilots have retired to the place – they remembered it as remarkably sunny and clear every tame they took off and promised to themselves they’d retire there one day. Janet’s children – two daughters and two sons all live in the state of Washington now, although as a family they didn’t all live there all the time. In response to simple questions from Margaret, Janet tells us interesting stories. They are all quite simple in content but delivered with such skill and conversational ease that it’s quite a pleasure listening to her. She tells us what her children and grandchildren do. She explains some of her grandchildren’s inclination to want to be teachers as genetic because her husband’s parents were teachers and so were hers and she was also trained to be one. Some other of her grandchildren are very good athletes, but she doesn’t explain where that comes from. Her youngest son doesn’t have children but he and his fiancé have dogs. Her older son is a fruit specialist and lives in Yakima with his family. Her oldest daughter is divorced. She has a daughter who is training to be a hairdresser. She’s learnt by now to be on her own but she has just met somebody at a New Year’s party when she least expected it and they seem to be getting on fine. In talking about their family history she mentions living in a place which had a volcano disaster. She talks about coming back home from holiday and finding inches and inches of ash everywhere. ‘Some artistic people made jewellery out of the objects they found in it,’ she tells us.       


Observing that she does it in an English way, Margaret asks Janet about her knitting technique. Janet listens. Then Margaret asks what it is that she is knitting. Janet says – ‘This is a lawn. Or a carpet for a doll’s house.’ In any case it is a green thing that does look like either. Most probably it will be a scarf, however, with tiny grassblades.


We drop off various passengers at various points. The black guy is one of the first. Neil mutters how the guy could have at least apologized for keeping us late. By the time we’ve dropped everyone off and waved goodbye to the lawn-knitting woman and her husband, Margaret and I are getting quite excited about getting back into civilisation. Looking forward to seeing people, lots of people, the urban types. At a certain point, as we drive past huge shipbuilding cranes and general industrial landscapes on our left, we start to see the city on the horizon. It is all lit by the setting sun further to the left, and the entire picture looks quite appealing. Once we drive into the city, Margaret is making a mental shopping list, pointing at all the different department stores. She primarily wants to go to a bookshop however, while Neil is very keen to get to the famous Pike Place Market. I would really like to see a good show. Our hotel is up the road from the Space Needle – we can see it as we park by – but nobody seems to be interested enough in going there. We check in and somehow manage to get some maps and directions to bookshops from the reception clerk who is quite difficult to get through to. We go into our rooms and even though I can finally see the busy street from my window, I feel quite unsettled. Everything is somehow so much more dingy and worn out. For the first time ever I think of all the kinds of things that people use hotel rooms for and am instantly put off. I just put the heating on and go out to wait for Margaret and Neil. First we go to a shopping centre which has a big bookshop in the basement. Everything is so perfectly navigable, the streets being straight and the corners definite. We find the bookshop and I’m impressed by their collection of notebooks. Margaret is looking for relevant literature and Neil goes off somewhere completely different. After a while we decide to go to the Pike Market and possibly even look for another smaller and possibly more interesting bookshop which we identified on the map. Going in a perfectly straight line down a gradually slanting street (which probably has its own number) we observe the famous Seattle train which goes around buildings at approximately the first floor level. The one that we see is stationary but we express a wish to find out what it feels like to travel in one of those. Margaret explains that the train was built as part of Seattle’s Expo in 1962. We later find other references to the same event. As we arrive at the market it just strikes us as an ordinary fish market with its characteristic smells. It’s closing time so we realise that we’re probably not even going to get close to glimpsing the market’s full glory. We only find a couple of pages from some newspaper. They happen to be the culture section and I try to read it while walking in an attempt to identify an interesting piece of theatre. It doesn’t work.


We make our way to the other bookshop which seems relatively easy to get to from the market. It only takes a walk along a pleasant boulevard which feels quite Parisian in fact and leads to a place called the Pioneer’s Square. Once again we notice very few people on the streets and they are mostly beggars. One of them asks us for some change and after we apologise and walk past him, he turns around and starts walking in the same direction a couple of meters behind us. After a while it feels quite worrying and I alert Neil and Margaret and ask them to cross the street. As it’s getting darker we’re all panicking a bit and vowing that we’re taking a taxi after this block. Luckily, the next block’s corner is the entrance to our bookshop. This is quite an atmospheric place with lots of different rooms, tall shelving units, staircases and displays of both brand new titles and some rare second-hand items. The bookshop has a bit of a reputation for political titles, I think. I scour the theatre and drama sections. Only after several hours I suddenly come across a whole lot of books I really want to buy – mainly as presents for various people. I get a book on Hans Christian Andersen (with some pictures) for Neil and Six Degrees of Separation for Margaret. It feels so perfect. I pay for my collection and go downstairs to look for Neil and Margaret in a café, feeling quite elated. We decide to find somewhere to eat and somebody recommends a place called something like Pigalle back in the Pike Market.


Pigalle is a really pretentious little restaurant which we dislike almost as soon as we sit down. It’s one of those places which serves small portions on big plates and even though the tables are intimately lit, the waiters keep hovering around rather intrusively and filling up our glasses. I’m particularly annoyed about having my water glass continually refilled with icy water. There is a waitress who comes to each table with a particular task of reciting the menu in a really ‘pleasant’ but almost dehumanised manner. Neil particularly hates her. Once again we order some fish dishes and talk about fairytales most of the time during the meal. I ask both Neil and Margaret what their favourites are and they keep changing their minds. Margaret talks about some famous interpretations of various fairytales and although profoundly disillusioning, some of them are quite interesting. On the way back I’m struggling against the desire to smoke. Neil and Margaret keep telling me horror stories about how I am bound to have to put at least stone on – I hate the thought of it. Then we think of Alan and start worrying about his diabetes. We conclude that there is nothing we can take him back as a present as he seems to have no vices anymore.


We complete the evening by going back to the bookshop in the shopping mall near our hotel once again. This time Neil gets me a Carver book with a pretty cover called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and I am really touched and sad and overwhelmed. I’m worried that my gesture earlier on may have created an obligation, which I certainly didn’t want to happen. But than again it would be quite selfish only to be a giver and not a receiver as well. In any case it’s a rather nice end to the eventful and emotional journey and it’s good to be able to celebrate things. We go to Neil’s tastefully re-arranged room to look at all our new books. It’s also Margaret’s turn to make a phonecall and arrange the transport for tomorrow. The phonecall turns out to be quite exhausting for Margaret and we all end up dispersing very quickly.


That night, I get a phonecall from my ex and am really annoyed because he keeps asking me to do things for him and it’s my thirtieth birthday and he’s forgotten all about it. In fact I’m back at home in Krusevac, in my grandma’s house. My cousin is having one of her many weddings to her husband. Because their families are in different places they end up having to have them all over Europe. Guests are arriving for the wedding and I am nowhere near ready. I feel bad about it and offer to go on an errand and fetch someone from the other end of town – a settlement called the United Nations. I walk through town and suddenly when I get to what is supposed to be the Archaeological Park, I am suddenly in a place that I know as Kirkstall in Leeds even though it doesn’t look like Kirkstall at all. It looks like a council estate somewhere and some really shady characters – the down and outs from Seattle – are walking around. I get confronted by one of them and get terribly frightened and want to get away and luckily, at that moment, I come across a group of schoolchildren walking in rows together. I join them and follow them to their school explaining quickly to the teachers what has happened. I talk to them in English. The teachers ask me in and say they’ll try and get someone to drop me off where I need to be. I stay behind with one of them and tell her in great detail what has happened. With a French accent she says – ‘That can only happen in this country!’ (I don’t know which country she means but I’m thinking she must be their French teacher). I’m sitting at a table on an upper level drinking coffee and looking down on the school assembly. All of a sudden I sense somebody sitting opposite me reading a newspaper. I’m thinking I know this person, I was always meant to meet him and this is it now – I only hope I like him. I turn around to face him and am neither impressed nor disappointed. We talk. He tells me he knows all about where I come from because he is a geography teacher. I ask him how old he is. He says 32. He’s a Cancerian, will be 33 in June. We chat some more and then he says he has to go. I ask him what his name is and he tells me a Serbian surname. I think he is taking the piss. Then I ask his colleagues what his name was and they give an English name. I am confused but calm. I carry on waiting for a solution and after awhile my geography teacher comes back and says he would give me a lift as he has re-arranged his class. On the way to his car he observes that I should put more weight on and I say I am very likely to as I’ve just given up smoking. He talks to me in an enigmatic way which basically amounts to a reality check. When we get back to where my cousin’s reception is meant to be taking place, it is obvious that the ceremony has already happened and that I missed it. We go in and everybody asks me where I’ve been and I start relating my adventure in great detail while my geographer goes to explore the music selection and eventually comes back with his choices. They all start dancing together, and I wake up. I’m thinking – what a disappointment. It was only a dream. And in Seattle! And nicotine fuelled.



Tuesday, 20.01.04


It is my family’s saint’s day – and we’re all dispersed all over the world. I’m thinking I understand the geography issue and the places merging into each other but why did all the time-lines get completely muddled up as well? I will be thirty in May and my cousin’s Serbian wedding happened last summer. And yet I was obviously also aware of having just stopped smoking here and now. Margaret phones me to ask me whether I slept well and I say yes, I fell in love. We decide to go for a coffee and croissants in a Starbucks around the corner. Neil is nowhere to be found, so we go on our own. Half-way through our breakfast and my account of the dream, I see Neil through the window and he joins us and we talk again about fairytales and Theatre de Complicite and missed opportunities in life.


In order not to miss our plane, we hurry back to the hotel. Once again Margaret is doing the maths as to how much we should give the taxi driver as a tip. As we count the change, it suddenly occurs to me we must’ve spent some 15% of our time on this trip just working out tips. Or Margaret working them out, mainly. When we arrive to the check-in point we proceed to heavily confuse the stewardess with our seating requirements. We all want an isle seat but none of us want anyone sitting next to us. We seem to disagree amongst ourselves as to what it is that we actually want. We draw little diagrams for the stewardess. In the end she just makes her own decision. As we walk towards our gate, Margaret is trying to find the exact descriptions of stubbornness that each one of us possesses. I think we settle on ‘rigid’ for Neil, ‘stubborn’ for me and ‘headstrong’ for Margaret. As we approach passport control, there is a nice lady smiling at me but putting me in a different queue to Neil and Margaret’s. At first I am amused and incredulous that this is happening to me again but gradually my anger and frustration mounts. I am being searched by a female attendant and watching my hand luggage being thoroughly examined. I didn’t even know what junk I was carrying in my bag and am now having to own up to. It is banal but I am not used to these levels of intrusion even with the people who are closest to me. The guy examining my bag smiles at me and informs me that he now has to put it all back in again. I don’t smile back forgivingly. In fact I suddenly realise that this whole operation is being carried out mainly by black people and am particularly angry about this ploy of the US government which is quite clearly designed to subliminally work on the victim and prevent them from any confrontational behaviour. How can you possibly confront a black person for just doing their job, how can you take your anger out on someone like that without appearing as though you’re being racist? So you basically just have to grin and bear it. I’m fuming – metaphorically, because I actually can’t in any other way.


While Neil and Margaret go to the duty free shop I go to the airport staff wanting to make a complaint, wanting an explanation as to why I’m being singled out and whether I should expect this to happen to me every time I go in and out of their country? An officer they send to me to deal with my query just listens sympathetically. He claims this is all random (even though I ‘randomly’ got singled out twice out of the two possible times while neither of my companions did!) Then he starts telling me about how he lost his driving licence for speeding and how he is often assumed to have been convicted only just because he was tried and how you can’t do anything about it. People have to do their jobs etc. I’m thinking he must have been taught this as a strategy too – if somebody complains in an agitated manner and you don’t know what to do just tell them the worst and most humiliating thing that has happened to you. Make it up if you have to, do whatever it takes to uphold this masquerade called ‘democracy’ where everyone is given the right to complain and demand compensations for every trivial thing, where one is rewarded for his/her stupidity, where you can write to the papers to complain about the weather but where you are quite impotent when it comes to essential freedoms – the freedom to be judged on the strength of who you really are rather than the stereotypes that can be attached to you. Yes, I may carry a British passport but I have an odd accent and am therefore a possible threat. And while they are busy dealing with some indignant dramaturg who is trying to acquaint them with the theatrical value of Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver’s prose (and who is also suffering from nicotine withdrawal!), entire shipments of weapons and most elaborate criminal schemes are probably sailing past their noses unnoticed, their perpetrators probably just complaining about the weather. 


Once on the plane, I’m fully exhausted. Margaret is being really supportive and good to me. We watch some silly movie about children behaving as adults and adults behaving as children, but most of the rest of the time is just time-travel backwards in complete darkness, with most of us asleep. We’ve forgotten our silicone earplugs in our luggage so I plan to try and buy some in Amsterdam. Margaret and Neil want to get some special liquorice. We are very tired but going on auto-pilot. Once we hit the ground we spend a lot of time frantically searching for things. It’s very early in the morning on 21.01.04. Starting to get light… Facing one last bit of the journey home, we’re daydreaming of lavazza coffee. Looking forward to some proper rest… Worrying about what the food will be like in Russia… We’ve got bottles of melatonin to sample when we get back home!... And a grand piano is playing at the Amsterdam airport…

Friday, 23 May 2008

The Chekhov Carver American Trip - Part 1: Seattle-Yakima, 16-17 January 2004

(In 2003, the American-born/Newcastle-based writer Margaret Wilkinson,  the Northern Stage Associate Director and Designer Neil Murray and I started working on what we called the Chekhov-Carver Project. The idea was to commemorate the centenary of Chekhov's death in 2004, using Carver's story Errand - in which he imagined Chekhov's death - as a departure point. The more we read about the two writers, the more parallels we found between their work and their lives. We were extremely lucky that we also managed to obtain Arts Council funding for research trips to the Carver Country (the State of Washington) and Russia and Ukraine...)

The American Dream-Travelogue 


Part 1


First of all there’s all the stories – Chekhov and Carver. All quite similar but – different time-zones, different languages, different periods. And it’s all rather sparse and simple and poignant. Perhaps a portrait of a couple falling apart silently in an unstated way; over a cup of coffee; while perhaps some birds or horses are shuffling around in the background. There’s one, for example – Carver’s – about a man pouring whiskey over the belly of his wife who wants to jump out of the window of the hotel where they work as caretakers because he’s screwing a Mexican maid in between fixing the taps and cleaning the swimming pool. In the minutes before she leaves him forever they remember how they drove out of the town called Yakima and stopped at a farmhouse and asked some old couple for a glass of water and the old couple invited them in to their gazebo. And then there’s several about people drinking alcohol; or people in snowy, hilly or watery landscapes; or people telling each other strange thin

gs that are not at all what they mean but that depict much deeper levels of meaning.


So we’ve been binging on these stories for months now and are revisiting some of them while sitting on a transatlantic plane. At least Neil and Margaret are revisiting them in between Neil’s taking pictures through the window and Margaret’s grappling with an idea for a play. I’m wearing a nicotine patch, which is quite an absorbing experience, actually. An identity crisis, almost. Predictably I can’t concentrate on reading or writing or thinking a complicated thought. Neil’s warned me I could even get ‘hysterical’. So I go to sleep across two of the six seats in the middle row. Sandwiched in between Margaret and some Russians. An American and some Russians, that is. Across several different time-zones. In my slumber, I’m getting all sorts of thoughts about time travel and what would happen if we went around the globe enough times without stopping…– when suddenly Neil comes over to us from his window shouting: You’ve missed Greenland!


Eventually, Margaret and I are frantically stuffing blue silicone screws into our ears to prevent them from getting painful and blocked during the landing, and I recall my GP telling me ‘we are not designed to do this, we’re not designed to fly’. I’m eager to discover America for the first time ever, but everything that happens in the next three or four days will be completely unanticipated, will completely defy all expectations.


Just to get us all off to a dramatic start, I get harassed on arrival by immigration authorities. I offer to leave my fingerprints hoping that that would dispel their concerns about my accent and my name, but even though they take my offer, they also send me through a sinister hurdle race involving sarcastic remarks, mysterious smiles and an embarrassing surgery (with latex gloves!) of my luggage content. Neil and Margaret are waiting for me at the finishing line and we quickly try and forget all about it.


We spend several hours at ‘Sea-Tac’. The Seattle-Tacoma airport. It’s a beautiful afternoon and some winter sunshine streams in across distant landscapes and through the giant airport windows. Neil obsesses about hand luggage trolleys while Margaret and I are trying to work out how to use a public phone. A young black man wanders over to us and just gives us a 50 dollar phonecard. We ring home realising that it’s actually after 10PM. When we settle down to our take-away Starbucks coffee we are both tired and full of anticipation. Neil and I munch on newly discovered pretzels; Margaret is reading; then Neil pulls out his video camera and starts killing the time we have to spend waiting for a delayed commuter flight to Yakima. We are going to visit the place of Carver’s childhood (he spent some 20 years there from the age of three, and his first wife was from the same place).


Several hours later we are in a snowy mountainous landscape. We’ve been scattered all over the plane. The air steward has been making surreal inarticulate announcements, Margaret has been chatting to a peacekeeper, Neil has been forced into conversation by Dr Bob Plumb and I’ve been trying to imagine the terrorist that I might have been in the immigration authorities’ imagination. On our descent Dr Bob Plumb introduces us to his partner Alfredo (Fred) and insists on us giving him a call tomorrow and coming over for drinks. We say we would.


Yakima is a really small, provincial town at a relatively high altitude, historically renowned for apple orchards, and recently also re-invented as a wine region. The hotel driver who picked us up from the airport couldn’t think of any important cultural sites in the town; didn’t know who Raymond Carver was; recommended Mexican restaurants and told us that Yakima (or Yakama) comes from the name of the local Indian tribe. They live in a reservation across the river. There is another town that Yakima grew into and/or out of Union Gap (everyone has their Newcastle and Gateshead). We are driving through Yakima in the dark and the houses remind Neil of Carrie, the movie. He likes some of them and wants to come back and photograph them. From the outside, the hotel looks quite OK. Once through the automatic doors however, we are in for a few surprises. At first we think that the reception manager who’s just moved back from San Francisco is amusing. Then we realise that our rooms are actually accessed from the outside – just like in some 1980s thrillers. There is an outdoors swimming pool in the courtyard and we have to wade through some dirty dry snow surrounding the footpaths in order to make shortcuts. I think my room is very cold, but I’d always think that (especially if its entrance is exposed to the elements). We all meet back in the bar where Neil is drinking his wine and complaining about the average age of the guests he’s registered in the hotel restaurant. We contemplate finding another place to eat but are reminded of the fact that we’ve been up for 24 hours now and settle for the delights of the Red Lion hotel’s chef.


At the table, for some reason we are discussing American toilets. Probably just goes to show how tired we are. And another thing – in America, everything’s possible, you can really get chips with everything. Margaret enjoys the details and the flavours she finds familiar and we just enjoy the food. Because I can’t resist having a cigarette after the meal, I take my patch off and go into the bar for five minutes. The customers are all very strange looking, stuck in some different time, or just plain eccentric – a couple of men are wearing cowboy hats and three middle aged women are dancing to Santana’s Black Magic Woman on an empty dance floor.


We go to sleep and I have terrible nightmares which basically amount to being besieged or attacked.     



There’s fruit and yogurt and porridge and pancakes and French toast and all sorts of omelettes you can choose from for breakfast. Over a cup of coffee we are looking at the telephone directory, looking for Herb Blissard, a local Carver enthusiast who also happens to be Bob’s remote colleague. He was recommended to us in an email by Tess Gallagher (Carver’s widow and a poetess). She also recommended another guy whom we can’t find at all. Margaret’s drawn up a list of places to visit. They include a couple of fishing ponds, a lake or a creek (some of which occur in Carver’s stories or in Carver’s life), Carver’s first house in a trailer park, a gazebo/band stand in Central Washington State Fair and some wooden houses. Margaret and Neil’s objections to ringing Dr Bob Plumb amount to a slight feeling of unease about the man we only just met and the effort of politeness the whole thing would require. Plus why would he want to host us? We are probably just exotic and interesting to him because the place is so boring, and we might be a good dinner party story – is Margaret’s elaboration of Bob’s motives. Neil just finds him creepy. As nobody likes talking on the phone it eventually falls to me to ring Bob because I’m the only one up for the idea. Besides, we can’t get hold of Herb either. Bob offers to come and pick us up in his car at midday and I put another nicotine patch on. We decide to go for a little walk around the hotel which is being invaded by various war veterans with strange caps.


On our walk we get as far as the Mexican supermarket across the road. By comparison to England, all buildings in Yakima look rather lonely, there being a lot of space around them. The supermarket is just a plain barrack-type thing with several drive-ins and take-aways scattered around it. For some unexplained reason, Margaret and I feel compelled to buy strange things – she picks a bag of pork-scratchings and I get a jar of sourkraut. Meanwhile, Neil is photographing cactus leaves on the vegetable stalls. We then marvel at some washing boards and Neil says Emma Rice would now be buying hundreds of these if she was here. We spend a surprisingly long period of time wandering aimlessly around this big but rather basic grocery store and I wonder whether this is what jetlag actually feels like.


After cheerfully announcing that Fred is making lunch for us, Bob asks what we want to see today. When Margaret gets to the gazebo on her list, Bob remarks: ‘Oh, I wonder whether that’s the gazebo in our garden’. Somehow it sounds like a Bob remark, but we are intrigued. I pull out the story called Gazebo and Margaret finds the place in it where it mentions an old farm and Terrace Heights – which actually is Bob’s address. All traces of initial reserve instantly disappear and turn into unflinching enthusiasm. And there it really is, a tiny little gazebo behind the fence and a couple of wire dancers sticking out of the deep snow. Bob’s dogs greet us at the door while Fred shouts hello from the kitchen. The house is quite interesting – a labyrinth of rooms with all kinds of tables, antiques and art objects in them. Bob gives us a walk around the house first and shows us a dresser from Jakarta that their handyman who is banned from driving has fixed with little lights, a big painting/wooden collage that their friend Leo has made and refused to sign until they redecorate the wall which they hang it on, a cold room with a sowing machine in it, a room with a square breakfast table and a portrait of a woman on the wall, a bedroom which Bob called an S&M room for some clever reason which I now forget, and lots and lots of other dining tables of various shapes and sizes in the central part of the house and in the adjacent conservatory. We are told there is an equivalent labyrinth in the basement but we don’t get to see it. For lunch, we have omelette with raspberry yogurt and champagne in the conservatory. Then Bob’s ex-student and her daughter (both apparently Hispanic) come round and help us identify the fishing ponds we’re after on the map. Just after lunch we go out into the garden, wade through the snow past a swimming pool – once again – and get photographed with and without the dogs in the gazebo. Margaret wants to write a story about it. When we get back, we find a big fat cat on the table eating Margaret’s yogurt – I do feel like Alice in Wonderland, and it’s only just starting – we put our coats on and set off on our tour of Yakima.


Some of the sites, like the wooden houses, we only film out of the window of the moving car. We stop off at one trailer park which reminds me of a temporary Gypsy settlement somewhere in Eastern Europe. We spend quite a bit of time at the Washington State Fair – wading through snow, of course – to get to the bandstand. This is followed by a visit to Walmart as we need the toilet. Once there, we all swoop on bottles of Melatonin – Neil’s favourite catchphrase prior, during and following this entire trip. While being recommended as a sleeping aid in cases of jetlag or insomnia, the said product is banned in the UK. The cashier however doesn’t know this and is thoroughly puzzled and semi-amused having served all three of us, one by one, each holding his/her own bottle. Obviously, my strip search at the border hadn’t deterred me from committing an act of drug-smuggling.


Next, we drive past Carver’s first house in another trailer park which now looks more like something out of the film 8 Mile. In fact, I’m glamorising it a bit but squalor is so hard to associate with the esteemed subject of our research trip. None of us seem too eager to get out of the car, so Bob jumps out and takes a quick snapshot. Within minutes we continue onto the exploration of fishing ponds. Interestingly, even though we visit two fishing sites, we see absolutely no water anywhere as these ponds dry out in winter. Still, we have some fantastic walks. Eventually, on our way to a gallery which we were informed also sells books on Carver, quite by accident, Margaret spots a running advertisement at the top of a building mentioning a Raymond Carver conference. We park the car, and armed with the video camera, Neil goes to investigate the advertisement more closely. We turn out to be just a week to early for the conference which is due to happen in Yakima College and we resign ourselves to quietly contemplating the notion of fate. We could’ve been a week too late…


As a special treat, Bob and Fred decide to take us for a visit to their friend Leo Adams’. Yet again we get to something which resembles a Gypsy quarter. The road ends and we find ourselves on a dirt track. To our right there is an expanse of naked apple trees, neatly positioned in endless rows stretching into the dusk. Margaret mentions a story by Chekhov or Carver in which somebody makes a fire in an orchard. Bob and Fred explain that we are in the Indian reservation and the orchard belongs to Leo. The house belonging to Leo however is something like a tardis. On the outside it looks like a shed (there’s a window above the entrance through which we can glimpse an old chair leaning at an angle in amongst other reject stuff). There is a series of entrance doors which Leo – an American Indian Lindsay Kemp look-alike – opens for us. We find ourselves in the kitchen first, greeting Leo and Noel’s dogs. Then a whole new world of carefully thought out, carefully arranged space and objects opens up in front of us. To the right there is a Japanese style seating area which you have to step down into, like a jaccuzi made of cushions. This area has a TV set which is hidden away, it has its own fireplace and a blue painted metal washing tub hanging over it. Strange as it may sound, the washing tub never actually looks out of place. Straight through, past a small stove and behind a Japanese style rice paper wall, there is a bedroom with a giant four-poster. This is a typical magazine item, so detailed, so luxurious and so complete that you can only ever take in the whole thing, not knowing where to begin taking it apart mentally so to register the detail. There is a door leading out of this room onto a wooden porch which runs all around the house. Russian olive trees shelter some of the porch and there is – a swimming pool! – at some point down this particular labyrinth. Neil goes out to explore the exteriors and other parts of the house, while Margaret and I go into a huge room on the left of the kitchen which I remember as being a massive space dotted with Leo-restored salon furniture. There are some dry flowers with very long stems on the floor which Leo was obviously going to arrange into something interesting and the walls are lined with pieces of wood – something like a wall parquet. It is a genuinely sigh-provoking space with drapes and unusual yet supremely elegant pieces of interior decoration. By the time we return to the kitchen Noel – Leo’s partner – has poured out some wine and there is a big piece of smoked salmon fillet on the table. I don’t remember Leo saying much at all for a long time while we are arranging our awe-stricken impressions around the table. Bob and Fred lead the conversation and Noel sits quietly with a glass of wine on a wooden staircase facing us. Leo’s neutral expression strikes me as being semi-displeased, with the corners of his mouth turned tensely downwards (when I later relate this to my mother, she observes that indeed this is a typical expression we see on the portraits of Red Indians). The conversation is lively and it doesn’t take long for it to branch out into several simultaneous ones. Margaret is explaining the project animatedly, Fred is getting drunk, Bob is getting excited and Neil and I are praising the salmon. Then all of a sudden, Leo turns to the three of us: ‘You all have very interesting noses!’


We laugh and soon afterwards Leo is telling us the kind of stories that are just as heart-warming and elaborate, just as authentic and luxurious, just as mind-boggling and puzzling as his designs. (‘I’m a Scorpio, that’s why I’m so earthy.’) He was born a twin, but while Eric was liked and became an heir, Leo was cursed by his magician grandfather on his father’s side. He survived the curse delivered at his birth and was cursed again at the age of ten. This time his grandmother on his mother’s side who was also a magician spent three days and three nights trying to remove the curse. He was cursed because he was an unusual child he had all this creative energy and he was also quite feminine. Once, on his way back from school, he found a shawl under a bridge and wrapped himself in it, thus sauntering home in a feminine attire. (He speaks with a slight endearingly effeminate inflection as well.) He visited his grandfather at his deathbed in a hospital as well. And his grandfather just issued an emphatic prolonged hiss at him. His brother got the 40 acres of land. As a young man, he got married to a friend of his. They believed it would help her because ‘she had problems with her legs’. They got a baby girl. He hasn’t seen her since she was five. His wife was vile to him in court, telling all sorts of lies to defame him and get custody of the child. She is very rich and spoilt. He’s heartbroken and pining after his daughter. 


On our way to a Mexican restaurant which everyone suddenly insists on going to, Bob and Fred fill us in on the rest of Leo’s story – he won various scholarships thanks to his remarkable talent and studied in France and in Japan. He has worked as a consultant on many rich and famous people’s interiors and was recently an honorary guest at Ray Allan’s (former Bill Gate’s business partner) party.


When we get to the restaurant it is a disappointment, but anything would have been. The food is also quite unremarkable although served as seemingly authentic. At the table, I listen to Bob’s story. He was married to a University professor. She was a sociologist/English lit. specialist and has published a book on Djuna Barnes, I think. They had a son. Fred was a friend of hers. He had come over from the Philippines at the age of 15 and went to the University of Seattle to study chemistry. He was ahead of his class and never quite fitted in. He was always gay. He participated in Bob’s family life from his son’s early childhood. Bob’s wife encouraged Bob to come out. She was teaching at Pennsylvania University when Bob and Fred started living together some ten years ago. She never found anyone else although she had a couple of brief affairs. She died two years ago from a brain haemorrhage. Bob and Fred gave her a magnificent funeral and Bob just recently became a happy grandfather.


In the restaurant I’m surprised by the presence of so many people. Our general experience all day out on the streets has been of Yakima as a rather ‘underpopulated’ town. We did see a parade at one point (it was a Martin Luther King memorial day), but the place as a whole looked quite post-apocalyptic. The restaurant is packed, and on our way out we notice a young Hispanic guy standing in a corner singing famous Spanish-American songs. He looks shy and very much out of place, his face is expressionless and his eyes fixed on some distant point, yet his voice is extremely professional and mature, almost disembodied. I’m still thinking of Bob’s wife, of her loneliness, of this Spanish boy’s loneliness in this corner here and how much less lonely everybody else is thanks to their selfless sacrifice, and it all makes me really sad.


We take a long time to part, it’s quite cold and we make hasty arrangements to go to another Indian reservation for breakfast tomorrow. On the way to our hotel, Bob and Fred tell us an amusing story about Bob’s facelift some years ago and how it all went terribly wrong because he stumbled down some stairs at a party and started gushing with blood, and his surgeon was very cross with him for ruining his work. There is something quite Chekhovian about the story, something terribly embarrassing about having to listen to it, but then again it has actually been a day for generating dinner-party stories and I think we’ve actually ended up with quite a generous doggy bag. The actual doggy bag from the Mexican restaurant we donate to Bob and Fred’s dogs before we wave goodbye.


In amongst other things, that night I dreamt of having a cappuccino in the foyer of the new Northern Stage building, which felt a bit like Victoria Arcade in Leeds. Some dogs were frolicking in the snow outside, and the interiors were all very much ‘Leo Adams’.


To Be Continued


In part 2: Duska and Neil going ‘hysterical’ on the way back to Sea-Tac. American Blackpool. The dreaded meeting with ‘capricious’ Tess Gallagher. Sleeping in Seattle. And more… and more dreams…