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How shall I tell the Dog


The Man Who Had A Flower In His Teeth


Dear Gill,

One of the most exciting times of my life was my gap year in 1960. I didn’t really plan for a gap year – I don’t think gap years even existed back then – but I had to stay an extra winter term at school to take a scholarship exam (I think) and found myself at Christmas 1959 with nothing definite to do before my arrival at Oxford the following September.
         Nine months with nothing to do!
         After the first month, my father was getting impatient with my presence round the house.
         “Are you going to do something?”
         “How do you mean, do something?”
         “Well, it would be a good chance to go somewhere. Why not go travelling?’
         “Yes, dad.”
        “Like, where to, Dad?”
        “Oh, for heaven’s sake!”
        But he came up with a great idea for me. He knew someone who knew about Geest Bananas, and knew that you could hire a cabin on one of their banana boats going out to the West Indies.
        “Once you get to the West Indies, you could go and stay with our friends the Strongs in Dominica. Then with Aunty Peggy in the Bahamas…’
        Aunty Peggy was married to Uncle Dennis, who ran a hotel in Nassau.
        “… After that, you could make your way to America and get a job and make some money, and come back home in time for University…”
        Which is exactly how it all happened. I took ship with the banana boat in Barry Docks in South Wales.         The crew was entirely German. I was the only passenger on board. Day after day I sat and looked at the sea and was never bored once, especially when we got into flying fish territory. Luckily I had just finished doing German A levels, so I could talk to the officers and crew – not that I ever saw anything of them, except for the gay blonde steward who theoretically spent all his time looking after me, but in fact despised me because I was younger than him, and because he was German and I was British. (He actually said to me once:
        “You won the war, you know, but we will win the peace,”)
        The officers allowed me to join them for breakfast. German-style maritime breakfast was not a comfort zone. It incorporated black bread, raw dried onions, chopped tomatoes, and salami. That was about it.
        “So how are we feeling this morning, Herr Kington?” one of them would say. “Not showing any signs of sea-sickness yet?”
        ‘No, I’m fine,” I would say stoutly, however I really felt.
        “Have some more onions,” they would suggest.
        There was quite a good little library on board, all in German, which is how I came to read Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh for the first time in German, not English. I must have been quite good in German by the time we got to the other side – one of the officers told me that I had got a strong Westphalian accent, but I never established whether this was a good thing to have or not – and then I didn’t need a word of German till I got to Oxford, not even in New York, where I ended up working for four months or so.
        This was about the time, just to locate it in history, when they were gearing up for the Presidential election, when Kennedy faced Nixon. Do you remember what the big question of the time was? Not, will a black man ever run for President? Or, will we ever have a female President in the USA? But, will the American public ever elect a Catholic as president? There was a lingering feeling that having a Catholic was going a step too far, that Washington would be ruled from the Vatican…Well, as we all know, they had a Catholic president without too much worry, but we still don’t know about the black or the woman. Or, indeed, whether the Americans are ready for an agnostic, or worse….
         I also remember going to the New York premiere of Pyscho, and being shocked like everyone else by the shower scene, though I don’t think I actually screamed quite like everyone else…
        I’ve just remembered.
        Somewhere in a bar in Greenwich Village in 1960, I saw a graffiti in the gents’ loo.
        Someone else had written underneath:
        The whole experience, from Barry to New York, would be worth writing about, which I have never done, but I have one special reason for remembering it now, when I have been thinking more about incurable diseases than heretofore.
        Most of my evenings in new York I spent on my own, which I was happy to do, especially in the HQ of jazz, where all the great men came through playing sooner or later, so I explored the jazz clubs of New York as much as one impecunious English gap year student can.
        I saw films too, and got to the theatre a bit. (I remember going to see one of the off-Broadway hits of the season, “The Connection” by Jack Gelber, all about jazz and drugs, a daring play then, and good stuff too.) I discovered the place all The Actors Studio, which was the drama place run by Lee Strasberg, where the method actors came from; this was of no particular interest to me except that they mounted in-house productions from time to time, which I was tempted to go and see.
        It might have been there, though I don’t think it was, that I went to see Jack McGowan in Becket’s “Krapp’s Last Tape”, which was electrifying though it still didn’t settle the question for me of whether I liked Beckett, a question which I am still undecided over.
        And one night I went to see a play by Luigi Pirandello called “The Man Who Had a Flower in his Teeth”. I knew nothing about the play. I didn’t know much about Pirandello. I still don’t. “Six Characters" is still the only play for which he is well remembered, except in my case, where I remember ‘The Man Who Had a Flower in his Teeth” rather better.
        It was a monologue for one man, and didn’t last very long. Half an hour? Something like that. The man just talked about his life. How he enjoyed watching people, noticing things. One of the things you would notice about him, he suggested, is that he had a strange pattern in his teeth, a growth a bit like a flower. It was a tumour of some kind. It was not removable, nor operable, nor curable. It was in fact fatal. He had only a few months left to live. That was why he loved watching people. All the things he had been in too much of a hurry to notice, all his life, he now slowed down to observe.
        For instance, he said, I was passing by a shop the other day and slowed down to watch someone wrap a purchase for a customer. It was quite a superior shop, selling hand-made chocolates or something similar, so the person was taking a great deal of care over the wrapping, which had to be good enough for a gift.
        It was a wonderful pleasure, he said, watching the care and love with which the person handled that plain brown paper, the way they smoothed it and flattened it and folded it. The noise it made, the faint but rich crunching sound as he tucked it and tied it and knotted it. It was a performance, and he was the only spectator at this wonderful ritual…
        When you know you are going to die, you value everything much more highly, that was the message. Don’t take anything for granted any more. Don’t assume that things happen of their own accord. Look at things. Touch them. Smell them. (Did he describe the smell of wrapping paper? I can’t remember.) And don’t wait till you’re dying to do it!
        That was the message, I guess of this really quite simple one-man piece, which, by the way, I have never come across in any shape or form since then.
        I am not sure that it has much of a message for me right now. I think that if that Pirandello play ever had an effect on me, it was during the rest of my life, when I have found myself from time to time engrossed by simple procedures, or enjoying touching things. Old furniture. Feet on statues. The outlines of objects. The curves on radio sets – conkers, while they are still shiny and young. The shapes in ice cream…
        Never mind about all that. Looking back, it isn’t Pirandello that is important. It’s my few months in New York. Because it was such a great and novel experience for me, I still remember lots of it very sharply, and would like while I still have the chance write it all down. It’s like coming across a box of photos called “New York1960”, and knowing that it is all undiscovered stuff. I didn’t go to N.Y. again for fifteen or twenty years, so my 3 or 4 month memories of the place in 1960 can’t have been mixed up with or contaminated by memories of any similar visit….
        A piece for the New Yorker perhaps?
        I’ll say one thing for Pirandello, though.
        All my life I have enjoyed the smell of paper. Books and newspapers, quite, wrapping paper, a lot. Secondhand books, though, above all. You should always put your nose deep into an old book. They smell rich and strange. And they are all so different!
        Not all.
        Some books hardly smell at all.
        But the ones that do, they repay a deep breath.
        No extra charge.

How Shall I Tell the Dog - 2007



Book Extracts
The Man who had a Flower in his Teeth
Book Extracts