Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Cultural Connections With My Home Town – Coming At It Obliquely (An Occasional Series)

No: 1 – Stephen King

No-one ever forgets a good teacher. I was blessed with a stern, hawk-like English teacher who didn't suffer fools gladly. Stupid behaviour, ideas, were shot down ruthlessly. Net effect, I was always on my toes during English. I absorbed everything the great man said. Having slept-walked my way through lower school, I was now introduced to the delights of English literature. It began with Animal Farm. Details escape me; after all, it has been over a quarter of a century since I sat in his classroom, but I'll never forget the phrase 'engage brain before putting your mouth into gear...'

Sound advice. I learnt to form independent ideas. I learnt to love books. My respect for this great teacher was such that I hung onto his every word for clues.

Clues? There were many, but the one that relates to this story was when, apropos of good writing, he said 'how many of you have read Stephen King? His English is terrible but his stories are out of this world.'

Dutifully, I purchased my first Stephen King with the same sense of trepidation as I smoked my first cigarette.

Of course, Salem's Lot is a very scary book. A great yarn, too. But what really struck me was the lifestyle of Ben Mears, the main character of the novel. Like many King heroes, he was a writer. Struggling, but independent. Able to set his own agenda. The idea stuck.

Have you noticed, when you're on some kind of literary path, the connections start coming in thick and fast? I completed Salem's Lot one very hot summer in '83. I was staying with Grandparents. Despite August and the incredible heat I slept with my windows firmly shut. Sweating myself to sleep convinced that there was a vampire floating outside every window. With perfect serendipity, the film was shown on TV and my nights became even more difficult. Straker, played by James Mason, although I had no idea who James Mason was in those days, stalked my dreams. I stayed away from antique shops for fear of finding him.

Sometimes I'd accompany my Grandparents to the hospital club. My Grandparents were long retired from psychiatric nursing but were honorary members of the club. Essentially, it was a corrugated hut that doubled as a badminton court and bar where the beer was sold at a concessionary rate. Naturally, it wasn't for the badminton that my Grandparents walked there for.

The walk to the club was fine, but, with my Salem's Lot addled sensibilities the return journey was something of an ordeal. Particularly when we passed a brick building that served as a morgue. You could touch the walls and look through the black windows that were heavily barred. Having seen Salem's Lot I knew why.

Years passed and, although it still made me uneasy, I learned to sleep with the windows open again. The romantic notion of the writer's life, however, didn't leave me.

Pursuing the dream led me to a small town where, with intermittent breaks, I have spent the last ten years. I still ramble the streets as a stranger. Early journeyings found me walking past a shop window and my attention was drawn by the mannequin wearing a headscarf like a fortune teller. I gazed into her eyes while she saw right through me, my whole future, present and past. There were stuffed toys gathered round her feet: dogs, cats, squirrels and bears. Little mice wearing kitchen aprons nested on a shelf loaded with old paperbacks. I read the titles. Hammond Innes, Catherine Cookson, Bill Bryson... then sheer ice in the heart, cold fear like a dentist drill as I looked straight into the face of a man standing in the dark interior. It was him! My old nemesis James Mason – Straker, staring me straight in the eye. Oh fortune teller, why didn't you warn me?

On gathering my wits I realised that it wasn't James 'Straker' Mason. It was a framed photograph. I stepped back into the orangey street glow and looked at the shop sign – Animal Voice then, in small block capitals, JAMES MASON HOUSE.

I later discovered that Mason was a regular visitor to the town and, despite hanging a dog from the spiked railings of a cemetery, was a passionate advocate for animal rights long before such things became fashionable.

My portly and sedentary friend John who lives life in slow motion, met him once. Straker, I mean James Mason, was staying at the local hotel where John was working as a waiter. He said 'he was always in a tearing hurry. Then he died of throat cancer so his hurrying didn't do him any good.'

I'm not sure what he meant by this cryptic remark about the cryptic Mr Mason. But to this day I don't hang around when staggering home late at night past the Animal Voice shop.

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