Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Secret Lives of Houses

The White House is the L-shaped house on the left with the tree behind it.

I grew up in the most atmospheric house I can possibly imagine.
The White House was built in 1760 for Sir Harry Erskine, the local Member of Parliament for Anstruther. So by the time my father bought it in 1965, it was already more than two centuries old. It was in a dilapidated state when we moved in, and for months we lived in just three rooms while the house was being restored under the National Trust for Scotland’s Little Houses Scheme. My parents did such a fine job that in 1972 the government designated The White House as a Grade A Listed Building in Scotland, defined as being: “Buildings of national or international importance, either architectural or historic, or fine little-altered examples of some particular period, style or building type (approximately 8 percent of the total).” Definitely not to be sneezed at.
But as a child, I cared about none of this. What mattered to my brother and me was that it was like living in a ship. The house was situated directly behind the sea wall of the old West Anstruther harbor. During the gales of winter and the spring tides, great waves of water would crash against the house and break over the roof.  And when the weather was calm, we had the whole beach to play on with its continents of rock formations straggling out to sea. A fertile plain for our imaginations, both indoors and out.
It was very much a practical house with the thick stone walls and deep log fireplaces appropriate for the climate. No chandeliers, no fancy moldings, just a couple of fireplaces that were supposed to have been designed by Robert Adam, the famous 18th century architect and interior designer. There was enough room inside for us kids to have not only a playroom, where we made up plays and puppet shows, but also a music room where, as we got older, we played records and entertained our friends. In other words, it was a truly magical house in which to grow up.
But in 1981, my parents had to move south to the London area, and the house was sold. I had been back to Anstruther a handful of times over the years, but I had only seen The White House from the outside. It wasn’t until 2009 when I finally set foot in it again.
I was visiting Anstruther with my niece Florence, and I wanted her to be able to see the place where her father and I had grown up, about which she had heard so many stories. So I called the current owners, Cairns and Lindy, to ask if we could stop by, and they were kind enough to agree.
As I stepped over the threshold through the familiar red front door, I expected to be overwhelmed by a tsunami of memories. But I felt nothing very much. The rooms were essentially the same, though decorated quite differently. It was pleasant to see them again, to compare notes with Cairns and Lindy about how each one looked in our day and to tell Florence stories about where our piano stood or where our poodle Angus slept, but there was no sense of deep familiarity and certainly no emotion.
But then as we were heading down a staircase towards the front door, our tour almost over, I paused to point something out to Florence. As I spoke, I happened to put my hand on the smooth warm wood of the top of the newel post and felt a surge of tactile memory so strong it stopped me dead in the middle of a sentence. It was like my younger self had reached out and touched me, palm to palm. I almost staggered.
How many times must I have touched that post as I headed up to my bedroom to do my homework or played on that staircase with my dog. A thousand? Ten thousand? Enough to leave a kind of psychic imprint that lay in wait for me for 30 years?
When we lived in The White House, people used to ask me if I’d ever seen the ghost of a white lady who was supposed to haunt its hallways. I used to scoff at the idea, but now I wonder. As I get older, it seems more and more plausible to me that houses retain the echo of the people who have lived within their walls. Maybe someone living in the house in the 22nd century will one day hear the echo of childish voices or catch a glimpse of a young girl in bell-bottomed jeans floating down the stairs, with one ghostly hand resting on the top of the newel post.
Top of the newel post at the end of the banister on the right

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Adams in Eden

Henry Adams, American historian and novelist
Extract from Chapter 1 of Children of Eden:

When Adams and La Farge returned from Tautira, Tati invited them to join the family in the festivities to commemorate the opening of a bridge on Teva land near Papara. Here again was the comic opera aspect of the island - the pomp and circumstance of a European empire paradoxically recreated on a tiny South Sea island.  Adams delighted in the incongruities and the local color alike.

The Salmons and their guests were up early and had the Teva house ready by 9am to welcome the French Governor. The men were dressed in dazzling white suits, the women in their best dresses with wreathes of flowers in their hair. The Governor – a Martinique native with the imposing name of Étienne-Théodore-Mondésir Lascascade - was a small, middle-aged man with mutton-chop whiskers and receding hair. He had arrived from Papeete in his coach, sweating in the tropical heat. As representative of the great motherland of France, the Governor was very affable to Adams and La Farge, but Adams was impatient with the absurdity of diplomatic conversation. “We had to be formal for near two hours with this little man in a tall silk hat, frock coat, and tricolor sash.” So Tati sent the Americans on ahead to the bridge with Marau, Cheeky, and the Brander boys, along the coastal road, which was lined with two hundred natives in bright dresses waving French flags, in expectation of an official spectacle.

Adams found the ceremony itself anticlimactic but thoroughly enjoyed the luncheon that followed because of the interesting dynamic that existed among the principals of the drama.

The lunch was served European style on two parallel tables. The Governor, as host, sat on one side of a long table with a big bouquet of exotic leaves in front of him, which blocked his view of the person sitting opposite him. This just happened to be His Majesty, ex-King Pomare V wearing a pair of eyeglasses that looked remarkably like goggles. Adams was relieved to see that, at that hour in the morning, Pomare was not obviously drunk, and was keeping a low profile. At the second table, almost back to back with her ex-husband, sat Queen Marau. Despite being close enough so that they could not fail to brush against one another from time to time, the couple studiously ignored each other’s very existence. Adams, sitting across from Marau, was able to watch the tense body language of the divorced couple to his heart’s content while sipping the Governor’s imported Bordeaux. As Adams gleefully observed in a letter home, “it was the sort of thing that one naturally puts in a novel.”

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Back to the Garden

I used to think I was cut out to be a songwriter. When I was in high school in Scotland, my best friend, my brother, and I sang together in a folk group with the very ’70s name of Fable. We sang songs from our parents' record colection – Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, and, of course, The Beatles. For a while, I tried my hand at writing songs of my own, the usual trite teenage stuff about yearning for boys who won’t even look your way. I soon recognized that songwriting wasn’t going to be my forte. However, I’m proud to say my brother Andrew Mackintosh – a much more talented musician than I have ever been – has written some excellent songs of his own over the years since we played together. You can listen to some of them here.  
But it was back in the days of Fable that I first started listening to the music of Joni Mitchell and realized just how ambitious a three to five minute song was capable of being.  
The first Joni album I owned was For the Roses (1972). In songs like “Let the Wind Carry Me” and “Barangrill,” I began to get a sense of how songs can be about more than a single emotion – love, longing, nostalgia – and actually tell stories. Like an Edward Hopper painting and any short fiction worth its salt, a Joni Mitchell song, despite its brevity, contains whole worlds and back stories.  
For instance, in “Harry’s House” (from the 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns), an executive on business trip “opens up his suitcase in the Continental suite, And people thirty stories down, Look like colored currents in the streets, A helicopter lands on the Pan Am roof, Like a dragonfly on a tomb, And business men in button-downs, Press into conference rooms.” Meanwhile, he is thinking of his wife. “He drifts off into the memory, Of the way she looked in school, With her body oiled and shining, At the public swimming pool.” He thinks of the house and garden he wants to buy for her for them to build their dreams in. Not until the very last line do we discover that she has that very day told him “just what he can do with Harry’s house, And Harry’s take-home pay.”
In “Edith and the Kingpin” (also from The Hissing of Summer Lawns), a rich man arrives at a local dance. “Disco dancers greet him, plain clothes cops greet him, small town, big man, fresh lipstick glistening.” He spots a young girl across the dance floor – “His eyes hold Edith, His left hand holds his right, What does that hand desire, That he grips it so tight.”  Edith, the chosen one, listens to the other girls as “one by one they bring, his renegade stories to her, his crimes and his glories to her.” She ends up in his bed, listening to the wires in the wall humming, but we can see what will happen to her. “Women he has taken, Grow old too soon, He tilts their tired faces, Gently to the spoon.”  
Joni is also the queen of the evocative visual details that put you squarely in the space and time of which she is singing:  
“Three waitresses all wearing black diamond earrings, Talking about zombies and Singapore slings, No trouble in their faces, Not one anxious voice, None of the crazy you get, From too much choice.” [Barangrill]
 “A camera pans the cocktail hour, Behind a blind of potted palms, And finds a lady in a Paris dress, With runs in her nylons” [The Boho Dance]
“It fell from midnight skies, It drummed on the galvanized, In the washroom, women track the rain in the make-up mirror, Liquid soap and grass, And Jungle Gardenia crash on Pine-Sol and beer.” [Paprika Plains]
Joni is famous for writing autobiographically, but she is also capable of writing brilliantly from the point of view of another narrator, sometimes as unreliable a narrator as you can get. For example, in “Raised on Robbery” (from the 1974 album Court and Spark) she describes how a man is sitting in a hotel bar “when along comes a lady in lacy sleeves” who proceeds to spin him a sob story. “We had a little money once, They were pushing through a four-lane highway, Government gave us three thousand dollars, You should have seen it fly away, First he bought a ’57 Biscayne, He put it in a ditch, He drank up all the rest that son of a bitch.” She tries to get the man to come home with her - “I’m a pretty good cook, You’re sitting on my groceries, Come up to my kitchen, I’ll show you my best recipes.” The man moves away, without even finishing his drink. In no more than four eight-line stanzas, we’ve seen the whole bleak and feckless life that lies behind the woman's bravado.   
These days, it grieves me to say, Joni’s crystalline voice has fallen victim to her chain smoking habit of many years, but to me she will always and forever be the supreme exemplar of the short story in song.