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  • Keith Johnstone

MOSTLY BIOGRAPHICAL STORIES (UP TO COLLEGE).

Updated: 2 days ago

EARLY MEMORY

I had become old enough to pull myself onto the edge of the bath and hang with my head and shoulders upside down inside it. I could just touch the bottom of the white smoothness with my longest fingers and I was surprised that it seemed higher than the floor. I liked the feel of the cool metal on my tummy so I stayed there, pretending that my head was the right way up and that the interior of the bath was the sky.

I imagined the sun floating inside of the sky, giving light. Then I had a wonderfully obvious flash of insight! Because if it was day when the sun was inside the sky, it would be night when it moved outside of the sky, and shone in through tiny holes that we call the stars. This also explained how it moved from the West to the East without anyone seeing it!

I fell back onto the bathroom floor and lay there, awestruck that my mind could transform the universe. I had changed from a small animal into an amateur cosmologist.

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A REALLY EARLY MEMORY

I have not the least idea why I was trying to vomit, and threatening do ‘Number two’ right there on the stair carpet.

Dad took over (from Mum) and ran upstairs, dangling me from my clothing with his left hand. He carried me into the bathroom where he wrenched my trousers off, stood me with my head dangling over the lavatory and pushed a suppository into me (asserting ownership of my behind).

I met suppositories again when I was a constipated adult and I was surprised by how small they were. The one pushed into my bum had felt the size of a large turd.

My own son never threatened to vomit or excrete as a way to control us, but perhaps we never drove him to such desperation.

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HORROR STORY

I was afraid of my Mum for as far back as I can remember, but why? Well, one reason is that she slapped me to make herself feel better, but I guessed at a second reason when I heard her saying bad things about Jean, my step-sister who had become a mother. She said: “I know what she does to that babby. She waits 'till she’s alone and then she do hold that babby and stare and stare at her so the babby is afraid to do anything.”

Babies are programmed to make eye contact, and then other behaviours are supposed to follow, but when a mother makes herself into a huge unresponsive blob that won't look away, what message does that give? That’s she’s full of hate? That she’s a predator? That she’s not the mother?

She was describing Jean as a monster. Each mother creates a universe for her child, but what sort of a universe was Jean making for... Wait! Stop! Just a minute! Hold on!,,,How can my Mum know what happens between Jean and her baby when no one else is present? Where does this strange idea come from? How can she speak so confidently about what happens between a mother and her baby when they are alone?

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STREAKS

I was carried half asleep to the bathroom and lifted up to look at the sky through the small window. It was one of the rare occasions when the Northern Lights could be seen so far south. I saw nothing unusual, but knowing that the Grown-ups would insist that I saw what they saw, I pretended that I did.

They would cry, “Look at the porpoises!”

“Where?” I'd say.

“Stop being so stupid. Look where I’m pointing!”

“Oh yes!” I’d say, not wanting to argue.

I remember a warm dark evening. This was before the wartime ‘blackout’ so I must have been younger than six and a half. Mum and Dad were gossiping with some fishermen outside the shop.

As always, the feeble street lights had streaks coming out of them, especially those across the harbour. I asked the grown-ups why this was and they gave me their full attention. I tried to explain by opening my fingers as I moved my hands apart. They couldn’t make ‘head or tail’ of what I was saying, and decided that I was just being silly.

They went on talking and laughing, not realising, any more than I did, that there was something wrong with my eyes.

Miss Veysey knew that I had bad eye-sight (she always sat me closest to the blackboard) but she either neglected to tell my parents, or they ignored her.

“Keith can see as well as we can! Can you see that flag out by the breakwater?”

“Yes.”

The war was over before my parents realised that I needed glasses.

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AN ADVENTURE

I wanted to see a night-club. If there were any around the harbour I would have noticed, and I didn’t think there would be any in the streets that were lined with houses, so I ran up to Bolton Cross where the Post Office was, and the Town Hall, and the police station, and a building that didn’t interest me that was a hotel. There was space there, but no awnings (nightclubs had awnings so that passengers wouldn’t get rained on as they stepped out of cars). But then - at the beginning of New Road, near Bell’s Garage, I saw a plaque (beside a steep staircase) that said ‘Conservative Club’.

It was a hot afternoon with nobody about, no jazz music streamed from up-stairs; there were no sounds of people laughing and talking, or gangsters firing machine-guns. I knew that there wouldn't be much excitement during the day, but I wanted to see what the place looked like. I went up the long wooden staircase on all-fours. The three last stairs angled themselves to the left. I knew that I shouldn’t be there but I thought that if I just peeped into the room with my head on the floor I might not be noticed.

I was looking towards the windows of a room that seemed very long (probably because my eyes were at mouse level). Towards the right hand corner was a bar with a row of bottles behind it, but no bullets were shattering them. It was a long, uncarpeted space, with a white-coated man behind the bar who was polishing large glasses, plus one customer sitting on a tall stool at the far end who seemed very old (over thirty). I withdrew my head very slowly and crept away, grateful that the man hadn’t seen me, and that no one had come up the stairs, trapping me.

I went home, disappointed and puzzled. How could a ‘Conservative Club’ be just a pub’? I knew what a pub' looked like - I lived next door to The Blue Anchor - but why was it hidden away up-stairs. And why wasn’t it a nightclub if it called itself a club?

Some time later I asked my Dad where Brixham’s nightclubs were. He said:

“The people here are too poor for anything like that.”

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‘TUNNEL VISION’

I was being ‘Rolfed’ - a form of deep massage – when some tension was released in my upper back. I shivered and spasmed violently. It surprised the Rolfer who had to hold me onto the massage table.

“What happened?”

“I…I feel as if I’ve been beaten all over!”

Forty years earlier I had learned to crouch facing away from Mum when she attacked me. Then she would beat my upper back almost as if she was beating a carpet. It wasn't a stinging hurt like being slapped on my bare arms but some muscles had tensed up against the pain and had stayed that way until the Rolfer’s fingers released them.

If I was unable to turn away from Mum, as when I became wedged between the bed and the bedside table as she slapped down at me, her face would elongate as if I was being attacked by a mad horse. It was like those ‘were-wolf’ movies (movies that I was far too young to see) in which a human face pushes out to become a snout, but Mum’s face pushed out further. This makes sense to me now because I’ve learned that states of extreme terror can create ‘tunnel vision’ in which peripheral vision is suppressed and the centre of the visual field distorts.

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THE GOOD CHILD

For three weeks, when I was six years old, I was ‘the good child’. I wasn’t yelled at, or slapped, or nagged (nagging was far worse than being hit because nagging destroys the soul). My behaviour was eerily perfect; something not easy to achieve in a house where each objects also has to be perfect, and where I daren’t touch a wall for fear of leaving a mark. It was like living for three weeks in the palace of Snow White’s Queen (in the Disney movie).

This transformation from ‘bad child’ to ‘good child’ happened over night. I had been made to stay in bed during the day even though I felt active and energetic. I had squashed some grapes into a glass and had put it on the window sill behind my bed and was climbing over the pillows every ten minutes to see if the sun had turned the grapes into wine.

Mum entered carrying a jet black bowl heaped with pale fruit and set it down on the bed. It scared me because nothing like that had ever happened before. Other memories of that afternoon are fragmentary but that bowl of fruit is still vivid. She tucked me in and said that Doctor Snodgrass was coming up the stairs to examine me.

She sat on the bed beside the fruit bowl and Dad watched from the doorway as the Doctor checked my breathing (there was not enough room for three grown-ups to stand in my bedroom). I heard the mysterious words ‘kaolin poultice’ as they descended the stairs. A little later Mum and Dad strapped something hot to the right side of my lower back, something that made me scream and scream while they told me that it wasn't hurting me so 'stop being silly'. Then everything changed; one moment I was screaming and the next moment it was night. The pain was gone, the burning thing on my back was pleasantly cool, and Mum and Dad were coming up to bed - and did I want something to eat? 'No.' Would I like them to remove the kaolin poultice? 'No, leave it on.' They must have helped me into the bathroom to pee but I only remember going back to sleep, still face down, and with no monsters bothering me. Perhaps the screaming had scared the monsters away.

Each day, at dinner time, I leaned against the fireguard with my shirt pulled up (there was no fire during the day) while Mum put oil on the wound. And my behaviour was perfect. I wasn't slapped, shouted at, or shaken. I was the perfect child.

It seems unlikely, but I used to identify Mum with the beautiful Queen in Disney's Snow White, and also with the ugly witch that the Queen becomes. For three weeks I lived in the palace of the Queen, until, suddenly, from one day to the next, she was the evil witch, and I was the bad child, and everything was as horrible as it was before.

The grapes never turned into wine.

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NONSENSE

1940. At age seven I was evacuated to my mother’s parents who lived in Glastonbury. I spent a wonderful three months running around on the famous Tor and spending day after day in the ruins of the Abbey (I would have been a perfect target for pederasts but I suppose they were all in the army).

September came and I was enrolled in St John’s school (immediately behind St John’s church) where even little children were caned.

Our books were open at The Cat Sat On The Mat and we took turns reading a sentence aloud. This must have been at the very beginning of the school year because as soon as the teacher realised that I could read at the level of a twelve year old she let me sit beside the book cupboard and read its tedious books (simplified versions of Martin Rattler etc.)

Ahead of me, and across the gangway, a boy was secretly reading The Dandy, a comic that had far more interesting words than ‘cat’ and ‘mat'. It was under the top of his desk so he had to lean back to read it. This made him conspicuous and the teacher soon dragged him out and made him hold out his hand to receive the cane. Even to my seven year old self this seemed ridiculous.

That boy was so passionate about reading that he’d smuggled a comic into school, but now it had been confiscated and he was back in his place, sobbing. Do we want him to associate reading with pain? Is he supposed to hate reading? Would we rather that he didn't read if he reads comics? (All boys read comics!) This was the first time that I thought seriously about education: why not teach us read traffic signs? Or to spell our friend's names? Or read comics! Why not keep changing things until you learn how to make reading fun?

Let me digress a little. I was sent to Miss Veysey's ‘Dame School’ in Brixham when I was three-and-a-half (only in the mornings but three hours lasts for eight hours when you are a tiny child). I can still remember that my desk - a plain wooden table - smelt of tomato, but wasn’t edible.

On Saturday there was no school, but Miss Veysey appeared in my father’s shop. I remembered this vividly because I was frightened.

“How did you teach him to read?”

My parents said that I memorised pages in books and only pretended to read them.

“Is there a newspaper?”

They handed me the Daily Mail (huge to me at the size it was before it became a tabloid) and I read a column on the right hand side.

General amazement. They thought that I had learned to read by magic!

I have no memory of being asked to explain, but the answer was simple. I had deciphered very easy comics called Chick’s Own. They showed characters who were doing interesting things and who were talking to each other, so I wanted to know what they were saying. Often I could guess, and if I asked someone to ‘translate’, the knowledge went into my brain instantly and forever. The boy who had been caned had been learning to read from comics just as I had done, but the teacher disliked comics (comics are ‘stupid’ and they make fun of teachers!) She was insisting that he should read ‘the cat sat on the mat’ which couldn't possibly have interested him, nor the rest of the class. ‘The cat shat on Pat,’ might have been more fun, and more memorable, but this was education and education was meant to be serious. (It occurs to me now that these seven year olds had begun school at age five. Why weren't they well past the 'cat sat on the mat' stage? Was it because the school had transformed reading into a drudgery? Teaching bored children equals teacher burn-out. Children love words that can be made exciting. A doctor was ‘talking down’ as he prepared to listen to our two-year-old’s heart and was astonished to be told firmly that the word for ‘listening thing’ was ‘stethoscope’. ********************************************************************************************


CLEAN

Mum liked everything clean to an unusual extent. For example, when men from the gas company arrived to fix some problem, they assumed that our gas stove was brand new.

“Oh no!” she said, proudly: “It’s been here for years!”

After the Sunday roast she would wash and wipe the inside of the oven until you could put a cushion in there and have it emerge perfectly clean.

I made tea on Sunday mornings and took it up to Mum and Dad on a tray. I rather liked this chore. It was peaceful downstairs without Mum nagging at me – although she constantly accused me of not 'warming the tea pot'. I remember the weather always being sunny, with the sunlight angling in, but that can’t be true because it often rained.

I remember chanting...

Rain, rain, go away,

Come again another day!

...together with another boy, and being struck by the fear lurking in this rhyme. If we had chanted…

Rain, rain, go away,

So we can go out to play!

...God might have stopped the rain until the human race died of thirst, except for Noah who had dug a well three miles deep.

Several times, when I went down to make the tea on Sunday mornings, I found the door of the oven wide open, and a cushion inside with a dent made by Mum’s head - as if she had wanted to kill herself but had lost her nerve.

If she had gone through with it the house would have filled with gas and the explosion might have taken us with her.

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NOT YET, MY FRIEND

I do not sit here in my skin,

I am the splendour in the sky.

These ancient stones,

They are my bones,

My mind is where the seagulls fly.


These cliffs are where we come to play,

(I am quite sure you know my friend!)

Where if I fall

He swears that all

My misery will have an end.


I run back to my so-called home

To eat with Mum my fish and chips.

She does not know,

An hour ago

My life hung by my fingertips.

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GREEK GOD 1944-5. On a cold, blustery day when I expected to be alone, I met a boy on Breakwater Beach. He was about my age (ten?) but better dressed. He was from the big house – now a hotel – at the top of the cliffs. He asked me to throw stones at him as hard as I could. When he finally persuaded me to do this act of seeming violence, he plucked them out of the air as easily as picking apples. I never saw him again. Had this happened in ancient Greece I’d have been sure that I’d met one of those Olympian Gods manifesting as a child.

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A FACE IN THE CROWD

I ran up the slope of Fore Street – I ran everywhere in those days – and had reached the bottom of the steps that led up to Mount Pleasant Road, when a wall of shoppers parted, and a black-haired girl with the ugliest face I had ever seen emerged and walked past me. I turned and watched her go. I was about nine years old and I suppose that she was a couple of years older than I was and I was shocked because I had never seen a face that expressed such misery.

When I thought about this face, it seemed to me that the ugliness did not come from any deformation. It was deathly pale, but symmetrical, and made long and narrow by the dead straight black hair that hung down each side of it. It did not need to be ugly, it could perhaps even have been beautiful, but its expression told of depths of suffering that I had never experienced or imagined.

Something similar is described by John Cowper Powys at the opening of Wolf Solent in which the hero remembers a face glimpsed on the steps of Waterloo station.

“It was just the face of a man, of a mortal man, against whom Providence had grown as malignant as a mad dog.”

That’s what I saw in the face of this eleven or twelve year old girl (big girl to me!); she had an expression that said that there was no chance, none what-so-ever, of any moment of happiness.

And here I am, eighty-seven years old, at the end of a life that has been haunted by a face emerging from a crowd that I saw for a few seconds almost eighty years ago.

(Castaneda's Don Juan would have thought that she was not human.)

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BEING A WRITER

The grown-ups, mostly fishermen, would say: “Your schooldays are the happiest days of your life,” which threw me into despair. They saw work as a punishment, and why not since the bible said it was? Working on the boats was many times more dangerous than working in a coal mine, and it was wet and bitterly cold and there were many injuries.

Then they'd say: "What are you going to be when you grow up," which confused me because I wanted to go on playing with my toys forever.

Even the non-fishermen hated their work. Dad hated being a pharmacist. Harry Simmons, (who had to start the ovens at five in the morning) hated being a baker. I met only two adults who seemed to enjoy their work: one was a soldier/scientist who did research on explosives, and the other was chief engineer on the Queen Mary, but how would I get jobs like that, even if I wanted them? (I told a lie: Mr Stapleton, the cobbler, smiled all the time and was always cheerful, but Mum said that he had 'a silver plate in his head' because he was wounded in the war.)

I knew two grown-ups who didn't have to work, and yet both owned cars! (Car ownership was unusual in poverty stricken Brixham.) They were both customers in Dad's shop; one was Sir Harold Clayton who lived in a large house with a curving driveway about a mile up New Road (I had delivered medicines there) and the other was Mr Southwold who was a writer and lived in a small house called ‘Sea Mist’ near the end of Berry Head Road.

I could become an aristocrat like Sir Harold by marrying into royalty; the chance of that seemed rather slim, but I loved writing stories! Being a writer would rescue me from ever having to work. From then on, when the grown-ups said, “What are you going to be when you grow-up?” I said: “I’m going to be a writer!” This disconcerted them and made them leave me alone.

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BOOKS

I emerged from a daydream and realised that my teacher had been insulting a religious group. This was an abuse of his authority so I decided to see for myself. I was too inexperienced to think of looking up Theosophists in the phone book – I’d hardly ever used a phone – but after several false starts I discovered a group in Torquay (their bronze plaque was exactly opposite the shop where I bought my piano music). There were about fifteen older ladies, plus a few husbands in knitted cardigans (I was thirteen years old so anyone over thirty-five seemed ancient).

They reacted to my battered copy of the Bhagavad-Gita as if I’d stolen it.

“Why do you have this?”

“To read on the ‘bus.”

“But where did you get it?”

“I bought it in a tobacconist’s shop.”

“But why?”

“I liked the red and gold cover.”

( used to read anything that caught my eye: cereal boxes, editorials, books for girls)

”Where are you from?”

“Brixham.”

“Did your parents send you?”

“They’ve never heard of you.”

“So why are you here?”

I didn’t want to say that my teacher thought they were idiots, so my good angel supplied a suitable answer:

”I...er...I had a dream about this place.”

No hymns were sung. No animals were sacrificed. There was just a fifty-minute lecture by a plump lady who kept insisting that we were all Gods. She invited questions, but I was too shy to ask, ‘so why do I have toothache?’

Tea and cake were served in a smaller room where two book-shelves were crammed with Hindu scriptures, novels by Rabindranath Tagore, and other eastern exotica. I had already read the thirty non-fiction books in our local librarys, so I signed out A Search In Secret India, Dr. Paul Brunton’s account of his quest for a spiritual teacher. When he found one he was told to ask himself, ‘who am I?’ I thought he could have done that just as well if he’d stayed at home, but the question haunted me (as I suppose that it haunts any introspective person (‘know thyself’ was carved over the entrance to the oracle at Delphi).

Each Sunday I wolfed their free cake (free to me) and signed out a different book. Without those books, and without Freud’s insistence that we are ignorant of our own motives, I might have accepted the ‘voice in my head’ as the ‘real me’..

The 'voice' had begun to annoy me - confronted by an amazing sunset it would insist that that there had been a better one last Monday. Everything was reduced to ‘just a bird,’ or ‘just a tree,’ or ‘just a baby,’ but when it was silent, even for a moment, such things became awesome, and .I understood why William Blake could look at a knothole until it frightened him.

To get rid of the voice, and find out who I really was, I would scramble down to a triangular cave mouth that gaped twenty feet up in the groin of a cliff-;a private place where the pebbles clanked underfoot, and the sea shoved in through a vertical slit. I would sit motionless, trying to silence the voice, but it kept on chattering. A mantra might have helped, so might a Zen cushion. Huge boulders had fallen from the roof and I was rather hoping that the next one might obliterate me.

If the books on Theosophy had been more appetising I might have learned about Krishnamurti, the boy that the society had groomed to be the new Jesus, but who rejected them. They must have hoped that the gods had sent me as his replacement.

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FIRE

It was still dark – about five-thirty in the morning - when I was slowly dragged out of sleep by men shouting. I though that they were drunk but as my mind untangled their words I realised that they were shouting “Mr Johnstone, your house is on fire.”

I must have pulled on my trousers over my pyjamas (because I was wearing them for the next few hours). I met my father on the landing, He was also partly dressed.

“Bloody fools!” he said.

There was no smell of smoke. We looked into the kitchen – the air was fresh. He opened the door of the front room six inches and thick black smoke emerged. He shut the door quickly.

My memory is then blank until I was talking into the wall phone and reporting the fire.

“Someone’s already reported it,” said a woman.

I ‘hung up’ and dialled again.

The same woman answered.

“How do you know that it’s the same fire.” I said, and gave our address.

We ran in and out of the shop throwing water upwards at the line of fire that was burning in the ceiling - this didn't seem to help, but it kept us busy until the fire brigade arrived.

I led a fireman, whose nickname was ‘Bubbles’, up the stair to the door of the burning room. He told me to notice how the flat hose would thicken and become round as the water surged through it. I was interested, of course, being a young teen-ager, but why hadn’t he sent me down the stairs and out into the street?

Neither of us had any idea what was about to happen – but Bubbles should have been prepared. Movie fires that are all flame and no smoke are no preparation for the real thing.

The water thickened the hose. Bubbles shoved the door open. Fire? I saw no fire! A slab of hot, black, unbreathable, smoke enveloped us. Bubbles fell back onto me, blocking my way down the stairs so I went upstairs – wrong direction - chased by the smoke.and Bubbles followed me, We hid in the bathroom where I put wet towels along the bottom edge of the door, and opened the small high window. (It’s only as I write this that I wonder why Bubbles hadn’t gone down the stairs to safety as all of his training must have told him. I had gone up because he had fallen back onto me and the smoke gave me no choice.)

Bubbles was coughing having breathed in some of this smoke so I gave him a toothbrush mug full of water. We were marooned in the bathroom with no one knowing we were there and presumably the fire was getting worse each second and might have burst out of the front room to rampage onto the staircase.

For all I knew we could roast in that bathroom, so I told Bubbles that I would walk down through the smoke on the anti-clockwise stairs and that if I felt heat I would come back. We took deep breaths and I set out with him holding onto my shoulders. Suddenly hands were grabbing me and pulling me down into the light – the electric light. I opened my eyes and saw that I was halfway down the second flight of stairs. Hands were leading me out of the side door and through the alley. I had not felt Bubbles let go of me, so I thought that the hands that were seizing me were also seizing him – but he had collapsed on the landing. Just six more stairs and he’d have been in breathable air and in the yellow light and in the hands of eager helpers.

There was nothing heroic about what I did because I had no choice. And I had lost the fireman who was holding onto me, so for months afterwards I felt guilty. If they had talked to me I’d have said that he had been just behind me and must be just a few steps up, but no one spoke to me – which seems strange, except I don’t think they expected me to emerge and all their thoughts were on their comrade that they thought they had lost, not knowing that he had been with me (he was treated for smoke inhalation at the hospital.)

I said to the fire-chief that perhaps I should switch the gas off at the mains.

“No need,” he said, “the gas stove is at the back of the house.”

“But what if the fire spreads.”

“Err...all right then. You might as well.”

I went in the side door and down into the cellar - no smoke at all. All the lights were working (although the walls were giving electric shocks). I paddled through a few inches of clear water, and by the time I was outside again they were getting the fire under control.

The fire-chief had assumed that because the gas stove was at the back of the house the supply pipe would also have run up the back of the house, but it ran up the front and along the ledge that was on fire..

Fishermen were in the habit of throwing their cigarette ends into the sea rather than stamp them out on the deck. On land they often tossed them away, still lit. It was a windy night and it was thought that a lit cigarette end had lodged up in the balcony where the ancient electrical input line ran along the ancient gas pipe.

The fire had been within the balcony and had barely eaten into the front-room at all. When we had been throwing bucketfuls of water up at it – while waiting for the fire brigade – we had been in danger as splodges of lead on the shop floor showed. It was only luck that molten lead had not dripped on us.

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TWELVE?

1950? Bobby Bell’s father owned 'Bell's Garage', and when I was about seventeen he invited me for a car ride – something that I only remember happening to me twice in Brixham where cars were so rare that the narrow main street was still two-way,

We drove on to Dartmoor where the road took us close to one of the rocky outcrops that crown some of the higher 'tors'. We parked and walked the few hundred yards to the top where large stone slabs were scattered higgledy-piggledy but there was nothing to actually climb.

I discovered something up there that I’ve never seen described in print, or heard by ‘word of mouth’, although many must have seen it. (Do we all independently decide to keep it a secret?)

Someone, perhaps a carver of tombstones, had gone there, I imagine in rain and storm and sun and snow, and with a comforting clink of hammer on steel, and with the birds circling, had chipped away at, and smoothed and polished, two of the several ton, body-long granite blocks. They lay more or less side by side, with five of the ten commandments incised into one, and five into the other.

Or were there twelve?

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GODOT

I was a fan of European and Japanese movies. When I admired one I would see every possible showing (for example, I saw Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin twenty-seven times before I lost count - and that was before videos were available). I thought I was wasting my time. ‘Do something useful,’ I thought, ‘what’s the point of this stupid obsession?’

I thought that Cinema was the great art form of the twentieth century - something that was not obvious to everyone in the nineteen-fifties - whereas Theatre seemed a dying art-form with an ageing audience, but my friends were going together to see a new play in the West End, so I kept them company, expecting nothing. During the interval I urged them to leave:

“Lets go! We’ve seen something perfect, Something wonderful! An Act Two will spoil it! An Act Two is unnecessary! The author will spoil it with an Act Two!”

I was serious, but not persuasive, so I went back in with them, and found that Act Two was Act One moved forwards in time, and that the author had achieved even more. Lines like: 'We give birth astride of a grave. The gravedigger applies the forceps. The light gleams a moment and then it's dark once more," come from Act Two! (I'm probably misquoting).

My friends were artists who used the art room at the Battersea Men’s Institute. None of us were theatregoers, but none of us found the play obscure. It was about us and the people we lived with. If God is dead, then you are in position of the workmen in Sam Beckett’s Waiting For Godot – which was the play we had seen, so for us everything in the play made sense because real life didn't. At the time I thought that the people who found the play obscure and ‘arbitrary’ were trying to wall themselves off from the truth of it. Life is arbitrary. Godot is not. Later on, when people asked me if Beckett was mad (and they did!) I'd say: "Certainly not - he's the sanest person I know."

Articles that I read commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the first English production still expressed some bewilderment. Simon Callow still didn’t understand why Lucky went dumb and Pozzo went blind, but life takes things away as we age; how better to show our disintegration than having Pozzi blind, and Lucky dumb? Some writer – I forget who – still couldn’t understand why Lucky’s bags contained sand. Should they contain dynamite? No! Because Pozzo and Lucky aren’t revolutionaries, or in the business of removing tree stumps. Food? Pozzo has his own food, and what meaning would that have? Bibles? But that wouldn’t relate to Pozzo and Lucky’s situation at all. Sand! That word was like a slap in the face when I first heard it because I saw instantly that Lucky’s work was pointless. Pozzo doesn’t need Lucky except as a wretch to feel superior to, so 'sand!' is the perfect answer. There was nothing arbitrary about the sand, not to us.

I saw that first production (by Peter Hall) eight or nine times – and in those days I had to pay. None of the others came with me but I was obsessed. I went into The Soup Kitchen coffee bar after a performance and told a little Italian waitress who hadn’t learned to count English change (the customers had to do it for her) about this wonderful play. We became friends – reinforced by a mutual passion for Kafka and cinema. I would arrive after lunch and she would feed me from the other side of her plate. Then we would go to a cinema just up the Charing Cross road where the Essanay Chaplin movies were being played (I think we saw all of them six times). When they stopped being shown she took me further up Charing Cross road, and through to the far side of Soho square. We entered a six story building in which the staircases kept getting narrower and narrower until we entered, not her bedroom, but a space that for a moment seemed hung with strips of black kelp that surrounding a small 'Rumplestiltskin' who was crouched over a clicking machine that was flickering lights onto his face.

The strips of kelp resolved into strips of thirty five millimetre movie film, and the machine into a ‘Movieola’ editing machine, and the Rumplestiltskin (not quite so little when he uncrouched) turned into Lindsay Anderson, a film director, who was editing Lorenza’s film Together and who she wanted me to meet. Until that moment I had believed that she was just a employee in a coffee bar who happened to share my obsessions.

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DANES

1973? I was in Copenhagen, walking towards the Modern Art Museum, when I took a short cut through a graveyard. The first tombstone that I saw had the words ‘Tak for alt’ carved into it. There was a bench nearby so I sat and wondered about this dead person – I forget his name (Oscar something) – who chose ‘thanks for everything,’ as his epitaph: thanks for the failures and thanks for the successes, for the people he liked and the people that he didn’t like, for the pain and the pleasure, the joy and the grief.

It gave me an overview of my own life. I couldn’t say those words, not truthfully. I had no peace in those days, no equanimity, but at least ‘tak for alt’ gave me something to aspire to.

It's fifty years since I saw that tombstone but I often think of it. I’m closer now to being able to say those words truthfully, and if I live longer than I expect, perhaps I'll eventually earn the right for them to be my epitaph. (Better than R.I.P. which really means 'don't come back and bother us!')

“Did the old guy say anything after he was hit by the truck?”

“Yes, but it was in a foreign language.”

I walked on through the graveyard, wishing that I could have known Oscar - that remarkable man - but I didn't get far before I noticed that every tombstone said, ‘Tak For Alt’.

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PSYCHOSIS

1995? I was offered Prozac – the new ‘glam’ anti-depressant - because my doctor friend saw my fiction as negative whereas I saw it as truthful (I’d made an appointment with her because of my feet, not my head).

“It might change your view of the world,” she said. I remember her using the adjective, ‘rosy’.

I had tried to turn Samuel Beckett on to marijuana for the same reason, so I accepted a prescription for this brain drug and was told to expect no effects for at least two weeks. Four hours after I took the first capsule everything seemed further away; rooms turned into tunnels – an effect that I enjoyed.

From then on I watched TV all day, ate nothing but corn flakes, and didn’t shower. After a week this struck me as unusual so I forced myself to get clean and go outside. There were pleasing visual effects – mostly to do with an increase of contrast – but then, after half an hour, two huge, fawn, short-haired dogs homed in on me, the slightly smaller one staying a little behind the other. My arm was half way down the throat of the leader when it occurred to me that this couldn’t be happening. The dogs vanished and I was alone at the edge of a vast reservoir. (The reservoir was real! And I had driven myself there - think of that!)

I stopped taking the drug and after two days I was back to normal. Detoxing was extraordinary. I would realise that some other parts of my mind had been ‘thinking independently'. I could back-track each alien set of ideas towards its origin. When several ‘lines of thought’ were in my mind I could move from one to the other as if there were several different versions of me. (When the B.B.C. publication, Great Actors, interviewed actors about their craft, several of them described something similar.)

Could I really be several different people (something that can occur in Mask work)? Cultures that believe in one God teach us to be one person, but a Haitian friend was taught that we each have at least six spirits. After all, is there really so much difference between thinking, ‘I’m happy today,’ and thinking, ‘I’m a happy person today,’?

Prozac inhibits the uptake of serotonin so I presumed that the effect on me was a result of already having a high level by nature; depression and boredom are unknown to me, and there must be a reason for that.

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VERSE

Because the voices on TV

Were very much a mystery,

I saw a specialist for ears,

Who said, “You’re getting on in years!

To me your problem’s very plain,

You ears are good but not your brain.”

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THE SOCIAL SELF

The other children would have laughed or thrown stones and the grown-ups might have done worse if I hadn’t developed a ‘social-self’ to placate them. Such ‘selves’ are often sustained by a constant frown, or grin, or by an expression of fear or sadness, and this makes us ugly. (Wilhelm Reich used to imitate his patients’ rigid expressions and say, ‘why do you do this?’)

I frowned so much that strangers commented on it: ‘Oh, look what deep-set eyes that little boy has!’ That made me frown even more and think, ‘so make me happy then!’ When some autistic children are seen as hauntingly beautiful, could it be that they lack the ability to harden their faces into defensive masks?********************************************************************************************************

THE GOOD ANGEL

A colleague at RADA seemed rather pink.

“Did you fall asleep in the sun?”

“I dropped a saucepan and boiling water splashed on my face.”

A ‘voice’ had ordered him to plunge his head into the cold washing-up water and this had avoided severe damage.

“I was alone,” he said, still marvelling, “but it was as if someone spoke from the back of my skull.”

“It must have been your good angel.”

“I suppose it was.”

At moments of extreme crisis our good angel shoves our social-self aside as ‘irrelevant’ and tries to rescue us. It’s quicker than the verbal mind (it evolved a lot earlier) but it can’t be completely trusted, as when a man leapt into the Thames to rescue a drowning child before remembering that he couldn’t swim.

I met my good angel as I slid from a cliff. It made my ten-year old self into a detached observer. There was no pain, no fear, and no verbal thinking. A scraggly branch floated up at about an inch a second (sharply focused in spite of my poor eyesight). My fingers curled themselves around it as if there was all the time in the world. It ripped out of my hand but halved my speed and kept me vertical until a scree of loose stones could spread the force of my landing.

I had time to wonder, ‘who was I when I fell?’ before the world speeded up, and blood oozed from my slashed palm.

Even when there’s no emergency, our good angel might write the story, or paint the picture, or compose the music, or choreograph the dance, if verbal thinking didn’t interfere.

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BARELY BELIEVABLE

I was middle aged before I had a serious talk with my sister about our upbringing.

“It was terrible when you left home,” she said.

"But why?”

She explained that until then the nagging had been shared.

“But Mum thought you were wonderful!” I said.

"No, she thought you were wonderful!”

Tell each child that it’s worthless, bad, incapable of achieving anything (that's what Mum ‘hammered into me’) and then praise the other to the skies - what a way to raise children! There we stood, two adults (if I was about fifty, then my sister was about forty-four), looking back at the attempted ruination of our lives, and glimpsing for the first time that we had both suffered from the same venom.

Is it any wonder that it was the first time we had ever had a serious talk about our upbringing? (It was just after Mum had died.) Had she been trying to make us hate each other? I doubt she was that rational.

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CROSSWORD

I was in a CCB studio in Calgary, being interviewed by a journalist at the BBC in London, when the taping was interrupted.

“We keep getting a tiny intermittent noise that our technician can’t get rid of,” he said. “Do you have any idea what it might be?”

“Is this this sound?”

“That’s it!”

“I’m sorry. I had no idea that you could hear it. It’s the sound of my pencil as I write the solutions to a crossword puzzle.”

The journalist seemed miffed: “You’re doing a crossword puzzle while I’m interviewing you!”

I said something like: “This interview was supposed to last ten minutes but your producer keeps buying more time, so he must be happy. You've been interviewing ‘spontaneous Keith’ while ‘defensive Keith’ was occupied with the crossword, and I promise you that you wouldn’t have got much out of him.”

We continued, while ‘defensive’ Keith distracted himself by remembering each bus stop between Brixham and Totnes. We talked for well over an hour – about creativity - but I wish they had they recorded that example of 'removing the censorious self'. I think it was quite funny.

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RAPIST DUCKS

I was at Emerson College in Boston, and had been working on ‘pecking orders’ just before lunch. There was a park across the road where some of us ate our sandwiches in pleasant surroundings: grass, trees, a small lake, friendly water fowl. I had brought some bread with me which I shared out so that we could feed the ducks - something that for me is an absorbing activity.

We were getting low on bread when I suggested to a tall, slim, mature student – actually a professor who was auditing the course – that she should feed just one particular duck. I should have realised by her youthful figure that she was some sort of athlete. Anyway, whatever her sport, she threw with great accurately. This duck, a female at the bottom of the pecking order, couldn’t believe her luck as each piece of bread landed right beside her, but then ten male ducks mobbed her and tried to push her under the water.

The reversal of the pecking order – alpha ducks usually gets first choice - seemed to have activated so quite normal gang-rape duck sexual behaviour, but before I could explain this the professor had hurried away, crying ‘Oh, you monster!’

God or evolution was to blame. Rape among ducks is so prevalent that the females have evolved clockwise vaginas as obstacles to the anti-clockwise duck penises. (I'm not making this up, it's in the literature!) Darwin was baffled by the evolution of the eye (solved!) but the evolution of anti-clockwise penises and clockwise vaginas might have perplexed him even more.

I returned a year later, and the professor audited the class again, but we avoided the subject of ducks, and when I went to the park with some students to eat our sandwiches she did not join us.

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MINE FIELD

I arrived to give a demonstration class at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. The theatre was packed.

I said: ‘Good evening. It’s nice to be here.’

The audience exploded! These ‘inscrutable’ Japanese roared! They were hugging each other! They laughed so much that they were sliding off of the seats. The ones at the front where I could see them seemed to need medical attention.

I waited, trying to look like someone who has made a splendid joke and was being modest about it. Then I worked for two hours with no idea what had happened. The performers, and the few hundred watchers, might have had a better time if I hadn’t felt that I was having to step carefully through a mine field.

The translator was an Australian improviser. He had translated: ‘Good evening. It’s nice to be here,’ as, ‘Mr Johnstone says, “Go fuck yourselves!”' The Australians have a word for such people. They call them, ‘fuckwits’.

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MUSINGS

Question: “Who wants to live to ninety?”

Answer: “Anyone who is eighty-nine.”

Or maybe not. Death is horrible when you’re a child, or in the prime of life, but it can be ‘a consummation devoutly to be wished’ when you’re old, and tired, and in pain, and feel that you've lived your life. ('Do not go gentle into that good night' was advice from a poet who never reached forty.)

Never underestimate Mythology! Retirement homes for Christians are full of unhappy people destined for Hell, so I’m told (and I can believe it), whereas similar homes for the Buddhists – and I suppose for the Hindus – are full of people who will be back to try again. The Tibetan Book of the Dead gives helpful advice for souls in transition - like avoiding pregnant donkeys.

The Dali Lama gave a press conference, shortly after whispering such homilies into the ear of a dead man. A reporter, who had observed this ceremony, said:

“’Ere, Dalai, wot if there ain’t nuffin' after yer die?”

The Dalai Lama looked especially beatific and gave a perfect answer: “Well, then it won’t matter, will it?”

There aren’t many good deaths (and won’t be unless the government starts handing out the psychedelics). Woody Allen said that he wasn't afraid of dying but that he didn't want to be there when it happened! I so agree! Simone de Beauvoir wrote a harrowing account of her Mother’s death which still scares me. She mentioned to the Nurse what a horrific nightmare it had been. “Oh, no," said the Nurse, "that was a very easy death.”

I want a packet of morphine like the one Theodore Roosevelt took with him when he explored the hindquarters of the Amazon. (Sorry! Headwaters of the Amazon river!) It would give me the feeling that I still have some control. By the way, when so many people are overdosing on fentanyl, don't you find it odd that some states in the USA are having trouble finding drugs with which to kill condemned prisoners? Don't they want them to die peacefully? Obviously not - why should criminals be so lucky! Do officials seek a cocktail of drugs so that they can inject the paralysing one first to ensure a terrifying exit?

When I was vaccinated against pneumonia – which used to be called ‘the old man’s friend’ – I asked the Doctor, ‘so what am I supposed to die of now?’ He wouldn’t answer.

A Doctor at the pain-clinic has arranged for me to see a gerontologist. I said, ‘what’s her cure rate?” He said he didn’t think it was very good.

Because I could not stop for Death -

He kindly stopped for me...

Thank-you Emily Dickinson, but isn't the truth more likely to be:

Because I could not stop for Death,

He took a year to stop my breath...

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TWELVE STAIRS

At the end of his life Dad did something that comforted him but that distressed me. We had walked down Glastonbury High Street to the old ‘coaching inn’ where we had retired to a quiet corner of the bar, just the two of us, father and son, sipping our beers. He wanted to tell me something, but delayed and delayed until we were about to go. Then he apologised for not protecting me from Mum: “She’d be waiting for you all day. I used to know you’d get it when you came home from school.”

I was dumbstruck. I had told myself that he had been blissfully ignorant down in the dispensary, but he'd been listening to my screams and had never, never, never come up the twelve stairs to rescue me.

Dad was a lot older than Mum, and much shorter – as if his teen-age bride had continued to grow. He kept to himself, and didn’t talk much. He had entered the marriage by choice and was ‘making the best of it’. And he'd let Mum work off her rage on me rather than having her direct it at him!

One thing he might have seen if he had ascended those stairs, attracted by the screams, was me and my little sister being chased around the table by Mum who held a red-hot poker. What sort of game was that? What did it say about her feelings for us? And what monster had played this game with her when she was a child? (My sister would have been two or three years old and that would have made me about age nine.)

She never played it when there was just me. A large woman terrorising a child with a red hot poker could hardly have been seen as a game.

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AH, OF COURSE!

A friend phoned me and said, “what have you doing this afternoon?”

I said: “I’ve just read five Chinese plays from the ‘Yuan’ period. One is called The Child of Chao and I’ve been trying to find out about the author.”

There was no response. I thought we’d been disconnected.

“Hallo? Hallo?”

The shock had left my friend speechless, but he recovered:

“Why are you reading that? You’re not a Drama Professor any more!”

How could he have forgotten that learning is a pleasure? Then I remembered that he was back at University, taking an advanced degree.

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GHOST

It’s been reported that I wanted to reach the age of seventy-two and then die. I've failed, even at that, and ever since I’ve felt like a ghost: ‘what am I doing here? I don’t belong in this world! Who are these people?'’

Seventy-two was an age that I seemed unlikely to reach because of my childhood. Dad used to say that the rain seeping through the wall was bad for us (especially for my Mum who had some type of tuberculosis). He said that the builder must have used sand from the beach without washing out the salt, but he seldom mentioned the several feet of water that entered the cellar twice a day. The coal was stored down there, so we checked the state of the tide to see when it was possible to go down and get some. At night, during the wartime 'blackout', we consulted the tide-timetable that we kept on the mantelpiece.

Another reason for not expecting to survive to age seventy-two is that my playroom in the attic had asbestos walls. I liked to draw on them with my fingernails, and being a little boy I’m sure that I sucked my fingers. The drawings faded in a day or so, but asbestos dust must have seeped through the house for us to breathe. (I was born in 1933: asbestos was shown to be dangerous in 1928.)

I lived at the edge of a thrilling harbour where almost everything I touched was bad for me, and where the red lead used on the boats was especially poisonous. I used to make shapes of animals and people and machines from red lead (and suck my fingers).

At about age twelve or thirteen I began getting pains in my left arm and was diagnosed as having a bad heart. That explained why I was always the worst athlete in my age group. It extracted me from school sports, and from being conscripted into the army. I asked a cardiologist what I could do about it and he said ‘get different parents’.

So reaching age seventy-two had seemed unlikely (but a good age to die and avoid decrepitude). Since then, when I wake up in the mornings, I’m mildly surprised (and dare I say - 'disappointed'?)

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MEDICAL DANES

I was in a Danish hospital for three weeks (in Frederichberg). Such nice nurses, so considerate. If you had a birthday a Danish flag stood on your breakfast plate - if I had a birthday I'm sure they'd have found a little Union Jack. When they learned that I was a vegetarian they purchased vegetarian food designed to have the texture and the taste of meat.

Four or five Doctors stood at the foot of my bed discussing me in Danish with a lot of head shaking. The group broke up, and the youngest Doctor was left to talk with me.

“You see, you don’t drink, Mr Johnstone.”

“Well, I have a beer occasionally.”

“Yes, but you don’t drink like a Dane. You see if you were Danish these results would be perfectly normal, but as you aren’t there must be something seriously wrong with you.”

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IS THE 'VOICE' YOU?

The 'voice' that we experience as ourselves has transformed us from a ‘dumb animal’ into an eye with which the universe investigates itself, and yet this verbal mind is ponderous (good for philosophy but not for table-tennis). If a boxer thinks the words, ‘I’ll punch him now!’ an opponent who reacts non-verbally can hit him several times first. Michael Goldie, a boxer who became an actor, told me that he was trained to do this, and movies show the young Mohammed Ali dancing around the ring, fists dangling, as he waits for such an opportunity.

The suspicion that the 'voice' is not the authentic self (or not the only way to apprehend reality) may be why our ancestors spoke of their immortal souls as distinct from their intellect, and why William Blake said that the real man is the imagination, and why an assembly of Hindu Gods who were proud of their consciousness found that they couldn’t lift a straw without the help of a power that was unknown to them.

Perhaps the author of The Cloud of Unknowing was thinking of the difference between verbal and non-verbal thinking when he wrote that ‘God can be loved but not thought.’

Much of my work has involved ways of interfering with speech so that 'something else' can operate.

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MUNICH HOSPITAL

I woke up in a Munich hospital with stitches in my forehead and a headache. I'd had a concussion. After a day or so I felt fine, and yet they were insisting that that I was not fit to leave. Suddenly I understood.

“Are you waiting for my left eye to move back to the centre?”

“Yes.”

“You’ll wait a long time! It’s been like that for fifty years.”

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"YES YOU DID!"

I was seen by a specialist:

“You’re going blind.” he said.

“What can I do?”

“Nothing,”

(Get better parents?)

“How long do I have?”

“Impossible to say. Perhaps two years if you’re lucky. If you are really lucky it might take as long as ten.”

“If I’m really lucky I might be hit by a truck first,” I said, which made him laugh.

I returned home in a sombre mood, remembering a man who went blind in a cafeteria at Waterloo station. Six people had refused to help him before the seventh agreed. That sounds bad, but perhaps he was frightening them. Once in my life I was desperately ill and called to passers-by for help. They hurried away! It wasn’t until I managed to say, courteously, ‘excuse me, Sir, do you have a moment,’ that I received any assistance.

I told myself that at least I wouldn't go blind in ten minutes like the man in the Waterloo cafeteria, but then another specialist said: “You realise that it could happen in half an hour?”

What was I to do? Take a trip around the world? See the Parthenon and visit Delphi? Tour art galleries? But I could have done those things already if I really wanted to. I tried to learn Braille (impossible! I’d have to be blind before I had the patience). I bought an ‘app’ to let my computer turn my words into type, but it typed gibberish. I gave some books away. I collected painkillers and kept them in the ‘fridge marked ‘Keith’s Medications’ in case I didn’t enjoy being blind.

Every four months I went through a series of tests, and each time the specialist - the one who first diagnosed me - would react with what seemed alarm, tutting, and sighing, and well nigh tearing his hair.

“What’s wrong. Doctor?”

“There’s no change!” he'd say, as if annoyed.

After years of such investigations (eight? Ten?) he said: “Well, as there’s never any change, you’ve better come back once a year. We’ll keep an eye on it.”

“That’s great! That’s wonderful! So I’m not going blind!”

A sort of shudder went through him. He turned away and mumbled, in a defeated voice: “I never said that you were going blind.”

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DUCKS HAVE FEELINGS

The New Scientist recently - well, in the last ten years - printed a letter from two New Zealanders. They reported that long ago, in the sixties, they had been in Regents Park (in London) where a man had coaxed some ducks on to dry land by feeding them small pieces of bread.

Amazingly, a duck had picked up a sparrow and had run with it to the water to drown it. I was the man, and I remember them, although I'd thought that they were Australians. This bizarre event – strange enough to be in the mind decades later – happened in a section of the park called ‘Queen Mary’s Rose Garden’. I was surprised that the duck was quick enough to be able to grab a sparrow, and then to grip it in its beak without seeming to damage it. The sparrow flapped frantically, eighteen inches from the edge, and managed to ‘row’ ashore. There was no concrete rim, the asphalt sloped gently into the water, so it was able to extricate itself and join the others.

(CLARIFICATION: I didn't coax the ducks out of the water; I was feeding sparrows. When the ducks arrived I continued to feed the sparrows - and only the sparrows - to see what the ducks would do.)

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SMALL TRAMPOLINE

Alarmed by my weight-gain, I purchased a small trampoline – about four feet across - and took it into the garden to bounce in the fresh, cool air. Bounce one! Bounce two! Bounce three! (Good exercise but I'm bouncing rather faster than I might have wished.) Bounce eighteen! Bounce nineteen! (Wave to my neighbour’s daughter who I see sunbathing beyond the fence.) Bounce thirty-four! Bounce thirty-five! (Smile to the small boys who have been attracted by the sound.) Bounce forty-one, bounce forty-two..But what the hell is this? I'm not bouncing! I might as well be trying to bounce on concrete.

I step off and observe that the metal legs have sunk into the soil until the 'platform' is level with the ground. I hurl a clod of earth at the small boys who stop laughing and throw several back. The neighbour’s daughter looks over the fence, straight-faced, to wish me ‘good morning’.

Extracting the trampoline from the ground is quite aerobic.

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