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  • Keith Johnstone

MOSTLY BIOGRAPHICAL (FROM COLLEGE ON)

Updated: Aug 3

TEACHER TRAINING?

I arrived at St Lukes Teacher Training College and was shown to a student residence in a nearby street. My room was on the ground floor with greenery outside the window. I unpacked, and explored upstairs, attracted by voices. I found a room with several students. We introduced each other. I only remember one of them, Hector Vernon Hickling, who was sitting stark naked on a narrow bed. (I never saw another naked person at the college during the two years that I was there, including my second year when Hector was my roommate.) Back at the College – at dinner time – I became immediate friends with Clifford Sealy, the only ‘black’ student (who was actually brown). I introduced Clifford to Hector, and to a older student, John Hall, who had been an Army Captain in – I think – India and had spent several years as a novice monk, and was attracted to me sexually even though I was resolutely heterosexual. I was extraordinarily happy! I had found three people that were interested in ideas, who didn’t want to play cards or kick a ball around, or talk about sport. The four of us formed a close group from then on. We talked to one other student on that first day who was grey in clothes and in complexion. He seemed quiet and humble but he didn’t come with us. He probably should have because he killed himself that evening. It took me months to understand that St Luke’s Teacher Training College would not train us to be teachers. It gave academic classes to students who were intended to become teachers, but it didn’t train us how to teach. A general resentment about this was expressed in the often voiced complain that ‘they don’t even teach us how to mark the register,’ something that I thought would be the least of our problems. *****************************************************************************************

DIVISIONAL OFFICER 1953. Having distinguished myself by failing the crash-course at St Luke’s Teacher Training College, I still taught in Battersea, but for less money. New teachers were on probation for a year and had to be okayed by the Divisional Officer. Our relationship started badly when every child screamed ‘mind the hole’ as he entered the room. The hole was imaginary, but most people (except the headmaster) would play along and ‘edge around it’. I think that the Divisional Officer was insulted at being expected to be playful. Perhaps he thought (wrongly) that it was bad for discipline. I had stuck the individual pages of ‘art paper' to the back wall where the class were making a huge ‘mural’ of animals running from a forest fire. It was rather chaotic with painted leaves, and stuck on leaves. and cut-out elephants overlapping painted elephants, and with taped-on donated model animals, etc. (I had added a small teacher who was in flames.) The Divisional Officer didn't approve: "How can each individual child be given a mark for Art?"

'I'm giving them all a hundred out of a hundred!' I said. He may have thought that it was a fire risk, or that the 'jungle in flames' contained real insects. Certainly he didn’t like the way that any child who finished the work that I had set would go back and start adding more animals or flames or leaves (or would clean out the fish tank.) When he had seen enough he exited into a walk-in storage cupboard’. The door was exactly the same as the door into the corridor so the error was understandable, but he must have seen that he was stepping into darkness! Nevertheless he shut the door behind him and stayed in there until the class were sent out to play. (It wouldn’t have helped him to find the light switch because the bulb was burnt out.) "But Sir, what about the man in the cupboard?" "Never mind the man in the cupboard. Run about in the playground and make lots of noise!" The Divisional Officer emerged and left through the correct door, ignoring me, and deaf to my cry of ‘mind the hole!’. ************************************************************************************************

OUTWITTED

1953. I was not teaching in a Church School, and yet I was told that a priest of some Christian religion – Anglican I suppose – was coming to visit my class. He entered, and sized me up immediately. I don’t remember what he said to the children but as an intruder paid to propagate untruths, he was being as inoffensive as possible. Then he thanked me, and said goodbye to the children (no harm done!). He seemed rather a civilised person until he was half way out of the door where he paused, and said: “If Jesus came in this door he would see that every Christian boy has a golden cross shining on his forehead.” Then he escaped before I could collect my senses and shout, “liar!"

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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! 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 far more.

The play was said to be baffling, but none of my friends found it obscure. We were a group of would-be artists who met (and painted) at the Battersea Men’s Institute and the play seemed about us and the people that we lived with. We were all in the 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. 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 that first English production still expressed bewilderment. Simon Callow didn’t understand why Lucky went dumb and Pozzo went blind, but life takes things away as we age and how better to show our disintegration? 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 Pozzo and Lucky aren't evangelists! Sand? 'Sand' was like a slap in the face when I first heard it because I saw instantly that Lucky’s work was pointless - what else can it mean? That Pozzo is a geologist? 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, still enthused, 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'd never met anyone else who thought as I did!) 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 seaweed. They surrounded a small 'Rumplestiltskin' who was crouched over a clicking machine that flickered light onto his face.

The strips of seaweed resolved into 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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A MYSTERY - 'BLOKE'

I knew and admired the South African Journalist Bloke Modisane who I had directed in a performance. He was a fine actor but it was almost impossible to find work for him because he was small (starvation in childhood) and ‘black’. Of course, even if he was a big impressive ‘black’ man like Harry Baird he’d probable have been used as part of the décor (I was with Harry on a crowded pavement when an attractive blond lady brushed against him slightly. We walked on and he showed me the phone number that she had slipped secretly into his palm.)

Bloke and I were becoming friends when our relationship suddenly ended. I missed him, I admired him, but I didn’t return his phone calls. I never saw him again. This was nearly sixty years ago but I still have no idea why it happened. I don’t consider my behaviour rational. It’s true that I have no gift for friendship but …well, I’ll tell you:

We were in North Kensington. walking towards the home of the director of a small theatre (‘gay’) and two sex-workers (women). I wanted Bloke to meet them because they were charming people who I thought would appreciate him – and because it was important for directors to know actors.

We passed a two people who were pushing a coffee-coloured baby in a ‘pram’. The man was very black and the woman was white (and very blond). I said something that had a startling effect on Bloke. We stopped walking and he looked at me in what would have been amazement. Then he said words to the effect that I must be a person with no ‘colour prejudice’ at all.

Coming from Bloke - who had been persecuted by ‘whites’ in South Africa and I’m sure elsewhere, who had watched his sister starve to death, who had abandoned his family to escape into exile, etc. etc. I should have been pleased, like a royalist being knighted at the palace - but I was filled with horror. I felt as if he knew nothing about me. I felt like a devil being told that he was an angel. I avoided Bloke from then on, perhaps because I had no understand of the turmoil that he had released in me.

My best reconstruction of what I had said was that ‘the baby would have good genes, and that all the black men that I knew well wanted to ‘screw’ white women (especially blonds)', and that 'when such a woman accepted them they were probably more appreciative of her than a white lover might have been.’. I wasn’t talking seriously, it’s not a point of view that I’m willing to defend. My guess is that when the first ‘glow’ is over, interracial couples have the same problems as all other couples – plus a few extra. Perhaps the effect on Bloke came, not from the actual words, but that that I said them to him without the slightest sense that he was a ‘black’..

My feeling about racism was that it helped our species to evolve. There seems to be a drive in all of us to kill or enslave other tribes. I think we have always been wiping out weaker tribes until only the strongest and most intelligent of us still survive. Look in the Bible – it’s full of genocide. For example: “You shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hitites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded you.” Darwin had a similar view of human beings. In the Descent of Man he wrote that: “…the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate the savage races…” (well, he wrote some version of that )

.

So here we are, still evolving, still fighting for our genes, although a mixture of genes is more beneficial (those ‘Blacks’ and ‘Whites’ on Pitcairn islander still seem to be healthy after inbreeding since Fletcher Christian’s time). But science is changing everything. It’ll soon be evolving us in Petrie dishes. And it keeps challenging old ideas. It’s helps us be aware of our inborn racism, and having recognized that it exists, to demand Justice, equal treatment for everyone, and to categorise each other as human whatever we look like. Anyway these were the ideas I had at the time but I don’t that they explain my reaction to being told that I was not a racist by Bloke who had suffered so much.


Franz Fanon wrote that we were horrified by the Nazi’s because, ‘we weren’t used to colonialism in Europe’.

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A MYSTERY AT THE UNIVERSITY

The new Head of the Department had ‘negative’ charisma’. He was a slim, smallish man whose arms stayed close to his body. He never smiled. He had an inexpressive voice. He taught one class twice a week, and from the conversations that I overheard as his students passed my door, they detested him. When a student review made fun of him as ‘Mr Nobody’ I decided to try and improve things. Perhaps I could start a rumour that would give this withdrawn man a touch of glamour? But what glamorous story about such a man would be believed?

I cast him as a solo-mountaineer whose wife would drive him to the mountains on Friday, leave him as close as possible to some immense rock face, and return on Sunday evening to take him back to Calgary – if he had survived.

When a student mentioned that Mr Nobody had cancelled a class, I said: ‘perhaps he’s dead’. The student said: ‘How would we know?” I explained that I was serious, that mountaineering was dangerous enough, but that unless you were a great expert, solo-mountaineering was suicidal. The student then asked questions that I would answer reluctantly. After I had sneaked the story into conversation a few times I forgot about it. Either the story would ‘catch on’ or it wouldn’t.

Months passed, and the Dean discovered that he had money left in his budget. Unless he spent it he would receive less money next year. He decided to take the Faculty of Fine Arts to Banff for a conference in the mountains (Banff was only an hour-and-a-half drive away).

A weekend of discussions is not my idea of a good time, and I was so ‘out of it’ that I accidentally voted against a resolution that advocated for more cooperation between the departments. I became fully alert when I realised that my hand was the only one raised. “Ah, Professor Johnstone,” said the Dean, “perhaps you would be so kind as to enlighten us.”

“I err…I had a late night. I was confused.”

“But you seem fully alert. Full of beans, one might say”

“Coffee beans.”

“I observed that you seemed somewhat impatient with the resolution…” “Indigestion.”

"We are all here to contribute, are we not, Professor Johnstone? The floor is yours!”

The Dean was clearly in the mood to tease me, so I explained that cooperation was working fine as things were, but that the Fine Arts may have less in common that people assumed, for example, an actor absorbed in a role might be engaged in quite different activity from musician playing in an orchestra (something that might be investigated by Psychology), and that Drama, Dance, Art and Music would almost certainly benefit by close contact with Anthropology – and that Music might profit from some entanglement with Mathematics – and so on.

That evening ‘Mr Nobody’ brought me a beer, and said that he agreed with my opinions. We sat in the bar, either side of a small table. He seemed to have become a little more extroverted.

“It’s good to be in the mountains,” I said.”

“I’d rather be climbing them,” he said.

He told me that he was a solo-mountaineer, and that his wife deposited him in the mountains and came back to collect him a few days later. He described a hole in a wall of rock that you could crawl into and look into the next valley where the weather might be quite different, bright sunlight in one, and a ferocious thunderstorm in the other. ****************************************************************************************************


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 amusing.

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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' ME?

The 'voice' that we experience as ourselves has transformed us from a ‘dumb animal’ into an eye with which the universe can investigate 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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"OH 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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