Trad Jazz and Tarantulas

If you had asked me to make a list of what I was expecting from last night’s Outing tarantulas would have been unlikely to feature on it.

Not that I would have probably got round to making such a list because making such a list would fall under the banner of Mushroom Stuffing, Mushroom Stuffing being but one of that multitude of things that life is too short to do. A further example – Bertie spent much of our Thursday bus stop waiting time recounting the lengths he had gone to in rejuvenating his last year’s Remembrance Day poppy. The black bit in the middle had come out, he said, and he couldn’t find it, but eventually he did find it under the fridge/ washing machine/ spare-room bed/ hallway hat-stand, and then it was a matter of attaching a fresh bit of wire, hunting out the superglue and attaching the battered red petals to the new framework… This must have taken him several hours. Mushroom stuffing.

I mentioned mushroom stuffing. Nobody knew what I meant, of course.

Last night I went on an Outing. For most of my life the concept of Outings has been a foreign one to me. I am that pathetic, lone-wolf type person whose default position would be Do This Alone, Go There Alone, Solve This Yourself etc. But now I no longer have a car and have perforce become more reliant on other people and have had to retrain myself, somewhat, if not exactly into sheep-hood, at least into a lone-wolf/ovine combination. I have also read that Social Interaction might help you not get Alzheimers.

This I how, with three of my fellow Over 50s I came to be being driven into town (after dark) in a frankly odoriferous – dog/ cigarettes/ air freshener/ unidentified-but-unpleasant, possibly nappies – car, to a district on the outskirts of Town that I would until now have been nervous of frequenting in daylight let alone on the night before Bonfire Night, with premature fireworks lighting up the sky. I focussed on my breathing. There was very little air inside this car, and so many people breathing it.

However, it was a good night, if stressful. In this district the new owners of an old shop were renovating it when they came across a sealed room. On breaking in they found a perfect little music hall theatre left over from 1879 or thereabouts and somehow forgotten. It had offered “rational amusement for all classes”, including a one-armed juggler.

The sound of one arm juggling…

They restored it, making it into a mixture of tiny heritage centre, tiny museum, tiny cinema and tiny theatre. Just the sort of place I like. Sort of place you could set a book in.

Behind the Scenes at the… oh no, that’s been done before.

I wasn’t expecting much from a 1920s evening. Not even the oldest Over 50, I think, can actually remember the Roaring Twenties. I imagined we might be in for a party of not-very-good flapper dancers in thick, cheerful make-up, performing ragged Charlestons, or maybe re-enacting romantic scenes from Noel Coward plays. But it was an Outing. I just went because Outings are supposed to be good for one.

But it wasn’t that at all, it was an “orchestra” of six elderly chaps playing traditional jazz, and rather well, plus a slightly younger crooner-type singer, wearing a tuxedo, a bow-tie and sinister BBC announcer/German spy type spectacles, and playing the saxophone in between. They consisted of a trumpeter, with mute; a clarinet player with a white ZZ Top type beard; a snowy-haired, feisty drummer, for whose life I feared during a vigorous drum-solo; a guitar/banjo player who appeared to be asleep through out, with mouth open, but nevertheless kept on playing, and someone in the middle at the very back playing what I assumed to be a tuba – something like a battered brass snake that enveloped him, with a giant gramophone horn attached to the end – but later discovered it was a souzaphone.

I promised myself I would not, Kermit-fashion, jiggle up and down in my seat in time to the music, or even tap my feet, but of course I did. They played all those bits of jazz I remember from black and white films on TV on rainy Saturday afternoons in my childhood. Long, silly introductions. Little sung stories leading into sudden bursts of rampageous jazz. I looked around. We were surrounded by union jacks and tasteless swags of red ribbon, and vases of lilies, something that looked like a church organ, weird deco. It could have been wartime. How appropriate, as Britannia sinks beneath – or, fingers-crossed and baited breath, may just about float upon – the waves…

Never, Never, Never to be Slaves….

Afterwards, as we were standing outside awaiting the return odoriferous lift , I asked a silly question. What’s behind that great big wall?  Right opposite us, mere feet away, was the tallest and oldest brick wall I think I have ever seen. This would not have been a silly question for a visitor from outer space (and I could see by the micro-expressions on my companions faces that I had just asked that sort of question) but I do live here. That, I was told, is the Dockyard.

And this is where the tarantulas come in. Behind that wall, my companions explained, as our breath steamed in the damp night air, is the Dockyard. And in that wall are tarantulas that have escaped from all the crates that were ever unloaded here. They live in the cracks in the wall… The wall is still pitted with shrapnel holes from where this street (well, they were obviously aiming for the Dockyard) was bombed in the last war.

Really? Do they bite?

No, they’re not the biting sort. They just live in the cracks.

Someone has tested that?

And suddenly I imagined all these poor little tarantulas and the lives they must have led. The Wall was as far as they could get. Scuttling out of their crates into, not the tropical sunshine they had been used to but some grey, damp February or November day. Heading for the nearest cover – that Wall. Living in the cracks, unable to go any further, unable to go home. How sorely they must have missed it, the music of the oil drum bands, those joyous calypsos beneath the palm trees. I hope they were at least tapping their feet along to strains of jazz drifting across from the little theatre. I hope they were jiggling just a little, Kermit-fashion in their shrapnel holes, and those crumbling interstices.



Ultraviolet dandruff and peach shoes

Strictly time again! Once more the glitter and the sequins, the sharp moves and the even sharper comments. Every year I promise myself not to bother to watch it. Every year I do. My sister is staying with me this week, so we watch the first two programes at either end of the saggy sofa, like big old bookends, with cats in the middle instead of books. Cats love Strictly. They get to enjoy proper long-lasting laps instead of being dislodged at ten minute intervals for coffee-making, washing-up, drying-up, washing-machine-loading, sudden frenzied bouts carpet-sweeping, dirt-box-emptying, curtain-drawing, window-closing, knitting-wool-fetching, back-door-locking and all the other things female humans seem to find to do rather than staying put and being a lap. Unfortunately for the cats, sister goes away for four days tomorrow, so a return to the inadequate single-lap situation.

I only wish my own bouts of ballroom dancing had been anything like Strictly Come Dancing. Strictly is the apotheosis of all that is glamorous and televisually glitzy. My own experiences were more of a…nadir.

I was about fifteen when Lyndsay Barwell instructed me to go with her to Bassett’s School of Ballroom Dancing. Bassett’s wasn’t their real name, and Lyndsay Barwell wasn’t her real name. Since we were classmates she and I must be exactly the same age; I seem to be still alive, except occasionally at half past two in the morning, so maybe she is too, and may not want to be identified. Not that I am going to be nasty about her – in this post, anyway. Lyndsay made her debut in Imaginary Friends (1). Just click on Woolworths. Why Woolworths? All will become clear if you click.

I should also point out that when Lyndsay Barwell dragged me up the narrow, uncarpeted stairs to the dance hall above Burton’s the Tailor it was a very, very long time ago. We had met at her house, at tea time. She had backcombed my hair to look just like hers, parting it on the side, where it didn’t want to go. My hair never wanted to go anywhere apart from straight down, with a wobbly grey-white line in the middle.

Before that there had been the Borrowing of the Blouse. I had scarcely any clothes apart from my school uniform but Mum had a navy blue blouse with little white spots. It was made of some chiffon-substitute material and was therefore suitable for at least the top half an outfit for the Bassett School of Ballroom Dancing. My sister also coveted this blouse and there tended to be an outbreak of warfare-and-wheedling if we both needed to borrow it on the same night or if Mum had been remiss enough to wear it to work that day and put it in the wash. I never did get the bottom half of the outfit, having to make do with a home-made black skirt – home made by me, and therefore with a manky crooked zip and a hem that dipped at the back – and a pair of black school shoes.

If you were a proper dancer – the sort who sported a blonde bouffant with flick-ups, had pale pink nail varnish rather than bitten nails (I had a cousin like that, but she did get fatter later) and attended the silver or gold medal classes on a Saturday morning – you had peach high heels – kind of peach-textured as well as peach-coloured – dancing shoes, useful for nothing else. Dedicated shoes. I can taste those shoes, even now. The gold and silver medallists were supposed to dance with the no-hopers, such as Lyndsay and me, but they much preferred to dance with each other. They would gaze snootily over each other’s shoulders as they sashayed and whizzed around, perfect couples, their hands in that funny kind of edgewise hold, with the little finger lifted, as for tea-drinking from tiny, flowery cups.

But before any dancing could take place there was the rush to the ‘ladies’ to backcomb one’s hair and reapply one’s mascara. That was what we told ourselves we were doing – actually it was fright. Rather than looking around the dancehall, casually taking in the young Dockyard workers lounging around the orange-juice-only bar one side of the rectangle, and the already-backcombed and mascaraed young ladies arrayed in tense clumps on the plastic chairs lining the three other walls, we did a quick rightward shuffle with downcast eyes, and edged our way into the loos, where girls were jammed seven-deep before the low pink-lit mirrors, repairing and preparing their evening selves.

The whole experience was one of mixed terror and excitement. We were caught between a longing to be asked to dance by one of the spotty, slack-jawed young men lounging opposite, and fear in case we were asked, in case their unfamiliar arms should close around us and wrench us, manfully, into the Natural Turn or some kind of spin we hadn’t yet encountered. We longed to dance. We feared looking foolish. We longed for kisses and steamy romance, as portrayed in Jackie magazine, but feared these actual boys with their sprinkled spots, their unpredictable breath, their downward-sliding hands, their appalling chat up lines and even their occasional trembling and throat-clearing which, had we thought about it, would have revealed them to be at least as nervous as we were. We feared falling over, having our toes trodden on, treading on their toes or…sweating.

Horses sweat and men perspire, but ladies only glow.

In accordance with this saying, drummed into us from an early age by our mothers grandmothers, whilst boys were permitted to perspire in moderation, girls could only be seen to emanate the gentlest of glows; before leaving home we had shaved our armpits with father’s rusty razor and rolled on layer after layer of MUM. Had there been horses at the Bassett School of Ballroom Dancing, they would have been allowed to sweat.

One further and even greater humiliation existed – that your partner might walk away in the middle of a dance. This happened to me once, and I still remember the pain. He – whoever he was – I blanked every detail – came over and asked me for jive, but I had only got as far as the waltz and the quickstep in the mid-evening tutorial sessions. Instead of just explaining this I stood up and followed him onto the dance floor. I didn’t yet know how to explain anything, to anyone. I didn’t know how to say a simple no thank you.

I suppose I hoped maybe the steps would come to me, magically, once the music started. They didn’t. He said not a word, but left me standing there, in the middle of what seemed to me at that moment the biggest dance-floor in the world, shocked, disorientated, fenced in by perfectly-dancing pairs. I had to elbow my way through them to get back to the edge of the room and reclaim my plastic chair. And then I had to sit, with the wallflower’s thousand yard stare – not crying at all – no, nowhere near crying – for another couple of hours until Lyndsay Barwell marched me back down the stairs and to the bus stop.

I was mostly not asked to dance in any case, but I did have one, single fan. His name was Lionel and he too worked in the Dockyard. He was much shorter than me. He had putty-coloured straight hair and glasses. He had wandering hands. But he had invented an electronic poodle as part of his Dockyard apprenticeship. At the time, I think, I failed to appreciate the merits of electronic poodles, or even why they should need to be invented, but he was obviously proud of himself. He told me about the electronic poodle every week. I suspect, even though I was twice his height and always wore the same blue spotty blouse he may not have remembered that he had danced with me before. He was quite short-sighted. Or maybe he just didn’t have an alternative conversational strategy.

And so it went on, week after week – pay to get in, dash to the ladies for mascara and back-coming, dash to the seats round the edges, spend much time staring into the middle distance as if you were merely there to observe, occasionally get asked to dance, occasionally get left on the dance floor, regularly get told about electronic poodles, a half-hour tuition session in the middle, a glass or two of Kia Ora, more staring into the middle distance trying not to tap one’s foot to the music, and then…Englebert Humperdinck and the Last Waltz.

This was the bit I almost enjoyed; most people got a partner of some sort for the Last Waltz. And it was always Englebert. They turned off the regular lights and turned on the ultra-violet. Everyone liked this – it added a touch of the exotic. Boys wearing suits would find the dandruff illuminated purply-blue on their shoulders, if they hadn’t remembered to brush it off first. A girl wearing a white skirt or blouse would find that illuminated too, but if she had been foolish enough to wear a white bra, whatever colour top she wore over it, she would find the bra illuminated through the top, much to the boys’ delight. They – we – were easily pleased in those days.