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THE WARM DARK TUNNEL

Freddie Hudson was cursed with a great memory. He could remember everything that ever happened to him. Every slight, every cruel comment disguised as humour, every kiss that led to heartache, every promise not kept, every humiliation, every betrayal by a friend, every stumble and fall in a life lived in search of meaning.

There were also bad memories too.

He remembered coming out of that warm dark tunnel of darkness and gazing up at the doctor painfully dragging him into a cold and clinical world. He had tried with all his might to scramble back but it was no use as the uncaring determined doctor gripped his little head harder and forced him into a place he wasn’t sure about. He always thought perhaps that was why he had a long neck. Some told him, much later, that it was the sign of good breeding but it never convinced him enough to give up his own theory.

On first viewing his parents seemed nice so Freddie decided to hang about and a short time later found himself cradled in his mother’s arms, his grinning dad beside them, in the backseat of a taxi on its way to what would become his boyhood home.

Once settled in his cozy compact blue room he began thinking about the meaning of it all and what all this fuss would eventually come to. He felt awkward imposing on this obviously struggling couple and guilty for the pain he had already caused his mother. This fear of imposing on people would remain with him all his life.

His dad like to drink stout and this miracle brew seemed put the old boy in high spirits – although it clearly had the opposite effect on mum.

“Stout is good for me!” his dad would utter with all the urgency of a serial killer pleading Not Guilty.

“Not when you’ve had ten bottles it isn’t!” Mum would counter in her best Perry Mason voice.

Observing all this sitting on his dad’s lap, Freddie was beginning to suspect he may be a genius. Well, at least in this household. After all, surely the solution to all this was simple. If only mum could just down a few pints herself she could join father and son in singing sea shanties that made absolutely no sense to anyone. And see the fun in it?

She didn’t. And so most nights his parents played another game where they would both reenacted the Battle of the Somme. Freddie very much appreciated the obvious effort they both put into this but it invariably left all three dissipated and feeling defeated.

It wasn’t long before Freddie was up and about and dispatched to school, an institution he loathed with every cell in his body. He thought it truly fraudulent that the teachers spoke gibberish and got paid for it. Yet part of him marvelled at their trickery and on several occasions offered to take over the class with his own form of gibberish which, instead of being rewarded for, got him beaten by the said teachers until he could hardly walk home. Upon completing that long painful journey he’d be greeted at the door by his smiling mum and the words, “How was school today, son?” On one such occasion Freddie found it difficult to speak so his mum cut in with her motivational skills, “Don’t worry, your dad and I were idiots at school too!” Freddie was tempted to ask if he could crawl back into her warm dark tunnel and shimmy up far enough to fall through some trap door and back to whence he came before he was so rudely awakened to this mad place. But refrained in the spirit of good taste and reverence.

Having survived school, Freddie realised he was old enough to be married so he did. He found a girl who seemed to honestly love him so he figured she was a good candidate to try and recreate the joyful association his parents had endured.  And so they took that huge journey down the aisle and thereafter were happy and life was simple and good for a time. Until it wasn’t.

Oneday she said something to him that he couldn’t forget. Or forgive.  So he went on alone trying to forget her and failing.

But as things developed, there was much to do, and shopping lists of things to clutter a life in order to distract a mind that never slept. Freddie’s religion was to stay busy. In a way he thought this would ward off death. For although this life had holes in it, it was all he knew.

He liked to hang out with his friend Jimmy Helle who’d never uttered anything that wasn’t a lie but his choice of words was compelling. Together they whiled away the days, one telling tall tales and the other pretending to buy them for the sake of a friendship. It was a fine relationship because they needed nothing from each other, other than the shared knowledge that they were witnesses to the futility of the passing parade.

Another pal was Alby who had more moves than a snake and was just as quick to disappear when a bar bill was presented. Alby was so dumb he joined ISIS thinking he was working for the CIA.

Around this time, Freddie had the sobering realisation that he had $32.56 to his name so he wrote a bunch of film scripts and hit the jackpot. Suddenly he found that he was irresistible to many women and it wasn’t long before he chose one of them to accompany him down the aisle. Again.

Things went swimmingly for a number of years and he found himself to be on everyone’s lips, especially actresses in need of a job. Or therapy.

Money rolled in but Freddie was too   busy to enjoy himself. Luckily he had a wife who wasn’t so busy so every day she very kindly thought up ways to spend his new found fortune. She was genius when it came to spending money and Freddie thought himself blessed to have her.

Freddie was also surrounded by a team of men who were good with numbers, which was a great relief to him as he’d found math to be as ridiculous as geomatry at school. He was told by these numbers men to just keep on doing what he was doing, whatever that was, and they’d handle the rest.

After Freddie had exhausted himself making 193 films in two years, the numbers men seemed disappointed that the workload hadn’t killed him. So crestfallen were they that they all took holidays at the same time and never returned. Freddie thought it was a little strange that he hadn’t received a postcard or any information on where all his money could be located. This was a major inconvenience as he’d been planning to take his wife (if he could get her out of the shops) and young son on a little holiday of their own.

The kindly men who were good with numbers finally popped up again years later and made a splash in the irrigation business before finally discovering their niche grading horse semen.

Soon Freddie’s name was mud everywhere, including his own home, and it wasn’t long before the Tax Department thought it might be opportune to lend a boot to the situation by charging Freddie with fraud. It wasn’t long before he found himself facing Judge Kafka in the Farce of the Century. Unfortunately Freddie didn’t have Paul Hogan’s millions, or even his own, to make the Laxative Department look like fools, so he had to rely on plain old common sense. Representing himself, Freddie stood and asked the Judge if the definition of fraud was “to financially benefit yourself through deception?” Judge Kafka smiled and affirmed that that was indeed the case. Freddie then stated, “Well I don’t have any money. So I guess I have disadvantaged no one through the deception of myself that the numbers men would take care of business whilst I was making 193 films. No further questions, you Dingbat” and sat.

This sent the court into an uproar. It had been a long while since common sense had been heard in public and the judge toyed with the idea of having him charged with contempt of court. The Lax Department then dropped the charge altogether and wanted to have Freddie retried on the grounds that they couldn’t understand the plot to one of his movies. Freddie stood  and asked them if they were able to follow The Lady From Shanghai to which they replied, “Not on your Nellie, no way” and asked the Judge to have Orson Welles joined in the proceedings. That’s when pandemonium broke out in the courtroom and Freddie was convicted for a parking offence, paid the appropriate fine and walked free. Then caught a tram home.

Urged by his wife (it was a public holiday and the shops were closed) to go to Hollywood and make another fortune for his family, Freddie accepted the challenge. Unfortunately, once he was away his wife, trying her own hand at fiction, told his impressionable son that Daddy had deserted them, leaving them penniless, except for a mansion and everything in it.

Whilst pounding the pavements in Hollywood, Freddie’s wife scored another bargain and moved one of her co-workers into the master bedroom to cope with those long, lonely nights and had Freddie served with divorce papers.

Pretty soon Freddie was seen drinking in bars that even Charles Bukowski would’ve turned his nose up at. He started on white wine and soon hit the harder stuff. One night he had a terrible nightmare and glimpsed hell in all its ugliness and debauchary surrounded by lost souls all screaming for mercy.  But taking a second look he realised he was actually standing on the corners of Hollywood Boulevard and Western at 3am waiting for the lights to change.

Work started to come Freddie’s way and soon he was being invited to all the right parties. Demi Moore wanted him to write a screenplay and Sharon Stone wanted him to take a shower with her.

Every day without fail Freddie sent home, well what was once his home,  gifts, cards, drawings, letters and, when he had it, money,  to his son. But strangely the money never seemed to reach his son and somehow ended up in the bank account of a doctor who shot Botox into women’s faces.

Freddie thought it was about time he wised up, so he married a bipolar movie star in Miami. They returned to L.A and settled in a rented home in Sherman Oaks and there was peace in the Valley. For a time. Some nights her mood swings suited the music and somehow together they stumbled through it. Two against the world. At times Freddie didn’t know if he was coming or going but after four years he found himself between leaving and gone. One particularly hard night, Freddie walked into the darkness and laid down in the road waiting for a bus to run over him.  Unfortunately for him there was a bus strike that night and misfortune followed misfortune until the marriage ended.

Somehow he came to be running a restaurant and proved to be so popular with patrons he was voted the unofficial Mayor of Santa Monica. He made some great pals amongst those he worked with like Ben, Gordon, Cathy, Pat, David, Neth and many drinks were consumed after closing time amidst shared laughter and stories. For a time it felt like he was part of a family again.

On the other hand, the two owners he worked for, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, were insane. Dum had the personality of white wallpaper and was the only wealthy Jewish doctor in L.A who couldn’t get laid. If he sat beside an attractive woman at the bar of his own restaurant and struck up a conversation with her, she’d be gone within 10 minutes. Sometimes less. Freddie named the empty bar stool next to Dum as the Seat of Death. His partner, Dee, always had a smile on his face even when you told him your mother had just died. He also spoke at a thousand miles an hour like a man who’d found the secret recipe of how to make speed.

Doctor Dum would sit on his regular bar stool every night after boring off every attractive woman in Hollywood and snarl at how popular Freddy was with people. It wasn’t long before Freddie was given his marching orders and on his way again, into the night with a thousand eyes and no particular place to go.

On one such night he gave all of his remaining possessions away and made his bed on the beach thinking, like the Indians do, that it was a perfect night to die. No sadness. No self-pity. In fact he welcomed the chance to now depart this strange world, leaving it like he came into it, with nothing. He closed his eyes and drifted off expecting to enter that warm dark tunnel again that would hopefully lead to a light. Or something.

But instead, he awakened to a new dawn and the disappointing realisation that a homeless person hadn’t killed him during his sleep. Then he looked around and witnessed a dawn of breathless beauty, and finally heard the voice of God as it said unto him, “Leave your cross here and find the music again.”

Freddie misinterpreted this message to mean go forth and populate so he found a jumpin’ little joint on Pico and exchanged numbers with lots of Black girls, until finally he got the right translation that it was all about the music being played at this club by a band of all stars led by Wadstar and Turk.

One night the doorman Basil Wrathbone sussed that Freddie had nowhere to go so he invited him back to his pad to share another 437 beers until they collapsed on the carpet and awoke a week later.

Sometimes between late at night and early in the morning, the bewitching hours, Freddie would see his new best friend appear giving a perfect impression of Creeping Jesus as he quietly inched in the darkness towards the Venetian blinds and nervously peeked out, whispering “The C.I.A are looking for us!” To which Freddie would reply from his living room sofa bed, “Why?” This question would rattle Basil and he’d give a knowing smile and creep back to his room. Sometimes they’d get so paranoid from this nightly activity that they’d watch endless repeats of Sherlock Holmes on TV in the hope that something, anything, would be resolved.

One day Freddie’s cousin thought he may be useful to him so he paid for his airfare to get him back to his suspicious homeland, Australia, the land of second chances and forked tongues.

Freddie returned and everyone patted him on the back.  Yes, everyone seemed pleased to see him except his old editor, the famous drunk about town Peter McBland who was genius at cutting the plot out of every film he edited.

Freddie was excited to see his son again but found that the young man’s heart and head had been poisoned by a woman who resented that her only achievement had been hitching herself to Freddie’s wagon. One night he invited his son to dinner and excitedly prepared a roast with all the trimmings and waited. And waited. Sometime after midnight Freddie turned the oven off. And something deep inside him too. Possibly the hope that the truth would win out and a happy ending might prevail. But life clearly wasn’t a movie.

An old friend Richard Masters, whom Freddie had once given a big break to, remembered enough to repay the favour. Richard was now running a very successful underground film festival aptly named P.U.S.S.Y and honoured Freddie by presenting a retrospective of 8 of his old movies. It was a roaring success and audiences cried in all the wrong places and the films were now deemed to be classics.

Freddie was hailed as a legend and people thrust awards at him in the hope that they’d weigh him down and he’d become stagnant like good old safe legends are supposed to behave. But it didn’t work and the bastard continued to live and produce new works.

In fact he lived to be 100 and received a telegram from the Queen  which read, “You’re a fucking miracle, Brad.” The fact that the silly old bitch had gotten his name wrong after too many G&Ts didn’t dilute Freddie’s delight in receiving this thoughtful correspondence and so he went on about his life, making mistakes, taking people at their word, searching for meaning in everything, and just being human.

His final words were reported to be, “Awwwfuckyasall!” Or something to that effect as he passed from this earthly world back into that warm dark tunnel of mystery, taking his place in our cherished and grossly rewritten history.

Text (c) Frank Howson 2017

Painting (c) Frank Howson 2017

Awesome-attics29

MY FAVOURITE BOOKS LIST

A friend asked me to pick my 10 fave books of all time. The 10 best of anyting is a hard ask but here’s goes. I have chosen those 50 books that moved me the most and had the biggest influence.

1) THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

2) GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens.

3) THE DISENCHANTED by Budd Schulberg.

4) THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY by Oscar Wilde.

5) NODDY IN TOYLAND by Enid Blyton

6) A LIFE by Elia Kazan.

7) CRAZY SUNDAYS – F. SCOTT FITZGERALD IN HOLLYWOOD by Aaron Latham

8) CHRONICLES by Bob Dylan.

9) THIS IS ORSON WELLES by Orson Welles & Peter Bogdanovich.

10) A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway.

11) THE LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

12) IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote

13) A TALE OF TWO CITIES by Charles Dickens

14) HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain

15) WHAT’S EXACTLY THE MATTER WITH ME by P.F. Sloan

16) DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller

17) TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee

18) TENDER IS THE NIGHT by F. Scott Fitzgerald

19) POWER WITHOUT GLORY by Frank Hardy

20) PETER PAN by James M. Barrie

21) DIARY OF AN UNKNOWN by Jean Cocteau

22) ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE by William Goldman

23) THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD by Ron Hansen

24) SCOTT & ERNEST by Matthew Bruccoli

25) THE POWER OF MYTH by Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers.

26) ERROL FLYNN – A MEMOIR by Earl Conrad

27) ON THE STREET WHERE I LIVE by Alan Jay Lerner

28) DON’T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD by Eric Burdon with J. Marshall Craig

29) OLIVIER ON ACTING by Laurence Olivier

30) THE MUSIC GOES ROUND MY HEAD by David Johnston

31) FREE ASSOCIATION by Steven Berkoff

32) THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE by Robert Evans

33) MARILYN by Norman Mailer

34) HITCHCOCK BY TRUFFAUT

35) A MOVEABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway

36) JOURNAL OF A NOVEL by John Steinbeck

37) PICTURE by Lillian Ross

38) HOME BEFORE DARK by Ruth Park

39) TINSEL by William Goldman

40) PORTRAITS by Helmut Newton

41) THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT by Quentin Crisp

42) THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES by Joseph Campbell

43) TEN GREAT PLAYS by William Shakespeare

44) FINISHING THE HAT by Stephen Sondheim

45) W. C. FIELDS – HIS FOLLIES AND FORTUNES by Robert L. Taylor

48) THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN Volume 1 by Mark Twain

49) IN HIS OWN WRITE by John Lennon

50) THE ENTERTAINER by John Osbourne

Luna

THE ST. KILDA OF MY YOUTH

Growing up in Fawkner Street, St. Kilda, was an adventure, as I have written of in the past.

My earliest recollections were of the Barkly Hotel on our street corner. In those days a rough and tumble pub, not helped by the archaic 6pm closing times of the day. That meant that all pubs had to stop serving alcohol by 6pm (can you believe it?) and so men, and women, would rush there from their day jobs and with less than thirty minutes or so would order six or seven or eight pints, line them up and down them in record time. All this did was ensure that there’d be a blood bath outside the pub most nights giving the poor, who couldn’t afford to go to Festival Hall and see professional boxing, free front row seats as unhappy drunk patrons settled their imagined differences with their fists. It looked quote poetic on reflection. A kind of slow motion, weird, drunkards dance.

Everywhere there seemed to be street theatre happening.

People falling out of pubs, or pushing to get in before closing time. Children, crying in strollers, waiting for dad or mum to drink their fill and return to responsibility. Maybe.

Mr. and Mrs. Kilpatrick’s Milk Bar was a few doors down and I’d be sent to get supplies for the dinner meal most nights, so I always got a first hand look at the action. Who needed to read “Treasure Island” for thrills when all this was happening outside your door?

My mum never did a shopping list. She was an improve artist when she cooked. My dad, who was jockey size, used to joke that he’d have been 6’4″ if my mum hadn’t sent him on so many errands. It usually went something like this…

“Hey Jack, can you walk up to the Kilpatrick’s and get some milk?”

“Is that all you need?” Dad would ask.

“Yes. That’ll do.”

So off he’d go.

Upon his return he’d be met with…

“Oh. And I need some butter.”

At this point he’d look at me with the greatest look of exasperation seen since the great Oliver Hardy.

He’d put the milk down, loudly, on the kitchen table and through tight lips and clenched teeth would again enquire, “Now…is that all you need?”

“Yes, that’ll do me, Jacky,” my mum would assure him. So, off he’d go again. Dutifully walking up the street to ensure we finally got something to eat as our in-house masterchef toiled away.

No sooner would he get in the door when he’d hear, “Oh and I could use some more flour too.”

I can’t repeat what my father’s response would be to this. But he certainly made it clear to my mum what she could do with the dinner.

Who needed television? Every night at my place we had a live comedy sketch worthy of anything Laural & Hardy, Buster Keaton or Chaplin ever did. Maybe that’s why it was easy to develop a sense of humour. You had to look at the funny side of things or go mad. Or kill someone. To be totally honest some nights the two of them did attempt the latter but that’s a whole other chapter and darker in tone.

Looking back, my upbringing destined me for the theatre. Franz Kafka would’ve felt right at home at our table. The bizarre was normal to us.

Both my parents were originals. Characters. I have not found their like in anyone else in all my years. Perhaps that’s why they were so well loved. They made people laugh, either intentionally or not. When my father died, the crowd couldn’t squeeze into St. Colman’s Church on Carlisle Street and overflowed onto the pavement outside. Tough men who’d worked with him sobbed like children and tried to explain to me how much he’d meant to them. Didn’t they think I knew?

My mother outlived my dad by over twenty so her funeral didn’t achieve the same standing room only crowd but that was only for the simple fact that so many of her friends and family were already gone by then. But the outpouring of grief was just as intense. Many couldn’t contemplate a world without Pearl. I must confess that this writer still struggles with it himself.

Being originals meant both of them were irreplaceable.

If my mum wanted to go and see a romantic film at the classy Victory Theatre my dad would convince her that, while she was enjoying Grace Kelly and Cary Grant act in a story that must’ve seemed almost science fiction to the world she knew, he’d take me and go see a man’s movie at the nearby Memo Theatre. The once beautiful art deco Memo had fallen into disrepair in my youth and I remember my dad affectionately calling it “the Flea Pit.” The first such movie outing between us men was “The Creature From The Black Lagoon.” I was three years old. I had nightmares for years. Child psychology wasn’t a concept in those days. No one ever thought about how things might harm or unnerve a child. You either coped with it…or harden the fuck up!

Another place I’ll always remember was Candy Corner. It was a sublime lolly shop and was situated across the road from Luna Park and the Palais Theatre. When my mum got a part time job there I thought I was the luckiest kid in the world and was so proud of her. I used to brag about it to my friends. Suddenly I had influence. I was somebody once removed from a somebody. Yep, I learned how powerful it was to have connections. Kids would beg me to accompany them into the shop while they ordered in the hope that my mum would think they were my pals and give them a very generous serving of their favourites. And she always did.

When she lost her job there, perhaps for being over generous, I lost a few friends too. Another life lesson. More grounding for a future in showbiz.

My dad had been a hurdle jockey, as were his two brothers. One of them, William (Bill) Howson is in the history books for winning several Grand National Steeple Chase races. But my dad gave it all away when he married so he could get a more reliable job. Did the frustration of that lead to his drinking? Watching his brother go on and become famous and wealthy? Who would know? This was the era when men didn’t talk about their problems. Nor acknowledge them. And went to their graves with the secrets of their inner feelings.

He got a job on the St. Kilda Foreshore Council and became a gardener, and a damn fine one. There was nothing he didn’t know about plants. He’d walk through a garden and pick various flowers or plants and eat them to impress you. He knew which ones you could eat and which ones would poison you. He was in charge of the O’Donnell Gardens next to Luna Park.

The head of Luna Park in those days was Mr. Keith Marshall, a man I remember looking up to, literally, and being so impressed with the fact that he always wore a suit, collar, tie, and a fedora hat. He dressed like Melvyn Douglas in the movies. Immaculate.

After my mum’s tragic demise from a career at Candy Corner, I had a revival in popularity when Mr. Keith Marshall became friends with my dad. It was impossible not to like my father – when he was sober.

I remember Mr. Keith Marshall looking down at me and saying, “Whenever you want free tickets to Luna Park you just go to the front office and tell them you’re Jack Howson’s son – and that I personally okay however many you want. Alright my boy?”

Oh my God. Now I was bursting with pride about my dad. He had sent me to the top of the popularity charts again. For a kid this was really something. And God aka Mr. Keith Marshall had personally authorized it! I was so happy I could’ve cried, but I was a St. Kilda kid and possibly still in trauma due to the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Almost overnight a lot of my friends returned with fanciful excuses for their absence and why they’d dropped me off their birthday party invitations. I must admit, I was becoming a bit cynical about it all.

I spent a lot of my childhood in the O’Donnell Gardens playing Robin Hood, Davy Crockett and Zorro. And rolling down those green hills until I was so dizzy I couldn’t stand. It was cheap entertainment. You had to develop an imagination and use it. I always dreamed that oneday I’d become so famous and rich that I’d have the powers that be change the name of the O’Donnell Gardens to the Henry (Jack) Howson Gardens in tribute to my dear ol’ dad. That dream still gets me to sleep.

Eventually my dad got promoted to boss of the St. Kilda Foreshore, and my mum always maintained that was his downfall. Now he had no one to answer to and the drinking escalated. It got so bad that my mum would go and sit in the gardens and watch him in order to cramp his style. This must’ve humiliated him with his workmates but there you have it. It was a situation that lasted many years and led to World War 3 being fought every night in our living room.

Most times just verbal brutality, sometimes physical. All I know is I overheard a lot of horrible nasty things that no child has a right to hear. A frightened kid standing at his half opened bedroom door watching and listening to your two heroes destroy each other’s ego and pride. And your innocence. So the little boy ran away and hid somewhere inside me.

Some people have remarked that when I laugh or am filled with joy they can actually see the little boy. Maybe it’s on those occasions he feels safe enough to come out.

He’s still very proud that his mother worked at Candy Corner, and for a time his father was friends with God – the man who ran Luna Park.

(c) Frank Howson 2014