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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

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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

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ALL I KNOW IS IT’S OVER

Don’t know why you call me up
When you got nothin’ to say
Don’t know why you follow me
When I walk away
Don’t know why you use my name
When you go out to play
Don’t know why you burned my boat
In Montego Bay

Once as far as the eye could see
Potter’s Field was in clover
But the summer’s gone like cowboys
And all I know is
It’s over

Don’t know why you run with hounds
When you stand me up at night
Everyone’s been used before
But that don’t make it right
Don’t know why I let you in
I guess I’m not that bright
And why every Hanukkah
Do you sing Silent Night?

I was born in a little town
And we prayed to Jehovah
But the summer’s gone like martyrs
And all I know is
It’s over

It was just one of those things
This nearly was mine
I don’t get around much anymore
My funny valentine

Once I fell for a golden girl
Burned just like supernova
But the summer’s gone like Elvis
And all I know is
It’s over

(c) Frank Howson 2014

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THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS

I’ve been asked by my dear friend Mark Richardson to write something about the spirit of Christmas for Ash Long’s Melbourne Observer.

Christmas lives in the hearts of children and the child inside us all. It also lives on because of writers such as Francis Church, Irving Berlin (who penned a little ditty called White Christmas), Charles Dickens (in his sublime novel A Christmas Carol), and Frank Capra’s screenplay of It’s A Wonderful Life. The latter was a flop at its initial release, but like Christmas it is still with us.

It seems it doesn’t much matter whether you tell the story of a pauper child born in a stable, or a jolly chubby white-bearded man in a Coca-Cola suit, or of a husband/father from Bedford Falls who forgets just how many friends he has. The spirit lives on in the telling.

This is a true story I heard many years ago, perhaps when I was a child. It touched me then as it touches me now.

On September 21, 1897, the New York Sun published a letter from a young girl named Virginia O’Hanlon. It read…

Dear Editor,
I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in the Sun it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”

One of the paper’s editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, decided to rise above the simple question and address the philosophical issues behind it. Church, son of a Baptist minister, had been a war correspondent during the American Civil War, and had witnessed first-hand the great suffering and resultant decline of hope and faith in much of society.

His printed response was so moving that over a century later it remains the most reprinted editorial ever to run in any newspaper in the English language.

Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exists, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus? It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sight and sound. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus? You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart a baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest of men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith. poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

And so he does to this day.

For me the spirit of Christmas was the generosity and joy of giving I saw in my mother, Pearl.

Christmas was her favourite time of year and she’d begin shopping for it early January.

I’d always wake early Christmas morning to see a mountain of presents under the tree. Gifts for me, my sisters, my aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and some mere acquaintances.

We were a working class family and to this day I’ve no idea how her meager budget stretched to accommodate all those gifts. No doubt she denied herself many things in order to work her miracle. And although we gave her our gifts in return it was not the receiving that mattered to her, but rather the joy of giving. I’ll always remember the blissful sparkle in her eyes as she watched us excitedly opening our presents.

Since her death, and my son growing up and growing away, Christmas is no longer the same for me. It can be a lonely and hollow time for single people. But, come December, I smile in remembrance, because once I was blessed to have witnessed the spirit of Christmas.

It was not found in the gifts. But in my mother’s eyes.

(c) Frank Howson 2013.