I’m going to do something I’ve never done before. I stumbled upon a brilliant short memoir about one of most favorite and inspired songs by one of my favorite singers, Nerina Pallot and I just had to put it up. It’s all hers and none of mine. and maybe after you read, you’ll understand just a little bit why I love her so much. Enjoy.
The first ghetto blaster I ever had was a purchase made by mother at the Duty Free Kiosk of Damascus airport circa 1981. This was during the wilderness period when my Dad was flitting around and frequently banished to the spare room. When she finally got exasperated enough, my mother would call her friend who worked in a cupboard of a bucket shop travel agent off the Edgware Road and book us tickets to India, supposedly on an aeroplane, but I am convinced we might have got there quicker on a cargo boat. Perhaps it is her adventurous spirit (this is a woman who has moved entire continents not once, but twice in her life), perhaps a deeply ingrained sense of thrift, or smart realisation that only an airline that allowed people to take chickens on board would allow her the overweight baggage filled with Marks and Spencer’s soap and knickers for her family; whatever, but Ma and I became fully paid up members of the Syrian Arab frequent flyers club. Hey, we probably even shared some of our home made sandwiches with Osama on one of those trips and didn’t realise.
Rules were this: we eat before we get on the plane, and there were to be no trips to the toilet more than 3 hours after take-off. (I won’t go into the details, but any veterans of cheap travel to Asia and the Middle East in the 1970s and 80s will nod their heads knowingly. Flying Syrian Arab or Biman qualifies you for a badge of honour, and blatant disregard for life.) My mother would case the bathrooms at the various airport stops along the way (Frankfurt – the Ritz, Muscat – stay on the plane!, Dubai – not too long, mummy wants to go to the shops, Damascus – close your eyes and don’t touch anything.) Now, when folks moan about an 8 hour non-stop flight on Virgin, with those dinky little tellies and free ear plugs and slippers, I can’t help but think them ungrateful gits. They should try an internal Indian Airlines flight where the entire over head compartment came crashing down on landing, nearly decapitating fifty percent of the passengers; or being told upon entry to Tehran airport that ‘our landing gear may not have come down…um, you might want to lean forward with your hands over your head….’
After a few of these trips, I came to see them as an adventure. It is a tribute to my mother who never yelled or looked downtrodden like most parents at airports, and, once I was spread-eagled occupying both her seat and mine, would see if the new young mum in the row ahead might need a hand with her little ones too. She is the lady who always has a spare change of clothing, would never let her mascara run, even in a monsoon, and whose bottomless pit of a handbag somehow always has something yummy on which to nibble. She has done all this, and in heels, not Birkenstocks. I do not believe she has ever owned a rucksack, either. Insisting that I keep a travel journal at all times, she became my part time histiographer, geographer and Michael Palin, all at the same time.
I had a dim recollection of Saul and his trip to the dustbowl I could see beneath me from the window, but I had yet to grasp the concept of conversion. Precocious I may have been, but this was beyond a kid still in kindergarten, even if that kid was me. I especially liked the bit about the flash of light, and being blinded, and then waking up and changing everything from his name to his occupation.
‘Mummy, what’s a conversion?’
‘It’s a change from one thing to another, sometimes dramatic and forever.’
‘Mummy, what does it mean to “see the light”?’
‘It means that everything was all wrong before, and now it will all be ok.’
Wow. I looked out of the window again. Could stuff like this really happen among those minarets and reservoirs and telephone lines and dusty palms that grew larger and larger as the plane descended? Wow. Well, I figured that if my Dad was to finally get his divorce and marry my Mum, if she was to have the other kids she would secretly cry over on the phone to her sister, thinking I wasn’t listening, if I was to stop being a geek and get a pony and be popular, if our heating was ever going to work in the winter – it was going to be here; here, this place was going to fix us all forever. Everything was wrong, and now it would all be ok.
Maybe everything was not quite bad enough, as we only came away from Damascus with a ghetto blaster.
We go to Damascus all the time. A spa weekend in the Cotswolds. A month in the Betty Ford clinic. Joining Scientology. A luxury break for two in Paris, as if the most romantic city in the world will make a bad marriage a better one. It only makes the chasm between passion and indifference all the more apparent, everything that is wrong magnified a thousand times against the first flush of desire on the couple at the table opposite on the Place des Vosges. An overdose of beauty is the cruelest way to see the deficit in your own life. Hanging on desperately, wanting to love in the way that mystery urges us to, but familiarity will no longer allow. Hanging on, becoming bits of each other, but the bits we love the least. Hanging on, month after month, year after year, when the sorcery of sex no longer weaves its spell and we run a film in our head to manage the real one we are living. What happens when we change, but not for the good of those we have loved so intensely once before? Envy the actor, who has lost all sense of himself and can play the role required, yet still believes he is his own authentic self.
In the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in Santa Monica, fittingly on one of those rare days when it rains in Los Angeles, I stirred my tea, bit my lip, and realised that I still knew who I was. Paul must have remembered Saul, dreamt of his last life, the weight of silver and the perfume of whores, even after the momentary darkness disorientated him so. Even if I didn’t like myself a lot of the time, even if this had been my pathetic attempt to make up for my wrongdoings by loving as much as I could and long after was healthy for either of us, that little voice was still there, louder now, and reminding me that I could die before a conversion that might never come, and that had in all probability taken place already. Furious, in the way you can only be with those you care for so deeply, I drove back to my hotel, and reminded myself that hell, like Damascus, is here, now, and it is other people’s hearts.