Monday, October 09, 2006

Abandoned Opening Chapter for Memoir

Well, what makes YOU happy?

Starting books is hard. Those opening chapters have to combine lightness with lots of exposition, hint at a narrative without being too revealing, and have some sex and rude words without being off-putting. Here's one I made earlier, then abandoned, back when my second volume of memoirs was called Happiness Cracked.

Happiness Cracked

1. Introduction: Rolling Down Grass Banks

'So, are you?'

My friend Trevor is asking me a worrying question. We're strolling in Greenwich Park in London, and he's reminded me of an experience in our lives, something that's got him wondering. And me worrying.

When he and I were lads, in our very early twenties - two decades ago! - we lived in Bangkok. We were there for about three months, three months of serious mayhem and revelry. But when we weren't smoking stuff or watching go-go dancers (which wasn't often) we occasionally visited temples, like the famous Wat Po temple in central Bangkok.

Our visit to Wat Po was something of a laugh. We found this friendly Buddhist monk in an office; he was talking through a microphone, broadcasting interesting historical facts across the PA system of the temple complex, information for the benefit of the many tourists. The monk was saying things like: 'Wat Po was built in 456 AD. It features the famous golden Buddha of Kampuchea, the largest Buddha in Indochina...' etc etc.

Being of a perky state of mind at the time, indeed slightly drunk after several Singha beers, Trevor persuaded the monk to lend him the microphone for a while. This was so Trevor could broadcast his own version of Wat Po's history to all the keenly listening tourists.

It has to be said Trevor's account was a little different, more colourful. 'Wat Po was built three years ago, by British comedians Little and Large. One of the most interesting features of Wat Po temple is an enormous seventy foot moccasin, made entirely of holy string. Visitors should also pay attention to the ancient shrine dedicated to the Eurovision Song Contest Winners, Bucks Fizz.'

I still remember the astonished looks on the faces of the tourists, as they turned to stare in puzzlement at the speakers. The British ones eventually started laughing.

But it wasn't that amusing incident that Trevor is reminding me of now. He's recalling the visit we paid to the fortune teller, at the gate of Wat Po temple. This oriental guy was the most wizened person I have ever seen. He had a kind of crispy face. His hands were gnarled and clawlike. He must have been in his early nineties.

To be frank, I wasn't convinced of this man's fortune telling talent. Not just because he obviously had hints of Alzheimer's, but because I don't really believe in fortune-telling. I mean, think about it. Fortune telling. Looking at birds to see if you're going to fall in love. Scrying in entrails to check the lottery numbers. It's idiotic. Astrology, to my mind, is particularly absurd. It's so prone to what we could generously call.... generalisation. I've always wondered, for instance, what the star-charts in Auschwitz must have been like. Capricorn: today you will be gassed. Leo: today you will be gassed. Aquarius: expect the arrival of a glamorous stranger, and perhaps a surprise present.

So, no, I didn't, and don't, hold much store by fortune telling. But Trevor somehow persuaded me to sit down with this guy, who proceeded to tell our fortunes, through an interpreter, after he'd looked at our palms, and scrawled down our birth dates, and spent a while being weird and dreamy (but that could have been the Alzheimer's).

You probably know what's coming. This old Chinese guy's fortune telling was astonishing. As he gabbled away through this interpreter, he kept getting things bang-on. So much so, the hairs started to prickle on the back of my neck. For example, he told me I had just split up with a young blonde girlfriend (I had). He told me what I did for a job (not much at that point, though hoping to be a writer). He outlined the kind of place I lived, the kind of life I led. He went on to describe many of my hopes and fears with uncanny and actually un-nerving accuracy.

Then he started telling my future. He said I would go back to the blonde girlfriend and it would be disastrous (I did, and it was). He said I would only start to get moderately successful quite late in life (again: bingo). Then he came to the prediction that Trevor is referencing. He said when I reached 42 I would finally achieve all my ambitions, I would finally be happy.

And that's one of the things Trevor is asking me. Have I fulfilled my ambitions? At 42?

I think the answer is.... Yes. Going through the list with Trevor, I see that (having just turned 42) I have indeed reached a stage in life where I'm pretty much fulfilled.

Here's that list. I am in possession of a loving and sexy partner. She and I are at that nice stage in life where we're aiming to have kids... soon. I do a very pleasant job I’ve always wanted (writing stuff like this), that doesn't pay brilliantly, but is certainly enough to keep me in curries and beers. The job is particularly good because it means I don't have to get up too early. Not before 10.

What else? My flat is in a nice part of the city I love, London. It may be smallest flat in the EU but I don't mind. There are restaurants all around me, and a decent pub. I have plenty of friends, too. I also have several nice shirts, a selection of stout footwear, two good suits, and an iPod mini. Moreover, I have pretty decent health, and my hair is still largely in situ.

The good things go on. For instance, the taxman isn’t ringing me up. All the time. Much of my close family is alive and healthy. People are generally civil to me. I don't have to get up early (did I mention that?). On an even wider scale, atom bombs haven’t gone off in my hometown, there hasn’t been an earthquake for yonks, erupting volcanoes are something of a folk memory - and the same can be said for leprosy, ague, rickets, scurvy and the devil’s buboes. Though I sometimes wonder about Trevor’s cold sores.

In other words, I am an enormously lucky person. I have personally fulfilled all of my main ambitions; what's more I live in a day, age and civilisation when man is arguably at his most fortunate, most blessed and comfortable, most garlanded with peace and freedomy, most hot-watered, penicillined, anesthetised and thickly duveted.

But here's where we come to reason why I'm worrying. Because, despite all this, and despite what the fortune teller said, I'm not completely content.

'No. Actually I'm not.' I tell Trevor. 'I'm not totally happy...'

He nods. Then he calls me a miserable whinger. Then he asks why, how I'm not totally happy.

It's a tricky one. On reflection, it's not like I'm totally depressed all the time, I'm not. Much of my life is spent in a state of cheerful bonhomie. I also have moments of genuine gladness. I don't walk around lamenting things like a nonce. No, I think my newly discovered discontent is more of hidden thing, deep down there still lurks in me a vague but serious yearning. Some incoherent and irresolvable hunger, some need for something else. Something greater than what I’ve got.

So what is it? What's going on? Standing here on Greenwich Hill, looking at the towers of Canary Wharf, the thoughts suddenly keep coming. What am I therefore seeking? Something better, I guess. But what is that? What do I need that will finally make me totally happy? Why isn't what I've got quite enough?

Maybe it's time to ask my friend, seeing as he's started this annoying chain of thought. Turning to Trevor I say:

‘What about you. Are you happy, Trevor?’

He stops, and gazes at me.

‘Yes. No. Well...'

As I say this I suddenly wonder if I am probing this matter at totally the wrong time. Recently my pal Trevor split from his beautiful, Catherine Deneuve-lookalike wife. He now lives in a little bedsit in West Hollywood, whence he runs his own independent record company.

Trevor muses, and says:

‘Well... I’m glad I broke up with Sarah. It wasn’t working.’

Phew. I nod, and come back:


‘And.. and I love Freddy. He’s great.’

Freddy is Trevor’s son. Frederick Ceasar Randall. The conversation pauses as we think about Trevor’s cute and adorable kid, and his bizarre middle name. Then Trevor lights another Marlboro, and inhales in the definite way he always does. Trevor has a certain cool. He continues:

‘The job’s going OK. Always pushed for money. That never stops, does it?’

I nod in understanding. He thinks some more:

‘Actually, I’m not sure I expect to be happy, as such. Maybe that’s asking too much of life. Whatever the fortune teller said....’

He looks as if he’s going to continue. I wait and listen. But he’s stopped talking because he’s looking at a girl with large breasts unhooking her bra to sunbathe. Ah. We both sit, and stare, respectfully silent, like you do in churches when something theologically important happens.

And so it goes. Dawdling here in the park I think about Trevor, as well as about life. Trevor is 42 - my age, as you have probably realised. He now lives in LA but we used to live in London together, as well as Thailand. Trevor and I have been friends for twenty-three years. We've also done foolish, silly and remarkable things together; mainly foolish and silly. Lots of these escapades have involved drugs.

Another pause. Now I'm thinking about drugs and pleasure, as well as happiness, and destiny, and all that. These are weird thoughts; surprising depths. Maybe I'm having an early midlife crisis (well, I like to think it's early).

Anyway, I want to know:

‘Out of all the drugs we’ve done...’ I say to him. ‘What was the most fun, d'ya think?’

He muses, and replies.


A welcome breeze wafts over us. It's a hot day.

'OK, silly question,' I say. Then I go on:

‘I'm just wondering about... what we did. Maybe I'm missing something. Some pleasure some satisfaction in life. To make me discontent.'

Trevor gives me his 'you miserable whinger' expression once more. I ignore him, and say: Look at it another way. What do you think is the ultimate pleasure? I mean, what’s given you the biggest serious rush in life? When you made love as a teenager? When you met Sarah and told her you loved her? Hold Freddie in your arms for the first time?’

He thinks hard. Then he says:



‘Well its the most reliable pleasure. No?’ He breaks into a grin. 'OK I’m joking... Maybe. Having Freddie was amazing of course. Falling in love is great. But I’m not sure you can compare pleasures. I’m not sure there is an ultimate one.’

This is a reasonable point. Nonetheless I'm not done.

‘But maybe there IS. Maybe there is some pleasure or pursuit or something that would solve all our dissatisfactions. I mean. You’re not totally happy. And I’m not totally happy. And the world is...’

‘Not totally happy. Are you feeling alright?'

‘Maybe there is something out there. Is all.’

He shakes his head.

'Perhaps I shouldn't have started on about the fortune teller. You're chucking a mental.'

He smiles, and goes quiet. Suddenly I remember a story.

‘Hey. Do you remember the Evian thing?!’


‘When you really out of it, when you were totally strung out on drugs about ten years ago, before we all gave up....’

‘Nnnyyyeahhh.’ He looks doubtful.

‘You don't remember the story? You were so messed up you used to pee into old Evian bottles, by the bed, cause you couldn’t be bothered to get up and go to the loo.’

He claps his hands together.

‘In the flat... in Leinster Mews!’

‘Exactly. And you used to stack the Evian bottles full of pee on the window sill.’

I add:

‘And one day you woke up a bit woozy and you felt this extraordinary golden light bathing your face and you thought it was God coming down to you and telling you to quit taking drugs.’

‘But actually it was morning light from the window shining through all the yellow Evian bottles.’

‘Like a stained glass window.’

‘But actually shining through my pee.’

We both think about this. We both laugh very loud. Then Trevor wonders if the golden light may have been God, anyway: telling Trevor to quit drugs. Because, as Trevor tells me, he did quit drugs soon after that, anyway.

I think about this. Then I reply that whereas I know that God moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform, I'm not so sure He would do that to the extent of shining His ineffable light through DIY urinals.

We walk on. Trevor looks at the sunny sky. And then he tells me a story. He says:

‘This might cheer you up. The other day, I was in this car with a friend, a guy I know, on La Cienaga Boulevard, and it was a gorgeous sunny California afternoon...’

He smiles. ‘The car was a convertible, so we had the roof down and we were playing YMCA at full volume as we motored along. Then we came to this junction, and the car stops at the red lights, and Why Em Cee Ay is still blasting away, but you can’t really hear it cause everyone is revving their engines..’

Someone on the park someone is shouting at a lairy dog. Trevor goes on:

‘So anyway the lights change to green and we go to pull out. But the car stalls. It just stops. And all the other cars shoot away. And our music is still pumping out. And we are left there, in the middle of this deserted LA boulevard, two guys sitting in a stalled convertible.... It’s Fun To Be At The YMCA is playing at absolute full volume.’

He laughs. ‘I’ve never felt so gay. For a non gay.’

I look at him. I recall our time in Thailand, in our early twenties. I say:

'That was the moment you most felt gay, for a non gay?'


'But what about that time you had sex with that transsexual in Bangkok for fifty pence?’

He looks back at me.

‘Oh... yeah. Well, obviously, apart from then.’

I'm not letting this go so easily.

‘You know, I always wondered, Trev. Why did you have sex with a transsexual... for fifty pence?’

He shrugs, affably. ‘I was out of it. I needed the money. You think I fancied her? She had a beard.’

‘And she wore a rugby shirt. And had a really gruff voice. And in fact she was still a man, with a penis and testicles.’

Trevor nods.

‘Fair points’.

‘Actually, you claimed, at the time’, I reply, ‘that you didn’t realise it was a he. I mean, that you didn’t realise he was a transsexual, pre-op.’

‘Well,’ he shrugs. ‘It was dark. And he did tuck all his tackle away.’

We are on the crest of Greenwich Hill. A frisbee wobbles through the air like a miniature flying saucer with some tiny incompetent aliens on board.

Trevor is looking thoughful.

‘Jesus, you know, looking back, we did do some wild stuff.’

‘And stupid. Watch that frisbee!’

Too late. The frisbee hits Trevor hard in the shoulder. He stoops, and picks it up and throws it back at the Aussie students. He deliberately throws it so hard it hits the Aussie student in the stomach.

‘Oh dear. Sorry!’

We pace on. It's been a weird afternoon. Pleasant, yet disturbing. As I say, Trevor has got me thinking, hard, about lots of stuff. Out of nothing I'm considering my life, and all the things I've done, and all the pleasures I've tried, and all the things I should do, and why I'm not totally happy, and whether Trevor did know that the bearded guy in Thailand was a man.

Sensing my thoughtfulness, Trevor looks at his watch.

‘Anyway..... Gotta go mate. Plane to catch.’

I acknowledge this with a nod, then I say to him:

‘I’d hug you now but you might try and give me fifty pence.’

He waves a hand.

‘See you in LA. Scrape the money together and fly over...? And don't think too much!’

And with that, he’s gone, trotting down the hill in his sunglasses and summer jacket, off to catch a taxi, en route to Heathrow. Watching him as he departs, I feel sad but happy. Sad that he’s gone, happy that we got together and had a laugh and are still friends. And then about three minutes later I’m wondering: what next? What now? What time can I start drinking?

Here we go again. This is what's bothering me. It seems, on reflection, that I am never content. Indeed I think most of us, in the West at least, are never content, not for long. Where I live in London provides ample proof of this: all the getting and spending, all the shopping and... shopping.

You can actually see the discontentment on the faces of the shoppers on Oxford Street. When I wander down to that thronging mercantile boulevard, all I see is people marching down Oxford Street with bags full of new stuff, and despite all their acquisitions they still have these worried eager faces, faces that scream a kind of nervous querying tension: where can I go now? What’s for dinner? Where shall we meet? Is that pub full of girls? Do you want another beer? Look over there! Shall we get a pet snake? I might have breast surgery!. Do I need a newer, bigger iPod? (I do, actually).

If you were of a pessimistic frame of mind, going by this you might think people were designed to be discontent. Born to yearn. Hardwired for mild unhappiness. But is this true? Was it always like this? Were we humans, homo sapiens, always this fretfully discontented and neurotically avaricious? I imagine the lust for MP3 players was a trifle less fierce in caveman days. But maybe, back then, people hungered for the most sensational new lichen, and maybe the ultimate pleasure was a bearskin with no bear attached.

Actually, maybe one of the ultimate pleasure even in ancient times was.. soft drugs. Right now I'm standing on that bit of Greenwich Park where it gets bumpy, where there are these famous tumuli. Apparently these bumps in the soft English grass are Neolithic sites, and, coincidentally, they've reminded me of a few pages of historical research I read a while ago. Some remarkable research.

In some of the oldest habited human sites that have ever been excavated - in Scythia in Russia - German archaeologists have found strong evidence that these unimaginably ancient inhabitants, these proto-humans.... took narcotics. That's right. Based on the rocks, fragments and cinders discovered in these seminal digs, experts firmly believe that these primitive humans used to scatter hemp seeds - cannabis - onto hot stones in special huts, where the cavemen would sit around and inhale the mind-spinning fumes.

Isn't that incredible? We’re talking maybe 40,000 years ago here, yet these hairy people were sitting around doing cannabis like they were at a sophomoric reefer party. Even more incredibly, the German boffins in Scythia have found ancient Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, which, after their cannabis sessions, the cavemen seem to have eaten straight from the box in a frenzy of hunger, without even bothering to pour milk on.

That last bit isn’t true. But the thing about the hemp seeds is true. And there’s more. Other scientists now believe that the famous cave art of the Ice Age - the extraordinary drawings and paintings of bison, horses, and huntsmen - inscribed on the walls of French and Spanish caves (and elsewhere) were done under the influence of drugs, and perhaps were meant to be viewed as part of a drug-affected ritual, probably accompanied by music.

So there maybe is my answer. Art, music and drugs: in the Ice Age. Case proved, I think. All the evidence seems to show I am not uniquely discontent, nor are all the people on Oxford Street. No, this is an eternal motif in the human psyche: whoever we are, whatever we do, whether we live in hollowed-out cliffs, or Provencal villas, or cheap rented flats in central London, in many of us there is always this search for a high, for a new way of getting out of it, for an answer to the divine discontent of the human soul. There is always the yearning, the questioning, the seeking; the staring out of the number 73 bus on a December morning wondering: is this it?

But what does this mean for me? Well, it means... it means I have a quest on my hands. A project. A great inquiry. I also might have something to think about during my mid-life crisis.

My quest is this. I am going to find out the answer to The Question. For the next few months I am going to find out if there is an ultimate pleasure. The greatest kick of all. The headiest rush. And, what’s more, as I go along, I’m going to think about my own life, all the drugs and sensualities I’ve already sampled.

Incidentally, if you're going to read on through my memories and experiments, prepare to be a trifle shocked. I may have cleaned up my act in recent years, due to a stubborn aversion to the idea of dying young, and the belated rumblings of my conscience, but as you may have surmised, before I got all saintly on my ass, I was arguably a bad ‘un. I've done some mad and bad and dangerous things, which left me in some very bleak scenarios. All of which you are going to have to plough through. Sorry.

But if you are appalled by my stupidity and selfishness, consider this. Maybe my misdeeds are just another qualification for the job. I mean, I've been there. I've done it. I've fucked up. I therefore like to believe that I have an insight into the hedonistic depths of the human soul, and the lengths people will go to pay the debt to pleasure. I certainly have an insight into precisely how long a young man can go without feeling a need to change his bedclothes (six months).

So here we are. We’re going to search for an answer. Just what is the ultimate pleasure? And can it make us truly, finally, wonderfully happy?

Maybe literature can help us, first off. Through the centuries various writers have asked themselves this question, what is the most exquisite joy, and they've come up with various answers. The 18th century English 'wit' Sydney Smith said the ultimate joy, in his mind, was eating pate de foie gras to the sound of silver trumpets. By contrast, the writer Henry Green reckoned it was 'eating hot buttered toast in bed on a Sunday morning with [sorry about this] cunty fingers.' Over in America, the ageing author of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, said the greatest pleasure in his life was sitting in a bath squeezing hot water from a sponge over his bald head. Back in Britain, Auberon Waugh once claimed the ultimate happiness was.... "drinking creme de menthe frappe on a summer's day in the garden".

Several questions arise from this list. Who on earth was Henry Green? Why don't we have 'Wits' any more? And just what the hell is creme de menthe frappe?

But an even bigger query arises, to my mind. These guys are all dead, therefore they may not know what they are talking about, given that the list of possible human pleasures extends every year. I'd lay hefty bets that Sidney Smith, for all his Georgian wit, never smoked three big rocks of crack cocaine on the bounce. If he had tried crack cocaine, he might have found it even better than eating meat paste with a horn section. Similarly, Nabokov was attached to his sponge, but had he ever been free-fall parachuting?

No. We need a new test: of all the pleasures, ancient and fresh. Is sex really better than heroin? Is snowboarding more fun than a nice cup of tea? How about listening to Mozart, or whale-watching, or Cohiba cigars, or fish and chips out of newspaper on a rainy day in Wrexham? And, most importantly, what about jumping up and down on the bed in your pyjamas, how does that compare to Ecstasy?

Finally, I hope my thoughts and experiments will answer the profounder, deeper question: will any of these pleasures turn the key to the secret door, the marvellous door that leads to the cloistered garden of human contentment? Or will they just give me a hangover?


Marina said...

So, have you found out what it is yet?
Also, who's the dude with the hat?

Anonymous said...

Don't know who the bloke in the hat is, but the hat its self is clearly a Betty Savage original.