Saturday, November 17, 2012

Liked by Many — Adored by Me

People Like UsPeople Like Us by Doug Cooper-Spencer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Life is nothing if not full of extremes, and at the beginning of the scale, what can beat the painful smelly business of being born? An early memory for me is white-coated men carrying tinkly trays of little bottles. Motley smells would waft along with them as they marched past. Some of those phials contained ether, and if I leaned towards them, provided the corridor draught was in my favour I’d feel my soul ascending on its path to Cloud Nine, all sweet and echoey, even if it wasn’t long before another man, this time carrying badly-stoppered phials of human waste pulled me back down to the scatole-laden vapours with a snap.

Yet no lasting enjoyment is ever truly known by ups or downs. Let’s wind the clocking forward to a time when the aromas carry a far more gentle hue, softly tinted with ochre browns and chestnut golds. Autumn is the time which greets my eyes and ears these days. The earlier tantrums are mostly over and the other kids have stopped laughing at my toilet jokes. The tang of hormones, love and crushes is making its entrance and I mopily empathise with Jane Eyre or Richardson’s girl-servant Pamela.

I mooch about in bookshops, touching and sniffing the books I can reach, and yearning for the ones I can’t. And there’s always that smell, of brown and gold and August, or the fusty waft of churches. Village bookshops were the first to arrive, then David’s in Cambridge for second-hand volumes, or even the palatial Heffers. They say it was all started by a Reverend with a loan of just fifty quid. They also say Bowes and Bowes is far better!

Then bones and muscles grew older as the books gained years and weight and before too long the reading habit declined with the burgeoning weight of paper books, only to rise again in 2010 with the birth of the Kindle — that magic grey ingot which sucked any number of books out of the ether and placed them on a screen for me to read. They whispered in feather-like and whether they were a Mills & Boone Romance or the Complete Shakespeare, they all weighed exactly the same. They all weighed nothing, that Magic Number which is both the marvel of mathematicians and refuge of the mystics. Kindles don’t really have a smell but if you were to dip a joss stick in water and light it while it’s wet, the smouldering sandal-and-cow-dung powder would give you a pleasing aroma not far off from the old leather-bound tomes, or at least they’d give an idea of what a Kindle would smell like.

Samples are downloaded. I take a look the publisher to see if a table of contents has been included, or whether any images are recalled. Canongate is good — but do watch out for the odd wasp in the ointment there; Icon Books — not bad; Bloomsbury — pretty safe as long as it’s not Harry Potter or other kids’ stuff—Mr Creecher was painful; Faber — not bad at all, and they’ve got a nice thick medical tap root in their soul. Gollancz: Even though they’ve lost that plain yellow dust jacket, I’m pretty much a fan, even if the new stuff does get pretty scary. If there’s no publisher, then I’m very wary indeed. Why ever not? If they’re that good, you’d’ve thought they’d’ve been picked up by now.

This was the factor which initially prevented me from purchasing This Place of Men by Doug Cooper Spencer. I felt its price was steep. Yet never have I been so pre-judgmental, never so cautious in making my purchase, and never have I been as delighted as when on that unforgettable morning I pressed the download button for this book and began to read it. I didn’t warm to it gradually, I didn’t find my protective shell of withering ice gradually softening ….what happened wasn’t even some mid-point between these extremes. For me, it was... Well let’s say that were this book a pavement and I was taking a stroll on its cover, a crack opened between the flagstones and I suddenly fell right down into the gap. I was Alice in Fiction Land, except that the roles were reversed. It was all so very real for me. The lovely Terrell with his good wife Karen and her spiteful sister Tess, their huggable kids Kenya and Abassi. Karen with her Director of Studies and the beautiful troubled student Luther — all were people I felt as if I knew. Even though they all bore their own weight, I continued to feel, on my second visit, welcome to be the invisible budgie perching on their fictional shoulders, even if the problems they were undergoing were private, painful and nothing to do with me.

It’s a world of heart-break and pain. Terrell is a thoroughly good man and an excellent Dad to his children Kenya and Abassi and his wife Karen is caring and full of love too. Yet all this is spoiled by their church’s attitude to homosexuality. Somewhere in the murky past, the community church has worked its malice by splitting up the love between Terrell and his teenage chum Otis. Lovers in their mid- to late-teens with Terrell just six months younger, the Community Church hierarchy waits for Otis to reach the age of majority before pouncing on Otis who is taken to court where he serves a prison sentence for having an inappropriate relationship with a minor. Terrell is deeply programmed into changing his sexual orientation, and introduced to Karen, who’s to become his wife. I dropped into the world of the character and the Kindle disappeared, as did the mundane domestic chores I needed to attend to.

In an agonising sequence which sees Terrell chucked out by his wife (I know what that’s like!) he ends up renting a room in a poorer part of town, among the down-and-outs, hustlers and drug pushers. Bleak indeed compared to the plush home which he and Karen had built up over the years, with the cream filling of the children holding the sponge cake of the marriage together. Gone are the Sunday roasts with Terrell carving at the family table, gone the land line telephone and gone the car. In comes the draughty room with its bed-bugs and and their acrid whiff, the flickering shadeless light and the moody money-meter, economy buns, tinned baked beans and just-pour-hot-water snacks.

Memories of hardship always bring their smells back to me: Damp bedding, stale cigarettes and rotting tomatoes when the Soho veg market sweeps up its peelings at the close of the day, sparring with the thrill of the monthly cruise where the under-whiff of males in rut contrasts sharply with the sudden ammonia tang of the unzipped fly. The following day Terrell rises to survey the street from his window. Opposite doors are opening in other houses as commuters prepare to go to work, most by ’bus or tram and a few by car. Others like Terrell don’t go anywhere. He doesn’t have a job now. His three weeks of 50% compassionate retainers have now expired and he doesn’t have a job any more. Winkling a hermit crab out of its very own shell will have that effect. With no job and no respect any more his home diet is now one of scorn and ridicule, his new digs are unhappy and ill-fitting. The door opens opposite and an old lady lets out a middle-aged man and waves him good-bye. She doesn’t shut the door behind him but scans the street with her ancient X-Ray eyes. The street and its doors having passed her scrutiny she levels her gaze up a plane and inspects the windows. A friendly wave is made to Terrell who cautiously returns it.

What a nosey old so-and-so I think to myself, wondering what business it is of hers logging everybody in and out as they come and go about their own affairs, never thinking that in this new arena of loneliness there have to be events apart from the interminable telly, the arranged fortnight of being allowed to take your own kids and the occasional street prowl when hunting for a mate for a few moments of ersatz affection and mutual sperm release. Returning home with cold bones and a starved heart, Terrell is seduced near his own front door by an aroma of something cooking. It sure smells good. A car comes home and parks and another wave is given to Terrell. Introductions take a little loner than usual. The smell of cooking increases as the door opens. It’s the nosey old biddy again, who is making something and seeing the two men in conversation she invites them up. Just stew and dumplings with a bit of leftover veg, she says, but she’s made a bit too much and would he like to join them? Who feels the cut of a sharp pang of guilt at writing off the lady opposite as a ‘nosey old biddy?’? It certainly isn’t Terrell who hasn’t got that kind of blood in his veins, so it must be he reader and the reader is me, I only am the one who needs to learn to tread far more carefully through the story, even if the author writes it and the reader gives it life.

15/11/12 Many days now have passed since I first read this tale. At some point I dipped in again to note the beginning. As the story unfolded I noticed little details, marvelling at how I’d missed them the first time. Before I knew, again I’d reached the end. I saw details I’d never noticed before, felt sad yet also there was hope. Before I knew it I had reached the end again. Now the final volume waits for me. I think I’ll begin it when I’m settled back into my nest in India, stretching in the warmer mists, a bag full of electronics and reading material at my side. I think it could be rather painful, yet pain is something which I’ve come to know, is not a thing to be avoided or welcomed. It has to be taken as it is. If any weight can be lightened by helping to carry Terrel’s burden I, the humble reader, will gladly take my share.

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