Sunday, 26 February 2012

“If you want to write interesting books . . .

. . . you should lead an interesting life”, Joyce Holms, crime writer.

I wish I’d kept a diary. Not because I believe it could one day keep me, but to jog my memory about how I got to where I am now. Of course, some events stand out. For example, both my weddings, and that one and only time I bought a size nine pair of jeans. And this.

When I left school, the only careers guidance I had received was along the lines of ‘What sort of holiday job have you had? Working in a shop? So why not try that?’. My two A levels got me on to a training course at Harrods, the prestigious department store in Knightsbridge. It was then part of the House of Fraser group, way before being Mohamed Al-Fayed's plaything. My parents were so proud.

The year’s course involved working in a variety of departments, including the Wedgewood Room, which was very scary – you try wrapping a plate worth hundreds of pounds for its journey to the USA. During that time I caught fleeting glances of celebrities like Freddie Mercury, Rod Stewart and the bloke who played the Yorkshire vet on the telly. But my most memorable experience came the day I looked up from my till in the men’s underwear department to see this man.
Roger Moore - The Saint, James Bond, The Persuaders' Brett Sinclair - carefully placed a large pile of underpants on the counter in front of me. I can’t remember what size or even what style they were, but I do know he had a lot of them. He smiled and handed over his store card.

In those days, a Harrods account card was a flimsy piece of white plastic embossed with the customer’s name and account number, and with a signature strip on the reverse. There was no electronic swiping then, no PIN numbers. It was the assistant’s responsibility to compare the signature on the card with the one the customer wrote on the sales slip. An additional security check was required if the total value of the purchase was over a certain amount – about £50, I think (it was a long time ago) – which meant you had to phone the administration office upstairs for a ‘sanction’.

I was embarrassed enough explaining to Mr Moore that I was going to have to uphold this rule, despite it being obvious that he was the bona fide cardholder. But that was nothing compared to being told by a voice on the phone that his purchase could not be sanctioned, and worse still, I must not give him his card back.

‘That card has been reported lost or stolen,’ said the person on the fifth floor.

‘But it’s definitely the customer’s card.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Because I recognise him,’ I whispered, in a futile attempt not to let the living legend in front of me know what was going on. But of course he did. He raised an eyebrow (back in those days, movie stars’ faces could move).

‘Shall I speak to them?’ he asked. Hand shaking with humiliation, I passed him the phone.

‘Hello, this is Roger Moore,’ he said in that suave Bond voice. ‘I’m so sorry, it’s all my fault. I reported that I’d lost my card but then I found it again and didn’t tell you.’

Needless to say, the sceptic upstairs was won over immediately, and I was able to complete the transaction and hand over Mr Moore’s purchase in one (or possibly several) of those shiny green bags. He left, after courteously thanking me for my help, an agreeable contrast to many of the store’s less famous yet more demanding customers. I took an early coffee break to rush upstairs and tell my friends about the experience.

While writing this post I discovered Sir Roger Moore has his own website. Strangely enough, it includes no mention of this incident.

Several years later I was on one of my regular visits to the store as a customer, shopping for a Christmas pudding for my parents (they’d developed  expensive tastes while I worked there). It was 17th December 1983, and I was up on the 4th floor when a bomb, planted by the Provisional IRA, went off. Everyone knew immediately what the muffled boom, followed by silence then the crashing of the glass display units signified.

I was fine, though a little shaken, and we were ushered out well away from the site of the explosion. It wasn’t until later that day I learned six people, three of them police officers, had lost their lives.

Memories come in many varieties.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Cowgirl Blues

Donna Howell Sickles

I wrote last week about my passion for the American Old West, and explored a little how this may have come about. Strangely, it wasn’t until I started gathering my thoughts for that blog entry that I even realised it was a passion. Rather like I can’t remember when I made the transitions from trying out to liking and then to loving crime fiction. And chocolate.

However, I must admit the images of the Old West which attract me are sanitised, prettified even. Life on the range was probably less sitting round a campfire eating beans and more this:

Charles M Russell
And apart from gorgeous frocks like the ones twirled to great effect in Oklahoma! (and hats for Sunday best), I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed the hard life of frontier women either. Interestingly, although American women as a whole weren’t given the vote until 1920, those in most Western states had the right to vote before 1915. But this early emancipation doesn’t make women as prominent in Western culture as their men folk.

Consider the Western film. I watched a lot of these last year as part of my Open University ‘History of Cinema and Television’ course. You can count the number of named female characters (not unspeaking, simpering showgirls) in most of them on the fingers of one hand. Which is not entirely explained by a scarcity of women in the Old West, although a line from Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) suggests this may have been a source of discontent among the cowboy population:

“There are only two things more beautiful than a gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere.”
Pictured below are my two favourite female characters in Westerns. You'll be familiar with one of them but probably not the other. They are Doris Day in the title role of Calamity Jane. 

Doris Day

Barbara Stanwyck
And Barbara Stanwyck as tough rancher Jessica Drummond in Forty Guns.  
Day and the character she played were wimps by Stanwyck's standards. While Calamity Jane sang and cracked whips, Jessica Drummond ruled part of Arizona with her posse of hired guns. When the plot called for Jessica to be dragged along a street by a horse, Stanwyck's stunt double refused, saying the stunt was too dangerous. So Stanwyck did it herself. She was 49 at the time. 

I also mentioned in last week’s post my visit to Denver’s Museum of Western Art, which introduced me to the work of Charles M Russell, Frederic Remington and many others. Unfortunately it’s now closed to the public, although I believe the collection, privately owned by a millionaire, is still in the building. Thank goodness that, courtesy of eBay, I've been able to obtain a catalogue of the collection. It’s a sumptuously illustrated book, but out of 129 colour plates only two are by women artists. (Then again, how many female Impressionists can you name?) However, it's one of those two works which sticks in my memory. This is it.

Cow's Skull on Red, Georgia O'Keeffe
O’Keeffe is probably best known for her paintings of animal skulls she found while exploring New Mexico. According to the Dept of American Studies at the University of Virginia these:

“ . . . can be seen to represent the death and destruction of the American landscape or they can be viewed as celebratory works that pay tribute to the animals that first inhabited the Western landscape.”
She used flowers (often artificial) to adorn some of these works, giving them literal titles such as Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses and Ram’s Skull with Hollyhock. It’s hard to imagine a Western artist more removed from Charlie Russell’s depiction of cowboys and native American life (although the Denver collection also includes a Jackson Pollock). And O'Keeffe's work is also worlds away from that of Donna Howell Sickles, an example of whose cheerful modern cowgirl paintings adorns the top of this blog post.

I’ve visited Denver, Montana and Arizona, but there’s one experience I’ve yet to enjoy: going to a rodeo (only to watch, silly!). We’ve all seen footage of a man riding a bucking horse (or sometimes a bull), one arm held in the air, trying to stay on. According to Wikipedia, rodeo is actually banned in the UK. I didn’t know that, nor did I realise that women also take part, until our Montana trip when we got chatting to a waitress whose best friend was a rodeo champion.

Thanks to Jacquie Rogers’ Romancing the West blog, I now know a lot more about women in rodeos. Back in the 1920s, cowgirls took part as much as cowboys. They didn’t just compete at bronco and bull riding, but also demonstrated their strength and fearlessness by performing tricks, like crawling under a galloping horse’s belly and changing horses while moving.

However, for various reasons, not least because men controlled the sport (sound familiar?), female participation in rodeos degenerated into ‘glamour’ roles in the mid-20th century. These days, women’s rodeo is on the increase again, with the Professional Women’s Rodeo Association putting on events and having over 2000 members.

I’ll end this post with a pithy saying from the National Cowgirl Museum website:
“The only thing pink about growing up cowgirl is a sunset”

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Psst! Wanna know a secret?

I’ve got a thing about cowboys. There, I’ve said it. Not such a shocking admission, I suppose, in this confessional age. Though if you met me – middle-aged, bespectacled, English – it would probably surprise you. And I’m actually talking about the culture and history of cowboys, not the men themselves – honestly. I also harbour a secret ambition: to write and present a TV programme about the men and women who recorded the Old American West in art. More of that later (or possibly in another post).
So where did this infatuation come from? Looking back, it seems inevitable. Few, if any, westerns are made now. But when I was growing up in the 1960s, John Wayne was still making films and for the younger adults there was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. British television screens were full of American imports like The Virginian, The High Chaparral and Bonanza. Johnny Cash was riding high in the music charts.
And then, in 1971, along came Alias Smith and Jones.
Smith and Jones were Butch and Sundance for the pre- and early teens. A dark, straight-haired one (Hannibal Heyes, played by Pete Duel then Roger Davis) and a blonde, curly-haired one (Kid Curry, played by Ben Murphy) to maximise their appeal. We loved them in the UK, and Duel was one of my first heart-throbs (before I moved on to David Essex and, um, Bryan Ferry).
The series had an irresistible premise: two outlaws apply for amnesty but have to stay out of trouble for a time to prove they deserve it, with no one else knowing about their deal.

Curry: There’s one thing we gotta git, Heyes
Heyes: What’s that?
Curry: Outta this business
Most importantly, as a voiceover pointed out at the start of every episode, ‘they never shot anyone’. Which made it so horribly ironic that Duel chose to commit suicide with a gun part-way through the filming of the second series. He was replaced with indecent haste by Roger Davis, but it was the never same. They only made three series, some of which can be found on YouTube and are available on DVD.
I was fortunate that my parents supported my enthusiasm for horse-riding, which must have come from watching those men in chaps dashing around on horseback. It was the only sport I ever showed the remotest interest in. But after moving to London at 18, for a long time the only thing I rode was the Tube. Despite this, newly divorced in the mid-1990s I chose to go on the type of holiday my ex would never have sanctioned: a week at a dude ranch in the Colorado Rockies.
I found it impossible to adapt to the sitting trot, but I did come back with these.

No one wears a riding helmet in Colorado, so I wore that hat every day. And the boots, which were branded one evening with the Bar Lazy J Ranch brand, a ‘lazy’ letter being one on its side. The antler’s too small to be mounted and stuck on a wall, but is the genuine article, found on the prairie and gifted to me by a fellow rider.
I also brought back from the now defunct Museum of Western Art in Denver a poster of the picture at the top of this post. It's by Charles M Russell, one of the best known of the cowboy artists, and is called The Fireboat.
Ten years later I travelled to see the original at the Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana.
But that will have to be another post. In the meantime, please leave a comment if you’d like to confess to your own unlikely passion. Or far-fetched writing ambition. Your secret’s safe with me.
For now: Yee ha!