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At several times in life one comes to a point of no return. The drama of this moment often escapes us. We walk into it unconcerned, not hearing all the closing doors slam behind us, not aware that suddenly we are cut adrift from the past and are loose on the high seas, charting a new course through undiscovered waters. I must have been six when it first happened to me. I was living with my mother and father, my brother and our nanny in an old pink farmhouse with a moat, surrounded by the cornfields of Essex. The local farmers had finished the harvest and that morning they were burning the stubble. We knew because my mother came charging into the house, after dropping my father off at the station.
"Nanny! Mrs. Smithers! They're burning the stubble!"
Mayhem. I sat on the hall floor as the two women in my life careered around the house slamming doors, closing windows, drawing curtains. Footsteps pounded across the creaky floorboards above, shaking the whole house: my mother's purposeful gait, identifiable to her children a mile off, and Mrs. Smithers', our darling cleaning lady, like a gentle elephant squeezed into my mother's hand-me-down court shoes. Snatches of conversation could be heard from the gables-a peal of laughter from my mother. And then silence. The sun battling through the curtains made the house feel like an aquarium during the burning of the stubble and, since my mother was a stickler for cleanliness, they could stay closed for days until the last fleck of black ash floated off through the sky. I loved it. Darkness made you feel naughty. And outside the inferno raged around us.
It was one of the highlights of our summer and we children were out there, under the gentle scrutiny of the local farmers from beginning to end, looking for hedgehogs and field mice to save from the fire and only leaving as dusk fell on the black glowing embers and the fields around our house had turned into giant tiger-skin rugs.
Meanwhile, inside the house that morning we settled down to the agreeable state of siege, and all sat in the kitchen as Mummy and Mrs. Smithers reminisced about former "stubbles," and Nanny made coffee and Ribena. "That dratted ash can get through anything," my mother could say a thousand times during the course of the next two weeks and Mrs. Smithers would keep on nodding sagely like a toy bulldog on the back seat of a car.
So it came as quite a surprise that it was decided I should be taken to the cinema. "What's the cinema?" I whined, lips a-quiver, ready for a tantrum. But there was no arguing, and no explanation.
"You'll see!" was the only answer.
So pretty soon we all bundled into our Hillman, Mummy at the wheel, me beside her with my own steering wheel, suction-stuck to the dashboard, and Nanny in the back, as we drove at a snail's pace through the howling flames down the chase that led to our house so that I could at least have a good look. I don't think Mummy knew that flames made petrol explode.
Until that year, 1965, we did not possess a television. The only images I saw were happening then and there in front of my very eyes. I had no concept of a world outside, and no desire to find one. When Churchill died my father went out and bought a large cumbersome set so that he and my mother could watch the funeral, and that was the first moving picture I ever saw. Grainy, incomprehensible and utterly boring, I thought, but then I turned around to see the tear-stained, enraptured faces of my parents and must have reconsidered. This television could get a lot of attention.
The Braintree cinema would be getting a lot of attention, too. It was unremarkable, one of those dismal buildings from the fifties with a curved brick front, Crittall windows and a shabby marquee. We parked the car and joined a long line that stretched around the cinema. None of us much liked queuing-my mum always had a million things to do, and I wanted to get back home to the stubble-and we nearly decided to leave. But fate was hell-bent and after half an hour of ranting (Mummy) and whining (me) we arrived at the box office.
And so my mother bought the fateful tickets and unknowingly guided me through a pair of swing doors into the rest of my life. Goodbye, Braintree! Suddenly we were in a magical, half-lit cavern of gigantic proportions. It must have been the hugest room in the world and at the end were the biggest pair of curtains I had ever seen. I loved curtains already, but these were something else. We were guided down the central aisle by a Braintree matron with a torch. What were all these chairs, and how did you sit on them?
"It's just like a loo seat, darling," said my mother.
I sat down between Nanny and her, took one of their hands in each of mine and slowly accustomed myself to the light and my racing heart. Looking up through the gloom was a circle, a balcony and, hanging miles over our heads like a tired moon, a huge crusty chandelier half lit as if for a seance. The place smelt of cigarettes and damp with the odd breeze from the toilets of urine and disinfectant. And sex. Even if I didn't know what it was yet, an insalubrious mist hung over the provincial cinemas of yesteryear. This was the place you got to finger your girlfriend's quim.
"Quim" was a word the big "yobbos" shouted from the circle at the Braintree girls as they waited in line for ice creams down in the stalls.
"Show us your quim, Karen!" they'd shout, and the girls would giggle coquettishly.
"What's a quim, Mummy?" I asked one morning during coffee.
"Your little toe, I think," said my mother vaguely. Mrs. Smithers and Nanny nearly choked. I realised right then that poor Mummy was not very much in touch.
But all that was for the evening show. Something much worse could happen at the matine. Even that day, sprinkled among the little children with their mums and nans, was the odd old fossil, motionless and lizard-like in the playground fray of the stalls. ("Don't sit too close to Mr. Barnard from Millens & Dawson, there's a good boy," one might be told. But no one cared much in those days.) The kids' giggles and screams bounced off the walls of the half-filled theatre. There was endless movement. To the toilets, to the ice cream lady, and finally some child would go too far and be dragged out. All that noise and movement stopped suddenly as the lights dimmed from the tired moon above and the little sconces on the walls jerkily faded to dull embers, and we all turned as one towards this huge billowing curtain that was bigger than our house. It was lit from below and was a bright crimson at the bottom as if the sun were about to rise from the empty orchestra pit.
What was behind it? Where was it all coming from? The film's certificate was projected while the curtain was still closed. It seemed as if it were bursting through from the other side, and then those huge curtains silently swished open and Mary Poppins sprang across the footlights and into my heart.
The next ninety minutes were the most shocking, inspiring, funny, tragic, exhausting, draining and troubling of my entire life. First of all, when all the nannies blew away, I was terrified. Looking at Nanny for a second, her life and role suddenly came into a new perspective. This could be a dangerous job, I thought. And then when Mary Poppins flew effortlessly down into the film something changed for ever. Was it that Julie Andrews looked and behaved somewhat like my mother? Maybe. Or was it because I already loved my own nanny to death? Of course, I could definitely identify with the spit spot of it all. Julie's way of showing emotion was our way. Controlled but with feeling; practical but with warmth. As for Mr. Banks, he was my dad. But I didn't want him to lose his job because of me. Yes-by halfway through the film I was Jane and Michael. I was learning at a fearful rate. I could identify with everything in the film. New horizons suddenly appeared. Maybe one could jump into the pavement. It had to be true, because everything else sort of was. After all, we drove past St. Paul's Cathedral every time we went up to our London flat, so I suppose I must have felt that the film had been tailored specifically for me, but soon it all became too much. My brain was overloaded. When Mary Poppins left without saying goodbye, I was so distraught that I had to be taken out of the theatre and missed "Let's Go Fly a Kite."
The kids in the movie went off with their dad to the park and Mary Poppins decided to leave. That was where I started shouting, "Jane! Michael! Quick! Go back to Cherry Tree Lane." A light slap from my mother was no deterrent, especially as the parrot umbrella seemed to be reading my thoughts. "They didn't even say goodbye," it squawked at Mary Poppins.
"Nobody told them you were leaving!" I screamed back, by this time hysterical.
"Shut up," said Mummy and Nanny, but I could not. I stood up and bellowed my heart and lungs out, and was dragged, kicking and screaming, from the cinema.
I was silent on the way home, listlessly looking at the glowing embers of the fields as we drove towards our house. Everyone tried to coax me back into my usual boisterous self, but there was nothing to be done. I was too upset to think.
Something had changed. I could feel it, but I couldn't express it. Actually, looking back, what had happened was that a giant and deranged ego had been born. Until that afternoon I had lived without question from day to night, from winter to spring, from anger to joy. I seamlessly inhabited every moment. There were no questions. But now I was on the game, looking for a personality, and my plumbing was all wrong. The hot was coming from where the cold should have been.
My mother was discarding an old tweed skirt (a pi r squared). It was my first act of madness. I was going to be Mary Poppins' daughter and this skirt was how I would pull it off. I rescued it from the dustbin and before long I was wearing it all the time. The place where I practised being the new "me" was our climbing frame, which had a swing in the middle. I would sit on that swing in my red tweed skirt and black slip-on plimsolls, for hours on end, humming the hits I was learning from my new Mary Poppins LP. Nobody paid much attention. But something had started. From then on I was a regular at the Braintree Embassy. I must have seen Mary Poppins twenty times, and no sooner had my mother put her foot down and banned me from seeing it again than Julie responded to my desperate telepathic messages to her and came out with The Sound of Music.
On Saturdays in the winter months my father would go hunting, and our whole household was galvanised into a fever pitch to help. My mother would run around like a chicken with its head cut off. Cooking breakfast. Squeezing my dad into his breeches and boots. Getting the rest of us up. She was a regular tornado, storming around the house. Mr. King and later Mr. Baker, our grooms, would begin to saddle up the horses. My brother would back up the car and attach the horsebox, and I would sit there humming show tunes wondering what I could do to get out of following the hunt with my mum and her best friend Mrs. Barker. Wishful thinking. It was never going to happen. Finally the noise of my father's boots clunking across the hall downstairs signalled my mother's shrill alarm call. "Roo! Come on. We're off."
Everyone we knew hunted; at the meet the grown-ups drank cherry brandy on their horses. The hounds seethed around. Some of the women still rode side-saddle; many of the men wore pink coats, top hats and white stocks. (A stock was a long starched piece of fabric that wound around the neck and was tied in a certain way that always eluded my father.) My mum and Mrs. Barker were the only mothers who did not hunt, and they stood around in their headscarves and wellies, while the Barker boys and I sat sullenly in the back of the car, cruelly imitating our mothers' inane chatter. ("Julia, darling, your crab mousse was divine. You must give me the recipe." "Oh, Sara, just put in a lot of Elnette to stiffen it.")
Then the huntsman would blow his horn and they would be off; Mrs. Barker and Mummy would canter towards the car and we'd set off after the hunt. They hardly ever caught a fox. We would drive for miles down little lanes and farm tracks just to be there when the hunt galloped by. Sometimes there was drama. Mrs. Motion was thrown off her horse and dragged for a hundred yards; she never came out of her coma. I remember it vividly. Her inert body-a black hump at the end of a field; and all of us running towards her. A doctor who was watching the hunt gave her an injection, which proved to be lethal. She should never have had one.
My brother was the first to start hunting. He hated it, but did it to please my father. I had no intention of pleasing anyone and made this as clear as I could, but I was made to go as well. I had a bitchy pony named Crisp. She used to lean round and nip me if I wasn't concentrating, and there was little love lost between us. I much preferred my brother's mare Netty, who was a lumbering old thing totally unruffled by anything. You could kick and kick and she wouldn't budge, but then slowly she would lurch into a stately canter that was not unpleasant. Crisp, on the other hand, was a plotting maniacal freak, and on my first time out ran away with me, overtaking the entire hunt. One of the golden rules of hunting is: no one rides in front of the Master and the hounds. No matter how hard I yanked on the reins, Crisp charged on. She was playing the game her way, determined to show me up. I could see out of the corner of my eye the ruddy disapproving faces of the local gentry as I sped past and could hear their various comments:
"Control your pony, you bloody little idiot!"
"Young Everett's being run away with!"
"Heels down, toes up!"
All very well, I thought, as I galloped past the Master and the hounds straight towards a gate that was taller than the little bitch Crisp herself. I knew just what was going on in her head. She was going to gallop as fast as she could and then stop dead when she got to the gate, throwing me over without her, and breaking my neck like poor Mrs. Motion. There was no going back. It was time to drop the resistance and show her who was boss, so I let the reins go, kicked the shit out of her and we sailed over the gate to our mutual astonishment and that of the rest of the hunt. It should have been a moment of victory. But I felt humiliated and, vowing never to touch Crisp again, I jumped down and stomped off across the fields.
I only had two or three more hunting experiences. On the last one we finally caught a fox. The poor thing was torn apart by the hounds and then something even worse happened. I was the unwilling victim of a tribal initiation. Another tradition: any new hunter had to be "bloodied" after they had witnessed their first kill.
"Young Everett. Come to the front," said the Master to the huntsman and the word was passed back. There was nothing for it. I kicked old Netty into action and sullenly rode past the rest of the hunters who were all smiling at me benignly like the devil worshippers in Rosemary's Baby.
"Dismount, boy," said the huntsman. Someone had cut off the fox's paw before it was torn to shreds. Raw and oozing, it was presented to the huntsman who then smeared it all over my face. Everyone laughed; there were a few claps, a couple of pats on my hat, congratulations from the Master-and the awful thing was that I felt really fabulous. Totally macho. Fitting in with the gang. My dad beamed at me from under his top hat. Mr. King gave me a wink. My mother and Mrs. Barker waved from a distance. I felt like one take-charge kind of guy. For a millisecond. Then some of the blood got into my eye and I freaked. Never had a mood swing happened so fast-it even took me by surprise and suddenly I was spluttering and shrieking, but words would not come out. The blood was everywhere. I could taste it. I was literally seeing red. If I could have, I would definitely have blacked out, but instead (as usual) I abandoned poor bemused Netty and made another of my early dramatic exits. I never hunted again.
Looking back, however, those traumatic times seem like the romantic scenes from a nineteenth-century novel. The morning meets in front of the old houses around the county, mostly shrouded in mist and drizzle so that all you could see were the reds of the hunting coats, the silhouettes of the horses and the dripping gables of some Elizabethan manor. The hunting horses always beautifully turned out, clattering down driveways, waving their bandaged tails; you could hear them even if you couldn't see them. Did people shout "Tally-ho"? I don't remember. I remember the smell. The chatter. The women with their veils, leaning over to tighten their horses' girths and somehow managing to hold a glass and a conversation at the same time-chatting and flirting with the men who drank from their flasks with their hands on their hips. There were a lot of affairs conducted from the raunchy position of the saddle and a lot of political talk; because this was the era of power cuts and "Bloody Wilson!"
Excerpted from Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins by Rupert Everett Copyright © 2006 by Rupert Everett. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted June 16, 2011
Posted June 6, 2009
This journey by an actor is punctuated by large amounts of wit . Probably not as wise as he is witty Evans has to include Banana Skins in his title, since he has slippped on a few metaphorically along the way. He certainly has an impressive cast of characters for his life story thus far.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Rupert Everett: the very name calls to mind the wit, the talent, the force that is Everett. His book is absorbing and seductive, and his life and career most cherished.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 20, 2007
I preordered this book and couldn't wait to read it. I was looking forward to an irreverent peak inside social hollywood and was not disappointed. Rupert's witty reflections were at times hilarious and written with such clarity and honesty you felt you were a fly on the wall. Although, most of the time I'm glad I wasn't. Two-thirds into the book I started to wonder is this all? How sad. The homosexual lifestyle is what I thought it might be and now this book confirms it. At least the male homosexual lifestyle. It is narcisistic, loud and lonely and childless. Now I know why God made Eve and not Steve. Forgive me for that cliche but I understand the truth of it now. This book had two channels Rupert's hysterical and cynical view of Hollywood and an up close look at the homosexual lifestyle-both were illuminating.
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Posted April 24, 2010
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Posted February 5, 2011
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