All Is Given: A Memoir in Songs

All Is Given: A Memoir in Songs

by Linda Neil

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780702254093
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Publication date: 05/01/2017
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Linda Neil is an Australian writer, songwriter and documentary producer. Her first book, Learning How to Breathe, was published in 2009 to wide acclaim. She has a PhD in creative writing and has taught creative writing, cultural and media studies, and film and television at the University of Queensland. Trained as a classical violinist, Neil has performed with orchestras and rock bands, and recorded and toured with some of Australia’s leading independent artists. Her radio documentaries have been shortlisted for the United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Awards (The Asylum Seekers, 2004) and awarded Gold and Bronze medals at the New York Festivals (The Long Walk of Brother Benedict, 2011, and The Sound of Blue, 2008), and her script for The Long Walk of Brother Benedict was also nominated for best documentary script at the 2011 Australian Writers’ Guild Awards.

Read an Excerpt

All Is Given

A Memoir in Songs


By Linda Neil

University of Queensland Press

Copyright © 2016 Linda Neil
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7022-5733-9



CHAPTER 1

Spike and Me: A Fantastic Adventure


It all started in Brisbane and ended up across the other side of the world. Stories can be like that. If you wait long enough, they start to unfurl with the rhythm of Greek myths. If you look closely enough, you can almost see the paper they're written on as a map of words; one tiny scratch marks the humble beginnings of a long, sometimes magical tale that traverses countries and oceans. Journeys always seem to take you out of the small, into the large, and then back again. Not that I thought Brisbane was small – well, actually I did; everyone did at one time or another. But these days I like to sing its praises; to see, in its tiny, seemingly insignificant local events, the roots of greater, more fabulous possibilities. That's how it turned out in my life anyway.

I once read to a blind person. She lived down the road from us in Warren Street, St Lucia, during my last year at school. Her name was Mrs Featherington, although, in the teenage tradition of shortening everything, I referred to her as Feathers. Feathers was studying law at the University of Queensland and also learning singing from my mother.

One summer, during a particularly vocal discussion with my siblings around the dinner table, Mum suddenly leaned towards me and said: If you like the sound of your own voice so much, go down the road and read to Mrs Featherington.

I found out later that Mum had already volunteered me as one of Feathers' small band of readers, who called at her house to read law books, legal briefs, university texts and the Bible.

Oh God, I remember pleading. Don't make me read the Bible! I'll do anything, just not the Bible!

So I was put down on the list marked 'miscellaneous', which meant I was reading for entertainment and not educational or religious purposes.

My father suggested I choose reading material with some literary merit and handed me a book by Katherine Mansfield. Mum countered with the offer of a biography of Dame Nellie Melba (or was it Joan Sutherland?), which she assured me was a 'jolly good read'. But I rejected any notion of highbrow pursuits during my holiday and chose instead a copy of Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall by Spike Milligan.

I can't say I looked forward to visiting Feathers in my allotted time. She'd always struck me as a crabby sort of woman. And even though Mum would ask me how I would be if I couldn't see, when it was hard to get a civil word out of me even with all my faculties intact, I still thought it was a tiresome chore. So I rocked up to Feathers' doorstep and entered her dark but tastefully furnished residence, with a lot of resentment and very little hope of having a good time.

Two pages into Milligan's book, though, Feathers and I were in fits of giggles. By the fifth or sixth page, the giggles had turned into guffaws and snorts of laughter. This symphonic hilarity continued throughout Spike's story. I can't recall much about the content of the book now, or even the tone. What I do remember is that by the time I had finished reading the book, which coincided with the completion of my rostered duty as a volunteer, Feathers and I had bonded in a way no amount of talking one on one could have achieved. It was as if our shared laughter had bridged the chasm between our personalities. As if every time Feathers had stopped me mid-sentence and spluttered no, no, read that bit again because the sound of her giggles had drowned out the previous words, we had become members of some secret society of laughers.


A few years later, while I was living in London, I switched on BBC Radio and suddenly there was Spike himself, or should I say Spike's voice itself, on a program called In the Psychiatrist's Chair. I'd never heard Spike speak before, except for on the old Goon Shows my dad used to chuckle over on Saturday afternoons. I was surprised by the sadness and resignation in his natural voice. And if, as the cliché says, your heart can go out to someone, that night my heart went out to Spike as he talked about his breakdowns, his manic episodes and the catastrophic effect his illnesses had had on his family.

I don't know whether it was the mood of the midnight hour or just the pain in Spike's voice, but I found myself in the early hours of the next day writing him a letter about my reading adventures with Feathers. I remember stumbling over some strange observation about how books are sometimes more than just formations of words organised into coherent communication, and can become things that pass between people, like happiness or love.

The next day, still buoyant from the previous evening, I walked down to the post office, happy that I had enough follow-through to finish and mail Spike's letter. The London sky, usually threatening rain, was startlingly blue that day; it sent down through my body that little ache which coldness and brightness can produce in Antipodean flesh.

I'd addressed the letter to Spike care of the BBC and released it to the Royal Mail with little expectation that he would ever receive it, let alone read it, but satisfied that I hadn't left my thoughts unsaid (or unwritten) as I had left so many things undone in my life up to that point.

For some reason, I wasn't surprised or even that excited when, two weeks of London life later, I received Spike's reply. There was a sense of fait accompli about my reaching out to Spike and his replying. The tone of the letter was one of kindness and a sort of exhausted gentleness. He said how much my letter had meant to him. Not just that I'd written it, but how I had written it. Not as a fan, he said, but as another human being, responding not to his achievements but to his suffering. I wasn't aware that was how I had responded to him. Reflecting on it now, I think Spike was looking for something and he thought, through my letter, that he'd found it, no matter what my actual intent had been. Perhaps I was looking for something too: a connection with someone I admired – a writer, a comic, an inventor – whom I never dreamed it would have been possible to meet back in Warren Street. Receiving Spike's letter seemed to signal a change in my destiny and I was ready for that change.


* * *

Further correspondence followed. Our contact seemed natural to me. So when he suggested we meet for dinner, the only counter-suggestion I had was that, as my experience of eating in London was limited to the cheapest, nastiest, greasiest takeaway available, namely the Chinese diner down the road where you could still get egg fried rice for one pound, we rendezvous at a restaurant of his choosing.

We met at one of Spike's favourite Indian restaurants, a little out-of-the-way diner in a side street of Notting Hill, called The Tandoori Traveller. During dinner, as we shared dishes of rogan josh, chicken korma and dal saag washed down with Heineken and Foster's lager, our conversation ranged over a wide variety of subjects. Spike himself had made some kind of list on his serviette, to which he referred every now and then. I don't know why he felt the need to take notes, although once or twice he confessed to a fear that he was a potential candidate for Alzheimer's. But to me, despite, or perhaps because of, the small quantity of food that he spilled onto his chin during dinner, he seemed as carefree and buoyant as a young man. In fact, at times I found his dishevelled appearance, even his sadness, strangely attractive.

From what I can recall, here is a small list of some of the topics we covered during our spicy dinner.

1. The Goons

2. Goonishness

3. The listing of Goonishness in some future dictionary

4. Some future dictionary of Goonishness

5. Dirty English cutlery

6. Woy Woy

7. Wyong

8. Woop Woop

9. Doo-wop

10. Doolittle

11. Do as little as possible

12. Doing too much

13. Breakdowns

14. Things that make Spike sad

15. Things that make me sad (which included things making Spike sad)

16. The erotics of strong curries

17. Cricket

18. Things that aren't cricket

19. Stiff upper lips

20. Rogan josh

21. Things that make you go gosh!

22. Past life experiences

23. The difficulty of sending books through the post vis-a-vis sliding the packages through the slits on the Royal Mail boxes

24. Highbrow

25. Lowbrow

26. No brows at all.


Spike told me that he had no brows at all. They'd been singed off permanently in a small house fire that he'd started during one of his hallucinating periods. The tangled white bushy things above his eyes looked real enough to me. But when I threatened to give them a good pull and prove his story wrong, he shook his head and muttered sadly:

Once I had high, magnificently arched brows. People said they were a real feature of my face. And now look at me. Nothing. Nothing left at all!

By the time dessert came around he seemed almost completely drunk, even though the waiter had assured me during one whispered consultation that Spike was mostly drinking ginger beer. Apparently Spike's doctor, an Anglo-Indian called Dr Hydrabad, had enlisted the help of most of Spike's favourite restaurants in cutting down his drinking. He had since discovered, with the covert assistance of some of Spike's most sympathetic head waiters, that years of the hottest rogan josh had so severely burned Spike's palate that now he could hardly tell the difference between the stiffest hard liquor and weak apple cider.

Apparently Spike's drunkenness, the waiter informed me solemnly, was all in his mind.

Did you know, Spike divulged to me between dessert and coffee, that Groucho Marx and TS Eliot were pen pals?

No, I didn't, I replied, knowing that, in inimitable Spike fashion, I was about to be relieved of my ignorance.

Now, you'd think, wouldn't you, that Groucho would have been the pursuer in this particular case, genuflecting at the feet of such towering genius. Oh, shake your head if you want, but we're like that. We always think the serious minds are more important than the comic ones. Even most comedians themselves aspire to tragedy. Anyway, to get back to the story, one night they finally did meet. Eliot was over in London to give an important lecture at a university that had just given him an honorary PhD. After dinner, Groucho takes Eliot into his library and prepares to acquit himself well in any literary discussion that might take place. When they get in there, Eliot, with a conspiratorial whisper, says: 'Thank goodness we're alone. Now we can get down to business.' And what do you think happened next? Mmm? Can you guess? Well, all Eliot wanted to talk about was what he said he'd been waiting years to talk about: Animal Crackers and Duck Soup. You see my point?

As far as I could tell he had more than one, but by then I was getting used to his lateral narratives. So I was happy to just nod my head and let him keep talking while we sipped coffee. I had a sense that he was telling me something important, profound even. But my attention span was short in those days. As he continued I was glancing over his shoulder to where I could see, outside, a little English snow starting to fall.

Me and George Borges used to write, you know.

Who? I swallowed abruptly.

Apparently, he was a fan of the early Goon Shows He used to get tapes sent over from friends in London. Evidently, he was somewhat of an Anglophile.

I didn't have a clue who he was talking about. Naturally I assumed he was raving.

Borges, as in Jorge Luis Borges, the South American writer, who would start with a real event and weave a fantastic invented story from it. So convincingly that his readers couldn't tell where the truth ended and the fantasy began. Like life really. Just like life.

For a second I sensed he was sniping at me for not knowing about Borges and his storytelling techniques. In fact, my father used the same method to draw his audience into his fantastical verbal inventions. He did it for his amusement as much as for ours. Some might have said he liked the sound of his own voice. But I think, rather, he liked the sound of his own imaginings. Just as Spike did. So I knew how to be a good listener to stories that skirted the edges of credibility. And to understand the need for their creation – how they brought pleasure, solace and challenge to their inventors.

But then I realised there were probably other reasons for Spike's impatience. Perhaps he'd reached the age when he expected – or hoped for – less ignorance from those around him. Or perhaps he realised he was running out of time.

Apparently, just as Eliot had written to Groucho, Borges had written to Spike, sending him long, beautifully penned letters about cricket, polo and Robert Louis Stevenson, which were also full of humble requests for packets of English breakfast tea from Selfridges and shortbread biscuits from Harrods.

I drew the line at getting him cotton singlets from Marks & Spencer though. The bugger never sent me a cent for everything I shipped over to Argentina. So I'd be damned if I was going to go underwear shopping for him, no matter how bloody famous he was. Talk about your English eccentrics. He was more English and more eccentric than the worst of them! A bloody good writer though. And you know why?

I knew he'd tell me. All I had to do was sit back for a moment while Spike swallowed the last of his enormous cup of black coffee.

Because no matter how much you analyse him, his stories refuse to be known or be pinned down. Like they reinvent themselves over and over, according to whatever information you've got in your head at the time. I like stories like that. And I like life like that too. I like it when the line between truth and invention is permanently blurred. Sometimes that's the only way I can bear it.

He burped, excused himself, said he was experiencing a caffeine rush and lay down on the floor under the table. I smiled brightly at the waiter, who seemed to understand what was going on. This was Spike's world, after all. Wherever he was he made it so, reinventing himself like a Borges story, from one moment to the next.

Later, after helping him out to the footpath, where we stood in lightly falling snow, he asked me: Do you think that we come back?

Come back where? I wanted to reply, tempted to keep playing along with this most playful of men. But I said nothing, only hoisting the collar of my coat up over my ears and rubbing my gloved hands together.

Reincarnation. Death and bloody rebirth. Karma. Karma Sutra. The whole circle-slash-cycle of existence. Yes, indeed. I've come back so many times, yet sometimes I feel I'm having the same experience over and over. Except that each time, someone's saying to me, 'Okay, Spike, old friend. This time you've just got to look a little closer.' Problem is, I always want to look further rather than closer. So they keep sending me back. You know what I mean?

I knew what he meant. In a general sense. In the general sense that I could feel what he meant by the way he said it. But as for knowing what he meant, no. His brain, reassembled so many times, seemed beyond my comprehension. Some people, I thought, reduce themselves so they only have to look at easily comprehensible things. Others, like Spike, their brains just expand and expand, because they want to exclude nothing, because they want to experience the hugeness, not the smallness, of life.

Next thing I knew, Spike's red face was right in front of mine. I remember noticing how his capillaries looked like threads woven through the material of his skin.

I don't suppose there's any chance of you coming to work for me?

At any other time I wouldn't have thought twice. But at that moment, outside The Tandoori Traveller with a London winter seeping slowly into my bones, I knew that I was at some sort of crossroads. And not just because Spike and I were standing where the roads to Camden and Notting Hill crossed and diverged. Besides, I didn't know whether I needed a mentor just then. Or a father figure. Or, I thought, looking at the boyish twinkle in his eyes, a spring–winter romance.

Can I call you? I said.

You can. But you won't, will you? He was smiling into my eyes and I could see he wasn't drunk or crazy or insane. He knew exactly what he was doing and saying. And he had from the moment I'd met him.

You know, he continued, when you've been alive a long time, it's only your body that gets old. Everything else just gets fresher and fresher. That's the irony of it all. Just when you could really enjoy yourself the most, when your spirit is free and you've got your bloody mojo back again, you look down at your flesh and ... well, you realise that to anyone else you just seem old. That's the illusion. That's the utter absurdity of it, you see.

I did see. I saw in his eyes that in non-physical time he was years younger than I was. That if life was circular and non-linear he was way ahead and way behind all in the same moment. He suddenly picked me up and whirled me around. I grabbed on to my hat with one hand and steadied myself on his shoulder with the other. And then he was laughing and laughing. No, not laughing. He was giggling. Like a kid. Or like they reckon a Buddha giggles. Lightly. As if all the cares in the world would fall onto his shoulders like raindrops, dissipating as soon as they touched anything solid.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from All Is Given by Linda Neil. Copyright © 2016 Linda Neil. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents

Prologue: Songbook,
Spike and Me: A Fantastic Adventure,
Bahut Acha in Bharatpur,
The Flower Lady of Zhongshan Park,
Singing Love Songs in Kathmandu,
My Summer of Peripheries,
Revolution at the Peace Hotel,
Wild Strawberries in Mongolia,
Garbo Laughs in Paris,
On Kindness in Kolkata,
Notes from the Musical Frontier,
Epilogue: All Is Given,
Acknowledgements,

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