I posted this on my Facebook page last week but the incident is staying in my mind because it was just so surreal.
In the middle of the afternoon, I got on a Metropolitan Line train on the London Underground.
There were not many people on the train.
But, standing in the middle of the aisle with his back to me, was a British Transport policeman.
He just stood there silent, un-moving, like one of those human statues who stand for hours in Covent Garden, hoping for cash to be thrown in their hat by passing tourists with cameras and thinking heaven knows what for all those immobile hours.
What do they think while they stand there?
I was on the train for four stops.
He was there too, standing immobile and silent for four stops. He was bulky and bearded and real. Like some bizarre policeman-suited Buddha.
Occasionally, one of the other two passengers in the carriage would look at him.
But no response.
There he stood, immovable and silent, perhaps thinking he was some oddball PR message from the Metropolitan Police to travellers.
YOU ARE SAFE
WE ARE WATCHING OVER YOU
But the surreality overwhelmed any message he might be trying to give, standing there, blocking the aisle, silent, looking to neither left nor right.
When I got off the train, he was still there, silent, blocking the aisle, thinking whatever thoughts he was thinking.
Eight minutes of my life.
Less than a pinprick in eternity.
One man, standing alone, immobile, silent, on an underground train, beneath in a city, on a planet, in a solar system, in infinity.
One of the good things about writing a daily blog is that I have an excuse to randomly drink tea and talk to interesting people.
Last week, I saw – and heard – a girl singing in Leicester Square tube station. There is a video of her on YouTube busking at Bank station in 2010.
She was no ordinary busker.
Yesterday, I had tea with her in Soho.
London-born Danusia Samal spent part of her childhood in the Middle East. After returning to London, she studied at the BRIT School for Performing Arts, then started a BA in European Theatre at the Rose Bruford College of Theatre & Performance.
“I did a year,” she says, “then changed my mind and took a gap year” during which she performed in various productions including The Suit at the Young Vic, where she played the Shabeen Queen, the jazz songstress narrator of the show. After her gap year, she got a place on the BA Acting course at the Central School of Speech & Drama and, during her time training, she was nominated for the Laurence Olivier award and the Carleton Hobbs BBC Radio Award.
Since then, she has performed at Soho Theatre, Manchester Royal Exchange, the Citizens Theatre, Unicorn Theatre, Pleasance and Watford Palace and she has collaborated on various music projects, including writing music for 1001 Nights at the Unicorn Theatre.
She is 24.
“How long have you been busking?” I asked Danusia.
Danusia Samal on way to London’s Soho Theatre last night
“On-and-off for just under six years,” she told me. “Acting’s a career thing. You have to work hard and do all of the networking and things you don’t enjoy doing and the music thing is just something I really enjoy. So I’ve decided to do that out of enjoyment and passion. If the two ever merge, that’s great.
“I meet people, I sing to strangers, I enjoy the interaction and it keeps me ‘up’ when I’m not working as an actress. I don’t do that actor ‘resting’ thing because I’m out doing something, performing all the time, so I don’t get that ‘low’ thing.”
“When I saw you busking last week,” I told her, “singing jazz, I thought Ooh! What a great voice! and walked past, Then I turned back to have another listen and, as I did that, some bloke you knew came out of a side tunnel and there was something indefinable in the way you looked at him and your body language. It was something like This is something I have to do as a rite of passage: standing in the underground singing. But it wasn’t Ooh, I should be doing better things, it was like you were just taking things as they came along. It was an intriguing reaction.”
“Well,” Danusia told me, “I’m not embarrassed by standing singing to strangers for money in a tunnel, but I know some people think… That was another actor you saw… I sometimes run into people who don’t know about it and it’s quite a good laugh to watch their faces change as they do a double-take and realise they know me.”
“In one of the few job interviews I have ever had,” I told her, “the person interviewing me said: John, your CV seems a little unfocussed. He seemed to think this was a disadvantage. I thought it was on the plus side – doing lots of different things.”
“I quite like the bitty madness of life,” said Danusia.
“Ah!” I said. “Maybe that was what I saw in your eyes when you were busking. Someone who accepts the bitty madness of life.”
“I enjoy surprising people by doing all sorts of stuff.” she told me. “And completely unexpected things always come up. When I’m down and I think nothing’s going to happen, something random happens. You know the other day the whole Victoria Line closed down because they accidentally poured quick-drying cement into a control room?”
“With people in it?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Danusia. “The signal room was flooded with quick-drying cement, so they had to shut the whole line. I got trapped in a tunnel full of commuters at Tottenham Court Road. These people were queueing to get onto platforms and it went on for about an hour and a half and I thought Oh God, I’m going to be really annoying them, because I’m nose-to-nose with them and they just want to go home and I’m in the way, but I couldn’t get out because I was trapped in my little performer’s semi-circle. So I carried on singing and it was one of the best sessions I’ve ever had because I was actually cheering people up.”
“I guess it was like singing in the tube stations in the War while the bombs were falling,” I suggested.
“Yeah,” said Danusia. “I remember a really elderly lady stopping to talk to me and singing me old songs. She told me she used to be a singer in World War Two. I meet interesting people.
“Strange people ask me to sing strange songs”
“Strange people ask me to sing strange songs. And I had a man come and talk to me the other day for about ten minutes in unintelligible… He was British and I think he was trying to speak in English, but I don’t know if they were even words… He just spoke at me for a really long time.
“When I first started, I stupidly gave out cards with my phone number on. I got called a lot by this guy who was allegedly a rapper. He kept phoning me at like four in the morning, telling me he was going to pick me up in a limo if I just gave him my address. Really weird stuff.”
“So,” I said, “you sing, you act…”
“…and I write music with my cousin, who’s a guitarist. He used to have an Indie rock band now he writes these gorgeous guitar riffs and I write lyrics to them.”
“You should write songs about the people you’ve met through busking,” I suggested. “You’ve got endless songs in you about bizarre people. Have you written plays?’
“I’m trying to write one.”
“Which is about…?”
“It’s gonna sound too autobiographical, but it’s about a woman who’s partly of a foreign background, partly British and it has two split scenes. One with her family who are not from here. And one with her English friends. And the scenes blend in and out of each other, so she’ll walk from one into the other. But it’s a sort-of comedy. My mum is Polish – well, she was born over here, so she’s British – and my dad is Kurdish.”
“Which bit of Kurdistan?” I asked.
“The bit in Turkey.”
“And where are you off to after we finish talking?”
“Soho Theatre. I did a play in Manchester with comedian Ed Gaughan and we got together and did a sketch for his night of sketches at Shoreditch Town Hall and one of the acts there was Julian Barratt (of The Mighty Boosh) and he’s doing a night at Soho Theatre tonight and we’re doing ten minutes of our thing there. It’s kind-of last-minute, so we’re just meeting and grabbing something together.”
“And after that,” I asked, “in the grand scheme of things?”
“I don’t know. I’m definitely in the middle at the moment. I’m not sure what I’m doing right now.”
During the night, I was talking to a girl at the top of a suburban street, telling her about the various Schneiders. There was Roy Schneider in Jaws; there was Romy Schneider sharing butter with Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris; and there is Dave Schneider, who I always think of as the bloke in the back window of the Eurostar train as it hurtles along in the climax of the first Mission Impossible movie.
The girl was very impressed and a friend of hers also came along to find out more about the various Schneiders.
Then I woke up.
It was a dream.
I later realised the two girls were wrong to be impressed. The Jaws film star was Roy Scheider not Roy Schneider. And it was Maria not Romy Schneider with the butter.
It was just a dream.
And this morning, as if still in a dream, it felt like I was home in London when a taxi driver took me on a 12-minute round trip in the opposite direction to where we were going, to increase his meter fare. It is what all cabbies must do the world over to foreigners in their city.
Eventually, we got to Tiananmen Square, where all access is guarded by soldiers/police at kiosks with X-ray machines. This is no big deal, really, as all Beijing’s metro stations have X-ray security machines too.
I say all access to Tiananmen Square is guarded by the efficient Chinese security system.
I wandered unstopped and unchecked (carrying a bag) through the old Zhengyangmen (Qianmen) Gate behind Mao’s Mausoleum and wandered into the Square unstopped.
At the far end of the square, nearly opposite the Tiananmen Gate itself, men and women in red and yellow jackets offered to take photos of passers-by.
As I left the throng, four young men maybe in their late teens unfolded a large rectangular banner – red, with white Chinese letters. They smiled as I passed by. About 12-15 seconds later, there was the sharp bark of a voice.
One of the red and yellow jacketed ‘photographers’ – a particularly burly man – was shouting and, as I watched still walking away, he strode and tried to tear the banner from the four youths’ hands and scrunge it up, still yelling towards a police van about 50 feet away.
The banner had been up and visible for maybe 12 seconds. Almost no-one had seen it; perhaps only me. And I did not know what the Chinese writing said.
Four policemen strode across from their white van and marched the four young men away.
The four young men went quietly; they did not have to be held; they obviously knew it would happen like, I guess, maybe some lemmings know their jump off the cliff will not end well. But they still feel compelled towards the self-destructive act.
They strolled with the police towards the white van. The red and yellow jacketed man went back to being a photographer, accosting tourists to have their photo taken with Chairman Mao’s giant portrait on the Tiananmen Gate in the background.
To Westerners like me, this seems an example of the repressiveness of the Chinese regime. But to the Chinese themselves – obsessed with maintaining order and stability and horrified by the possibility of ‘chaos’, I suspect it could seem like benevolent paternalism.
The men and women standing and sitting around and watching what ordinary people do are, I suspect, not seen as oppressive Big Brothers but as protective brothers and sisters.
There are men (mostly men) sitting at the bottom of, it seems, all the escalators in the metro, just ‘watching’ in case an unfortunate accident happens.
Life has got much, much better for most people.
When I was here in 1984, I realised I was slightly (not much) taller than most people in the street. I got looks. But people did not notice my height, skin colour and different clothing if I walked at the same, slower pace that they did.
In 1984, the Beijingers walked slower than people did in London. Now, in 2012, they do not. Maybe I have slowed down (always a possibility) but I think they do walk faster. And they have taken advertising to their hearts.
It is everywhere. Including on the moving rubber handrails of the escalators in the metro.
And I was very impressed by a very inventive way of advertising on the walls inside the metro tunnels as the trains speed between stations.
As the train carriage speeds by through the dark tunnels, on the black walls are a series of pictures which appear to be one static image as seen from the fast-moving train. I guess it must be like a flick book. Your eyes see a lot of the same picture repeated and your brain sees one static picture. Occasionally the image changes. I have never seen anything like it, although someone later told me there is one of these ads in the Heathrow Express tunnel into London Airport.
Meanwhile, watching TV back in my 13th floor Beijing hotel, I continue to be amazed that BBC World’s TV reporter is still allowed to remain inside North Korea. He contrasts what he is being shown by North Korean officials with the real North Korea glimpsed by the BBC cameraman through train and coach windows. Simply the phrases he uses in his reports – “Few outside would recognise this as prosperous” and “totalitarian control” would surely merit the North Koreans throwing him out?
Tomorrow, I fly to North Korea.
I left my iPhone and iPad back in London, knowing they would be confiscated at the border.
Ten days ahead of me with no news of the outside world.
What might happen?
When I was in Laos in 1989, I missed the fall of the Berlin Wall. The first I knew of it was coming back through Bangkok Airport and seeing a week-old issue of the Sunday Times with pictures on the front page of the Wall coming down.
But perhaps I have more personal worries.
This afternoon, eating a sweet, a slice from the back of one of my teeth – perhaps a quarter inch high – came out. It seems to be part of the real tooth, not a filling. A sticky sweet was the culprit.
Tonight, I went to the Novotel to e-mail my eternally-un-named friend and ask her to book me a dental appointment when I get back home.
As I walked up to the Novotel, three prostitutes offered to have sex with me. Well, presumably each of three prostitutes, not all three together. The youngest was wearing a white coat; the others were stylishly-dressed in black, merging into the darkness and with sadder eyes. The youngest was bubbly and effervescent: “Sex,” she said to me. “Exciting sex.”
When I came out of the hotel, after sending my e-mail, there were only two of the ladies of the night standing in the same place. The white-coated young girl was still there, giggling and smiling. “Sex?” she asked. “Exciting sex?”
I went to the metro, wondering what happened to the four young men in Tiananmen Square and what will happen to Bo Xilai and his wife. Will I miss a major news story while I am in North Korea?
Yesterday, I wrote about comedy writer Mark Kelly’s latest work-in-progress Stuart Leigh – The Stewart Lee Tribute Act and – just four hours after I posted the blog – Mark got an e-mail from someone who says they are interested in booking it into various venues, when it is ready to tour.
As Stuart Leigh – The Stewart Lee Tribute Act is not yet fully written and Mark currently only has thoughts of getting it ready for the 2013 (not the 2012) Edinburgh Fringe, this may be a slow-burning triumph.
Still, to look on the bright side, if the guy does arrange some bookings for the show, Mark says he will buy me an apple crumble at the Stockpot in Soho’s Old Compton Street.
Touring shows nowadays is slightly more respectable than it used to be.
I was round at Uncle Lou’s last night. He is not my uncle, but he has the affable air of a kindly uncle; in fact, he is a movie armourer who, as Londoners foolish enough to live South of the Thames might say, ‘tooled-up’ the unique movie experience that was/is Killer Bitch.
Lou, an armourer, goldsmith, silversmith, consigliere and history buff, told me:
“In the 1700s, if a ‘touring company’ – a bunch of entertainers – turned up and started performing in the streets and you started hanging round with ‘em, you might get executed. If the local people went to the beadle and grassed you up by saying Look at ‘im – He’s hanging round with a right bunch of thespian arseholes! you might get reported to the law and considered to be a real lowlife. If you hung around with these entertainers for a week or more, you could get arrested and the maximum sentence was hanging. People were hung for it. So the rule of thumb was Don’t hang around with actors and vagabonds or you could get killed because you are considered scum… Oh, and musicians too – The law thought they were a bunch of arseholes as well.”
Plus ça change.
I had gone round to Lou’s with the creative tornado that is Jason Cook, whom I blogged about recently. He is getting closer to funding The Devil’s Dandruff, a movie based on the first of his three novels ‘based on’ his life which ‘might have’ involved London gangsters and the international drug trade.
He told me last night that one of the real-life Mr Bigs who ‘might have been’ involved had him ‘brought in’ for a chat after he had published the first two books. The chap said he had heard Jason had been ‘telling stories’ and he was unhappy about it… This did not sound good for Jason… But it turned out the chap was only unhappy about one thing… that Jason had not used the chap’s real name in the books.
Ah! The lure of immortality in print!
Jason – who is very determined and very persuasive – has had the offer of a free 747 jet to film in. A while ago, he produced a short film titled Tunnel Visionswhich was set in a tube train. Last night, he told me:
“We went to London Transport and said We want to shoot on the Underground in a real train and they said Yup, that’s fine. If you bring all your things down, it’ll cost you £3,000.
“So we thought Ah!
“Then they said to us: If you bring a skeleton crew, we’ll reduce it down to £2,000.
“So we thought Ah!
“But then they asked us Have you got a student on the crew? If you’ve got a student, you can do it for £50.
“So we went to a university and got ourselves a student.
“London Underground said: OK. Pay for your permit – £50.
“We went on the train, commandeered half a carriage, got everyone on there and shot the film all day. There were five people in the crew – including the student – and all the extras in the scenes helped us too.”
Jason Cook is a man who gets things done.
So is Uncle Lou, but examples of that are mostly unprintable.