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Authors: Paul Ableman

Tornado Pratt

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Tornado Pratt

PAUL ABLEMAN

Paul Ableman – playwright, experimental novelist and screenwriter – was one of the most recognisable and well-loved literary figures of Hampstead.

When I first knew him, he was living in a penthouse flat in Fellows Road, which went through many metamorphoses during his long residence. It started off as a small bachelor pad in the wild late sixties, but expanded mysteriously over the years to accommodate more and more books, computers, his second wife Sheila, his younger son Tom, talkative dinner parties, and large summer parties of guests who would crowd on to newly sprouting balconies amongst the pot plants, sit on top of one another on settees, and yell at one another happily in crowded corridors. It was like the Tardis. There was much more room in there than you would have thought possible.

Ableman, too, though small of stature, contained multitudes. He was born in Leeds in 1927 into an unorthodox Jewish family. His father, Jack, was a tailor. His mother, Gertrude, wanted to be an actress, left his father and moved to London, to Hampstead, where she fell in love with an American journalist, Thurston Macauley. (I liked his mother, a flamboyant woman who used to make lively contributions to my class at Morley College, but Paul was more critical of her, and I guess he knew her a lot better than I did.)

Paul was brought up in New York with his mother and stepfather and sent to Stuyvesant High School, returning to England aged eighteen. He did his National Service in the Education Corps, in Gibraltar and Scapa Flow, then went to King’s College London to read English, but did not finish his degree, hanging out in Paris instead, writing erotic fiction.

His novels include
I Hear Voices
(1957), published by the Olympia Press (a work of which Maurice Girodias was very proud),
As Near as I Can Get
(1962),
Vac
(1968),
The Twilight of the Vilp
(1969, his first book to be produced by Gollancz), and
Tornado Pratt
(1978): these works were praised for their inventive language, bawdy high spirits, and originality of form by Anthony Burgess, Philip Toynbee, Robert Nye and other friends of the avant-garde.

But his first publication had been a play, written with his mother,
Even His Enemy
(1948) – produced in London as
Letters to a Lady
in 1951.
Green Julia,
his first full-length play, in which two young men discuss an absent mistress, was a great success at the 1965 Edinburgh Festival, and other surreal and experimental plays (such as
Tests
, 1966) followed, with the encouragement of establishment critics like Harold Hobson, but Ableman also wrote screenplays of a more popular nature. He described himself, proudly, as a freelance writer, and could turn his hand to many different genres, including general science books.

He made something of a speciality of ‘novelising’ BBC series, such as
Shoestring
(
Shoestring
, 1979, and
Shoestring’s Finest Hour,
1980), Porridge (
Porridge: The Inside Story,
1979, and others under the pseudonym Paul Victor),
Hi-de-hi
(
Hi-de-hi,
1983),
Dad’s Army
(
Dad’s Army: The Defence of a Front Line English Village,
1989),
Minder
(
Straight Up: The Autobiography of Arthur Daley,
1991) and
Last of the Summer Wine
(
Last of the Summer Wine: A Country Companion by Clegg, Foggy and Compo,
1992).

His embrace of the sexual revolution of the 1960s unwittingly exposed him to risks. In 1969 he published a book called
The Mouth,
a harmlessly entertaining and informative book about orality drawing on mythology, psychoanalysis, literature and art, and pleasantly illustrated with images from Magritte, Kitagawa Utamaro and other respectable sources. This provoked an obscenity case of some hilarity, which was very ably contested by Jeremy Hutchinson, and the book and its author were triumphantly acquitted. I appeared as witness for the defence and I hope made a good case for Ableman’s good heart, innocent intentions and literary merit.

Ableman’s first marriage to Tina Carrs-Brown ended in amicable divorce: they had one son, Martin. He married Sheila Hutton-Fox in 1978, with whom he had Tom. His emotional life went through periods of turbulence, but he was always an attentive and affectionate father. As he grew older, he grew milder and more benign (although his amazing shock of hair grew larger and wilder), and he remained an eccentric rather than a conformist.

He was a great walker, and liked to set off into the wilds with his compass, alone or with his wife and son, sometimes sleeping in the amazing expanding Dandy he attached to his car. He made a good gin and tonic in his Dandy, high on Exmoor. He loved the natural world as intensely as he loved the pubs of Soho. On my last walk with him, in the Chilterns, we sat in a field eating our sandwiches, watching a red kite, while he explained to me his theory of the mind, which he expounded in his last book. He was a wonderful talker, but never a deliverer of monologues: he was always eager for a response, and listened to the stories of others with keen curiosity.

The Secret of Consciousness
(1999) concerns the function of dreams and the archival capacity and processing mechanisms of the brain during sleep. His claims have yet to be tested, although he maintained it would be easy to do so in a sleep laboratory. His scientist friends (who included Lewis Wolpert) were not persuaded by them. He believed that during sleep the brain sorts and stores diurnal sensory impressions, on a Twin-Data system, one pathway leading to consciousness, the other to the archival memory, and that identity is no more (or less) than the unique set, or narrative, of sensory data of each individual. He saw the novelist’s use of ‘interior monologue’ as an attempt to describe this fluid and ever-changing process of creation.

In later years he began to keep an impressively detailed journal – a sort of forerunner, as he saw it, of the blog – in which he noted domestic and social events and his thoughts on such disparate matters as Judaism, technology, the restaurants of Swiss Cottage and the acting techniques of Peter Sellers: a record of an enquiring mind which found all human life of interest.

Ableman bore his last years of illness with an exemplary mixture of stoicism, good manners and good humour that made his company a pleasure. He never complained, and retained his affectionate delight in others to the last.

Margaret Drabble

 

(Margaret Drabble’s obituary for Paul Ableman was first printed in the Independent on 31 October 2006.)

B
ECAUSE
I
GUESS
I was kind of embarrassed. But if you’re serious, Horace, we could start on it right away. Or maybe, son, we better wait till we get back to Catch Creek where we’ve got the right facilities, like a typewriter or tape recorder, before you write

C
HAPTER
O
NE

Horace, am I stretched out on the floor? Seems a crazy idea but how else can I see that green and purple plain stretching away? About a mile off there’s a shiny steel tower, which I interpret as the leg of the coffee table. Why the hell am I stretched out on the floor, boy?

Drunk? Have I been drinking heavy? Let’s see, we arrived here in—Manila, is it? Hang on, we took the plane from—where did we get that plane, Horace? Seems I got a king-size dose of jet fuckabout or—

Horace? Horace? Are you there? Can you hear me? Am I making a sound? Trying to yell my head off but—maybe I’ve passed clean out and—recapitulate this thing—

Right. Was in the—hotel room and the door opened, Horace, and you walked in with a manhattan like I ordered down on the house phone and I said: thank you, son, put it on the account and here’s a dollar to buy some life insurance and then you sat down and asked me for permission to write my life-story.

That was delightful, Horace, because I often had a sneaking suspicion that that’s why you hung around old Tornado so many years but I couldn’t figure out why you had on that bell-hop’s uniform and why you’d dyed your face yellow. I recollect you having a white face, Horace, and it gave me a turn to see you glide in with a yellow countenance.

But, son, if you want to be a Jap, that’s your business. I confess, Horace, that I am surprised at the degree of calculation revealed by your decision. It’s true that the Japs have come a long way since we grilled them at Hiroshima and obviously any guy in the modern world thinking of embarking on a successful career in commerce and industry could do a lot worse than become a Jap.
I just somehow never thought it would happen to you, Horace, and it makes me kind of sad here on my—

Maybe I fainted? Then you gave me a slug of scotch and I came to. And now you want to begin on this exciting adventure of telling you

T
HE
L
IFE
S
TORY OF
T
ORNADO
P
RATT

Who is he? That is the first question you’re bound to ask, Horace. But I don’t need to answer that in broad terms because—hell, boy—you’ve been staying with me for the past six years. You’ve shared my good life here in Catch Creek with my prancing old mother and my sweet-faced young mistress, Helen Jameson, and you’ve observed my methods when starting my last successful business operation: Paradise.

Hell, boy, now I recollect what we’re doing here in the Pacific. We came to find new sites for Paradise. And we—did we find any, Horace? Can you just refresh my memory about the itinerary because I can’t seem to remember where we’ve been so far? Nor can I remember how long we’ve been travelling until we reached—is it Manila, boy?

Could have had a stroke, I guess. Had something like one at some airport recently. You’d gone to fix the baggage and I was sitting in a low chair and discovered I’d run out of cigars. So I rose to buy some cigars and I’d got about half way up when I felt a jolt like I’d been slugged with a hammer right on the bean. There was no pain—just a kind of flash of darkness and then I found I was sitting in the chair again. Couldn’t have lasted more than a couple of seconds.

H
APPY
B
IRTHDAY
, P
RATT

I was born in Kansas, Horace, and the day I was born a tornado ripped off the church roof. That’s where I got my name. But I wasn’t anything like a tornado at first, Horace. You could hardly say I was even a little breeze. Why if they’d called me Zephyr Pratt it would’ve been too strong for the timid, quaking thing I was in the very early days. Maybe it was because there was
another
tornado around—my pa! Only that doesn’t describe him right, Horace. Pa was less like a tornado than a thunderhead, one of those great, piled heaps of lightning-charged cumulus that mounts up and up as if it’s trying to smother the sun. When he’d get in a rage, he’d go off with a jug of corn liquor and he’d roar! That’s straight, Horace. One day the schoolmistress called on my
ma and she said on the way down the valley she’d been scared by a dreadful noise. Ma and I looked at each other because we knew that what she’d heard was Pa roaring as he sucked down corn liquor. One day when Pa was in a roaring mood, two hobos passed by and saw him wobbling about the clearing. So they stopped and asked what was wrong and Pa just charged them. He put both those hobos in hospital. I don’t know for sure even now, Horace, why Pa used to roar like that but it was maybe because that’s the way a thunderhead is supposed to act when it comes up against a smiling summer day. You guessed it right, Horace, that was my ma—a woman of the most fine nature, Horace. A woman of serene and smiling peace, Horace, who was like the valley when it was green in the spring and little fleecy clouds drifting down it under the blue sky.

You see, Horace, he was a big man, my pa. Just a dirt farmer but loaded with character. A Bible-reading man, my pa. And I had a Bible-reading childhood.

So one day when I was about nine, I went down fishing and the path was just an overgrown ribbon. And I was padding along on my bare feet because I only wore shoes to school and church and I heard a girl’s voice. So I stooped down and went on quiet until I came upon my pa and Norah Carmichael. I was crouched down on the river bank and I saw a frog swimming in the reeds. Then I looked round and Norah Carmichael was on the ground, seated, leaning back on her elbows. Her skirt was high and her legs were apart and she was looking up at my pa who was looking down at her. He had a big, black moustache and for a long time neither of them moved. So I looked back at the frog which I had a yen to catch and I was just curling up my hand to go for it when Pa started roaring. I was scared because I’d never heard it close up before and I looked back and Norah Carmichael was scowling and picking herself up off the ground. She went up to my Pa and slapped his face and then flounced off along the path the way I’d come and Pa just stood there roaring. When she smacked him he didn’t pay any attention but just roared as if he was trying to bust his lungs. I wanted to run too because the roaring was so loud it scared me. Then suddenly a feeling of great pity and love for my pa hit me and I rushed up to him and grabbed him and shouted:

“Pa! Pa! Quit that! Quit it!”

And what I’d like you to tell me, Horace, is—esh—is—Horace
—if this is the Pacific, Horace, then just why is it—is it so
goddamm
cold, Horace? Why is that? That tropic sun should be piercing—but instead, Horace, it’s as cold as—cold as anything I remember—even cold as—say, it’s as cold as Maldoon—Maldoon Castle—when that spring I—

I was an honoured guest there, Horace, because you see the Earl—Earl Maldoon—was Harvey’s brother. I have to laugh when I think about it, Horace, because I was kind of brash. I used to kid that earl. I came at him real hard, playing the democrat. I called him a fossil. I had no respect for anyone or anything in those days.

“Friend, Earl,” is how I sometimes addressed him: “could I impose upon Your Grace to gratify a poor backwoodsman with the history of your noble clan?”

“Why, Tornado,” he’d reply, frowning a little, “you just want to take the piss out of me.”

He talked very dirty did the Earl Maldoon.

“Not at all, Your Grace. I just have a yen to comprehend what makes a little runt—light on brains and heavy with high living—superior to his fellow men?”

“Tornado, I didn’t invent the system.”

“Craving your noble indulgence, Your Grace, you couldn’t invent a night’s sleep. I’d be interested to know which of your footmen winds you up in the morning?”

Then, if we were out on the moors and the beaters had tickled up some birds, I’d grab his shot-gun and, firing it from the hip like a revolver, bring down a couple of pheasants. That trick always left him gasping.

But you’ll want to know, Horace, how a barefoot Kansas
farm-boy
comes to be horsing around on something better than equal terms with your original belted earl.

It all started in the marines. When I was sixteen, I was five foot eleven inches tall and I weighed a hundred and seventy pounds. I began to get scared I’d kill my pa. I told you before he was a thunderhead and he roared. But he was never mean—not when I was a youngster. Desperate, yes. But he poured most of his energy into the farm and he had the best five hundred acres of corn and mixed grazing in our part of the state. My mother kept him calm and happy when he wasn’t working—except, like I said, once every six or seven weeks when he’d go off with his jug of corn whisky and roar himself into oblivion. But then he began getting mean and he began to take it out on me. Now as
for me, I’d got so big and strong I ust couldn’t go on being a dreaming zephyr any more. When I was fourteen or fifteen I’d be walking along and in my head I’d be rescuing maidens or travelling to every mortal land on earth or speculating about God—I might be any place. Then, out of the blue, there’d be a couple of them trailing along behind, jeering and cussing, trying to get a rise out of me. I stuck it for a long time and then one day I turned round and, just like Pa with those hobos, I flattened them. So, naturally, after that I got no peace at all. Everyone who looked upon himself as a he-man tried to pick a fight with me. Well, I thought about it, and I realized that I couldn’t go back. My mistake had been in declaring myself at all. I should have stuck it out and not got provoked. But since it had happened, there was nothing for it but to complete the job. So I set about it systematically and I licked every other buck in the district. Hell, Horace, you should have seen me! I had it all. I had the speed of a hound and the strength of a bear. I was like a wasp. They’d take a punch at me and I’d be a foot to one side. I’d weave like a fish and, when I saw an opening, I’d strike like a rattler. Only with just a little more weight. And they’d go down like a sack of corn dumped from a wagon. I began to take very intense pleasure in my prowess, Horace, and I regret to say—just occasionally—I would be the one to provoke the engagement. So although I wasn’t yet a tornado, it would have been incorrect any longer to describe me as a dreaming zephyr.

Which made it very hard to take when Pa developed a kind of tendency to chastise me.

One day my ma said to me:

“Tornado, you should pack and go.”

I felt my guts turn to stone.

“How do you mean, Ma?”

“I can’t stop your pa chastising you.”

“That’s okay, Ma, I can take it.”

“You’re too big for strapping, Tornado.”

“Why does he do it?”

“He’s jealous of you—because of my love for you. I can’t leave your pa. So you’ll have to go, Tornado.”

“But—”

“Before you do what’s natural and turn on him one day.”

So at sixteen, I hiked five hundred miles south-east and joined the marines.

P
RATT
M
EETS
H
ARVEY
M
ALDOON

I’d go slamming into the sand-bag, Horace, and I’d be thinking of my pa. They told us to yell as we went charging down with our bayonets and somehow I could never get myself to do it. Seemed ridiculous. That made the Sergeant mad and that made me sad because, apart from the matter of yelling at bayonet practice, I was the star of the platoon, about the top recruit in that boot camp. Then one day, we were doing bayonet practice and I was
thundering
down on the sand-bag and the Sergeant was hollering at me to yell and I was trying to bring a real savage cry to my lips and just then I thought of my pa. And I let out such a blood-curdling yell the guy running next to me stopped dead in his tracks and swung round at me in the “cover” position. I guess he thought I’d blown my top. But the Sergeant gave a shout of praise. That evening, Horace, was terrible. I lay on my bunk thinking: I killed my pa, ran him through with a bayonet. Oh, I knew that really he was fit and roaring back in Kansas but in my mind, I knew, I’d run him through. Still it was the only way I could yell at bayonet practice so whenever we did it I thought of my pa. And after a while I didn’t mind so much any more because I figured it’s not what you think in this world it’s what you do that counts.

No, I didn’t have any tendencies that way at all, Horace, and the thing with Harvey was that, by the time I discovered he was somewhat that way, I really liked the guy. Hell, we were buddies, we were business partners and we were also sort of teacher and pupil. He was the teacher naturally. When I first met him, he said:

“Sit down, marine.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Is this your real name? Tornado?”

“Tornado Pratt, sir.”

“Remarkable. How did you get a name like that?”

“The day I was born, a tornado shucked off the church roof.”

“Really? And if there’d been a light rain would they have called you Drizzle Pratt?”

“Sir?”

“Have a cigarette, Tornado? Would you care for a drink?”

“I was told: enlisted men shouldn’t be familiar with officers, sir.”

“Yes. You’d have made a good marine, Tornado. Pity.”

He was about thirty-five, Harvey, at that time and he was a
major. I thought maybe he was some kind of exchange officer because he had the damnedest British accent but he was wearing the uniform of the United States Marines. Of course, by the time the interview had got that far, I knew something was up so I wasn’t surprised when, after thinking for a little, Harvey went on:

“Go ahead and have a smoke, Tornado. The regulations don’t apply to civilians.”

“Sir? I’m not a civilian.”

“You’re lucky, Tornado. A year ago we’d have prosecuted you for making a false declaration but—well the fact is there’s been rather a lot of criticism lately about the Marine Corps’ handling of juveniles who enlist so—so, we’ve got to ease you out with as little fuss as possible.”

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