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Letter From America: Stop, You're Going Too Fast

...I do not live in the past, but I do visit it. The distance travelled for each visit grows longer each passing day for the past and I are headed in converse directions...

How disturbing is it to talk to a star of the future who has not heard of Elizabeth Taylor? Ronnie Bray has a request to make of speeding time.

"Velvet Brown, I Still Love You!"

I do not live in the past, but I do visit it. The distance travelled for each visit grows longer each passing day for the past and I are headed in converse directions. Although when I am sitting in my den I can summon the past with lightning speed, our separation velocity is declared with the voice of a trumpet when I speak with those who commenced their journeying through time and space long after my sluggish vessel had pulled away from the shore. Furthermore, because I live in two discrete worlds, my fleeting mortality surges away at differing rates in three separate directions.

For example, when I make my increasingly rare visits to my beloved Yorkshire, some folks well into their thirties and beyond, look profoundly vacant when I mention Frank Randle, blanker when I say George Formby, well blank at the mention of Old Mother Riley, and disappear altogether at the faintest whiff of Little Titch or Marie Lloyd! It is then I recognise that I am, as it were, abandoned in deepest space along with vivid memories of the old world, into which I was born and nurtured with the aid of such cultural informants as I have listed, plus others whose sighed names bring tears to my eyes.

My isolation in inner space grows ever more heightened when I tell tales of Old Yorkshire, and, by so doing, raising spectres of the past of whom few in the present are cognizant. This is part of the past that I visit but have not experienced in real time but that is a tawdry reason to abandon it, for it holds riches beyond belief, and I speak as one who was actually there, as my grandchildren, for whom I retell these ancient accounts will avidly testify.

Although I did not dwell in the midst of American society until I was sixty-five years old, I knew about Theda Bara, Rudolph Valentino, Billy Gilbert, WD Griffiths, Harold Huth, Donald Meeks, Moroni Olsen, Mr Ed, Francis, and Who’s on first? Yet I cannot find one of my new countrymen who have heard of the cultural giants of my childhood. Naturally, I make allowances for these and avoid the rancour that would accompany cultural conflict with my neo-colonial cousins.

That aside, waiting in the wings as it were was an encounter underlying the distance I had travelled from the past that once was and is no more, whose outcome shocked me to the core and rattled my magma!

We visited a musical theatre production in which several talented members of our family were engaged. I will say that their contributions were outstanding, but it was a particular non-family-member that caught and held my attention the moment she danced onstage. How anyone could miss her, I could not fathom. I nudged my sweetheart and whispered in her ear, "Young Elizabeth Taylor!" Gay enthusiastically agreed.

The balleticist was a girl of seventeen, eighteen at the most. She had glossy raven-wing hair, large dark eyes, full eyebrows, the forehead, face, and brilliant smile that had endeared the young Liz Taylor to me when I first saw her in National Velvet those many years past. I felt I had been whooshed backwards sixty-years into my tenpenny seat in Huddersfield’s Picture House, down Ramsden Street, except I wasn’t wearing short trousers and knee-socks.

After the show when visiting backstage I came across the enchanting phenomenon outside the dressing rooms and took her by the hand. Looking into her intense eyes I whispered, "Elizabeth Taylor!" Her face immediately went into that mixture of repose and confusion reserved for the elderly when listening to Rap Music.

I tried again; "Elizabeth Taylor!" Confusion spread over her beautiful features. "Elizabeth Taylor," I repeated squeezing her hand. She looked as if she had just met the village idiot by accident and found him speaking Upside-down Cyrillic or Backward Dutch. Now her visage took on a hint of apprehension. But all was not lost. "You have heard of Elizabeth Taylor," I gently intoned to allay her fears that an alien was about to abduct her from the bosom of the friends and fans that gathered around her in the narrow passageway. She hadn’t.

I noted an elderly gentleman standing almost next to her who had been privy to these proceedings. I pulled him towards me with my free arm. He was used to being pulled by strangers and did not object. "Is this your granddad?" I asked the terpsichorean. "Yes," she admitted in a puzzled tone.

Of him I enquired in that confidential tone for which the West Riding people are the finest practitioners in the world – something to do with the textile mills, the noise, the deafness, the need for mouth-to-earspeak – "You have heard of Elizabeth Taylor!" It was not a question. He had in him the lamp of truth and experience, and when I uttered the enchanted cognomen the lamp lit!

"Oh, yes," he agreed with a passion that told he was not yet ready for the sealed box. "Elizabeth Taylor, yes, oh yes!" "Do you not," I began in English Backspeak, "think that your granddaughter looks like a young Elizabeth Taylor?"

It mars his case that he had to turn to look at her before he answered, "Why, yes, she does!" as if the notion had not occurred to him before. As for the moppet, she was still looking confused as I parted with a direction to her grandpa to "Tell her about Elizabeth Taylor, one of the brightest stars to grace the firmament of Hollywood," adding, because I cannot help it, "And an Englishwoman!"

Apart from the sad fact that some American youngsters look blank when the name of Elvis Presley or Charlie Chaplain are mentioned, this was probable the strongest marker that I and the modern world are parting company at the speed of darkness. But the darling Elizabeth Taylor is very much alive. She has not gone to join the serried ranks of heroes and champions of yesteryear. Liz continues to draw huge crowds whenever she ventures to Cleopatrise her eyes, don her sparklers, put on a frock that cost most that I earned in a lifetime of hard labour, and favour her adoring public with that big, broad smile that is her signature.

That a young girl entering into show business had not even heard of the Super-Star whom she resembles so particularly, gave me pause to reflect that, in Wordsworth’s words, "Another race hath been; And other palms are won," and convinced me that I was in the old race whose finishing line I must have passed without noticing, and that there might be no new wreaths pressed down on my brow. But that was trifling compared to the size of the abyss that separated me from today, its things, its people, and its doings.

We who have no future are condemned to look to the past for comfort, and for confirmation that we are, and assurances that we still count for something, even if it is very little. Perhaps that is why some of the sweetest words I hear in my old age are from grandchildren whose sweet spirits are too innocent to recognise that their grandparents are from another world, and time, and place, and that the customs and manners with which we were infused in our salad days, and to which we cling, are alien to today and most of the today people, yet still they count us among their treasures.

I have no celerity to leave this world soon, because I cannot bear to think of being parted from my loved ones, ‘even for the least division of an hour.’ Although I do not fear death or what it brings, yet I hold a toe or two in this strange world, because of the Love that bids me stay. Besides which, I might see the young Elizabeth Taylor looking for all the world like Velvet Brown again, and that’s worth staying around for.

Therefore, to whatever mechanism regulates the speed at which geriatrics like me and the present world separates, I have but an earnest plea – "Stop! You’re going too fast!"

Copyright © Ronnie Bray – 2007


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