I never went back to Astoria. I had made a promise to myself go back and have a look ashore. But that was in the Sixties and Astoria was just a little bit of a city at the foot of the Oregon-Washington Bridge. The gateway to the Columbia River.
It turned out I didn’t need to –well, we have all seen Astoria and lots of the little ports on the Pacific North West—you may not realize it but you have—many, many times. When you’ve been truly bored and you find yourself on Channel 4 plus 1 or some channel in the hundreds you will find them- Astoria, Newport ,Coos Bay ! .
All merged into that little riverside/ oceanside port with the killer whale or the dolphin and the FAMILY—are you getting this ? Yes it’s that family with Tom Hanks or Jeff Bridges or even Mel Gibson as the father ,for Godsake!
He’s widowed or SHE’s runaway and he’s got the two kids and she has a Past-and ,you can see this one coming,–yes it’s the cocky lazy little sod called Chuck who lies in his bed all day when not sneaking out to dodge High School and smoke weed with –oops! Some black guys .His sister is a little miss perfect called Marcie ,with the gap in her teeth (and there’s about twenty of them ,white and perfect, more intimidating than attracting) and the sanctimonious remarks who just loves THE DOG—this is called Beanie or Cuddles and is the size of a woolly mammoth and obviously eats an entire buffalo for breakfast and wanders around the crumbling but tastefully furnished shack knocking over the last of the execrable pottery made by the late lamented wife and getting ever so close to the urn containing Granny’s—flash back to some dessicated old relict from the thirties movies- granny’s ASHES.
This bloody monster , the bloody dog ,not Granny ,would bankrupt any normal family but- Oh No it’s here—and nobody’s mentioned you would need to use a JCB as a poop scooper.
And they are all waiting for Julia Roberts to swan in showing more teeth than a Great White Shark with some guy from the smooth- smarmy- bastards- in -a -suit casting department. She’s here to be sooo loving and considerate, though the guy with whom she’s obviously being having a verrrry good time involving flash cars and Gucci shoe’s and a Verrace wardrobe and a rapidly depleting bank account may disagree until we all find out he’s gay and secretly relieved and not hurt in the least-the usual thing.
And then the ever hopeful not-a –chance –in- hell and secretly nasty lady librarian next door , lusting after Daddy knocks over Grannie’s ashes and finds it’s Chuck’s stash and Cuddles gives her a nip and she snitches to the law .
WELL don’t you just hope that the local Sheriff is NOT nice old Ben Johnson from the John Ford movies but—Dennis Hopper or better still Brian Denehy who does a great line in psychotic malevolence—so that when the kids go round to try to get bloody Cuddles out of the dog pound –It’s the dog in trouble not that little shit Chuck- Whoopee! The Bad Ole Sheriff opens the door-the secret door with the spooky music soundtrack at the back of the jailhouse and SMIIIILES!
And did I mention that Moulder and Scully are running round using torches never, ever thinking about switching the bloody house lights on.
I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say————
What the fuck has happened to the old place?
“So, Pete,” I said to myself, ”You didn’t really expect something out of Shining Trumpets or They All Played Ragtime, did you?”
“Oh just for once it would be like you imagined, just for once.”
Miraculously the ship has landed up at a lay-by berth overlooking the French Quarter –just for the night we’ve been told.
We can hear music and a faint buzzing of voices, a whiff of some spicy food and a scent, not of magnolias but of booze. That’s attraction enough after a couple of weeks at sea having left a wet and miserable Hamburg behind.
In my teens I had been a traditional jazz fan and fortunate enough to hear some of the old survivors—Norman Granz toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic, Armstrong turned up in Glasgow, Broonzy, Terry and M’Ghie, Billie and Ella-so I ditched the boys in the first bar and was heading for Preservation Hall.
Fair enough- a lot of work done on the old buildings, balconies, nice ironwork-but clean, clean—a bit of decay, dereliction, a bit of continuity is missing.
The people, the people, lots of them—they are all a bit, well, white, and large, and exude a desperation to be SEEN to be having a good time. Clutching, spilling, drinks, they gyrate half a beat out to the music from adjacent bars. The music aint that great.
I weave my way through the throngs.
A sign- “Preservation Hall”-thank God for that -and I’m bundled over by an enormous lady, a headful of rollers, huge cellulitic thighs oozing out of a pair of Bermuda shorts, her sausage- like fingers crushing a Styrofoam cup of what smells like turpentine, with a splash of blackcurrant, spilling its contents over the little black kid tap dancing at the entrance to Pat O’ Brien’s from which she is being firmly and not too gently excluded by a large gent in a suit and all I can think is” Pat O’Brien’s-Pat O’Brien’s?? This is New Orleans not fucking Dublin!”
So I make it into the Preservation Hall, a pilgrimage achieved!
The band files in.
They are all white.
Off watch, half four in the morning, just wearing lungi, leaning on the rail-it’s peaceful.
A flash of lightning lights up the scene before me. It‘s some distance off flickering down from the lowering tropical clouds to the sea.
Out aft the long greasy swell stretched off to the horizon -a tall enough mast and a big enough telescope and I would be able to look down over six thousand miles of empty ocean to the south polar ice.
The ship pitching and rolling just enough to give that strangely soothing on-off pressure on the soles of my feet.
The twelve to four donkey-wallah materialises beside me ”Sahib?” a warm freshly made chapatti smeared with a bit of masala is proffered “Accha hai!“ as I take a bite and he disappears down below–the Serang had fixed this out with the bandhari it’s got to be a bit of a regular thing this and he’s finally twigged I don’t like condensed milk chai.
A real feeling of peace-the big diesel is thumping quietly in the background and there is that comforting faint smell of hot lube oil and diesel that’s with you on any ship.
It’s always darkest before the dawn?-well that’s a load of crap-it’s a bluey grey stripe between the wet flannel clouds and beaten lead sea.
The wake tapers off into the distance-the usual albatross gliding across it-he’s been tacked on for the past ten days. There are a couple of black columns of monsoon rain chasing up from the south-west. I’ll whip off my lungi when the rain hits and enjoy a soaking. Got to watch out -the last time I did that the Chief’s wife popped out to ditch an empty gin bottle-she’s been giving me a coy smile and a little wave now and again ever since-she’s bloody twice my age.
Turn round and look forward and it’s a bit different–land fall–thin black stripe surmounted by that weird green pink flush across the horizon–we’re running up to Madras .
You don’t think of landfalls as the arrival alongside in some container port or Japanese steelworks or some iron ore terminal it‘s the special ones that give you a lift.
It can be the run in through the scrub and sand of an Indian delta- you open your mouth slightly and breathe in a whiff of woodfire ,of paraffin ,of dried earth and dung -a couple of lights twinkle ,you can just hear low voices, the whir of a treadle sewing machine as the ship slides pass a collection of huts in the darkness.
Japan’s Inland sea-fine layers of mist skeining across the mountains and islands turning two towering red and white banded power station chimneys into abstract beauty.
The inlets and rivers of the Pacific North West -its early morning-the small towns or villages that are scattered along the bank or up about the hundred foot mark show as a faint set of street lights and a couple of cars are the only things on the highway-shadowing the ship-could be the agent and the ship’s chandler headed to meet us on the berth- it’s all peaceful and strangely pretty.
Then the sudden awareness that a Great Horned Owl is perched on the handrail three feet away from you.
It’s bloody enormous. How long has he been sitting there,hitching a free ride up river?
His head swivels round , enormous eyes devour you. I would swear he’s just given me a nod and he’s off , silently swooping off aft , then back round alongside me for a few moments and on up the Columbia River.
“Up to Portland and Washington-
And you can hear the Factories hum
Making chromium and manganese and aluminium”
But its quiet now-just the whispers of history drifting down from the Dalles-the wagon train destination point-down over the Grand Coulee Dam , a monument to a different America , down through the orchards and forests , picking up the ghosts of the Chinese immigrants who helped make the country and out to the sea we have left behind.
The owl disappears.
And I’m back leaning on the rail as the warm monsoon rains envelop me.
I drop the towel and-
“Yoo-hoo! Lo-o-o-vely to see you!”
The Chief’s wife is up early this morning.