There is something to be said for a bit of disguise, whether it be quite simply wearing a splash of make up each day (which I do, every day) or dying ones hair when it starts to become grey (which I never have, and probably never will).
I will add, I am going quite grey.
Of course, people go to more dramatic extremes – disguise and character development fascinate me, and as Graham Greene wrote;
“I’m not at peace anymore. I just want him like I used to in the old days. I want to be eating sandwiches with him. I want to be drinking with him in a bar. I’m tired and I don’t want anymore pain. I want Maurice.”
Maurice, one of three central characters in Greene’s post World War Two novel, the End of the Affair, soon realises that his affair with Sarah will end as quickly as it began. The relationship suffers from his overt and admitted jealousy. He is frustrated by her refusal to divorce Henry, her amiable but boring husband. When a bomb blasts Maurice’s flat when he is with Sarah, he is nearly killed. After this, Sarah breaks off the affair with no apparent explanation. By the last page of the novel, Maurice may have come to believe in a God as well, though not to love Him. Greene masked him in an unfathomable disguise – confused by his own reality.
I adore reading Graham Greene, the master of disguise and fascinating characters, and I have only just returned to the land of the living after long nights and early mornings were overtaken by spy dramas, modern and lavishly exaggerated, all of which Greene would probably not approve.
It all began a couple of months ago when a friend asked if I’d ever watched ‘Homeland,’ to which I promptly answered, ‘nope.’ Curious, I quite literally disappeared without a trace, binging on episode after episode and becoming nothing short of obsessed with Carrie, Saul and Quinn (oh, Rupert Friend, you’re a delight). When Season Seven came to a crashing end (don’t even start watching Season One if you never have, you’ll have to resign from work) I felt somewhat empty and sad, and missed Carrie’s terrible brown wig that she continued to wear into impossible to survive war zones and all those dark alleys. Season after season.
Carrie is played by Claire Danes, a natural blond, who looked rather ill in her brown wig when she dodged bullets or tricked terrorists into interrogations masked as happy meetings in cafes.
Last week I began my binge on ‘Fauda,’ an even more addictive spy series, thankfully, only two seasons long, which has resulted in me emerging a few days ago feeling rather productive.
Also in Fauda, beards were darkened, wigs were worn, badges from opposing armies were donned on shoulders, and languages not native to the enemy but crucial to the cause, were spoken fluently.
Half way through Season One I learned of the death of my dear, great Aunt Bard, sister to my beloved grandmother Posy; both who are survived by their baby sister, the extraordinary Debo.
Aunt Bard was stern but fun and had a true appreciation for the ridiculous. When I was a child, she would encourage my lunatic antics through a made to measure lens, focused mainly on my obsession with dress ups. Never one to let an opportunity go by to see me morph into character or marvel in my mimics, she and her sisters gave me licence to be whoever I wished to be.
My main character didn’t have a name, but she wore bouncy blonde curls fashioned from a wig in Posy’s dress up box. Her shoes – black patent leather spikes- were teamed with a favoured dress, a pleated number probably still hung over from the 1960’s. Following dinner at Posy’s house by the sea, my grandmother and her sisters would sip on plentiful glasses of wine and reminisce; waving in friends as they took their evening walk along a scarce road, more like a path lined with agapanthus outside her kitchen window, and suddenly Posy’s table would be abundant and full with cackling characters. The nameless woman would sip apple juice from a wine glass completely in character before thanking the girls and their friends for a fistful of coins which they’d given me to buy ice cream from the shop.
Grabbing the keys to Posy’s very small car, I’d set off through her garden on foot – having just a minor brush with death alongside wild coprosma (known as shiny leaf in those parts) before making my way down to the street, stumbling only slightly in my grandmothers patent leather spikes.
I was all of ten years old and quite convinced that the shopkeeper, busy flipping hamburgers, would believe that I’d just ‘blown in’ in my tiny car (which was nowhere to be seen) as I swung the keys to Posy’s Holden Barina on my index finger. Surely, Shirley the shopkeeper had no idea who I was.
My point is, we all love a bit of a thrill and a mild amount of disguise; whether it be a child dressing up as something that she’s not, a novelist developing feelings for his character and mourning him when the final drops of ink dry and the end of the final chapter, or a spy agent on the silver screen whizzing through a tunnel doing that hip thrusting thing they do as they wave a gun in this direction and that.
We daydream all throughout our lives and become engrossed in novels where characters are written with a real person in mind, disguised completely as someone else. The mind becomes more fertile with age and wisdom peaks on the very day we die. As one of my favourite people often says, ‘none of us are getting out of here alive.’
So here I sit in my study in Tangier, the very town where Ian Fleming peeped over newspapers in cafes as he researched his latest novel, and where Matisse hid in his room in the Grand Villa de France, painting his version of the square below with St. Andrews church in the distance. The town was a Mecca for Beat names like Burroughs, Bowles, Williams, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Gysin and the Rolling Stones.
For decades, it’s been a home for misfits and good fits alike.
When I sip on gin and tonics in beautiful Tangier gardens listening to stories from old Tangier, I sometimes find it hard to believe what I am actually hearing – if the walls and waving palm fronds could talk, they may need to seek witness protection. Large amounts of salad dressing is, no doubt, lashed into versions of events from a bygone era, but if the truth be really known, Tangier is known to have been a hermitage for people to come and reinvent themselves, fashioning their own disguise. Characters have been written into novels now famous and revered, and it only takes a walk through the churchyard Matisse painted from his window, admiring headstones dedicated to the famous and the not so, to be reminded of just how full this town is of history and characters lifted straight from a novel.
When I was speaking just last week with a much loved Moroccan friend enduring a silent struggle, I reminded him that in every film and every novel, we find characters with whom we can relate. I explained that this should be of comfort, because it is a reminder that we are not the first, nor will we be the last, to experience things in life that are both challenging and life changing.
Characters are invented and developed before they are given the chance to dance across pages of books. Nothing is original.
Whilst I am not about to start dying my hair or lifting my eyes, nor will I ever fill my cheeks, I will remember fondly my great Aunt Bard, no longer with us but who was the mistress of the ridiculous and terribly fond of disguise. I’ve spent the week reminiscing about running around in her garden with my wig sliding sideways and my high heels too big and too high threatening a serious ankle injury, while she always looked on with her sisters and their friends, barely flinching, but ever encouraging.
Two days ago, Twinkle Toes entered the flat with a small plastic bag. ‘What is it?’ I asked, tearing open the package where I found a plastic item printed with menopausal mauve flowers, which I promptly mistook for a table cloth.
‘You don’t understand,’ he scolded me laughingly, ‘it’s a no see gas.’
‘A what?’ I queried as he made himself busy with the gas bottle by the stove. ‘In Morocco everyone has one, its a no see gas.’
As if he’d read my mind for the theme of this piece of writing, he’d gone out and purchased a custom made cover for the gas bottle, so that in future it will be ‘no see.’ ‘Pretty, no?’ he laughed, as he smoothed it down like a bridesmaid would to the dress of the bride on her wedding day.
Aunt Bard would have marvelled in ‘no see gas,’ as would her sister Posy. I cannot wait to welcome Debo here in September so that she can experience the joys of Tangier and the seriously awful, purpose made gas bottle cover which has quickly become a very favourite item in my Tangier Flat.
I feel it timely that in this week of reminiscing, my once dark green gas bottle began its own version of dress ups.
This one is in memory of Aunt Bard and Posy.
Pictured: ‘No See Gas’ in all of her glory.