Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Hanging out with the Gravedigger in Falmouth, reflecting on Scorper by Rob Magnuson Smith





“’Tell you what,’ she said, looking at him.  ‘You’re like Frankenstein but cute.’”

Rob Magnuson Smith, Scorper.


“All Americans are lonely and lost.  That’s why some of them come to England in the first place,”

Rob Magnuson Smith, Scorper.



Rob and I were going to talk writing and life and the porous line between lived experiences and words over the weekend.  At least that was the plan as I made my way out to Waterloo Station.

Ray Davies words’ echoed through my mind as I walked out from the tube into the station to grab my train on my way south.  Years and years of watching the video, I feel like I am returning to a place I’ve seen before. Asking questions, “like why or how or what am I doing it for?... will I reach my destination?”





Rob, our old friend from our San Francisco days, has always been a part of this conversation.  I would journey most of the day to make my way to his new home in Falmouth, looking out the window at the lush, increasingly bucolic landscape as our train made its way.  The outward journey from London to Falmouth departed London Waterloo Station at 10:59.  I would not make it there for another six hours, arriving in Falmouth Town at 17:12 pm.




Passing the time, I  chatted with the woman sitting next to me as we made our way South for the bank holiday.  We talked about New York and London, friends and music. Her plan was to go surfing in Croyde, a surfing village where my new friend planned to spend her next three months, in between with her apartments in New York and London spoken for, rented, her life out of her mind.  She drank wine, checked her messages, and chatted, sharing restaurant tips and gossip about some of the musicians she works for.  And we both looked out the window.  Our minds somewhere far away.



By four PM, I made my connection in Truro, feeling the cold mist in the air. It reminded me of the fog in San Francisco.  This is always the case on the way to Falmouth, on the sea in Cornwall, where so much of the lush vegetation, palm trees, remind me of the California Rob and I both left behind.  Those So Cal and San Francisco days were on my mind all weekend long. Rob used to drive up his car from his beloved Los Angeles multiple weekends a month when we both lived there two decades prior.   He’d arrive with Madonna blasting from the tape player, quite often singing along. A light, easy going-ness on his face, which age seems to have diminished on all of us today.  Even then we had history.  We had gotten out of school at Pitzer, in Claremont, Ca, where we shared years of rambunctious goings on, bantered about philosophy, romance, reproductive rights, affairs, monogamy, non monogamy, the uses of literature, psychology and the movies.  Even then Rob was a fan of the classics, Russian novels and philosophy.  He wasn’t a fan of the Rocky Horror Show, then my favorite movie. Yet, today I show his favorite movie, One Flew over the Co Co’s Next in my classes. I loved Rugby, history, and the links between pop culture and my budding interest in writing and activism.  

Through the years, we’d corresponded about his experiences in the UK during his study abroad, alcohol and romance, women and the aesthetics of the North East vs Southern California colleges, Pitzer vs  Vassar college.  A former girlfriend had lured me there, leaving Rob to finish school out West at Pitzer.  (Little did we imagine that he might teach there, decades later).  We didn’t set foot on the campus again together. But the letters continued. After a particularly nasty fight, I wrote him sitting on the patio at our farm in Georgia.  Rob’s stories about England and some of those friends and enemies from those days, would find themselves into his two novels The Gravedigger and Scorper.  As he told the BBC in an interview, it is impossible for a writer to keep himself out completely.  Novels are about everything and nothing of who we are, simultaneously.


Rob greeted me at Falmouth Town and we wandered back out of the station among the trees. 




“Where is the oldest one in Falmouth?” I asked.

“Sadly, its gone. Someone poisoned it,” Rob informed me.  “They wanted a better view.”

Falmouth is always a great place to reflect on the trees and the messages they divine upon us, even in their absence.



What was the plan for the weekend?  Nothing really.  We could go to Penzance, where the pirates once cavorted, or visit friends of do nothing. 

“Were you in Dorchester?” asked Rob, referring to the town in Southern England where the Shepards are rumored to have hailed.

“Not this trip. There just wasn’t or time. We were too busy being lost in London and Sheffield.”

Americans coming here “tracing…ancestors” would be a theme of both our trips and stories, as well as his new novel.

“What in the world were you doing?...” notes the reflective, second person narrator in Scorper. “This trip to England may be futile.” 

But maybe not? I contend. The trip, the process is as important as the outcome.  That’s what counts.  The reflection on the Kafkaesque new novel, its narrative seeming to remind me of our trips to Prague and the Kafka museum where neither of us felt quite well after a night of Absinthe as we contemplated the master’s life out of balance in his limited radius there, the bureaucratic rules entwining him, and the surrealist daydreams he used to elude these social controls.  That was until he took himself out and the genius best friend disobeyed his request to throw his manuscripts in the fire.  Jorge Luis Borges would describe his friend’s rejection of his ill-advised request as perhaps the most heroic literary gesture of the 20th century.  Yet, what do we do when our wounds are self-inflicted, as Kafka’s were?  What happens when the trial of modern living, the rules of the castle are just too much to bear?



Over the next two days, Rob and I retraced the steps and stories, trials and tributaries, between the pubs we’d visited the years before and the ways our lives had changed in the year to follow.

We sat in a local looking out at the town, watching the sun go down, enjoying a few pints, as the sea gulls danced in the distance.  I was glad to be back to share the time and redemptive tragicominc story of his life, career, mine, and the line between our days in Southern California as undergraduate students almost three decades ago and our experiences today as academics, writing books and teaching and making sense of where life has taken us.

He showed me his new lovely home.  We ate and made our way back out strolling down the hill.

“Its like the old walk back in LA,” I noted, reflecting on his old home in Silverlake, where we used to walk out into the Southern California night.  

“There’s a California novel in you Rob.  I just know it.”




Last year, we’d talked about my Dad and Rebel Friends, then a work in progress.  This year, we talked how to finish the story. 

“Every story grows out of a conflict,” he explained, referring to Romeo and Juliet.

So what would this one be?  What would propel this story?  Where could the dialectic take this narrative?  And what would we become.  Every relationship takes a dialectical shape from formation, to conflict, to some sort of resolution, at least hopefully. Of course, Rob is one of my age old Rebel Friends, so this question resonates in countless ways.  

Part of the fun of romping about Falmouth is meeting the assorted cast of characters who drop by to say hello to Rob, as we visit his locals.  Abby, a local legend, plopped herself down at our table. She’s been friends with most everyone here at one point or another, still at it, making trouble for decades here.  

“Call me a car,” she declares when scolded for smoking a joint in the pub.




We keep on walking to the Hand, where by this point, the pubs take a groaning, ill-advised feeling.  We’ve all been out too long. And it’s starting to show.



Back at home, Rod and I gossip.  The Morrissey Autobiography sitting at the table, he explains that the book really was deserving of the title of Penguin Classic.  I suggest it looks like someone is taking care of Morrissey as he grins on the cover. 




“Ben Shepard!” Rob declares the next morning, greeting the day, as he mimics my old answering machine greeting. 

He shows me his latest story in Playboy, posing in his office for a shot.  The austere office, surrounded by books, looks just like the old one in LA where he first drafted the Gravedigger.




“Maybe your Hollywood novel can be a variation on a Narcissus and Goldman theme, with dopple gangers in Hollywood and England?" 

Little do I know his new novel will take on a similar lost and found feeling, between here and there, and you really do not know in between. 

We spend the day strolling.



Rob greets Nick, the proprietor from the Boat House. 

“Good morning Nick!  You look so nice and clean shaven.”

“Well, 48 is the new 30,” Nick retorts thanking Rob for his support.

“We’ll see you later tonight.”

Rob tells me about the Ethyl, the ghost who lives inside, who hates the men who preside there.  She’s been haunting the men here, providing a for a swath of hard to explain injuries since the 19th century, when she was thought to have infected the men with a particularly virulent strain of the pox, syphilis.  So the angry sailors walled her in, building bricks around her until she starved, buried alive.   It was a common torture at the time noted Rob.




An antique store is closing. So I drop in for a glimpse, taking in the relics and junk.

“We had to make some decisions,” explained one of the workers. 

“This one is really good,” he notes, nodding at the old picture I’ve picked up, giving me a deal, a couple of postcards and buttons from a long ago time on the water here. This old world space is about to disappear, dispersed into space. 




I thank him and take in more of the town, imagining what it would be like to live here and taking in a few more shots.

Rob is in the Salvation Army.  We walk out to find our own salvation at St Anselmes Nude beach a few kilometers away. 




A sea gull holds forth and we look at the ships, where exploited, unregulated laborers still lingers just off the shore, beyond reach of most everyone, hidden plane sight.

Getting closer and close to the beach, we talk about writing and transcendentalists, the water and the landscape, and its odd resemblance to the California coast of our college days. 

I am so glad I was able to be a small part of that cavalcade of left coast creative thought, extending stories from the Beats to the Hippies, the Merry Pranksters, to the punks, the deadheads to the Janes Addiction dread locked groupies of my college days in Southern California.

“Sometimes I look back at my life, as if I were one of the those characters in one of David Hockney’s sunny LA portraits, a neighbor or Isherwood or Joni Mitchell in Laurel Canyon…. Just as Neil Cassidy died and Bob Weir’s daughter Cassidy was born on the same day, there they were, here I am, looking at the story of Dad and Fred, whose death inspired me to be something larger outside myself, connecting my life with a story of activism extending to movements stretching back from Dada and the beats to the movements that have inspired me over the quarter century that he’s been gone….”


So we rambled on about faith and friends, Dads and authenticity, schools we could have or never have gone to and roads less traveled, others well worn.  Our path began to erode as we came closer to the hidden cove where we’d jump into the freezing water. 




The water felt wonderful, cutting my legs like knives, much colder than the new years polar bear swims of the last couple of years. But we were alive. Breathing, skipping stones, and talking about our college friend Alice, who loved Freddy and River Phoenix so many years ago.  Its good to know she is still around.

We remembered New Orleans, a road trip through Sewanee, triumphs, pleasures and some regrets.  Stories coming and going, finding light and receding into the darkness, not quite ready for the violent brightness of our current moment.  Sometimes the light sends us back further into the cave. Icarus crashes into the sea in all of our lives.  Its lovely to chase the sunshine. But it can be hot when the wings begin to melt.  And how we fall?  Yet, what do we do when we fall?

It can be a blessing.  We should toast our failures, Carline reminded Dodi, Scarlett and me so many years ago when Dodi lost her blue belt in karate.  She’d pulled out the martinelli’s sparking cider and we all toasted to the first of many such moments, which we hope will not pull us down.

“You have to toast your failures.”

“Look, there is the light house that inspired To the Light House,” noted Rob, referring to Wolf’s grief after her mother’s passing. The solitary moment and silence exquisite, the sun shining on the water, as the day began to warm. 




“I think you out coffeed me,” noted Rob, looking at the lovely café latte sitting in front of me.

It was getting close to 5 pm.  So we wandered back, gossiped and laughed.

“You are so lucky to live here,” I nodded, looking at the sea.

Round after round, we talked and laughed about the past, reveling in the transformations which bring us to the present, years after we left our beloved California behind, even when we made mistakes. All of this how we got here is who we are.




“You must always warm a butt plug,” explained Nick, during the evening’s last round at the Boat House, helping me understand the many meanings for the term a “Prince Albert.”  Sometime we all hope to slow things down a little, while warming them up.  He loves the stories people share in bars, shared through face to face memories and tales, not twitter or facebook.

“My friend’s daughter told me about her research in the urban dictionary.  Do you know what a strawberry cheesecake is?”


“No, but what about felching?” I asked trying to keep up with the bowdy Irish banter.

A London transplant, he has spent his life working in pub after pub.

“We ran one that had been inadvertedly dubbed the Felcher and the philosopher,” noted Nick, referring to a series of pubs with variations  on names beginning with F and P. “I had to call the owner and disabuse him of that one.”


We thanked Nick and everyone.  And Rob and I meandered back home by midnight. 

A cab came to pick me up for my 24 plus hour journey home at 5 AM, driving me to Newquay, where I’d fly to Gatwick, where I hoped to catch the 11:30 for Orlando and then possibly make it back to New York by ten or so, if luck is with me, and we don’t stumble too bad along the way.

God speed Rob.  C u soon.  A copy of his new book in hand.  I’d read it all day long.

The car meandered through the woods, between the curves in the road, dropping me off at 5:40 am, almost two hours before my flight for London.  The full moon is still out. Once up in the air, the young bartender sitting next to me pulls out the Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.  I hope her life is happier than the protagonist I think. 




“I love sad stories,” she explains as we chat.

“Those characters seem so familiar to me,” I explain.  “I wonder what I would do or would have done if I had known her.”

I pick up the Scorper and start to read. These characters feel so familiar.  Their lostness, their eerie encounter with a lost highway of memories of the self and an encounter with an estranged other, who might have been who you always were or might have been.  We all dance with Oedipus at some point in our lives. The stranger stares at you and tells you stories about people you might have known, the rambunctious silly feeling of a literary quiz our protagonist feels like he’s spent his entire life preparing for, and the soul emptying loneliness of the everyday.  Narratives of redemption and the petty humiliations of lost connection feel like stories among old friends. The cavalcade of past girlfriends remembered remind you.  Our protagonist is invited for a liaison with a new friend.   Yet, unexpected, unwanted visitors join.

“Its not enough to traumatize your memories – your girlfriends want your stories told in the company of the dead.

‘A fresh start’ you beg as you try to escape. They jab you with their elbows until you submit to being revisited under the lime trees gnarled branches and naked trunks.

“You met Natalie in Introduction to Shakespeare, first year in college.  She had come from an exclusive Prep School in Maralynd, an institution with puritanical Quaker roots that had evolved into a bohemian experimental laboratory for sex.  At eighteen, she’d already had flights with a dozen other men, including her math teacher. She had shoulder length blond hair, brown eyes, long swimmer’s legs.  What she saw in you, God knows…. [B]ut you were not about to protest and soon you would be walking the campus together holding hands.”

Our protagonist eventually meets Natalie’s dad, who sees him as impotent and the lesson becomes internalized. And soon, he is not able to perform.  And the sad reality of early lost love sets in. “When you went to parties together, she would gaze over her shoulder at other men.  She started to hum out loud when you spoke.”

“One night you went to her room and found it locked. On the other side of the door were noises – noises that stopped when you knocked. The next morning she had a new friend, a Russian exchange student named Dminitri, a chain smoker and self-proclaimed nihilist who liked to crush his cigarette butts into the open pages of books.  Soon they were walking the campus together holding hands.  From her friends you heard that she took the nihilist to lunch with her famous father.  And because Natalie kept on seeing Dmitri, you suspected the father found the nihilist to his liking.


“The impact of these events lingered.  The more you tried to meet other women, the more you suffered from psychic aftershocks… There passed years of embarrassingly incompetent flirtations and failed one night stands….”


So the cavalcade of stories and memories meanders forever.  It feels like we all might have known a Dmitri and a Natelie?  Maybe some of us have?  Theres so much to wonder about in this life beyond confines. Italy Calvino reminds us theres no limit to such a story. There are  many ways of looking at texts and narratives, memories and friendships, experiences and journeys into nether reality. 




They were with me all the way, as were the lessons of England, the cruelties inflicted, and friends who survive.  Didn’t get home till midnight on Easter, the Scorper read from cover to cover.


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