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The Broken Plank

A gentle tribute to the courage of a friend

Every now, and sometimes each then, one reads a poem that unlocks one's own life. Like dreams of great significance that signal a decision point, or put one to rest, so too with poems.

I have read far too little lately, but one that I can quote from heart is this which I have carried within from the first moment I read it, from Emily Dickinson:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

And Mourners to and fro

Kept treading - treading - till it seemed

That Sense was breaking through -

And when they all were seated,

A Service, like a Drum -

Kept beating - beating - till I thought

My mind was going numb -

And then I heard them lift a Box

And creak across my Soul

With those same Boots of Lead, again,

Then Space - began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,

And Being, but an Ear,

And I, and Silence, some strange Race,

Wrecked, solitary, here -

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,

And I dropped down, and down -

And hit a World, at every plunge,

And Finished knowing - then -

Emily, enigmatic, for all her words...

In every life well-lived, one more thoroughly explored, we dice with that edge of reason. It pogos us to very edge of the Abyss, upon which we can teeter and play with the notion of falling to our Fall. Many have, many do. Many were taken by accident, or drink and drugs, or other mishaps in the Himalayas or in the middle of a poppy field in stranger and unsettled lands.

One of the best men I know I have known in many guises, since I first entered my twenties. I'll call him Goodrich, since it appears to be his name, and anyway, it's the only thing I've ever called him since the many iterations of monickers I've known him to be called by others (from memory, Victor, Addington, Tom, Boris and, in Bucharest and Sofia for a while - Sassoon).

The impossibly beautiful Irene Papas, still alive as I write, in the 1961 film of Antigone.

Goodrich is at the forefront of my mind because as I write from Nairobi, doing the modest yet worthy work that I do for the UN's World Food Programme as Ethiopia seems on the brink of implosion, Goodrich is making his way around the churches and cathedrals of Italy armed with his Baedeker and a sheaf of acid tabs.

One tab is excised and ingested for each marvel of humankind's ingenuity and metaphysical yearning. One for each nave and apse absorbed.

Duomo di Siena, partly by Bernini, filmed by Goodrich on Sicilian LSD on 7 October 2021.

Human beings, as Ethiopia's internecine conflagration demonstrates yet, will believe in anything if fed carefully enough, with notions that take us to heaven or to the pits of Hell - all done so much better on Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Armies that used to march on their stomachs and tots of rum have, for more than a century, marched and suffered and killed on the sorcery of chemists. Fortified with amphetamines the Germans invading France in 1940 would reportedly go three days without sleeping.

Vittoria of Ascoli Piceno, at the Blue Mountains west of Sydney

When I met Goodrich I had just dropped out of university and a ripening teenaged acting career (theatre, soap operas, Shakespeare workshops, a mini-series, and one film before I was 20).

Instead, with a heart badly busted by my Italian fiancée, in my efforts to forget her I turned from the roar of crowds and the smell of grease paint to becoming a cop (the cop thing ended quickly after training but my acting took me on a different and very odd path).

My sweaty leg on the Camino... "Ultreia!"

A former British marine, Goodrich had just been fired from a high-powered banking job in Hong Kong. His HSBC boss had spotted him dressed as a gladiator on a billboard (a good-looking hombre, he'd been moonlighting as a model out of sheer boredom with banking).

Goodrich was unashamedly depressed: even tough guys get sad when they mess it up. Having emigrated to Australia and fallen in love, his still youthful marriage had shattered like a bottle of wine on a marble floor, beauty and blood and barrow-loads of tears.

So we seemed to make a good pair of journeymen crossing paths, and we shacked up for a while in a five-storied Gothic terrace owned by a relative in central Sydney while we figured out next steps.

My own photo of Nefertiti, from Berlin's Neues Museum,

taken after hours of contemplating her beauty, and how must have been loved..

The short version of this story is that after some months I was sent to the Balkans to work as a journalist, while Goodrich landed in Hollywood.

Over the years our paths snaked in and around one another through L.A. and New York, Prague and Belgrade, Khartoum and Luanda, Tehran and Hong Kong as he combined the odd professions of moonlighting as a script-writer whilst working as a contractor for the British government.

The 'It' couple, Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw, circa. 1975

Once, when enduring my own singularly anarchic and labyrinthine marriage, I knew that he was living in Santa Fe with Ali McGraw (yup, she of The Getaway, Steve McQueen's Nefertiti and, by Goodrich's account a helluva beautiful person).

I happened to need a capable spare man in a business venture I had up and running, and somebody tapped me on the shoulder to remind me that perhaps Goodrich was free, since he didn't seem to be doing much in Santa Fe except keeping Ali company at her occasional dippy-hippy market stall.

Now, I knew full well that by then he had spent two rough decades as a multi-faceted addict of sex, booze, money, egoism, and the other transitive highs that Hollywood grandly touts, yet bestows permanently on few.

Yet he wasn't a wreck by any means, and since I know him to possess the constitution of a Talib's Toyota "technical," and needed somebody sturdy for a few short months, he was my call.

Trying to tread in Steve's path. 19, and a coal miner

(and engaged to the dazzling, combustible, and ferociously jealous Vittoria)

So Goodrich came on an expensive flight I paid for and, without even a polite pause, looped me straight into the typhoon of his personal disaster.

He loaded himself with my whisky every night, babbled and waned as the nights wore on, and I could see that if not quite a wreck, he was in a state of cripplingly deep anxiety. I fired him within a week, and packed him on a plane back to Ali and the dull artisanal markets and creakingly drop-out geriatric miasma of Santa Fe.

We didn't see one another for half a decade, until I was finishing up the Camino de Santiago, and we somehow became connected once more through the marvel of Telegram.

I flew to Sicily and hired a Fiat 500 in Palermo for the hop to San Vito Lo Capo, a once-impoverished and sparse fishing village now pulsing each summer with swimmers, rock climbers, cycle tourists and worshippers at the squat 15th century church built to preserve God inside and repel Mediterranean pirates without.

Goodrich was living in the eight-bed dormitory of a youth hostel, writing one of his dozen sparkling and searingly honest film scripts, swimming and eating well, getting bombed out on acid with pretty young things several times a week, and trying to ignore the torment of snoring and farting travellers whose rumblings and propulsions would wake him in the deepest and most purple moments of the night when the mind is bound to stumble into the past, and tends to compare it with the present (especially a present suffused with windy co-sonambulists).

Goodrich, Prague, 2020

Handsome, funny, driven, and a ladies man, Goodrich's greatest courage stemmed not from whatever soldierly existence he had experienced, or the many brave leaps he'd made into various unknown guises since, but from this Fall he was living through.

When a person is prostrated, there is no other place to run towards, yet Goodrich had been running from a monstrous childhood trauma that had dogged him all his life. It had destroyed every hope of a 'normal' relationship with a woman.

That part of his life, as I learned from him in an honest rendition, is irredeemable, lost to that boy he was.

The specifics of the trauma itself are neither here nor there. He had often alluded to it over the years, but it was not until a warm Sicilian evening and a frigid bottle of wine that I learned its full, wrenching impact.

Here was a man who had lived through the unbearable pain of Heaven's clanging bell, whose planks in reason had broken and whose Icarian fall had landed him to this island, his ambitions dashed on its bleached stones, and his knowing ceased.

Yet in truth, although painfully broke and adrift (and utterly reliant on a U.K. government mental health disability pension, a glimpse into his contractual history, and now a paid-up member of the precariat), he was a happier and far less conflicted person than I had ever known, a man who'd discovered much of the truth of his own nature, and who could stand back from the tortuous wending route he'd staggered through, and regard himself with an insouciant and abiding wry humour.

This is I, the one version. My life has toggled in chime with Nature's distribution of good and ill Fortune, with large helpings of both for those who wander beyond the edge of the village and dare oneself into the gloaming synesthetia of the forest, where your Reason is certain to snap like the twigs underfoot, your doleful wail will merge with the baying of the wolf, set against the snuffling of the truffle hunters, and your tears will fold into the mist to be forgotten in the drift of it all.

Graffiti from the toilet wall of my favourite bar in Prague, Roessel's...

A scouting trip with Goodrich in the Syrian desert, I think in around late 2010?

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