PUTTING ELVIS IN THE SKY



I put Elvis on his flight to Brindisi this morning, and raced home to do my speed awareness course (irony is never lost). I was telling Henry in the car about a recent Chinese New Year dinner, and about the piece written by our dear friend Dr. Jitna Por in her church magazine, about chopsticks. In common with most people, I imagine, I have been eating with these implements for decades without ever giving their origins a second thought.

Who knew that Chinese rulers and dignitaries used silver chopsticks because it was believed that they would turn black if poison was present in their food. The yin and the yang of the way in which chopsticks are held and used had never occurred to me. Nor had their remarkable powers to improve our dexterity, even though I had seen the latter with my own eyes. Let me see if I can go here.

On 17th December 1992, so thirty years ago this year, my father Ken Jones, who was at the time the chief sportswriter of the Independent newspaper, fell under a train at London Bridge station and lost his writing arm. He made no big deal of it. He got over it and carried on working, accepting his fate and doing, for a further fifteen years, the job he had done since retiring from professional football. That was my father. I wish now that I had taken the time and trouble to learn from it during his lifetime. I couldn't bear to think about what had happened. I think about it all the time now.

When I went in to visit him one evening at Bart's hospital, he had on his over-the-bed table a small, plastic game of peg Solitaire and a pair of chopsticks. A friend had brought them in as a gift, he said. A strange present for a man who had only just lost an arm, I thought. Dad was sitting up in bed, and was using the chopsticks to pick up the tiny Solitaire pegs from the tray and transfer them to the lid. Patiently, quietly, one by one, he sat picking up the little pieces with the chopsticks. 'What are you doing, Dad?' I asked him. 'So-and-so brought them in,' he said (I wish I could remember who it was.) 'When I asked what they were for, he said to me, "Why do you think the Chinese are so good at ping pong (table tennis)? It's because they eat with chopsticks. It's all in the wrist."' Aware that my father has lost his right, writing hand, and of the fact that this acclaimed, hard-working journalist had no choice but to teach himself to write with his left and become, in prize-fighting parlance, a southpaw, his thoughtful friend had fetched him this simple game along with the chopsticks to help Dad improve his wrist strength and dexterity. I'm not exaggerating when I say that those humble wooden sticks took on magnificent significance in those moments. The dawning has had me wondering ever since.

Henry and I talked about Dad this morning, on our way to put Elvis in the sky. I drove home wondering whether I had a photograph of them together, since family snaps usually feature casts of dozens. An image of any single grandchild with Dad on their own is a rare find. Still, I found this one, taken at the Joe Allen lunch after Henry's Confirmation at St. Bride's, the journalists' church, in 2012, when H. was 14 and my dad was 80. Had he lived, he would have been 90 now.

I confess to having long resisted the memory of my father's pale denim eyes. Which did not pierce, that word implying aggression that was simply never my father. They were windows, yes, into a confounding Welsh soul deeper than a mountain well. They yielded mirth, wisdom and sadness in equal measure. They drew you in. They told the truth. There they are, again, in my son's young face. I have only just noticed.

The King of Rock'n'Roll's eyes were a striking icy blue. The Glaucoma that he suffered muted their shade over time. An addiction to black hair dye gave him the obsidian locks for which he is famous, disguising the fact that he was a natural blonde. 'I think I'll dye my hair black,' remarked Henry. 'I can't be arsed to wear the wig the entire tour.' At least he won't have to wear the coloured contact lenses, as Elvis himself was forced to for the filming of 'Flaming Star' because he couldn't, according to the picture's director, 'be part Native American with blue eyes.'

Of which Rami Malek, Queen Productions, Brian May and Roger Taylor really ought to have taken note. Freddie Mercury with pale blue peepers in 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was never going to be convincing. Peter Freestone tried his damnedest to tell them. Rami couldn't take to the contacts. They just had to let it go. And bad mistakes ... they made a few ...

What would Dad have said to Henry as he embarks on his latest adventure, playing the King? He would have said what he said to all of us, in every situation: 'Behave yourself, will you?'

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