Conversations with Strangers: The Tobey Maguire story

NZ-LA 054It was my last day in LA, at the tail end of my round the world trip, and I woke up at 6am in a hostel in Santa Monica. The jet lag was insistent. I knew rolling over wouldn’t do me any good, so I heaved my carcass out of the top bunk, dressed silently, and headed out to face the day, or as much of it as was currently awake.

There was one girl in the hostel lounge, working on her laptop. I asked her where she was jet-lagged from. Central America, she said. She turned out to be Catherine Shehadie, from Oz, and I turned out to be Tom Tyrrell from Britain. She was a curly-haired girl with mirror-bright blue eyes, and we hit it off – I’d been a sucker for bright eyes all trip. We discovered we were both flying home that day, albeit in opposite directions, and we had the morning spare. We decided to hang out.

December in LA didn’t feel a lot different from the New Zealand spring I’d been running around in for the last few months – at least, until night slammed down at 4pm and the cold winds blew in. Typically, it was the hottest it had been all week, and I was stuck in trousers and walking boots, and my swimming trunks and towel were all packed away till I got home. Instead, we walked along Santa Monica pier, then nipped down to the beachfront.

???????????????????????????????I hadn’t expected much from Muscle Beach, but it had turned out to be a highlight. Instead of over-inflated bodybuilders pumping iron, what you mostly saw were young wiry people swinging down these massive arcades of rings, like Lara Croft or the Prince of Persia in the video games, doing things you never expected to see in reality. To amuse Catherine, I made it most of the way up a rope and swung from a few of the rings – which was easier than it looked, if you didn’t mind looking like a sack of potatoes.

Down the beach was a film crew, filming Pawn Sacrifice with Live Schreiber – or so we were told by a bit part player, an older guy named Pierce, who was looking unpleasantly warm in his 60’s three-piece suit. He handed a couple of the bottles of water they were giving out to the crew, and told us his Tobey Maguire story. It was evidently a well-polished Hollywood tale, but it amused the hell out of us.

“I was doing a Stand Up To Cancer advert with Tobey Maguire and about 500 extras.” he says. “We were all packed into this massive stadium and only a certain number of us can get paid, so I got in the line for that. I get to the front, and the first assistant director doesn’t even look up at me. He keeps his eyes on his notes and he barks ‘Name!’ Just like that.

I’m a little annoyed by this, so I say ‘George Clooney.’ And he looks up, and fixes me with a dirty glare and says ‘Funny. Name?’ So I shrug and I give him mine and then I go sit down, halfway up in this massive stadium. And half an hour later they’re filming Tobey Maguire, and they need someone to sit beside him. So the first AD turns to the crowd and yells through the microphone ‘Hey, George Clooney, get down here!’ At which point this whole audience of 500 people – 200 of them women – starts craning around to look for me. And I had to get up and walk down to the stage, all through them, while they were going Where is he? Where is he? Is that him? Nah, that’s nobody. That was the only time I disappointed 200 women at once. Mostly I do it one at a time.”


Conversations with Strangers: The Possessed Budgie

One hot Saturday when I had nothing to do, I decided to see how far north I could get by hitch-hiking. Starting in Cardiff, I caught my first lift to Merthyr Tydfil with a property lawyer called Dai, then a very boring ex-infantry sergeant dropped me off outside Brecon, then a man from Hay-on-Wye dropped me off at the Talgarth crossroads, and then I got a lift from an American called Doug, who was getting extremely lost in the footsteps of William Wordsworth. (Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve turned up in his blog.) He was going to Bala.

I’ve never been to Bala, I thought. I might go to Bala too.

True to form, we took a wrong turn up the Elan Valley, and after several spectacular dams, reservoirs and mountain roads we wound up in Aberystwyth! Undaunted, we set off to the north-east, and Doug dropped me off in Bala town centre just after 6pm. I caught a lift out of town and camped for the night in a field three miles outside Bala, among caravans, campervans and behemoth tents set up to sleep whole families, where my little 35 litre rucksack, two man tent and miniature stove made me like Gulliver among the Brobingnagians.

Next day I walked for half an hour until I found a lay-by on the right side of the road and wrote where I wanted to go on my whiteboard – an invaluable hitch-hiking tool. It would have looked something like this:


Another half-hour passed waving my thumb fruitlessly at the sparse traffic, and I was just thinking of writing ‘Dolgellau’ on the other side of my whiteboard and trying to hitch both ways, when a car pulled in. Quite a nice one, I noticed, scrambling in. Roomy, with a couple of cool accessories like a waste paper bin strapped to the gearbox, and a dream catcher dangling from the rear view mirror – ornamental, since the car didn’t look slept in. The driver introduced himself as Joe. He was bald, with dark glasses, a voice that managed to be simultaneously gravelly and camp and various tattoos, most notable of which were the four Chinese dragons spiralling around his left leg, symbolising the elements of earth, air, fire and water. He was quite cagey about what he did, beyond mentioning that he was semi-retired, and I wondered at first if he was some kind of minor rockstar I ought to know about. He reminded me of a distant relative who was part of The Scaffold, now best known for Lily the Pink. We chatted for a while about old Clint Eastwood movies and silly hats, and some way down the road he told me he was a psychic medium, and was just returning from a weekend visit to another psychic medium in Dolgellau.

I wondered where to take the conversation from here. Some would rate mediums worse than con-men. I come from a sceptic background – my father was not so much a lapsed Catholic as one who was never convinced in the first place. Thanks to Dad (and Douglas Adams) I grew up as a stout materialist, an agnostic verging on the atheist, and without feeling any particular need for a spiritual dimension in my life. Then again, I had a lot of friends who believed wholeheartedly in a spiritual dimension; a great admiration for the stories of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, an occultist and a chaos magician respectively, and a determination not to offend my lift. Not that Joe seemed easily offended – in fact, he was a terrible tease.

‘So what do mediums talk about, when they get together?’ I asked, hoping for some professional gossip.

‘Dead people, mostly.’

‘Mmm.’ It would be crass, surely, to ask him if he’d communed with Elvis, or any well-known celebrities. ‘Do you have a good ghost story? Or is that kind of thing beneath you?’

‘I don’t have a ghost story, no. I do have a good possession story.’

Like any aspiring writer I listened eagerly, ready to plagiarise any gory details.

‘I got a call once from a woman down in Rhyl who had a possessed budgie.’

‘A possessed what?

‘A possessed budgie. Now, just because I believe in the spirit world and the efficacy of certain essential oils doesn’t mean that my first thought wasn’t this woman is completely off her rocker. But I went down to Rhyl, and I met up with her and her husband in a car park – they were spiritualists like me – and they seemed perfectly sane. So I went back to their flat – perfectly ordinary place. The budgie’s tweeting away merrily in its cage, and the only odd thing was the stack of tapes in front of the TV.

“You can watch those, if you like,” said the woman. “They’ll back me up.”

What had happened is that her father used to own the budgie until he passed away, maybe a year ago. He’d always told her that when he’d passed on, he’d try and contact her, if it was possible, from the other side. The budgie stayed in her father’s flat for about three weeks while she sorted out the legacies, and then it came home with her. And about a week later, it started talking to her in her father’s voice.’

‘Can budgies talk?’ I asked, ‘I thought it was only parrots.’

‘No, budgies talk fine with a bit of training – so it was talking in her father’s voice, which wasn’t that surprising, but it was calling her by name, and it was saying things like “I told you I’d reach you, didn’t I?” Now you’re thinking he taught the budgie to say that before he died, aren’t you? So was I. But that wasn’t the whole story.

Maybe a month later, it started saying other things. Nasty things. Swearing at her, threatening her, telling her she was going to die. Really awful stuff. When she let it out of its cage it would start pecking her, dive-bombing her, attacking her.

I watched a few of the videos, and then I sat down with her and said that there might be an everyday explanation, but it could be that it was a negative spirit that had possessed the budgie and used her affection for her father and her belief in the supernatural as a way in. Once it had built up enough trust and affection to mess with her head, it started misbehaving.

“Why don’t you just shut the fuck up!” said the budgie. I jumped about a foot. It was the first thing it had said the whole time I’d been there. That pretty much settled it for us both.

She asked me what to do with it. I said throw it on the fire, but she wouldn’t do that, so I told her to give it away, but not to tell anyone about the negative spirit. Just say that it was your father’s, and you don’t want it any more. That way the spirit won’t have a psychological foothold, and won’t be able to bother anyone.

And that’s what she did.’

‘So someone in Rhyl still owns a possessed budgie?’ I asked.

Joe shrugged. ‘I guess so. It’s harmless, of course.’

Long after he’d dropped me off, I was trying to think of a rational explanation. Had the father planned the whole thing as a sick joke? Did the budgie learn the language off the TV? Was the husband, barely mentioned in Joe’s story, a more important character than he’d appeared? I loved the way the story sounded ludicrous at first, but built slowly to the point where you thought ‘yeah, I would be freaked out if this happened to me.’

Sadly, a quick google search revealed that Katey and Her Possessed Budgie, by Brian Curtin, has already cornered the market in the literature of the avian uncanny.

No, that is really a book.

I’ve got my own stories to write, in any case. But if you’re living in Rhyl, and your budgie’s head keeps turning 360 degrees on its neck and vomiting pea soup – you know who to call…

Conversations with Strangers: The Forager

50 Since I started this blog in December 2013 I’ve written 50 blogposts and achieved 7300 views from all around the world, including Indonesia, Iraq and Vatican City. This would be the ideal point to look back, evaluate and reminisce, and such indeed was my original purpose, before I remembered how much I hate writing self-reflexive articles. True though it may be that the unexamined life is not worth living, I’ve never enjoyed doing it in front of an audience. I keep a journal for that, now well into its ninth volume, and woe betide he who peruses it without permission! So it is with some delight I have tossed aside my projected plan of discussing the motives that led me to begin blogging, complaining about how much I hate taking photos – the worst part of the blog – and trying to impose a retroactive rationale on a rattlebag of miscellaneous writing that incorporates anecdotes, poetry readings and academic conference reports, on topics as varied as astronomy, wild swimming, flying a glider, the Homeric translations of George Chapman and the embarrassments of taking a tramp home after a beer festival.

Instead, here’s an interesting conversation I had with a complete stranger.


… Over the bridge, a couple of people had vaulted the railings and were browsing on the blackberry bushes sloping down to the edge of the Taff, that mostly flows grey, brown or greasy green, but in these hot summer days had grown so clear that its rocky bottom was just visible through the weed.

– Found any juicy ones? I inquired, leaning against the railings.

The girl looked up. – They’re all a bit sour at the moment.

A green stripe varied the blonde hair that curved down her cheek toward her chin, and her bare bronzed arms were daubed with abstract colour, worked into her skin with the needle’s point, striped white also with the fainter mark of thorns. Her friend or boyfriend, with similar tattoos and a wild tangle of hair and beard, never spoke.

– Everything is coming into season about three weeks early this year, I observed, but even so I’d give the blackberries till the end of the month.

– Want to try one? she said, extending a purple hand. I picked the largest, dark, plump and softly bobbled; still my mouth filled with the familiar bitterness of a berry a few weeks under-ripe.

– No, not quite there. Have you ever tried making blackberry gin?

– We’ve done blackberry vodka.

– Does it still go that wonderful blood colour?

– Oh yes. Tastes great with cloudy apple juice.

– I like doing mine as a gin and tonic – then it bubbles upwards into a foaming glass of gore! I’m looking forward to laying in a stock for Halloween. Have you ever made nettle tea?

– No, but I made a chickpea and nettle curry the other day. It’s very versatile. I use it instead of spinach in a couple of recipes.

– Really? I’ve done it up with butter and pepper before, but it just tasted of pepper and butter. Kind of flavourless. Ah, just like…

-Just like spinach, yes. Bute Park’s a really good place for foraging. Her gaze roamed beyond me, upriver and down. There’s a big patch of elderflower over there. We made a ton of cordial. And there’s wild garlic and dandelion for salads.

She was eating up the rest of the blackberries from the palm of her hand as we spoke. Her friend or boyfriend found a little worm in his last, and threw it away. Then, not without awkwardness, they climbed back over the railings.

– See you when they come into season, I guess.