As the 60th birthday of Israel has arrived, I turn towards one of my thousand memories:
At 15, my bones knew I had to get as far away from Wheaton Aston as I could, as soon as possible. At one point, I considered Japan – there was a family in the village who were members of Experiment in International Living – a Christian organisation with a programme there. But for some reason I never got round to talking to them. Then, a couple of years later I saw an ad in The Guardian about being a volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel. It was still a popular thing to do. I was interested in living in a collective/commune type environment and getting outside of capitalism and consumerism, so I went ahead and applied.
After finishing my A-level exams, Dad drove me to a large house in a Jewish area in North Manchester. We all had to fill in a form and be interviewed. I was approved, and so sent off the money for my El Al ticket to Tel Aviv. It was summer 1988 and most of my mates were going off to Uni. Lee and I had been doing gigs in a band we called The Big Wednesday. Kathryn and I considered ourselves to be in love. We drove everywhere in Jolene, my Citroen Diane. We went to Saddleworth Moor on a Smiths’ odyssey (with Suffer Little Children, a hauntingly beautiful song about the Moor’s murderers Myra Hindley and Liam Brady, in our heads); we went to Heptonstall above Hebden Bridge on a Sylvia Plath/Ted Hughes pilgrimmage. We wrote ardent poems to each other. But I think we both knew underneath it all that something was ending and that our lives were about to begin.
So I found myself at Manchester Airport, saying goodbye to Mom, Dad and Kath, leaving home and leaving the country properly for the first time. There were tears. After landing in the heat and dust, and then hours on a bus, we (about ten or so of us) arrived at Kibbutz Malkiya – right on the buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon.
The days began by being taken by tractor with the other volunteers to the fields at 5am, picking apples, with a bag strapped on to our fronts. It felt like being in an ad for Soviet life in the 1930’s, or some Communist Youth programme. We were healthy and young, and the apples were ripe and large.
The evenings were spent in the volunteers’ bar, with free beer (more than making up for the token pocket money we were granted each month), listening to The Cure and U2, dancing against the disco lights.
It was at the bar on that first evening that I met Corinne, a French-Israeli kibbutznik. From her body language, I detected some form of interest. Curiosity mixed with an excited sense of what form of the exotic might unfold. Somehow, I sensed the adventure ahead from the first moment.
She casually told me about the view from the top of the communal dining room. After a couple of drinks, she led me through the deserted space, sneaking through kitchens up a flight of stairs at the back. Emerging onto the roof, the night was an inky black, with the Golan Valley twinkling with the lights of settlements further down.
Entwined in small talk, we lay down. A sense of the inevitable washed over me, and I felt as if were in a film that was about to end. I started to count down from 100. Somehow I knew that by the time I reached 1 we would be there. I reached 50 and she was lying on the ground with her legs starting to open. At 30 we were in a grip, planting wild wet kisses on our faces and mouths, tugging urgently at our jeans. And, with sublime surreality, as zero struck, I entered. It was too cold however, so we went back to her room to continue.
Afternoons and evenings of love followed. The The’s album Infected and Soul Mining were the backdrop to our sessions, as was Paris 1919 by John Cale. “I’ve got you under my skin where the rain can’t get in, but if the sweat pours out, just shout” repeated itself endlessly from her tape deck. She could only come when we faced each other at a precise angle. She told me about a relationship with a Dutch guy the year before. He seemed a little wild and unpredictable.
In between times, we talked about art and ways of the world that I’d not encountered before. We ate pistachios and smoked roll-ups. Her friend came to teach me Hebrew and then we’d talk politics on the bed. Emerging from her room into the blinding light of the morning I felt sexed up and more aware of the world’s complexity. New ways of thinking were offering themselves up. I’d return to the volunteer dorm to shower and get ready for work.
My sense of bliss was interrupted by the raincloud reality that Corinne was already in a serious relationship with a Brit called Nick. He had been at the Kibbutz for a year or so. I really liked Nick; he was good looking, a few years older, had a snazzy London accent (I imagine he was Golders Green material), played a mean bass. He had got me almost instantly hooked on Charles Mingus. Cool in every respect, including his taste in women.
It was therefore no huge surprise that Corinne’s mother – who was in charge of the volunteer group - was not thrilled about my arrival on the scene. I had a sense that Nick and Corinne were lined up to get married by the community. Within days of the affair starting, I was demoted from picking apples in the fresh morning light to working in a plastic toy factory, assembling components. My co-worker was a flirtatious and comely Russian-Israeli called Yael. Bracketing Corinne out of my thoughts, we both agreed by day two to oversleep our way out of a trip to Lake Galilee put on for the whole kibbutz. After the coaches had departed, I walked over to her flat. To my delight, I found her sleeping in her room. I had half expected that she would have left on the trip with the others. I climbed on top of her. She yawned, put her arms around me and then pulled me in..
A few days later, I found myself mysteriously demoted yet further to working in a dimly lit modelling clay factory. My job was to pick large chunks of clay and put them into a machine for eight hours a day. My two colleagues were less than monosyllabic – in fact one didn’t speak at all. I found out later that he had lost almost all his family to Auschwitz. We ate half a water-melon each for lunch in silence, the only sound being the animal noises of our mouths at the fruit. During these days, I went back to seeing Corinne.
A week later, her mom called for me in her house for a chat. She explained to me that the standard of my work wasn’t high enough for the kibbutz and that they would have to let me go. An hour later I found myself outside the security gates, with nowhere to go or stay. Tanks rolled by against the razor wire landscape.
I hitched to the nearest town and then took a bus down to Tel Aviv and the central Kibbutz Office. I pretended that I had just arrived from the UK and was looking for work. They assigned me to Givat Haim Ichud near Netanya. It was a much larger place than Malkiya. Apparently Bob Dylan had stayed there way back when.
I settled in to my room for an afternoon’s rest, only for a knock at the door and a summons to work the night shift at the Orange Juice factory. They supplied Marks and Spencers. Till today, I suspect that a phone call had been put through and that the night shift was some form of retribution.
Still, I enjoyed working in the factory. For three weeks, I had to load 250kg aluminium bags of concentrate into drums using a winch machine from eleven to eight in the morning. If I timed it wrong, the bag would drop heavily on the floor and splat sticky gue everywhere. I did head stands and press-ups and recited poetry to keep myself sane (I’d taken a whole suitcase full of books with me). In my early morning delirium, I came up with the line, ‘If I die, there will be a small corner of an English field that is forever foreign.’
In the daytime after sleep, I had chance to meet the other volunteers and socialise. One day, a group of volunteers from France arrived, including a woman called Karinne. She came from Strasbourg and had a Sophia Loren air about her. I offered to tour her round the kibbutz. After a few minutes we arrived at the tennis court. The wire door screeched open. We lay down on the court. The time was crepuscular and right.
From that moment, for the few weeks we were together, we’d meet up each night. We’d sneak over the wire fence into the swimming pool to skinny dip. She would swim over and wrap her legs around me. She held onto the ladder and gasped. The moon and the shadows made a sublimely monochrome world, with the sound of the water lapping against the ceramic tiles. Other times, I’d go into her room at night in the dark. She would scratch at my back so hard I had to bite my lips.
Then, after a trip to the Dead Sea (and an unpleasant few hours under arrest for trespassing on Masada), I arrived back to find she had gone. Years later I found myself in Strasbourg, looking aside from time to time, in the hope that she would appear. The squares were empty of her presence.
After Karinne, I met Marilyn – a Canadian blonde who came into my room one night and told me she had to fuck me. Who was I to lie in her way? She was the first person I’d ever heard use the word ‘omniscient’ in casual conversation. Then there was also a Danish woman whose name I’ve forgotten..
Apart from all the foreign sex, there were many odd characters among the volunteers: a Brit from Devon who spent his time carving totem poles out of bits of scrap wood. His party piece was to fold his shoulders and arms under his legs and crab around (it took him two hours of warming up to get into the pose). There was a Hungarian guy who took himself very seriously. He would tell me the many ways in which the Jews were a special people. He reminded me of the perm-headed pianist guy from Fame. This was probably because he was Jewish, had a perm and was a pianist. A Brooklynite woman who left after my first week called him Goulash. From time to time Jordan (an Israeli Kibbutznik), the Hungarian and I used to jam together – Jordan doing a Mark Knopfler impression on his fake strat, with Goulash on keys. I would miss most of the chords on rhythm guitar at the back. Then, I recall an aryan looking Danish guy who spent his time uttering clever clogs comments. I tried to outsmart him by using the word ‘hermetic’ in a sentence, only for him to say ‘Hmmm, that’s quite an odd useage of the word in the context of the sentence you’ve just said.’ Bastard.
For years after, I would wander back to Israel in my dreams. I’d find myself in strange places, on unknown streets, asking after Corinne. I never did find her. Even now, twenty years on, with the kibbutz ideal all but dead, my abiding memory of Israel is centred on Corinne. Perhaps she married Nick after all..
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
As the 60th birthday of Israel has arrived, I turn towards one of my thousand memories: