At three minutes past noon on 8 October 2007, I found myself standing listening to Sherman Oaks beside a dew pond on the crest of the South Downs in Sussex. A single cramped ash was reflected in the gunmetal disc of water, a disc that was ringed with pocked earth and cupped in a fold of cropped turf. Had an eavesdropper crept up on the pair of us, they might have thought Sherman’s magniloquence prompted by the very finitude of this watering hole, that the way he lectured not only me but the thrushes flitting overhead was an attempt to break free of this claustrophobic scene: the sky closely sealed by a lid of cloud, cut-outs of hedge and woodland stuck on the receding crests of the downs.
I knew this not to be the case.
Sherman had always been a big talker.
I remember him aged seven or eight, rolling around in the boot of my mother’s car when it was her turn to do the school run, spouting a stream of wisecracks and making razor-sharp observations on the foibles of the world. A precocious anarchist, at thirteen Sherman told me he was going to strip naked, except for a skullcap and an attaché case, then stump into Grodzinski’s, the Jewish bakery in Golders Green. When challenged he would say only this—in a thick, mittel-European accent: “Can you tell me the way to Grods?”
It’s barely worth remarking that the impact of this stunt would be hugely enhanced by the perpetrator’s stature: at eight Sherman had been less than three feet tall, at thirteen he was perhaps three-foot-two, thirty-five years later he had gained, at most, an inch.
Assuming Sherman did do it—and I have no reason to doubt him—his dwarfism was the reason he got away with it, for in the North London of the 1970s the uneasy ridicule that disability once provoked had mutated into a tolerance that already verged on de facto acceptance of collective responsibility: we were all to blame for Sherman Oaks’s restricted height. Not that our peers felt exclusively this way; after all, children are always in a state of nature—always nasty, brutish . . . and short. Sherman may not have been overtly persecuted, but he undoubtedly felt excluded—forever eddying while the life stream flowed forward all around him.
In my early teens I felt that way too. It wasn’t commonplace spottiness—my face was mailed in acne. Then there was Dick Holmes, who could’ve used a D-cup bra. Together we formed a mismatched trio: the Small, the Fat and the Spotty lanky one. I daresay there are plenty of outcasts who sink into introspective angst, but with Sherman to goad us on there was no chance of that: he made me march into the chemist’s, where I bought the useless salves for my hurting face and confronted the pharmacist, claiming that it was the product that had done it to me. He got Dick Holmes to dress up in his mother’s frock and buy us booze, and he himself led us into the reference section of High Hill Bookshop, where he sat insouciantly on a table reading the Britannica aloud. When confronted, he said he was a five-year-old genius.
Still, as the lugubrious narrator of La Jeté would have it: “Nothing tells such memories from ordinary memories; only afterwards do they claim remembrance on account of their scars.” Sherman, having none to spare, never gave an inch. I was in awe of his chutzpah—he was our own home-grown Vamana: Vishnu incarnated as a dwarfish trickster. As for me, I had already imperfectly grasped an awareness that would harden within me even as my acne scabbed then flaked away: whatever the emotional scars I might bear my life would remain coddled and my instincts conformist—only a striving such as Sherman’s against his crushing disability could be accounted an exercise of will at all.
On his sixteenth birthday Sherman threw a party at his parents’ house on Norrice Lea. The studious entrepreneurialism of Mr Oaks—he manufactured cash registers in a 1950s block near Hangar Lane that looked like a cash register—had kerchinged the family this Lutyens villa, complete with redbrick loggias and a sunken garden. Twice-my-height privet hedges hid the mullioned windows, behind which lay an enormous open-plan kitchen—the first I had ever seen. Beneath track lighting (again, the first I had ever seen) gleamed two of every white good, for although Sherman bought ham at the deli then wolfed it straight from the wrapper, Mrs Oaks kept strict kosher.
The child of a ruptured family from the wrong side of the North Circular, I was awed by the opulence of the Oakses’ home. Our kitchen window still had several broken panes patched with cardboard and Sellotape—the result of my parents’ penultimate row. Our goods weren’t white at all, but yellowed with sadness and neglect. There was less than one of everything and the family dog had had a nervous breakdown, while my older brother—having absorbed the force of Christopher Logue’s clerihew “When all else fails, try Wales”—had decamped. To Swansea.
I was awed by the Oakses’ home—and captivated by the Oaks sisters. There were three of them, ranged around Sherman in age and each seemingly more lovely and gracile than the preceding one. The youngest, Tertia, was an outright stunner. My mother, whose own neuroses and phobias made her a lightning conductor for any distress sparking across the suburb, speculated on what quirk of heredity had produced Sherman. But, while it was tempting to think in terms of throwback, or kick sideways, or even adoption, he shared with his sisters the same white-blond hair, fierce blue eyes and highly wrought features; it was the parents who failed to jibe—their doughy pans were both dashed with liverish freckles, and their bottoms were as broad as the seats of the Mercedes in which they purred the 500 yards to Greenspan’s in the Market Place, where they bought schmaltz herring and smoked salmon. While not discounting Mr Oaks’s ability to drive a hard bargain, the notion that they had got the kids in a job-lot was preposterous.
Anyway, on this summer evening the old Oaks had been got rid of so that the teens could get drunk, dance and feel each other up shamelessly—either on the G-plan leather sofas in the living room, or at the top of the house, in a rumpus conversion fully equipped with snooker table, one-armed bandits and a 1950s jukebox loaded with 1970s rock ’n’ roll revival singles. Showaddywaddy anyone? Unlike my own house, where cobwebs smeared the ceilings, here the only spiders were from Mars and locked up in the polished beech cabinets of a Bang & Olufsen stereo system, from where they screamed to us of slinking through the city, smarming in and out of sexes, before bawling teen abandonment to the rooftops. . .
In the previous year the religious anointment of hydrogen peroxide had sloughed off my beastly mask. It had hurt, and no one—least of all me—believed that any great beauty lay beneath, so how to explain Tertia, who after two hours and twice that many Bacardi-laced Cokes, waltzed me backwards across the hall and into the oddly antiseptic gloom of her father’s study, where, her neat denim behind aligned on the desk blotter, she grabbed hold of my crotch while exhorting me to “Do it!”
The alcohol certainly helped, but, with hindsight and the benefit of career resumes—gobbets of gossip sucked up gummily in dentists’ waiting rooms—I can only conclude that Tertia was practising on me. Of course, unlike her many subsequent conquests, I had no reputation to sully, family to alienate or assets to strip. Nor could she have wanted to humiliate me sexually—after all, she was only fifteen. Still, humiliated I was: it was all over in hundredths of a second, with four layers of clothing for prophylaxis.
I say I had no assets—but there was one: Sherman. I understood enough of the family dynamic to realize that he, by reason of his charm quite as much as his disability, was doted on by both his parents. He was also their only son, and moreover, although we may balk at such dispositional crudity, their daughters were already outsoaring them, while Sherman would always remain their little boychick.
My rapidly cooling semen pooling in my underpants, I recoiled from Tertia, who gave a precociously vicious laugh. There she sprawled, the diamonds of evening sunshine scattered across her bare belly, her father’s obsessively aligned pen stand, his Dictaphone, and paperclip holder, etc. Is it only a currently felt scar, rather than the memory, that makes it seem now as if there was more pathos and eroticism on that desktop than I would ever fully grasp—let alone experience?
Then there was Sherman. So much was unsaid between us—could not even be framed, still. I knew these teen soirees were a nightmare for him; that as our hormones spurred us on, he felt he lagged further and further behind. Earlier that day, on the phone, he had said heavily: “Stick by me this evening, will you?” Now I’d not only abandoned him but been seduced by his little sister.
I yanked my way out of the study, madly scanned the kids in the kitchen, the living room, pelted to the top of the house and checked there, then tumbled down a storey to Sherman’s bedroom, where the sensitively truncated furniture and juvenile decoration belied the .22 air pistol and cubic inch of Pakki Black I knew he had hidden under the floorboards. He was nowhere to be seen—but had he seen us?
I eventually located him in the most sunken part of the garden, standing by the perfectly round pond fringed with marigolds and primulas. He had his back to the house, and before I heard the words of his bitter rant, I saw all the tension in his blocky shoulders; crammed into them were all conceivable miseries—for now, forever. Over and over he incanted, “Fucking cunts, fucking cunts, fucking fucking fucking cunts . . .”—a bizarre accompaniment to Bryan Ferry’s complacent yelp of “What’s her name, Virginia Plain,” which was belting from the open french windows.
Worse was to emerge: first Sherman’s handsome face uglified by tears, then Sherman’s square fist raised like a pestle before being ground down hard into the mortar of his palm, again and again—”Fucking cunts, fucking cunts, fucking fucking fucking cunts . . .”—while in that hand, already mashed, glistened the innards, the greyish braided and bloodied fur, of Max Headroom, Tertia’s beloved mouse.
I let him wind himself down. I let him punch me in the stomach with his gory knuckles. I took the mouse’s corpse and lost it in the compost heap. I took Sherman in through the side door and washed his Othello hands in the little sink in the little bathroom beside the great big kitchen. Then I got the hash. We sat back down by the pond and I stuck three Rizla papers together, split a Benson & Hedges and built a joint. We passed it between us, sucking up the smoke, acrid as Accra. Then Sherman said a lot of the unsayable things—about how it was for him, and how he feared it would be.
Inevitably, after that night we didn’t so much drift as scamper apart. I never grew any more, only became annealed by a life that seemed at the time to have had plenty of significant events—addictions, affairs, marriages, children, the micro-mosaics of literary composition—yet which, when I came to in the dusty stalls of middle age, I realized had been altogether lacking in high drama: no blitz or pogrom had been visited on me; the angel of death awaited me in Edgware or Bushey, at a care home, in a cardigan.
Of Sherman I had picked up bits and pieces over the years—he had done a foundation art course somewhere in the north, then dropped out. Next I heard it said he was in Berlin, squatting in the Kreuzberg—and incidentally driving his parents to despair. Then he was back in England and at Goldsmiths completing his studies. All this seemed apt: he was merely another contemporary I had lost touch with, his life to be expressed through the bare bones of his curriculum vitae, rather than felt for, or loved.
Then, in the late 1980s, there began the inexorable rise of Sherman Oaks, the artist.
From the very beginning the Oaks phenomenon caught the public’s imagination. His contemporaries may have been flashier and more pretentious—but, while they were conceptualists, at a remove from the fabrication of their works, he was an unashamedly personal actualizer, a macher, who hewed stone and wood; shaped, pummelled and spun clay; smelted and cast iron, bronze and steel. He created enduring facts on the ground—not airy abstractions of blood, meat and crumpled paper that had life only in temperature-controlled galleries. That he, a middle-class Jewish boy, should be working on such pieces alongside tough Northumbrian welders and phlegmatic West Country stonemasons made the enterprise seem that much more authentic. That Sherman was also a person of restricted height lent a greater poignancy to his monumental works, which, twice and three times life size from the outset, grew still larger as soon as he got the funding. And of course, every single piece derived from his own body.
For the masses, with their fractals of I-know-what-I-like ceaselessly yet variably replicated throughout the nineties then the noughties, this was narrative enough—but Sherman evinced a modesty that, if not exactly false, certainly didn’t ring true to me. Not for him the dialectical twaddle of theorizers, or the de haut en bas of the new Kulturkampf. Instead, when interviewed he’d cackle disarmingly, “I’m a very small man making very big things.” Then, if pressed, he’d add, “Believe me, mine is an utterly content-free art: what you see is what you get.”
I tracked his progress, first through newspaper and magazine items, then larger features, then radio and television segments. Invitations to private views arrived concurrently—at first to group exhibitions, then solo ones and eventually retrospectives. The evolution of his “content-free art” had almost amused me. More remarkable was his ability, unerringly, to produce a likeness of himself—even when it was a 64-foot-high basketry woven from steel struts. Nevertheless, I would scrutinize the pasteboards for a while, tracing the fine lettering with my own gross digit, then whirl the duff Frisbee away into the pile of waste paper in the corner of my writing room; a pile that I bagged up weekly, then deposited outside the house, so it could be carted away, pulped and turned into more invitations to private views.
I supposed we must meet again eventually—we revolved in interlinked circles of the social Olympiad—but I was in no hurry. I suspected that after the enormous success of Sherman’s Behemoth, a 128-foot-high body form set astride the Manchester Ship Canal near Runcorn, he would—no matter how small—have become too big for his boots. “Behold,” read the inscription on the plinth, “he plunders the river and does not harden.” The sculpture had at first been the occasion for local scorn, then regional and eventually metropolitan. But inevitably, when it became internationally regarded as an icon of the new and prosperous Britannia, it was appropriated as a symbol of national pride. Sherman had accepted a gong from the government.
Really, it wasn’t the outer man I feared but the inner. Whatever may be said about the indelible marks of childhood memories, mine, for the most part, were vague and unthreatening. I could recall sitting in an antique Silver Cross pram with a pillowcase full of dirty laundry as my mother pushed it up Deansway to the laundrette in East Finchley. Sometimes I thought of a promotional Esso T-shirt I had loved fiercely—its bold blue roundel the target all futurity should aim at—that I had worn until it disintegrated. And then there was my third birthday.
That morning, after breakfast, my jealous brother told me he was going to run away from home. I said I would come as well and carefully packed one of my mother’s old handbags with toy cars, but when the time came to leave he said he wasn’t interested any more, so I set off alone. I can see now the terror-annihilated face of the lorry driver as I dashed across the North Circular in front of his wheels, and also the police car pulling up at the bus stop where I was waiting with what I imagined was mature casualness. And lunging up from that car, her face mottled and cracked like a saltpan, my mother—she was only forty-four when I ran away, but I fancy the taint was already on her: green grave weeds, rotting at the edges.
The bus stop was right beside the synagogue, at the end of Norrice Lea.
* * *
About three or four years after Behemoth was installed, my brother—who knew my love for all things out of scale—gave me a 1:200 scale model of Sherman’s sculpture. The metal figurine was dubbed a “minumental” and had been made by Paul St George, an artist my brother knew. I’ve no idea whether St George is successful or not, but I thought it likely that it was his own massive sense of failure and envy that had been compressed into this, and the other teensy travesties he had made of his contemporaries’ works.
I placed the minumental Behemoth in among the little wooden blocks and cylinders modelled on London landmarks—Big Ben, the Millennium Wheel, Telecom Tower—that my daughter had bought for me at Muji, and that I had ranged about the base of the anglepoise in the middle of my desk. Attached to the lamp was a tuft of wool I had picked up from a hillside on the Shetland island of Foula—this was the off-white cloud on the horizon of the diminished capital.
The memory that preyed on me was both definite and embodied; it visited me on waking, dissolving only imperfectly to reveal the expected things—penis sputtering, kettle whistling—then reforming into Sherman’s rock-hard shoulders, the leaden disc of the garden pond, his pile-driving fist and the mouse mush.
I avoided Sherman because of my shame—and so Vamana played tricks on me. Over the years I betrayed an increasing preoccupation in my work with littleness, hugeness and all distortions of scale. Nobody gave a damn about the big stuff, but the willful insertion of dwarfish characters into my stories was . . . insensitive. Worse still were the riffs on smallness I retailed to my cronies, and the paltry anecdotes they reciprocated with. How this one had attended the Little People of America convention, where he had seen a primordial dwarf* brother and sister treated like film stars. While that one had written a play about the actors who played the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz; they had stayed at the Culver City Hotel in Los Angeles during the shooting, and it was said they slept four to a bed, with predictably “comic” antics.
Most shaming of all was the “game” I devised for my children’s amusement when they were small, “Child or Dwarf.” Driving in the car, if one of us saw an ambiguous figure walking along the pavement we would cry out “Child or dwarf?” and the others would make their guesses until we pulled past and turned to observe his or her face. What could possibly have been my motivation for this sick and derogatory form of “entertainment,” which was nothing less than laughing at someone’s misfortune? What was the difference between my behaviour and that of the Victorian showmen who had exhibited Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, or Caroline Crachami, the Sicilian Dwarf? Even those who had taken these poor folk’s bodies when they died, dissected them, rearticulated their bones, then put their skeletons on show in the Hunterian Museum had science—or at least pseudo-science—on their side, but I had nothing but the sham jocundity of those who, having much to hide, expose themselves over and over again.
What did I expect to see when the car drew level with, then passed, the small and heroic figure that stumped between the elongated legs of the shoppers who font du lèche-vitrines along the King’s Road? Had that jacket been purchased in the boys’ outfitting department of Peter Jones by a parent or the person who wore it? Was this a child, a dwarf—or Sherman, who, until I had the courage to confront him, would remain both for me?
When I eventually met up with Sherman Oaks again he was nothing but charm itself. His eldest sister, Prima, had a share in a Bond Street gallery. I’d seen her about town—she was in her fifties now, but not showing it. She’d been sending me her pasteboards for a while before she began personalizing them. Then one day she sent an invitation to an opening that was emphatic: “Please come. Sherman will definitely be there, he so wants to see you again. Please.”
I went, and stood on the fringes of the openeers, a representative sample from the Venn intersection of Taste and Money that exhibited not much of either. The works themselves weren’t too bad: they looked like enormous drinks coasters attached to the hessian walls, and bore the curved stains that had, presumably, been left there by enormous glasses. I couldn’t identify the artist, but assumed he must be at the epicentre of a particularly dense thicket of tastefulness—assumed, until trunks parted and I spied Sherman holding forth.
I had seen photographs and television pictures of the great man; still, I was shocked. Sherman had always had the large head and short limbs associated with achondroplastic dwarfism. (I defer from using the term “disproportionate”; after all, who is to say which body form represents the human mean?) As a child, on his broad face the precise nose, etched cheekbones and petaline lips he shared with his sisters had seemed a little lost—morsels on a fleshy plate. Now the blue eyes weren’t just fierce but commanding, while the cultivation of neat moustachios and a stroke of beard accented his stronger features. He had, I realized, based his look on the Vel&aacue;zquez portrait of a court dwarf, Don Sebastián de Morro. This was typically Shermanesque chutzpah, then, as he came towards me, round-housing one leg then the other, I took in the well-cut dark clothes that allowed his face to float, as if disembodied, within its aureole of white-blond hair.
He came right up to me before saying hello. Sherman had always done this: tucked his short body inside the personal space of others, so challenging us to refute the idea that it was he who was the measure of all things. We talked easily and unaffectedly, although of what exactly I have no recall. Probably there was a deal of cynicism about the drinks coasters; I do remember laughing in a full-bellied way that I hadn’t since I’d last heard his devastating wit. He drew you in, Sherman, and so drew you down. You began by bending your neck, but, as he continued rubbishing reputations and lisping shibboleths, you’d find yourself bending over, then hunching, then hunkering down, until finally you were squatting or even kneeling in front of him, mesmerized both by what he said and by his unusual intonation—a trifle old-fashioned—as he barked, “Jolly good!” or affirmed “Quite right!” about something he himself had just said.
After that initial meeting we fell readily enough into a pattern of regular contact, meeting up at a Chinese restaurant in Baker Street near his flat for long—and, on his part, bibulous—suppers. We reassumed the easy commerce of our teenage friendship, and it made me wonder if this was true for all men: that it was impossible to attain such proximity to another man, unless you had known him before the hardening of that deceptively transparent carapace: the ego.
There was more. At an experimental play we attended in a warehouse theatre—Sherman was friends with the stratospherically famous actress who was slumming in the lead—our seats were on a two-foot-high dais. When we arrived Sherman hoiked himself up on to this with no prevarication, then, when the lights came up at the end of the single act, he stood, turned to me and raised his arms. Responding involuntarily I lifted him down.
When Sherman visited our home for the first time, he descended the steep steps to the basement kitchen quite unafraid, despite our yapping snapping Jack Russell. I yanked the dog away and slapped it, but Sherman only remarked, “I’m not too fond of dogs for obvious reasons.” He charmed my wife and saw fit to ignore our youngest son—then aged six—who, having been cowering upstairs prior to Sherman’s arrival, saying he was scared of “the elf,” now tiptoed up behind him so he could compare their heights.
Grace is what my wife said Sherman possessed, and, although this was a quality I had never associated with him when we were young, I could concede it to him now. My own behaviour had by contrast been utterly graceless—was it any surprise that my children had been corrupted by my facetiousness? As I grew closer to Sherman once more, I tried to squeeze this bladder, inflated with mockery, into the smallest cavity inside of myself. The disappearing trick didn’t work.
Dreams began to plague me. In them, trampolining children shot inexorably skywards from the back gardens of suburbia. In my reverie I saw first one, then two or four, their trainers skimming past the cherry blossom. Then my perspective changed: I was out on the marshes to the east of the city, and looking back could see a purple-grey cyclone hunched over the endless rooftops, rising up into the firmament, into which were being sucked a myriad vortices, each one comprised of a myriad children.
The children of London—they were being taken up. Yet this was no Rapture, for I knew there was nothing above them but the vacuum. I had to warn someone, but I’d lost my shoe and slashed my cheese-white foot on some razor wire. Up in the heavens the hemorrhaging had begun, tens of thousands of little lungs filling up with blood.