31 August 2011
Our anniversary lunch wasn’t much compared to Will’s and Kate’s recent love-fest, but The Raj did a mean vindaloo. More importantly, we were happy. As Madge chatted to our usual waiter, I scanned the menu and came across ‘Warped Chicken raped with Bacon’. I couldn’t help smiling to myself. Indian restaurants and Indian menus always reminded me of my ill-fated quest to become a rupee millionaire. It seemed like a lifetime ago. For my ex-business partner Spud, it literally was a lifetime ago. It finished him off – just before he could finish me off.
Sometimes, not often, I could think of Spud and forget the anger and heartache and misery. Sometimes I could feel the tiniest pang of guilt at his squalid demise. And sometimes, like when reading the menu in The Raj, I would be reminded of a funny memory of Spud. Like the time he ordered bacon – no, it was sausages, wasn’t it? – in a vegetarian town called Pushkar.
But more often my mind was flooded with less funny memories, like the night he forced a vegetarian tailor to eat mutton curry at Ramadan, doing his best to invite an international fatwa on both of us. Yes, the bad memories dominated – the abuse, the mental torture, the drug plants and the many death threats. There was no doubt about it, I was much better off without that bald little menace.
Having pushed all the bitter memories to the back of my mind – and enjoyed a few Tiger beers – I was feeling quite content by the time I arrived home. Madge had gone to pop the kettle on and I switched on the TV. Settling in for a quiet afternoon snooze, I stretched absent-mindedly across the settee and closed my eyes.
Then the phone rang.
It was my old friend and customer, Sharon in Poole, and what she said took my breath away.
‘You’ll never guess who just walked into my shop!’ she gushed. ‘Spud!’
‘Yes, it really was him. He’s not dead at all. He’s been entertaining Her Majesty in Wandsworth for the past 12 years. He blew up the wrong house – one with a policeman in it.’
‘What did he say?’
‘Not a lot. Except that he’s heard you’re writing a book about him. And he wanted me to pass on a short one-word message.’
What follows is the full story of what Spud doesn’t want you to know...
On the Make
Spud was under his table when the Petrovs showed up. There were two of them, Ivan and Sergei, and they had come to check out my market stall. They were particularly interested in all the silk I had just brought back from India.
Ivan, the tall, dark, handsome one, was polite. He waved at his own stall, packed with the very same silk, and said: ‘I think we have a problem.’
Viktor, his short psychotic brother, was less polite. He picked up my table with one hand, tipped it over and growled, ‘If that goes back up, I’m going to petrol-bomb it!’
I had heard enough of Viktor to take him seriously. According to Spud, Viktor had already dispatched two silk competitors that morning – one by holding him against a wall and punching him repeatedly in the head.
Always one to think on my feet, I gestured over my shoulder and said, ‘Have you met my new partner? He wants to know what you have to say about silk too.’
Viktor may have been a psycho, but he knew a worse psycho when he saw one. Spud reared up from his table like a demented bulldog – wearing his best lunatic grin and a pair of wraparound reflecting sunglasses. He said nothing. He didn’t need to. He just stood there, rocking dangerously back and forth on his heels, until Viktor took a step backwards and the stand-off was broken. Ivan gingerly helped set the stall back up and a tacit agreement was reached. He would move his pitch up the road to Covent Garden, and I would stay put in St Martin-in-the-Fields.
It was a deal with the Devil, this partnership with Spud, but I had no other choice. Spud was so very good at scaring people. He was also funny, surprisingly intelligent, and full of big plans for the future.
The following morning, Spud appeared with a huge pile of scaffolding and welded our two stalls together. This was his idea of a partnership – no formal paperwork, just a brief handshake and a hastily combined double pitch. The day after that, with a much larger area to operate in, we took £500 in silk clothing alone.
The one miracle of my life before India was that I never got arrested.
Most people who knew me back then – as ‘dodgy’ Joe Kovacs – thought I must be a drug dealer. It was probably the beaten-up leather jacket, the dusty trilby hat, and the dishevelled greying beard that fooled them, along with the round Lennon spectacles and the permanently abstracted expression I wore behind them.
But I didn’t just look weird. I was weird. And with my kind of background, that was hardly surprising. I’d lost my father early, at the age of two, leaving me and my Hungarian mother on the breadline, living in one room in the poorest part of London. My mother had been forced to work all day – and all night too, darning dresses – in order to keep a roof over our heads.
I didn’t get any pocket money. I had to earn my own – first by prising up the floorboards in our house, to retrieve the gas meter shillings that had slipped through the cracks, and then by trading rare pennies with geeks in mackintoshes. Later on, shortly after entering primary school, I began sneaking into big auction houses in The Strand and bidding for collectable stamps – I used to hang around at the doors and gain entrance by grabbing old geezers’ hands and saying, ‘I want to buy some stamps, but they won’t let me cos I’m not old enough. Can I be your son for the day?’ Amused, they always took me in.
I was determined not to be poor. By the age of 7, I was making home-made fireworks and stashing the money I made from selling them on to friends up the chimney. My mother became acquainted with all the local firemen – they knew exactly where to come when some neighbourhood kid blew up a pile of dog poo or some hapless garden shed. More than one of them asked her out. With her perfect smile, her perfect figure, and her perfect pile of jet-black hair, she looked just like Jackie Onassis.
Around the age of eight, I got my first taste of market trading – cycling down to Whitechapel every Saturday morning to help an old cockney called Charlie on his second-hand book stall. Though this job didn’t last long.
‘He’s a very nice man, is Charlie,’ I told my mother, ‘and very generous too. Everyone in the market keeps giving him money, and he doesn’t keep it. He gives it to another nice man called Ronnie Kray, who says he’s there to protect them all!’
My mother promptly confiscated my bicycle.
As I entered my teens, my budding career as a pint-sized wheeler-dealer came to an abrupt end. I was packed off to a north London Jesuit school, where my mother expected me to receive the best education in the world. What I received instead – my natural exuberance crushed by grim, black-cowled priests – were daily punishments meted out with a leathered whalebone.
It was not just my stubborn resistance to male authority they disliked. It was just about everything. I asked awkward questions like ‘How many angels do dance on the head of a pin?’, I hung around with the two worst kids in the school (later expelled for flushing a holy crucifix down the toilet) and I seemed hell-bent on creating trouble (how was I to know my voice would break when they put me in the choir during the ordination of 9 priests?). I also stuck out like a sore thumb in the playground, being tall and geeky, and was the first to be picked out for any disturbance.
All this made me very devious. I would feign fainting fits, I would invent complicated alibis, I would even pretend total memory loss. It got so bad that I had a recurring nightmare that I was Pinocchio and that my nose was permanently circling the globe.
On one occasion, when things got completely out of hand, I invented Wojciech. Wojciech was my identical twin brother, and he was visiting from Hungary.
‘We know it was you who blew up that tree that fell on number 26 and destroyed the roof,’ accused a police officer, ‘we have six eye witnesses.’
‘Nem tudom,’ I replied. ‘My name Wojciech. No understand.’
‘Your name is Joseph Kovacs,’ insisted the officer. ‘And we have you bang to rights.’
‘Cusunum, thank you. My twin brother Joe, he is very bad boy. I tell him so, write him long letter. He go Budapest.’
The policeman scratched his head and left bemused.
My poor mother. Every Parent’s Day, she would troop to my school in the dwindling hope of good news, only to be sent home crying by some teacher who thought I should see a psychiatrist.
At 17, I cut a deal with her. She would write a letter to the school saying I was suffering from nervous exhaustion and in return, I would apply myself to my studies at home. It worked. Blessed with fierce concentration and a near-photographic memory, I learnt one-third of the entire syllabus in six weeks and passed my A levels with straight As.
I was lucky I got the right one-third questions!
As soon as I reached university, I dropped Catholicism and took up astrology and Steiner philosophy instead. These paths were only clues to destiny, I knew, and had no power to change it, but they were infinitely better than the world of pain and cruelty I had left behind.
And so on to my twenties, a decade I preferred to forget – dead-end jobs in insurance, sales, publishing and social work, none of them lasting more than a few months. Only when I turned thirty and found Buddhism and India did I latch onto a faith and a country that perfectly suited me. Together, they gave me the freedom and the constant inner challenge which I craved, along with a growing sense of purpose.
What I liked about Buddhism – well, the version I chose anyway – was the absence of guilt, hellfire, priests and temples. Oh, and the lack of rules and regulations. Everything was okay, apparently, as long as I respected life – my own as well as everyone else’s. And best of all, I was allowed to chant for money. One of the Buddhists in my area had a helicopter. I wanted one of those.
I also wanted that elusive thing called enlightenment. I’d tried yoga and had concussed myself falling backwards from one of its complicated positions. I’d tried transcendental meditation and had worked myself up to near-hysteria trying to free my busy mind of all thoughts.
Now, I was told, if I just chanted the title of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha’s most important teaching, I would achieve enlightenment as a matter of course – no counting of breaths, no sitting in uncomfortable poses, no boring emptying of the mind. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. What could be easier?
My mother, a hard-line Catholic, was not impressed by my new choice of religion.
‘Jesus died to redeem our sins,’ she castigated me. ‘How can you abandon him now?’
‘I haven’t got a problem with Jesus,’ I sulkily replied. ‘It’s just all those priests he keeps employing!’
My new mentor was a whole lot better than a priest. His name was Dick Causton, and he had graduated from being a colonel in the army to the leader of our small Nichiren sect in the U.K. Tall, dignified and charismatic, he reminded me of a white Morgan Freeman. He was also the first male figure in my life to gain my undivided respect.
That’s who I want to be when I’m 70 I decided This is the Buddhism for me!
Dick it was who set me on the path to India. ‘So you want to see where this great religion began?’ he encouraged me. ‘Well, go out there and be like a sponge. Soak it all up, and then, when you get back, squeeze it all out. Produce something remarkable.’
India was fun. It took me two or three trips to really pick up on that, but as I did so, I found that the childlike quality of the country – the simple curiosity, the warm-hearted openness, the sheer craziness of it – struck a chord in me. Six weeks into my first trip, around February of 1985, I had forgotten that I had ever worn a suit to work. By the time I returned in April, I had vowed never to work again. Somehow, I determined, I would be going back to India on a regular basis – and that was when I started to write.
I remembered what Dick had said, about squeezing out the sponge of my travels and producing something of value from it. I decided to write a book about the real India, a serious one about poverty, politics and religion. But the real India was far more surreal than serious. It was like a giant playground with everything – people, traffic and livestock – excitedly bouncing off each other at random. In India, I decided, one didn’t have a holiday. One had an experience.
Everything I had written before had never got past the first three chapters. I didn’t have the incentive to go any further. Now, with nothing else to look forward to, I had all the incentive in the world. It was either get paid to write about India or return to the drudgery of running an old people’s home in Clapham.
So, discarding the idea of a ‘serious’ book in favour of one based on my own personal experiences, I typed up the diary of my first trip through India and sent it off to 42 publishers and agents. Straight after that, I hopped on a plane to Japan, spending every penny I had in the world, and prayed to the main Buddhist temple there that my gamble would succeed.
I came back with the worst case of flu in my life, but the phones started ringing. The first call was from a minor publisher who wanted my book. The second was from a bigger publisher who wanted me to write a travel guide to the whole of India. It was a dream come true and though the money they offered wasn’t much – £2500 advance and 7.5% of royalties on sales – all my flights were paid for and there were lots of free hotels thrown in. Suddenly, I was doing what I’d always wanted to, travel and write, and my life – so far on hold – finally began to move forward.
From this point on, I began to lead a split existence – half the year in India, the other half in England writing about India. And each time I came home, with a bagful of notes and tapes to transcribe, I carried more of India back with me. I felt lighter, freer, more at ease with myself. India was rubbing off on me, I realised, and when I laughed now, it was not shy and restrained as before, but loud and contagious – a true reflection of what I felt about myself and about India: that both things were so wacky, so absurd, that I just had to laugh.
Four years on, and I had written guides to not just India, but half of Asia too. I was now 35, and my mother was putting pressure on me to ‘get a proper job’, since I had never had more than £400 in the bank. That was when the business thing, the market stall, happened. And it happened in the most peculiar way...