Monday, June 29, 2009

My Trip To Neverland

By Paul Theroux

"I heard the news today, oh boy, that Michael Jackson had a heart attack – and died of cardiac arrest, at the age of 50, in Los Angeles. I am reminded of a long conversation I had with him at four o'clock one morning, and of my visit to Neverland. The visit came first, the conversation a few weeks later, on the phone.
Neverland, a toytown wilderness of carnival rides and doll houses and zoo animals and pleasure gardens, lay inside a magnificent gateway on a side road in a rural area beyond Santa Barbara. Nosing around, I saw pinned to the wall of the sentry post an array of strange faces, some of them mugshots, all of them undesirables, with names and captions such as "Believes she is married to Mr Jackson" and "Might be armed" and "Has been loitering near gate".
A road lined with life-sized bronzed statuary – skipping boys, gamboling animals – led past an artificial lake and a narrow-gauge railway to Michael's house. Neverland occupied an entire 3,000-acre valley, yet very little of it was devoted to human habitation – just the main house with its dark shingles and mullioned windows, and a three-bedroom guesthouse. The rest was given over to a railway terminus, Katharine Station, named after Jackson's mother, a formidable security headquarters, various funhouses, a cinema (with windowed bedrooms instead of balcony seats), and almost indefinable sites, one with teepees like an Indian camp.
And sprawling over many acres, the Jackson zoo of bad-tempered animals. The giraffes were understandably skittish. In another enclosure, rocking on its thick legs, was Gypsy, a moody five-ton elephant, which Elizabeth Taylor had given as a present to Michael. The elephant seemed to be afflicted with the rage of heightened musth. "Don't go anywhere near him," the keeper warned me.
In the reptile house, with its frisbee-shaped frogs and fat pythons, both a cobra and a rattlesnake had smashed their fangs against the glass of their cage trying to bite me. The llamas spat at me, as llamas do, but even in the ape sanctuary, "AJ", a big bristly, shovel-mouthed chimp, had spat in my face, and Patrick the orang-utan had tried to twist my hand. "And don't go anywhere near him, either."
In the wider part of the valley, the empty fairground rides were active – twinkling, musical – but empty: Sea Dragon, the Neverland Dodgem cars, the Neverland carrousel playing Michael's own song, Childhood ("Has anyone seen my childhood?…"). Even the lawns and flower beds were playing music; loudspeakers disguised as big, grey rocks buzzed with showtunes, filling the valley with unstoppable Muzak that drowned the chirping of wild birds. In the middle of it, a Jumbotron, its screen the size of a drive-in movie, showed a cartoon, two crazy-faced creatures quacking miserably at each other – all of this very bright in the cloudless California dusk, not a soul watching."

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