A Visit to Neverland

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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 orangutan 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.

Later that
day, I boarded a helicopter with Elizabeth Taylor – I was at
Neverland interviewing her – and flew over the valley. It says
something for Miss Taylor’s much-criticised voice that I could hear
her clearly over the helicopter noise. Girlish, imploring, piercing,
the loud yack-yack-yack of the titanium rotor blades, she clutched
her dog, a Maltese named Sugar, and screamed: "Paul, tell the
pilot to go around in a circle, so we can see the whole ranch!"

Even without
my relaying the message – even with his ears muffled by headphones
– her voice knifed through to the pilot. He lifted us high
enough into the peach-coloured sunset so that Neverland seemed even
more toy-like.

"That’s
the gazebo, where Larry [Fortensky, her seventh husband] and I tied
the knot," Elizabeth said, moving her head in an ironising
wobble. Sugar blinked through prettily-combed white bangs which
somewhat resembled Elizabeth’s own white hair. "Isn’t the railway
station darling? Over there is where Michael and I have picnics,"
and she indicated a clump of woods on a cliff. "Can we go around
one more time?"

Neverland Valley
revolved slowly beneath us, the shadows lengthening from the pinky-gold
glow slipping from the sky.

Even though
no rain had fallen for months, the acres of lawns watered by underground
sprinklers were deep green. Here and there, like toy soldiers, uniformed
security people patrolled on foot, or on golf carts; some stood
sentry duty – for Neverland was also a fortress.

Read
the rest of the article

June
29, 2009

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