Summer drifts in with chestnut pollen on the streets and the electrics of occasional storms. The nights open themselves, and we sleep with the windows ajar, allowing the breeze to drift through our flat on the first floor. It brings the smell of smoke in on its back, occasional traffic noises, a blackbird’s evening call. A black cat pads across the balconies to visit us, pausing to look back wounded and wronged when we chase him back out the way he came. A clear night sky and the moon yellow and low over Camden. Routines lose their impetus, become languid and casual. I make my regular journey down to the south coast, never failing to be gripped by the changes in the landscape, the great silent movie of rape fields and birch forests, the isolated sycamores bursting against the horizon amongst silos and farmhouses. The teaching year ends. A day job turns to warm coals. My daughter prepares for the production her summer show, her final hurrah in the school she has attended for the last six years. We have a camping trip to anticipate, a music festival, some time back with my family; afterwards, I will spend some time with my partner in Marrakesh. The time comes to make plans for the books I’ll take with me. I always prepare my reading carefully. A crime novel for a long train journey, poetry for summer in the park. Sometimes, I like to match my reading to my destinations (Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires, Michael Ondaatje in Sri Lanka, Jeet Thayil in Mumbai); other times, the choice is more impressionistic, associative. In part, this is a manic need to relive experiences, the kind of mindset Tom McCarthy depicted in Remainder. If I read Dave Smith’s poetry outside on the grass, I will return the younger version of myself reading Dave Smith, in a photo taken by an old girlfriend. If I read John Sladek on a camping trip, I will return to the summer I spent camping around France, reading old Pan science fiction books from the Fantasy Centre on Holloway Road. Each book is a portal to another universe, but also a portal to a previous self. Read in the summer, and, somehow, you become closer to the book. Sometimes, I feel my reading life has been one long summer of reading and recapturing that sense of what I read. And what do you do when summer has gone? You shuffle in the gaps, idle and anxious, waiting for the next book, to freeze the moment you were there.
It starts in childhood, with the books read to you at night. The words are still fluid, and the dramas become quickly diluted into dreams. I remember: a rabbit running wild along a country path, a ginger cat curling up in a nest of flowers. It continues with the books loaned to you from libraries, or read while waiting in a waiting room for the dentist or the doctor, or while visiting relatives on the other side of the country. Some detail snags at your memory, all the more persistent because it’s so impossible to trace. A comic book panel with a finger pressing a button, the line ‘Jettison cargo!’ written above it jagged script. A sentient silver ball, a visitor from another planet. A friendship between two boys, one English, the other Egyptian, and their discussions of their shared Christian faith. The strong plastic smell of book wrappings, in a library with my mother, one summer afternoon.
Unless you devote your life to holding onto the past, you’re doomed to keep the memories but lose the source. Mostly, I remember an old burgundy hardback, the torn pages already smelling ancient when it came to me. It described the adventures of a group of animals living in a small cottage in the forest. It was a dense book, I think, with a peculiar kind of sadness. (When I read the stories of Bruno Schultz, I felt echoes of it). A bear made to wear a jumper of black and orange stripes, which he feels makes him look like a bumble bee. A ruined cottage at the centre of a clearing. Expeditions into the woods, to search for treasure and perform a play. One animal is embarrassed about a hole in his right ear; in a moment of unreality, it becomes clear that all the animals are toys waiting for their owner to return. I may have invented some of these details, but that’s the compelling thing about these lingering impressions: they lie directly between memory and imagination. That I associate the book with my aunt and uncle’s house outside Machynlleth only adds to the sense of evocation. The smell of wet dog and split bracken. The walls of blue slate. Piles of envelopes and rolls of spare change, from the post office counter my aunt ran from a back room.
In theory, the internet should help trace these lost stories, but some experiences remain stubbornly beyond even the most complex search strings. Sometimes, anyway, the internet is the cause of the sense of loss. Around 2002, I read a description of a novel on a message board. It followed the story of a struggling painter who begins teaching art classes in a community college in the Bowery. One of his students is a quadriplegic man, who overcomes his disability to paint with a brush in his mouth. The painter’s sense of satisfaction at guiding his student through his talent, soon turns to jealousy and bitterness when the student becomes famous, his paintings sought after, celebrated. The novelist in question had a twin brother, I remember, who may have been a writer too. I remember a black and white photo on a website: two earnest and awkward men in dark suits with shirt collars buttoned up, staring blankly out of shot in opposite directions.
For some reason, I didn’t make a note of the title of this book, or try to find a copy. I’ve tried to track it down, occasionally plugging everything I could remember into Google and coming up with… nothing. Blanks. Dead ends. Mis-directions. I wonder if I happened on some early internet hoax, a sort of a John Titor of outsider fiction. Or else, all of that was imagination, and I invented the book as a kind of ideal for the fiction I was writing at the time. When I returned to the forum, the archives had been lost, and my plea to anyone who might remember it became that most forlorn of things, an unanswered discussion thread.
After time, all that remains of any book is a set of blurred impressions: a snatch of dialogue, the colour of a description, the path of a character towards their satisfying end. Fiction fills your mind with persuasive details of things which were never meant to exist. That’s the point of it. Probably our lost books are best left where they are: timeless, curious and unreachable, forever lingering in their power.
I’d like to say that I discovered Robinson for myself, but as usual someone else had to show me the way. I seem to require jumpstarts like this to overcome the indolence, which seems to be my natural state. Alarmingly, as I grow older, I seem more in the grip of this laziness: a paralysis that is something like fear.
At the time, I was staying with a friend in Acton, after spending a few months in the Isle of Wight, recuperating from a nervous breakdown. This was 1998, the year of the Omagh bombing, Clinton’s investigation by Kenneth Starr, and my own divorce. Against this backdrop of terrorism and marital strife, in my own way I think I was suffering from a kind of pre-millennial tension, and the sense of embarrassment I feel in admitting this, can be traced in how dated that phrase now sounds.
One evening, we discussed a dream I’d had the night before. I had become very sensitive to the messages of dreams, an indulgence I have since left behind. This particular dream centred around the ruins of the old Public records Office, outside of Kew, a huge condemned building, which together we had visited the week before. As I picked my way through wrack of shattered glass and tangled metal, the graffiti livid on the walls, I became aware of another person’s footsteps, sometimes tapping behind me, sometimes ahead. Eventually, I walked through to a small room housing a number of decayed and rusting machines: the old generator room. I heard the sound of someone coughing. As I walked further, I saw the figure of a large man, in his fifties, standing against the crumbling white wall. He was dressed in a dark overcoat, his thick hair swept back from his face. He possessed a kind of erotic fleshiness, the look of some decadent Caesar. A door stood open behind him, the daylight impossibly white and harsh. I stood in front of him, half frozen. He walked towards the door.
‘I had the overwhelming impression,’ I told my friend, ‘That if I followed this man, he’d show me what life could really be like, if I lived without fear. He might destroy me, he might drive me mad, but in a way he would release me. When I awoke, I felt awfully depressed, as though I had missed a great opportunity.’
‘That reminds me,’ my friend said, standing up and walking over to a pile of books he kept on the floor. ‘I’ve been thinking that you should read Robinson.’
Published in 1993, Christopher Petit’s Robinson is a hazy portrait of a man and a city. In a more momentous decade, the character of Robinson might have been an English Gatsby; in early nineties Soho, he is a Harry Lime: fixer, control freak, puppet master. He pulls the narrator along, making him leave a domestic life behind, the two of them middle-aged Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, lighting out to stay ahead of the crack-up. With Robinson as guide, the city is a theatre for the pursuits of men: nights in porn cinemas, late licence pubs, propositions to mysterious women, fast cars, pep pills, handguns, secret assignations. There’s even time for a bout of bare-knuckle boxing. Like Ballard’s Crash, or Delillo’s White Noise, the action of Robinson is prompted by a failing marriage turning into a midlife crisis. Urban disquiet is linked to a marriage turning bad. Robinson has a trace of soured romanticism similar to that which fuels the disgusted nostalgia of Derek Raymond, say, or the yearning Anglophilia of Derek Marlowe.
The marriage is falling apart, but this is no Whatever Happen to Virginia Woolf? The narrator’s wife is a shadow puppet, a series of gestures without a voice. Again, like Ballard in ‘Crash’, whose disaffected James Ballard drifts into the company of Vaughn as his marriage breaks apart, Robinson is a skewed testimony. There is a pronounced similarity between narrator and author. The narrator is called Christo. He has worked in film. He is more or less Petit’s age; he is middle class. A quick flick to the back pages of my copy of Robinson confirms all of these details about the author: the career in film, schooled in Yorkshire, reviews for The Times. The game is offered.
I had to leave Acton quickly. I left both Robinson and my friend behind. I didn’t even think of the book again, until the winter of 2000, when I was living on Streatham Hill. An old friend had allowed me stay in his flat, while he and his girlfriend travelled in India. A few things had happened since that night in Acton. I had recently been cleared of blame in a scam to defraud a shipping company of a large quantity of Pol Roger, intended for the boom Millennium champagne market. This whole, regrettable incident arose from a drunken promise to a questionable acquaintance, and I spent a fraught six months facing up to the prospect of prison. I was a mess, I admit. I lost weight, and smoked endlessly. I had also come close to financial ruin, and I was living on credit that was slowly ticking down.
I stayed in Pullman Court, a strange, white Art Deco building which brings a decrepit elegance to Streatham Hill. There was very little to do but pick through my friend’s book collection. I came across a volume by Weldon Kees, each poem like a slim, terrifying novel. Some featured a figure called Robinson, always depicted in a series of empty postures: talking on the phone, hailing a yellow taxi, walking in the park, staring hopelessly at a wall. I remembered Robinson, Acton, and my dream. A few days later, after an evening drinking in the Prince Albert on Coldharbour Lane, I came out into hard cold rain. As I crossed the road, my eyes were drawn to the front of a second-hand bookshop, beside a small café. Robinson rang in my head. I pushed my way through the door, scanned the shelves. It didn’t take me long to find it.
The city traps stories. A street is closed by police tape. We never find out why. The unmarked police car screams through the city, weaving a narrative we will probably never discover. A tube train is suspended because of a suicide. Who’s suicide? For a while, there was a Tube rumour doing the rounds, a cousin to the old story of the phantom who pushed people onto the rails. It was this: that most suicides were invented by station staff as an expedient way of covering up other delays, an easy get out. Failures of administration, institution, infrastructure become clouded by acts of personal tragedy, almost like sacrifices. And who checks up on these suicides? It’s a safe get out. Hands in the air, but no apologies. ‘There is nothing I can do. Somebody died.’
I read Robinson in that borrowed flat in Pullman Court, as a dreary spring turned slowly into a humid summer. The book haunted me. Not only did the fictional Robinson remind me of the man I had experienced in that dream all those years ago, the physical properties of the book were curious, unsettling. It was in fairly good condition for a second-hand paperback (spine intact, pages not bent, no embarrassing markings on the script) but it had been treated rather carelessly. Towards the centre of the book, a large black scuffmark had smeared the edges of a number of the pages. It occurred to me that it was the kind of mark might have been left had the book been kicked by polished shoes, or sent careening onto tarmac from a moving car. I found it significant that where this mark appeared, a paragraph described the narrator’s driving habits.
The cover had been irredeemably bent out of shape, mangled by another reader’s handling. I simply couldn’t hold Robinson the way I would normally hold a book. I began to feel that the previous reader had possessed me, giving me his posture, his habits. My hands began to ache, a pain that would wake me in the night. I took doses of strong painkillers to keep this ache at bay. Eventually, I began to enjoy the warm glow of codeine as a way of upsetting my lonely routine.
The inscription to the book was the most unsettling feature of all, written on the title page, a long, fluid, arrogant hand, an ink pen, not a biro.
“To C, All the best. R.”
According to Petit, Robinson began as a history of Soho, but fact mutated into fiction. All London histories are doomed. The city spreads outwards, leaking into Plumstead, Gravesend, Hertford. The official versions of these places become London stories. Any history requires an overview, the greater picture, but where do you stand to get the perspective? The city takes the watcher over, the flâneur of Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin is jostled by passers-by.
Disappear in they city and you become the white of the map legend. Take Weldon Kees, another writer of Robinson. Kees –poet, painter, jazz musician and film maker— wrote of his Robinson as vacuous and empty, terrified and terrifying: an urban ghost. The end of Kees’s own story is well known: his car was found abandoned by Brooklyn Bridge (in homage to Hart Crane?) and he was never found. Stories were imposed upon Kees’s silence: he had committed suicide, he had run away to Mexico. None were true. He had simply disappeared.
Of course, I became convinced that the book had once belonged to Robinson. I made investigations at the bookshop on Coldharbour Lane. The bookshop owner could offer no clues. The novel had been part of a job lot, bought at auction. I left, disappointed, walking out onto Coldharbour Lane. A man sat hunched on the floor by the entrance to the market, bleeding, crying. I passed him by and did not look down.
Things began to happen at Pullman Court. A film crew set up by the old swimming pool in the courtyard, filming a woman dressed as Marilyn Monroe entering the front door opposite me: the same scene repeated over and over, an insane director searching for the impossible take. I narrowly avoided death when the old, lattice-gate lift lurched suddenly as I went to step inside. One night, I returned late, to hear a commotion in the main entrance, in the room where, when the building was first opened, there was once a bar. There were loud masculine voices, dogs barking, shrill gasps that bordered upon screams of pain. The next day, when I mentioned this to one of the security guards, he stared at me coldly until I walked away.
I soon fled Pullman Court. For a few days a campaign had been brewing against me. Notes were pushed under the door of the flat, and the head of the estate came to visit me. I stole a car, sobbing at my own reflection in the rear view mirror, as I hit the South Circular. That night I slept in a layby outside the hospital in Tooting, drinking myself to sleep with a bottle of Plymouth gin, scrawling into a notebook. Grey foxes teemed through the early morning. It felt like the city belonged to them, that we had stolen the land.
London weather is a season of its own, the grey tropics. In this environment, connections are made in anonymity and with every person encountered, there is a chance to assume a new identity. The narrator encounters Robinson and remembers him from a night in The Angel pub. There is almost a element of sexual jealousy about the narrator’s memory of this encounter: Robinson overbearing in a white jacket picking at bits from an acquaintance’s suit. These initial stages of their relationship are reminiscent of Poe and The Man of The Crowd, (itself a response to Baudelaire) a portrait of the nefarious wanderer of the city, powerful, irresistible. In Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, the narrator drifts around the world, controlled by the whims of authority and chance. At various stages, he encounters a character called Robinson, who always manages to remain one step ahead. A Flanders battlefield, the heart of Africa, Manhattan, provincial France: the globe is traversed, but the journey has only been the accidental pursuit of one man.
I became more desperate. I was sleeping in my car, refreshing myself in public baths and cheap cafes. Sometimes, I was scared that the city was swamping me, turning me into a piece of urban flotsam struggling to stay afloat. And old friend of mine had been slowly building a career for himself in the film industry. I heard that he’d returned from Los Angeles for a visit, and getting in touch, I arranged a hasty meeting in Soho. In a glass-fronted bar, decorated with tangerine sofas and silk screen prints of Japanese flowers, we talked about his career. I remarked how healthy he was looking, with his icy American smile and glowing tan. He refused to return the compliment, saying only, “It’s good to see you. It’s been too long.”
I had, over the previous few weeks, decided upon a way out of my situation. I would write a film script based on Robinson, sell it through my friend in Hollywood, and make enough money to pay off my debts and establish some grounding in the city. As we drank our way through overpriced, badly-mixed cocktails I pitched the film, producing the obligatory treatment, which I had written the night before. While my friend maintained the weary ambivalence of his profession, he seemed intrigued. I left the bar that night exuberant and cocky, strutting through the streets of media Soho as though very soon I would belong.
A few weeks later, my friend called me from Hollywood. It seemed that my proposal was starting to attract notice. A young British theatre director, looking for the ideal film to launch himself in Hollywood, had expressed an interest in the Robinson project. He’d suggested casting Kevin Spacey and Robin Williams, the latter taking the part of Robinson.
I started writing the script, working in my car. I idealised this somewhat, telling myself that I was continuing the traditions of car-bound writers, of Paul Schrader writing Taxi Driver, and Ted Hughes in Yorkshire. I drove around London, mapping the significant places listed in Robinson, Kilburn and Soho, Paddington and the Westway. I mixed these journeys in with places from my personal London, the London of Brixton and Streatham, Acton and Dalston, of Greenwich, Highbury and Tottenham. I toured the city through the changes of late spring, one hand on the wheel, the other on scrawling notes down on a A4 pad splashed across my lap, like Edward Dorn’s driving poems on Highway 101.
My driving was superb, but I was drinking heavily, and I couldn’t finish the script. The character of Robinson acted like black hole on my attempts to follow the three-act structure, sucking in themes and plot and resolution. A few days later, I heard from my Hollywood connection. Robin Williams had pulled out of the project. The young director had returned to England, vowing never to return. My friend sounded bitter and exhausted by the deal. ‘The whole project has just got out of hand. It was cursed from the very beginning. Robin’s very angry. A number of people have been damaged by it, me included.’ He let this sentence hang, a tacit accusation. I hung up the phone.
I took to calling the book’s author, reaching only his answering machine. His voice possessed an icy intelligence, reminiscent of espionage and betrayal. I started to leave messages on his machine, reportages on the run. “I’ve seen him,” I would say. “He’s coming after me. He’s buying extremist videos from a dealer on Blackstock Road. It’s midday. Men are lingering outside the cafes. The pavements are slick with the grease from the Halal butchers. Yesterday, while walking this street, I saw that someone had placed a sheep’s head on the railings at the front of a house. A practical joke or a warning?”
The author never replied.
After Robinson’s faked death and reappearance, the novel discloses a story of voyeurism, obscenity and power. It involves filmmaking, the perfect medium for all three. Robinson re-invents himself as a filmmaker, shooting porn in an abandoned factory in Soho. A major project is embarked upon, with everyone bending to the excesses of Robinson’s personal vision. There is a plot going on behind the I, but what is it? Robinson’s film lurches from set piece to set piece, with no cohesion, no story. Given that its business is the visible, the known, the film industry is a cagey, introverted place. Everyone has their personal vision. Everyone protects their Big Idea.
The film industry is spilling out onto the streets. Everyone has a screenplay, everyone has cocaine. How many home movies do you walk through in this exposed city, how many comedians or performance artists have got you on tape? Don’t look at the camera, that’s what all amateur actors are told, but its hard to look at the camera when you don’t know you’re being filmed. Anyway, why employ straight men, when passers-by can fill the role? Late night TV circulates images of criminals caught on tape, the rogue drivers on the roundabout, the children jumping on car roofs. Would they do it if the cameras weren’t present? Start filming and you invite people to transgress. It is an invitation to become: an opportunity to testify. The film rolls, although the plot of the film remains beyond our grasp. All of us are cracked actors, anxious for the shout of ‘Cut.’
It was the summer of 2001. I had spent six months sleeping rough in the car. One night I was woken by a storm. As I sat awake watching the city drown, I realised that the key to my release lay in that dream I’d had about the ruins of the Public Records office, a three year old figment of my unconscious mind which for all this time I had ignored. I had spent the night in Southgate near the station for the Piccadilly line, the Art Nouveau structure like a fallen Fifties UFO. I bathed in the swimming baths and ate breakfast in a café opposite the tube station. It was a clear day.
As I drove down to the ruins of the Public Record Office, I felt a strange calm descend on me. I tuned in the radio, singing along as I trekked across the city, waved through by white van drivers and taxis, the traffic strangely obsequious. I drove across Hammersmith Bridge, remembering the days I would walk with my wife along the riverbank, pausing to drink in any one of the pubs that stood around here, pleasant afternoons during which we approximated warmth, like actors feeling their way into a part. The Thames was high and tidal. I thought of death by drowning, a death that was faked, a life that was forged.
I parked the car in Kew, next to the green. The day was clear and bright. The previous night’s rain had cut through the atmosphere. I was confident of an end. The jets acquiesced on their way to touch down in Heathrow: slim lazy fish in the sky’s aquarium. There was something so steadfast about Kew in the summer, so pure and inviolable, you can’t see it ever decaying because it has never really been alive. Somehow, this comforted me.
The tennis courts were empty. The river path was dangerously wet after the storm of the previous night. I made my way carefully, sometimes forced in amongst the trees by the mud. Not far from the ruined building, two people on the opposite riverbank caught my eye. I stopped to watch them as they approached each other, taking a seat on a fallen tree trunk, blown over in the storm of the previous night. Their appearance did not surprise me. One was a woman who looked like my ex-wife. She walked towards a man who resembled the figure from my dream. My Robinson. For a moment, I was faced with the people who I had come to regard as the twin conspirators of my life. It seemed inevitable somehow. As I sat watching them, the Thames flowed thickly in front of me like some kind of metal. I felt quite calm.
They passed each other without acknowledging one another. I glanced between them as they walked on their respective paths, until they finally passed out of sight.
After that day, I decided to disappear.
A longer version of this story appeared in Subtle Edens: The Elastic Book of Slipstream, around ten years ago. It’s surprising how little I had to invent. It was a question of embellishing the facts, or distorting them slightly.
‘The same people who are murdered slowly in the mechanized slaughterhouses of work are also arguing, singing, drinking, dancing, making love, taking to the streets, picking up weapons and inventing a new poetry.’
Over the past few years, during the months of late summer, I walk through the campus of a London university, on the way to work. Students gather around stalls from multinational firms- KPMG, Goldman Sachs, Glaxo-Smith Kline- snaring carrier bags of logo-ed mouse mats, coffee cups, and promotional material, accepting the skin bargain.
My first job after finishing university was packing radiator covers in a factory on the outskirts of Telford. While the other workers played football during their lunch breaks, I stayed by a desk in the corner and read The Alexandria Quartet, making notes in the red diary I carried around with me at that time. From then on, I was stuck in the pattern of minor jobs. A bookshop (of course). Kitchen work in restaurants. Selling bathrooms by telephone (I lasted one afternoon at that one). Potting plants in a nursery. Working as a hospital porter, a wine-merchant, for a small charity. Deleting a whole library of books, which I satirized in a short story, which gave rise to the name of this blog. Temporary contracts across London. And inevitably into office work: a desk, a phone, a computer. The way we work now.
Yes, I teach the odd creative class, but I’m mainly entrenched in what anarchists call ‘bullshit jobs’. To quote David Graeber, ‘Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul.’ I’ve had a soft spot for anarchists ever since reading Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life, and enjoying its sense of utopian confrontation. It occurred to me at the time, that a form of anarchism (think of Thoreau, Tolstoy, Stewart Home) should be a true writer’s default political position. Obviously, it only works if you have no contact with other anarchists.
It’s arguable that any work which doesn’t save lives is bullshit. The anarchists have a point. But as much as these jobs defeat us, they give us something to work against. Meaningless work, the hypnotism of routine, the vacuity of the grind: it at least conditions you to the essential uselessness of writing. If you’re going to choose to spend your life in this way, it’s best to consider the void. Once upon a time, I was the kind of person you might imagine blithely name-checking Rimbaud or Kerouac. These days, I cling to the examples of Wallace Stevens and Franz Kafka, (or when times are really bad, Emily Dickinson). It’s probably a healthy sign to imagine wanting to meet your younger self and punch him swiftly in the face. Clearly, I’d be lying if I said that work hasn’t been like a toad squatting on my life. If you don’t benefit from the market, and you don’t have a university lectureship, you have to write with one eye on either of those two choices to save you from the ugly fact of work. And yet… Something about writing around a job appeals to me. Maybe this is because I’ve always thought of good writing as operating between the market and the academy, a third, no doubt illusory place beyond sales and research. Probably, I’m a fantasist. But the idea of the professional writer is a comparatively late, (and brief) development, and rather than being the dalliances of the occasional hobbyist, it occurs to me that writing should be part of a double identity. I’ve always been suspicious of the public writer, anyway. There’s something perpetually interesting about the ideal of quiet obscurity.
Alan Warner once wrote that nothing gives you better material for writing than working in shit jobs. Henry Green became managing director of his family firm in Birmingham, until losing himself to drink and the Ottoman Empire. R. F. Langley worked as a teacher, Iain Sinclair as a gardener, Roberto Bolano as a nightwatchman. American writing has (or once had) more of a tradition of working writers. Sinclair Lewis wrote on his daily train. Charles Bukowski worked for over ten years in the post office, and did it without going on a killing spree. James Sallis worked in hospitals. Like Henry Green, the poet William Bronk turned his back on academia and went to work for the family firm. Lorine Niedecker scrubbed floors and became a librarian. Inevitably, we will have to consider Raymond Carver. I always felt that a certain degree of prodigality was essential to any writer, or, at least, any writer with a decent story to tell. And what better measure of prodigality is there than to waste time in the day job?
When I lived in Brixton in the late nineties, a friend of mine had a flat off Coldharbour Lane. The first time I visited, he showed me the view from his back window. It looked over the garden of the downstairs flat, little more than a paved-over space, occupied by a single deck chair. I asked him about his neighbour. ‘I don’t know. Magnus… He’s written a novel, or something.’ He lived above Magnus Mills. Famously, Mills worked as a bus driver while writing his first novel The Restraint of Beasts, a book about casual work. I heard recently that Mills had returned to driving buses after giving it up to pursue the writing career. I see this less an admission of defeat about the writing life, and more about what moves some writers to start in the first place. Those days when I was free to write, I hardly committed to anything worthwhile. Something about fitting the writing around a job which doesn’t quite suit, honouring the larger vocation, scraping together material, reading, drifting, letting things go: all of that turned me into a writer, for better or worse. Only when I worked, did I realise what I’d lost. My writing became charged with that purest, if hopeless, objective: to claw back all the lost time.
‘Let’s play Ask for a job.
What can you do?
I can hammer and saw
and feed a dog.
You’ll do! Take this slip
to the department of song.’
‘Trieste, new city
That preserves a boyish adolescence.’
In July last year, around the time of my birthday, I visited Trieste with my daughter and my partner. It was the first real holiday we had taken together: a strange experience for us all, I think. Two halves of my life had been joined. A crossover had been made.
Once the main port for the Austro-Hungarian empire, Trieste stands at the northernmost part of Italy. History has left it blurred and equivocal, a passing through point, a nexus. I feel like I’ve drifted through places like this all of my life. Born in Shropshire, a border county, I’ve never really shaken off my Welsh roots, and I seem to dwell on the liminal whenever I set out into the world. Boulder, Berlin, London, Argentina, Sri Lanka, all of them have, in one way or another, proved to me that all places are simultaneously other places, knots through which the world passes. Our experiences of them as some kind of total and discrete entities is one of those flawed assumptions of travel. Like the idea that it allows you to escape.
‘For all its traditional sobriety Trieste is a hallucinatory city, where fantasy easily brushes fact…’ Every city should have a record like Jan Morris’s Trieste And The Meaning of Nowhere. Personal, reflective, historical, digressive, its cast of characters might belong to a fabulous historical novel. Thomas Mann writing part of Buddenbrooks in the Hotel de la Ville. James Joyce creeping out to brothels, and memorizing dialects in the port. Morris herself, balancing Trieste’s equivocal character with her own gender identity. Ivan Bunin, Adolf Eichmann, Lord Lucan: the characters step in and out of Morris’s lovingly realised sense of the city’s confluences, the grandeur of its imperial history, and the tragedy of the fate of its Jewish community. For all of that, it is a personal book, almost like the description of a love affair. When Morris invokes the idea of hiraeth, you understand that Trieste represents a place beyond bricks and roads: it’s an ideal of personal significance, nebulous as a memory.
‘It is not, mind you, a city for pedants: the shop you want has probably adjourned for the holidays, the museum is temporarily closed for refurbishing, you’ve missed the last bus owing to schedule changes… But for the drifter it is just right.’
Every city deserves a drifting history and every city demands a poet. The poet of Trieste is Umberto Saba. Born Umberto Poli in 1883, his nom de plume either derives from a homage to his Jewish mother, or the name of his childhood nanny. He ran a book store in Trieste, and wrote poems dedicated to the strutting new city he saw grow up around him. He doesn’t quite manage to be the Cavafy of Trieste, but no matter. There’s an essential sadness to Saba’s work, a feeling of missed opportunities, of a life lived in the aftermath of a missed direction, the ship that left one night without you aboard, the train that stopped too long. (He descended into opium addiction in his final years, after being prescribed the drug for his depression). All poets remain drifters, even when they remain in the same city. That lack of a plan, that chancing in hope: it’s part of a poet’s make up. ‘Poets don’t drive…’ according to Martin Amis. It’s because they are staring out at the landscape through the window, letting others get along with navigating junctions, street signs and roundabouts, the fussy business of staying alive. They look for an image in the trees, listen for a rhyme in the engine’s thrum, their mother’s name, a childhood nanny. All poets remain children, drifting without a plan.
According to Morris, ‘Melancholy is Trieste’s chief rapture.’ Overall, I will remember my stay there for its happy moments. Playing cards outside the Revoltella, while drinking Aperol spritz. Diving from boardwalk in the public Lido. Drinking coffee in the Caffe San Marco. A few poems written in a high apartment over the avenue. That feeling that my life didn’t always have to be the charged field between two poles. Still, the week wasn’t without its sadness. On my birthday, after lunch in the city, all three of us walked back through the afternoon sun, crossing Piazza Unità d’Italia. A jazz band played on a stage; jugglers, drag artists and street performers occupied the streets. Back in the apartment, my daughter slept in her room, while my partner went for a walk down in the avenue beneath us. In the stuffy double room, I lay down on the bed, and dreamed a fitful dream about a pale city under hot sun, a cry shrieking through the haze of a day. When I woke up and checked the news on my phone, I discovered that Lee Harwood had died.
‘Trieste has a rude
Charm. If you like it,
It’s like a tough and greedy kid’
After Frankie died, his shack in the woods became a sort of shrine. People travelled from all over the country to visit this place in the mountains to the south of our country, where he’d seen out the last of his days. Students and children camped outside on the grass, sleeping under light blankets, eating yellow broth cooked up in a pot over a fire. People read excerpts from Frankie’s work. A local band played.
I didn’t attend the funeral. I watched these pictures on the TV in the barracks. I knew that Frankie would not have approved of the scene. But things had already overtaken him, the way they had overtaken us all. The war continued. Border incursions occurred every day. We were strained and tired and preparing for defeat. We did not need Frankie to die.
* * *
Coming over with the night train and what else is there to say? Moonlight and gin is the recipe. None of us have the time. Starlings and eagles happen. Dream is the key. The line of traffic in the rural road, the faded adverts on the service station, (no cola these days, little petrol) the lost shoes and bird wings taken by the hawk. An arrow flies forever. Morning. This is spring.
ah death 18 March 2010
* * *
I heard about Frankie’s death from Margaret, a message sent to my mail account. Those days, I was difficult to track down. As I rode the slow train through the mountains, the blue and purple rock hanging above me, the sides of the valley below the rails littered with weeds and scree, I thought about how I had been consciously delaying my grief. Times are too fraught, I told myself. It seemed to me that grief was the one remaining decadence of these days. It was almost a treason. Two days before Frankie died, for example, I lost one of my squad out on patrol. He was a seventeen year old boy. No one grieved. We moved on. We left his body behind on the raid. If we’d had the time, we might have got drunk and said a few prayers for him. But there was not time. The barracks was attacked the following morning. This time, we lost five more men.
* * *
Chill factor and sun index. Bleak. The romance of brown leaves and acorns. The earth is dug. All the old slogans dictate that the night is filled with badgers and angry criminals. Who leaves out the milk? Again the night train. The distant horn and my heart is sad. Oh camphor and woodsmoke. Oh stars.
Nostalgia for the old futures. Silver discs and suits. Men staring through screens at a strange planet. But however alien, this is always our world. “We can learn something from them, Captain, even though their skin is green.”
Race. Any idiot can run but only a genius can catch. Do you follow?
ah death 13 October 2012
* * *
The journey took me three days in all, and three days of lonely travel is a long time indeed. I slept often, taking care to refresh myself after a hard few months on the front line. Usually, I would stare out of the window, at the flatlands before the north country, the bare reclaimed lands, marked by ditches. That there were still figures in this landscape, rural people tending to the land in the old ways: this I felt was a small victory. In small pockets like this, ordinary life could still go on.
The chronology sometimes seems insane. Five years ago, our parents died in one of the first city raids. We –Margaret, Frankie and I— fled to the mountains. Two years later, I joined my first shotgun squad. A month later, Frankie was diagnosed with the disease. Margaret wrote to me, telling me the news. A few months later, Frankie wrote his first postings. It’s incredible to think how quickly their popularity grew. Quite soon, it seemed everyone in the country was logging onto Frankie’s site and reading his journal. Sometimes it felt that no one could get through the day without him. I was no different. But I turned to him, not as a brother, but in the same way as everyone else, for comfort, insight, wisdom. I would always call my brother by his family name, even though to the whole world he was known by his pseudonym, but I suppose Frankie was lost to me from that moment on.
* * *
Jesus it rains! Womb days. Wet heat of sex and the body dissolve. All day with lungs close to my ribs. Oxygen like a liquid we pour down our throats. But then: the thunder of the mountain, the release. Lightening chasing across the sky. Sheet music from the humid days. Sweet electricity in the air. It raises the hairs on my arms. It brings me around.
A girl from the village. Out here, playing with friends. She stands under the rain, her arms outstretched. She is the world balance. She is the scales. She holds us all. And when we fall, where do we end? An emptiness, a void.
I don’t like to think about it.
ah death 5 August 2013
* * *
Margaret was waiting for me at the station. I saw her as I stepped from my carriage. She looked thinner, and her brown hair had faded a little, turning to grey. All of us are a little less distinct, these days. We are all fading away.
We embraced each other gently. “How did you know I’d be here,” I asked. I had wanted to surprise her.
“The barracks told me when you left. I’ve been meeting the daily trains for the past couple of days.”
“It’s good to see you.”
“It’s good to see you. You look pale. Strong but pale.” She put her fingers to my face. “Your skin. You don’t look like you’ve seen the sun in years.”
We walked out to the front of the station. “Let’s not go to the house,” Margaret said. “People have gathered there. They say that they want to see everywhere he lived. They might bother you.”
“Is it still that bad?”
“Bad is the wrong word. These people are genuinely grieving. A woman I met yesterday, she could hardly speak.”
“Don’t you think this is a little hysterical?
She shook her head. “Do you?”
I didn’t answer. I knew that she was right. I couldn’t judge the way these people felt. I was numb, wrecked, shaken by war. That I was aware of this did not alter the effects. That I was aware of this could not make me feel.
* * *
Cough, cough, cough and that’s all that matters. The intense perfume of summer leaves us dizzy. The dripping flowers, the white. I forgot. Mood. The pains in my chest. Blood today. Serum and painkillers. The tongue grizzling itself. Lap me clean.
Starwhiteworld sudden on the window. The sun blanks us out.
The indefinable traces of a laser on your skin. Who’s target are you today? This is the meeting we fear. The intrusion of the unseen eye on the side of your face. That light connects you. Brother and father and mother and sister. The tribe and pack. We all have ghosts to catch.
What did we miss? Nothing. What will we miss? Everything.
Chants and parataxis. A taxi to the mountains. A mounts to be debited. Hitching a ride.
ah death 5 September 2013
* * *
Margaret and I walked towards the woods, taking streets through the town which I had almost forgotten. A row of single story wooden houses. A local store, painted yellow. Any instinct for the hidden alleys and routes of this place that was once my home had been replaced by a knowledge of the geometry of trenches near the border, the foxholes and pits of a battlefield. I found myself having to take Margaret’s lead.
Eventually, we stopped by a bench at the foot of Frankie’s hill. We sat down and looked over the town. It was so placid, so quiet and ordinary, I found it difficult to equate this as the same country as the frontline. The blue slate of the roofs seemed impossibly colourful.
We talked for a while. I asked Margaret if she had met another man. Her lover was killed a year before, on the frontline to the south. She told me that she hadn’t found the time. She had other commitments. She was teaching in the school. Frankie had needed her help. These were excuses, could tell. It would be the story of Margaret’s life to help other people and, in this way, ignore the help she needed for herself. I saw it without sadness, only resignation.
Margaret said, “He had been dying for so long, we all thought he’d never die. That’s right, isn’t it? I mean, it wasn’t just me who felt that way.”
“No,” I said. “It wasn’t only you.”
“And now that he has died,” she started to say, but broke off. “No. I can’t carry that on. It’s wrong.”
“I know what you were going to say. You were going to say that now that he’s died, our fight will die. Now that his struggle is over, we won’t have the strength for victory.”
She didn’t answer. She looked up at the woods. In the distance, a ribbon of smoke was rising from the clearing.
“I think everyone feels that way,” I went on. “And they are probably right.”
She looked back at me. “You mustn’t talk like that.”
“Why not? It’s the truth. The fighting gets worse every day. Our losses . . . we can’t carry on. I know. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. The generals are worried.”
Margaret turned away. “I don’t want to hear you talking like that,” she said. “I don’t think its right.”
“I’ve lost one brother. And the chances are I will lose you too. I am aware of that. I know you are too. You have the resignation in your eyes. It scares me.”
“It’s a fact of life at the front,” I said. I wanted to tell her about the friends I had lost. I wanted to tell of the deaths I had seen. I wanted to tell her what it was like to kill.
“All that time, I never saw that look of resignation in Frankie’s eyes. And when you die, it will be from a grenade or a shotgun shell. It will be quick, I think. It will not take years.”
“I can hope for a quick death, it’s true.” I said. I was struck how little the words meant to me. “But there are ways that it would be drawn out. Prisoners are taken. We can only imagine what happens to them.”
“I am not asking you to compete. But I have already lost one brother. I might lose a second. But what I cannot stand is that both brothers be lost from each other.”
Margaret stood up from the bench, she huddled into her cardigan, although I felt no chill in the air. “I’m going to head back home. Come around later. I’ll cook you a meal. You can stay over. When do you have to go back?”
“I’ll leave the day after tomorrow. They can’t be without me for too long.”
“I’m sure,” she said. She walked away. I watched her leave.
* * *
“Aaaargh that we must leave! Damn skullstones and ribcrack. The ache in the blood. The curse in the cracked helix. Hello criminal, I believe you said it’s dark. I’ll bring the light the fire the lightening peace of mind. If its quick we hunt, if its slow we’re haunted. It is not the bee that hovers. It is not the leaf that falls. It is not the stone that shatters. It is not the water in the ditch. It is not the broken pyramid. It is not the bullet. It is not Mars. It is not the space station. It is not God. It is not the enemy. It’s fear.
ah death 25 May 2014
* * *
I walked through the woods to the clearing. The pine trees stood uncannily still. I felt that any movement they would stir into life. I could see the smoke rising amongst them. I remembered how we would walk here, Frankie, Margaret and I. Later, when Frankie’s illness was confirmed, he chose to move up to this shack, even though it delayed his treatment. Although he was already resigned to being beaten by the disease, he expressed no fear. I remember something he’d written once, in a letter to me, not one of his postings. “This is part of me, this illness. Like the curve of my jaw or the length of my arm. It is genetic. What can I do? We live together and die together.”
I broke through the trees into the clearing. The shack stood at the highest point, the yellow varnished wood speckled green with moss. The camp was how I had seen it on television, a mess of people lying on the grass, canvas tents pitched in circles, people cooking food over fires. People were reading portable computers with their backs to the trees; reading Frankie’s site, I didn’t doubt. It was chaotic but there was a sense of peace too, an order. It was something like reverence.
A few people turned to watch me as I walked to the shack. I ignored them, until an older man moved towards me, breaking off a conversation with a couple of children. He wore a scruffy panama hat turned up at the edges, his grey hair tied back in a ponytail.
“You’re the brother, aren’t you?”
I nodded. He put out his hand. “Jacob,” he said. “We’ve been here since the day of the funeral. I read the last posting on the site and I drove up from the West, with my grandson.”
“That’s good,” I said, although I really didn’t know what to say. “Thanks.”
“It’s nothing. It’s an honour.” He stood, staring at me with his eyes of a faded blue that was almost grey. He wouldn’t let me leave, and spoke for a while about his journey to the mountain, the sights and smells of this area of the country, how they experienced everything as Frankie had described it. “It was something I thought we’d lost,” he said. “With the war. Something we are in danger of losing, still. But he kept it alive. He kept all of us alive, in a way.”
“That is what everyone says,” I replied. “That is why these people are here.”
“I wanted to ask you,” he said. “What was it like growing up with him. I . . . I mean all of us. We’re fascinated with any stories you have to tell. I’m writing them down. People’s experiences of him while he was alive. I think its important. My grandson is very young. He might forget this experience.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know what to say. He was my brother. We did things that brothers do.”
“Anything would help,” the old man went on. He stared at me, his mouth open slightly. His lips were very wet.
“I don’t know. I just came here to see the shack again . . .”
He winced and his hand went to his forehead. “Of course. Of course. We’ll talk later. I don’t want to intrude. Go and see the shack. I’ll be here.”
He walked away from me, turning to glance back at me as he went, and returned to the children. I walked into the shack.
Everything was as I remembered it: the low campbed pushed up underneath the far wall, the wood burner in the centre of the room, the small wooden desk underneath the window, the computer hooked up to the network. A shelf with books stacked on top of each other. Maps on the wall: a large relief map of our country and an atlas. A painting by Margaret, of the woods at night. Family photos: Margaret and I, standing together, my arm around her shoulder. Our parents on their wedding day. A knife which belonged to my father. An old blue globe, made of tin. I realised that these possessions, which Frankie had imbued with some private meaning, would become relics for those people outside. I knew it was inevitable. The familiar smell of the cabin came to me, a mixture of damp and wood and the smoke from the wood burner. I had imagined this smell many times since I had been away, and it had always given me comfort. It did not give me comfort now. It stank of death, the death of a stranger.
I left the shack. I walked back through the camp. The old man moved towards me again, but I cut him off as he approached. “I’m going home,” I said. “I won’t be staying.”
* * *
“Breath pains. Wake to fatigue. The release. White sun. A music of trees. Birds I don’t name. Over my years in this high outpost, I have collected personal trophies from these woods. Today I will discard them. An eye on a feather creeps me. A rough cube of anthracite and a cut of jarrah. The spiked skull of a chestnut. The husk of a flower. All the juice has gone. The great relax. Relapse. Real translation. Pain in my wrists. Painkiller memories. The kill that pains.
Strange bliss to this day. The sudden shape of a crow. The whole world shadowed by the shape of a crow.”
ah death 5 April 2015
* * *
Evening was falling. The sun was red in the horizon. As I walked back through the pine forest, my previous feeling was intensified. The trees seemed sentient things, watchful, malignant. I didn’t know whether the ghosts of my past were haunting me, or whether my soldier’s instincts were playing tricks. Every tree seemed to be prepared to turn against me. The sky was a gun sight, ready to fire. I have never been at home in this part of the country.
As I walked back down to the town, I thought about the old man Jacob, writing the history of Frankie’s life. I wondered what stories he would tell, what details he would decided would be the most revealing. The time Frankie had climbed the tree in our garden and found himself stuck. The time he found a neighbour’s cat lying dead on the road, and brought it to their kitchen while they were eating. The way he would walk into the room while our parents argued and would not leave. I thought of myself and Margaret, and how we would feature in this history. I thought about the war, to which I would soon return, a war which I knew would claim me. But because of the old man, I would survive this war. By the very fact of the story of his life, Frankie would save me.
I remember staying in the shack, sleeping on the floor, although Frankie offered me his bed. We talked long into the night, laughing over old jokes, old games. The next morning, I woke to see him at his desk. He seemed drawn, very pale. The window glowed behind him. I saw that snow had fallen during the night. We drank tea and sat together at the table, looking out at this magnificent absence behind glass.
And later, when we walked outside, we saw that it was a perfect snowfall, not even animal prints breaking its surface, a low lying cloud obscuring the trees. It was as though everything had vanished, everything had been wiped away. We walked out and broke the whiteness with our steps, stumbling out into the emptiness like we were the very first people alive. It was our world. We had to create it. It was up to us to shape and name, to start everything again.
Note: A short story from around 2002, though some parts date from much earlier. I had an interest in mixing genres at the time, which proved to be something of a blind alley. Elements of the John Titor story mix in with my impressions of early blogging. That all sounds rather dated now. Part of me wonders why I’m preserving it – it hardly represents my current writing – but it seems to fit this space, somehow. I’ll probably write about genre soon, anyway.
It’s taken me a while to get to writing about Tom Raworth’s death, partly because life doesn’t always allow room for the losses which affect us, partly because such things always take me a little time to get right.
I met Tom Raworth in the mid-nineties. He will always feature on the short list of writers I admire who I’ve actually met, and he’s on the even shorter list of those I actually liked. I first saw him read at a poetry reading at UEA, where I was an undergraduate, studying American and English Literature. The reading took place in one of the teaching rooms on the ground floor of the library. After the reading, we all headed to the student bar. I remember it being a bright, warm evening in late summer. We stood outside drinking beer on the concrete pavilion, Tom wearing a white striped jacket and a straw hat. We smoked roll ups together and talked about poetry: about Robert Creeley, Edward Dorn, poets who were names to me, but friends to him. The one time he seemed anything less than genial was when he poured scorn on Roger McGough, for doing a voiceover for an advert. During any lull in conversation, he would hum a tune to himself, and flutter his fingers as though playing on a piano. We swapped addresses and a few weeks later, he sent me a proof copy of The Collected Letters of William S. Burroughs, which I still have on my shelf.
The next time, I caught up with him, I was studying in Boulder, Colorado. Tom had travelled out to perform on a short university tour, (‘living the dream,’ as he mentioned in one of his poems). Through him, I was introduced to the community of poets who gathered around Boulder and Denver. One of my abiding memories of that time is being seated at a table with Tom at a party. Thomas Clarke sat down to join us followed by Anselm Hollo. Ed Dorn took another seat, and finally we were joined by Bernadette Mayer, who wheeled an oxygen cylinder along behind her. Thomas Clarke started passing around an Exquisite Corpse, chiding me to add a line. To say that I felt out of my depth is an understatement.
If I get a little too autobiographical at this point, you’ll have to forgive me. This is a blog post, after all, and if you’re not expecting my version of things, then you can’t be a regular visitor to the twenty-first century. Besides, this piece isn’t intended as an obituary; I don’t claim to be able to sum up Tom’s life or career, or claim to know him beyond what I’ve already described. He had an clear influence on me, though, and it went beyond any desire to imitate his style or approach. I had written poetry ever since the age of sixteen or so, but up until meeting Tom, and reading his work, I had a generally bad impression of British poetry. Before university –and even during it, if I’m honest- I did my most of my significant reading during the summers, chewing through American poetry and novels, Beats, Black Mountain, The New York School. There’s something spirited but also limiting when you are, in Alice Notley’s phrase, a culture of one. Your ideas are what define you, but you can allow yourself to think that they are your’s alone. Discovering Tom’s poetry, where the established canonical assumptions of British writing meant nothing, opened my eyes to a stream of work had being going on all the time, without me knowing of it.
I was still writing poetry by my mid-twenties, but, gradually, the well dried up. Probably, it was a question of aptitude and talent, but I’d become disillusioned as well, not only with the rejections (although these certainly played a part), but with poetry in general. (Bill Herbert sums up things well in his blog post on Tom. I had my rejection from Reality Street too). I felt I’d backed myself into a corner, really, and switching track seemed like the best idea. I began focusing my energy on writing a novel. Fiction wouldn’t be the smooth track I was expecting (think, instead, of a junction of dead ends) but I got my novel out in the end. I would write at work during a string of part time, or low-intensity jobs: in libraries, in offices, in an old call centre over the road from a cemetery on the outskirts of Southgate, which had been converted into a ghastly open plan office. I remembered how Tom had written while working in a telephone exchange. I may have changed tracks, but I’d retained some of his method.
As a final point, it seems obvious to mention Tom’s under-representation in the mainstream. (Perhaps, I am writing an obituary, after all…) His work tends to get ignored by anthologies of British poetry, although, it should be pointed out that he excluded himself from at least one anthology that I know of, so perhaps he was happy not being represented. And, unless I’ve missed something, go looking for an obituary in one of the newspapers, too, and you’ll be disappointed. Reading through his work, as I have over the last month or so, and being drawn once again to those zippy Sixties collages which so excited me when I first read them, it made me wonder why work as fast-paced and, well, fun isn’t more widely known. I’m not sure that I should let that worry me, though. Tom was too fast and elusive for that kind of thing: always too far ahead to get caught out by the messy business of being popular. Unless you met him, of course, in which case, well, there was no one like him.
‘Yet he did not hesitate in his career, but, with a mad energy, retraced his steps at once, to the heart of the mighty London.’
Edgar Allan Poe
My daughter wants to be a detective. I’ve explained to her that this is a high aim. The other day, two men passed us on our way to school. They walked as though being chased, down an alleyway between a block of flats. She watched them pass, and turned to me. ‘I wonder where they’re going.’
I’ve spent a lot of my life asking myself the same question.
For a while around Highbury and Stoke Newington, you might see a man dressed in a double-breasted suit and tie, with a pale fedora cocked low over his eyes, a coat over his shoulders. Everyone called him The Don. He walked the streets between Blackstock Road and Green Lanes and Church Street, always with a languid patience as he examined the prices of the hairdressers, the windows of the haberdashers and cafes. I once saw him help himself to an apple, waving away the protestations of the grocer who wanted to be paid. When I moved back to that area after a few years away, I looked out for the Don as a sign that I had returned, perhaps not to a home, but to a place I recognised. Sadly, he seemed to have moved on. I encountered other familiar characters, however. A woman who suffered from an eating disorder, so weak she could barely walk. A man who wore a high leather hat, who I had once seen pissing over a shop doorway. Another man with wide hips and startling grey eyes, who carried two large bags with him everywhere. He looked like someone moving house, until you noticed him every day, seated on one of his bags on a corner of Highbury Green, looking defeated, and utterly alone. Even psychogeography has its victims.
Edward Bunker once wrote that a definition of a failure in Los Angeles is someone who doesn’t own a car. And if you don’t drive, you measure your life by strides. During the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, I walked back to Highbury from my job in an office near Holborn. Tubes and buses had been suspended. People walked in droves, orderly and urgent. (It occurred to me that tube strikes have always been endured to prepare for such disasters, simulations under the guise of labour politics). I found myself walking with a woman who wore a rucksack and wrap-around shades. Small, but muscular, she had such a sense of focus and power. We walked side by side for a few metres, but I struggled to match her pace. I thought of The Man of The Crowd, Edgar Allan Poe’s mystery of the flâneur, whose narrator is left exhausted by his pursuit of the character of the city. Ahead of me, the woman headed out into the empty street, and crossed down onto Essex Road.
A couple of years ago, I took a trip to Oslo, where I spent a weekend retracing the steps of Knut Hamsun’s narrator in Hunger. In the same way that Tropic of Cancer has a reputation for being about sex when it’s really about food, Hunger is really a book about walking. It was still on my mind when I returned to my home town not long afterwards, to visit my family. I have a strange relationship with that town these days, particularly after writing about it in my novel. Often this relationship entails walking its streets, while wondering why I chose to write about a small town heroin addict, to consider carefully what exactly I had been thinking. That time, I found myself on a narrow road up a hill in the backstreets, where a high churchyard wall seems always ready to collapse on the passing traffic. It was an area I would often find myself, during those awkward years when I practiced my escape into the world, but lacked any real destination. A figure approached me, lurching out across the years. I’d forgotten his name, if I’d ever known it. He would beg for change in the square, accompanied by a thin grey mongrel on a length of dirty rope. We would talk now and then, our paths crossing on our routes through that narrow town. I remembered his voice, which had a shrill, reedy quality to it, as though caught in the process of breaking. His eyes were large and sad, the yellowy-brown of cough medicine bottles. Now, as he approached me, I saw that his hair had frayed away into baldness, and he had grown a patchy beard along his jaw, which only accentuated the overall hairlessness of his cheeks. The dog had long gone. He still carried himself with an air of distress and anxiety. As he passed me by, it was with the same palpable need to be be somewhere, despite all appearances indicating that a timetable had abandoned him long ago. A pattern of hunger and disappointment had set him walking, probably ever since the last time I’d last seen him. I remembered why I’d written that book.
‘I walk, full of hope and faith…’
Front line reports from the Artic war. The light from Proxima Centauri. ‘This is my Husband. Have you seen him? Can You Help?’ The first images from the wastelands of Tehran. A blue whale cub, swimming in the Atlantic. A pod filmed from the ground, its vapour trail unzipping a clear blue sky…
The alarm worked its way into Morgan’s sleep. When he opened his eyes, the bells sounded out in the corridor. Approaching the door, he felt like a crossover had been achieved between two distinct worlds. Outside the residents moved down the corridor towards the stairs; the evacuation happened quietly, without complaint. Probably there was a small fire somewhere in the building. The retreat took its responsibilities very seriously; Morgan had signed a release form when he’d first arrived. ‘Just because we’re searching for something higher doesn’t mean we can ignore our legal obligations,’ the elder had said, the same man who had asked for Morgan’s handset. As he joined the procession down the corridor, he thought of how much simpler this would have been if they’d allowed him to keep it. The thought felt like a pleasant rebellion. Probably it’s time for me to leave.
The sky was clear as Morgan walked outside. Maybe it was the last trace of the pills, but as the crowd swarmed around him, he felt elevated and removed. His mind turned to three months before, when he’d sealed samples of his hair, blood and semen into a small plastic vial and transferred all of his savings to an account based in Mumbai. His insurance, his secret: he’d pushed it to the back of his mind, not sharing it with his daughter or with his friends, trying to hide it from himself. Now, as he stood under the dramatic arc of stars, Morgan pictured those pods as they drifting through the cold and the dark of space, for years, for centuries. Most would certainly fail, but there was always the chance… He thought of something Elena had said. ‘How does it feel to be one of the kings?’
People ahead of him were chattering excitedly. At first, Morgan couldn’t see what had caused this flutter of panic, but as everyone moved around the side of the house, he found himself on the edge of the crowd. Across the back garden, a section of the coast had given way. The wall had simply disappeared and half of the maze had been ripped apart as the earth had given away. A couple of elders waved the residents along the narrow shale-filled path, while the alarm continued inside the building. ‘Make your way around the front,’ one called out. ‘And keep calm… there’s no reason to panic.’ As Morgan shuffled along, he glanced over at the ruined maze. To be on one side, you would see its shape as exposed, ruined and open, but that side was now only the space between the sky and the sea. To enter into it now only meant finding a convoluted path towards the void.
One of the elders stood on the path, hurrying the crowd along. He looked anxious, distraught. Morgan was thinking about his expression when the man next to him nudged his arm. ‘You know what’s happened, don’t you?,’ he said. ‘People were over there when it gave away…’
As they moved around to the front of the house, Morgan looked out for Elena, but the path was too narrow and each time he stopped, the crowd pushed him on. Once he thought he saw her further ahead, but when the woman passed under the lights from a downstairs room he saw that he was mistaken. His group were among the last to emerge onto the lawn. The alarm continued to sound from inside while the crowd milled around, friends looking for one another under the light from the greenhouse. Morgan had been walking towards the front of the crowd when someone reached out for him. It was the Bangladeshi woman.
‘I’m so glad you’re safe…’ she said.
‘I’m fine,’ Morgan replied. ‘I was sleeping in my room and then the alarms sounded.’
They’d moved to one side. The woman stood very close to him. ‘I heard the ground fall,’ she went on. ‘And I knew, I knew that something terrible had happened, even before the alarms.’ She looked up at Morgan, her fingers tight upon his arm. ‘People were killed. You know that, don’t you? They came here to escape. And this happens…’
Suddenly, she grasped at Morgan’s hand. Her fingers felt fragile, her skin cold. They stood together, awkwardly, almost surprised to be in one another’s company. A group of elders took position on the raised ground in front of the greenhouse. One held a handset, the cold square of light giving a blue tinge to her face. As the crowd continued to murmur, she waited for quiet: the quiet which would allow her to speak, and the quiet which would answer her call. Underneath the night sky, holding onto a stranger, Morgan waited for the names.
‘How many more indignities can be heaped upon the divine memory of R Kelly?’ A girl in a red coat running the aisles of an indoor market. Baggage collated from Flight 45. Dawn over the flooded wind farm. A blue car at sunset driving across a deserted seafront.
Morgan spent the next day working in the vineyard. He wore a straw hat to protect him from the sun. He’d found it in one of the rooms on the ground floor, a split yellow panama encircled by a red paisley band. He clipped grapes from the vines. His shoulders ached. He could hear the sea. The shift finished after two hours, but when someone came to replace him, Morgan refused to be moved. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’ll stay. I want to stay.’ He threw himself into the work. He tore the plump green fruit from the vines into a plastic drum. He drank water from a dirty cup drawn from a bucket. Sweat soaked his shirt. Pain spread across his shoulders, up his back. The vines surrounded him, the trunks elegant and atrophied.
He felt, for the first time, complete. My arms are hardening, he told himself. Each time I lift them above my head I develop the muscles. I am improving myself, daily, both physically and mentally, and when these too are combined, with attention and devotion, then I can truly say that I am feeding my self. The pale financial worker he’d once been disgusted him, like something poured from the inside of a bin bag, some pale piece of fetid life nourished on the dust upon old computer screens and the fibres of office furniture, on the crumbs wedged inside the keys of handsets, on stale bottled water, brackish, tainted and old.
It was growing dark by the time he walked back to the house. He could still feel the sun upon his skin. He had a splinter in his thumb. His palms felt dry, like sandpaper. He remembered when he was a boy, when minor wounds— the scrapes, scratches, and those cherished things, scars— were trophies of experience, the desecration of perfect skin. As he walked through to the dining room, he examined the marks upon his hands and arms— cookery burns, accidental nicks from knifes and broken glass— the banal details on a map of a life. He ate his meal alone. A man played the zither on the stage. Morgan had never heard the zither before, but he enjoyed the sound, it felt pure. A group of people at the next table were talking about Kant. Morgan ignored them. He ate beans with brown rice and drank iced mint tea. Lines for a poem formed in his head, but strangely, Morgan didn’t feel the need to write them down. A poem should stay in the mind, he said to himself; the mind, after all, is a poem.
He thought of Elena fleetingly as he climbed the stairs to his room. He hadn’t seen her all day. She had left hurriedly that morning, making excuses about a shift in the greenhouse. She’d seemed distant, almost awkward, missing her usual self-assurance. Morgan wondered if he had said or done something wrong. Wearily, he feared that he’d made a fool of himself. He lay down upon his bed, expecting to fall asleep immediately, but the exhaustion failed to overtake him. Instead, it remained immovable like a dog: a dog that could be shouted at, beaten and kicked, but which would always remain in place. Morgan stared at the ceiling. He saw the sun upon the white paint, even though the sun had now set. A man and a woman walked past his door. Their voices receded into the chasm of this old house, this old hotel at the end of the world. The gentle mellifluence of the voices affected him. He felt tears in his eyes. ‘I am alone,’ he said. ‘I face all of this alone.’ He thought of all the reasons that he had come to the retreat and none of them seemed valid. He wondered what he wanted to achieve. The examined life, which previously had been so important for him, now felt pointless. Probably, Elena was right. This is an illusion, he told himself. And this is all there is. He reached over to his bedside table and took a couple of pills.
Sleep didn’t come immediately. His mind wandered. It was almost like a dream, except that he could still feel the sunburn upon his face and the aches in his arms and back. He saw himself standing upon the hillside above a great city. Glass towers stretched into the sky, traffic steamed in the canyons, an advert chattered upon a billboard. When a great wave surged in from the coast, Morgan watched as people scattered from the fury of the surge, the primal, sacred power. He saw bodies falling from buildings, bodies crushed against brick, bodies pushed under traffic, drowned with other bodies. He saw people fighting, screaming, dying. It was hard to form any judgement on it all. He felt very cold: the wave brought with it a biting prehistoric chill. Something suddenly shifted. Morgan was standing in a room with his daughter. She worked at her desk, headset on, staring at the liquid light of the computer screen. In the window behind, sea water swelled amongst the buildings: a mountain range of simmering glass, quivering with a hesitant intelligence. Morgan watched it for minutes, maybe hours until finally it poured in upon them. At the very second before impact, before the building around them was obliterated into glass and concrete, his daughter looked Morgan in the eyes.
‘I am thinking of a way to make you less guilty,’ she said.