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.