My First London Dream: Excerpt

14d12b3873613e055cea0b4dbf31621dI’m continuing to crowdfund my detective novel, My First London Dream, although the experience so far has been hilariously miserable. It’s a black comedy, though, so I guess that’s fitting.

Here’s an excerpt from about halfway through the book. If you like what you read, please do pledge for the book here.

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Pedy had once told Billy about a film he’d made in the late seventies. The offer had come through to the North Soho News Agency to smear Harold Wilson. ‘We’d got the old Trot out of Number Ten,’ Pedy explained. ‘But we needed to ruin his legacy. The clients involved had requested something really nasty. They actually wanted him to be filmed interfering with animals- I think someone mentioned a horse- but I said “No, no, I’m just not doing that.” It was an interesting experience, to find my own limits.’

Instead, Pedy had decided to make a straight sex film. ‘Nothing the Westminster village likes better than a really juicy sex scandal to chew over. The idea was to get it screened in a couple of Soho cinemas, make the press aware of it, maybe a couple of the darker princes of Westminster. Of course, no one would publish any pictures from it. We’re talking about a different world after all.’

‘Anyway, we found some rube who worked on a butcher’s stall on the market and drank in the Blue Posts. He looked the part. No one was going to be looking at his face, anyway…’ The idea of that interview had always haunted Billy: Pedy replete in bookie chic making his way into the crowded pub, tossing a pair of driving gloves onto the varnished bar, offering a ring-a-ding to a stallholder, a gambit about women and the weather, maybe a tip he had on the gee-gees, how is business old fruit, and by the way, apropos of nothing, I’m casting a blue movie and you’ll fit the bill. Talk about a different world.

‘I hired a couple of the local doxies, and we set ourselves up in a studio flat on Berwick Street. I’ve had some dark nights of the soul, Billy, believe me, but that has to be amongst the worst of them. It’s what happens when you go for a niche amateur rather than using your established and trusted professionals. The poor chap probably hadn’t got his end away in years, and when it came down to it, he wasn’t really ready for his screen debut. It’s one thing to agree to take on a couple of prostitutes when you’re in your cups. Quite another thing when you’ve got the working girls ready and waiting, with yours truly lining up with the camera. Add in the sound man, and a couple of extra crew. I could have charged entrance, believe me. Soho loves a freakshow.

‘So there we all were. A cast, a crew. But no star. It was winter. The bedsit had no heating, which can’t have helped. We gave up eventually, but not before the poor old chap had practically disintegrated trying to get himself up for the part. The doxies started complaining about the cold, so I had them go play tag team, so one got to keep her coat on while the other one tried to coax some life into him. I’ll never forget his face. The strain, the embarrassment. The sheer humbleness. This old barrow boy, probably never thought he would get such an opportunity in his life. ‘Just give me a minute, give me a minute. I don’t want to let anyone down.’ I can hear the pang in his voice. They’re right when they say it. You don’t get to choose your family, and you don’t get to choose your ghosts.’

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Barry Gifford

“I ain’t never heard so much concentrated weirdness in my life…”

The return of Twin Peaks prompted a lot of excitement amongst some of my friends. One sent me a Spotify playlist dedicated to the music of David Lynch’s films, while I was persuaded by another to join him watching the original series and film, an exercise he set about with a kind of dedication and ceremony, rich in nostalgic significance. Rather than leading me to watch the new series, however, this project prompted me to get hold of an expanded version of Barry Gifford’s Sailor and Lula novels.

David Lynch’s Wild At Heart is based on Gifford’s novel of the same name. It introduces us to Sailor and Lula, star-crossed lovers from the Deep South, whose love and misadventures are charted across a cycle of seven novels. The novels are arbitrary and disposable, built out of short, chapters, all of which have titles, making them like punchy prose poems. The cycle is notable for its pulpy, violent energy: partly epic, partly soap opera. It’s a combination which makes the first novel perfect for Lynch’s treatment, although the cycle grows beyond the young, wild rebels of his Wild at Heart. In Gifford’s version, Sailor and Lula’s adventures take them through family and failure, from middle age into death.

My first exposure to Gifford’s work came, not through the Sailor and Lula novels, but through his fine crime novel The Sinaloa Story. The novel begins in true B-movie fashion (like the great Detour) with a drifting character passing through town. The narrative perspective is passed like a bomb across a variety of crime fiction staple characters, soldiers, brothel keepers, killers, revolutionaries, lowlives. It was scintillating, cryptic, addictive and weird. I loved it. Later, I discovered Gifford’s poetry. I’ve always been intrigued by a novelist’s poems. Michael Ondaajte, Malcolm Lowry, Paul Auster, WG Sebald, Denis Johnson, Roberto Bolano: I’ve made a point of reading all their poetry over the years, although it has, admittedly, provided varying results. Mainly, I think this is a hangover from my early appreciation of poetry, which came from discovering writers like Charles Bukowski and the Beats, who employed poetry as a form of immediate journalism, unconstrained by canonical ideals.

Gifford is one of those writers whose characters start to pass through your world. The man in white gloves wiping down a train seat before sitting down. The woman reading Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to a parakeet in a cage. A man with long white hair wearing a checked lumberjack’s coat, talking to himself as he paces up and down Haverstock Hill. Tune into the bizarre and you puncture reality. The routine gets scrambled. Around the time I first read his work, my girlfriend’s brother came to stay with us in Brixton, bringing an old friend with him to tag along. There was something vaguely Giffordesque about these two men: they had the air of a hapless double act, whose misadventures led effortlessly into trouble. The brother had recently joined the army, leaving the friend facing up to being marooned in his own fecklessness. The morning, while everyone else slept off the night before, he managed to set fire to our kitchen. I found him in the back garden, reading my copy of Ghosts No Horse Can Carry.

‘I was learning about ghosts,’ he said.

At that time, I was writing my own road novel, about a brother and sister escaping a past of abuse and weirdness, to describe a circuitous path around the nation’s roads and towns. I wanted it to blend myth and genre, a black comedy about place and how it defines us. During the slow process of its failure, I called up an agent who liked to interview prospective clients before accepting their submissions. ‘How would you describe yourself as a writer?’ he asked. It was one of those questions you can spend your life preparing for, but are never really able to answer. ‘A British Barry Gifford,’ I replied after hesitating, as though such a thing was likely, or even possible.

Denis Johnson

‘All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.’

It takes me a long time to get around to this kind of thing at the moment. Sometimes it feels that I’m not only treading over old ground, but digging deep into it. Something always comes along, though, a books, an incident, a memory, and I get dragged back again. This time, I wanted to write something about Denis Johnson.

I remember exactly where I was when I first read the opening to Jesus’ Son. I worked shifts at the time, at a wine shop in West London. That day I’d woken earlier than normal, and on my journey from Brixton, I stopped off at Oxford Street. Rather than proceed with my usual journey, changing onto the Bakerloo line and heading for Maida Vale, I decide to go above ground, to go shopping for something to read. The fact that a bookshop even existed on Oxford Street seems remarkable now. It was a vision from the credit bubble: a prime piece of real estate decked out with stripped pine, baristas and jazz, with the collection spread over four storeys. I don’t know if I searched the book out, or whether it found me. Sometimes, your choice of book seems automatic, it’s like you’ve rewound time. Boom, the book is in your hands, and it was only ever there. I opened the first page, and had to own it when I reached the first ellipse.

The early afternoon in the wine shop were dull and slow, spent filling the shelves with stock, or trolleying wine boxes out to deliveries in the local areas. Once, Martin Amis dropped by in his Mercedes sports car, and bought every bottle of a budget vintage champagne. I remember carrying the boxes out to his car, while he cleared out the boot of tennis equipment. As a lesson in literary achievement, it set the pattern of my life. Mostly, I’d wait for the evening, when the residents in the mansion blocks would return home, and stop by to pick up their evening wine. The playful sophistication of Maida Vale contrasted with my life in Brixton, and for a while I took advantage of the time. I have fond memories of reading in that shop. I read Ballard’s short stories, Chester Himes, Anthony Frewin, James Sallis, the Psychotropedia. In retrospect, it was a nice little gig, although I would eventually spend my time feeling impatient and bored. That day, I got there early, and sat in a café around the corner, smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee, devouring that small, strange little book almost in one sitting. Broken, elliptical, luminous, humane, those stories jangled in my head like a scattered kind of poetry. I took the book with me to work, and spent the rest of the night reading it and re-reading throughout the hours of my shift.

I’d heard about Angels when I first moved to London, Again, I have a perfect memory of when I first heard about it. I was sleeping on a friend’s floor at the time, and someone left out a magazine which I flicked through one morning. The novel was referred to in passing, described as a cross between James M. Cain and William Blake. My first thought: ‘This is a book I have to read.’ My second: ‘This is the kind of book I want to write.’ Angels was out of print at the time, although, I eventually got hold of a copy online: the hardback edition, with its illustration of a Greyhound bus and Johnson wincing from the light in a back jacket photo. The novel was everything I wanted it to be. Johnson treated minor places – small towns, bus stations, back street bars— with a kind of holy, drugged reverence. His realism was as dirty as that of Raymond Carver, but it offered an ecstasy and vision far beyond it. Needless to say, this affected me very deeply, and Angels is probably the single biggest influence on my own tale of small towns and drug misfortunes.

You don’t need to read to be a completist to realise that Johnson was also a poet. . It’s there in his style: the lean prose peppered with firecracker images. Many poets write novels, but it’s rare for their novels to engage the form in terms of structure. In this, Johnson’s novels benefit from his play with genre. Tree of Smoke (war), Nobody Move (detective), Angels (crime), Already Dead (gothic), Fiskadoro (western): you can read his whole body of work as an exercise in genre as much as style. I think this is what I took from his writing most of all, why it became so influential to me and why, even now, I look to him as a kind of avatar. His approach to the novel aligned genre and poetry in a demotic field. It resulted in work which was hard and beautiful, bleak and glimmering: an engine of prose as essential as any poem.

Summer Reading: Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth

It is 2000, nine months into the new millennium, and he has lived in London for nearly three years. He rents a flat with his girlfriend, on the edge of Brixton, near the back entrance to Brockwell Park. When they first moved here, they would walk across the park some evenings, to a restaurant under the railway arches in Herne Hill. Those days have passed. The combination of night shifts, his need to spend any free time in front of a computer, and their manic and incompatible personalities, has seen them drift apart. All of this has counted against them, stones thrown onto the balance of the scale.

At least he has given up the night shifts. He now works in a library in Tottenham. The journey to and from work, hilariously protracted, at least offers him the opportunity to read. He is currently making his way through Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus, after picking up a tattered second hand copy from the Bookmongers store on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton. He’d avoided reading Philip Roth until picking up Portnoy’s Complaint from a stall on the South Bank during his early months in London. Roth’s voice had entertained him in that novel, the broad, antic intelligence of his style, and the hilariousness of sexual misadventures. In contrast, he finds Goodbye Columbus almost unbearably sad.

One Friday night, his girlfriend doesn’t return home, after going to a party with work colleagues. He lies alone in bed, and after briefly analyzing his feelings about this development, he decides that he is mostly relieved. He spends the morning quietly, feeding the two cats (her cats), cooking a breakfast of fried eggs and tomatoes over the antique stove, listening to the radio. The news offers reports of the success of British rowers success at the Sydney Olympics, and of Reggie Kray, released from prison to die. It is a bright hot day. After breakfast, he sits out in the garden, to enjoy the sun. He sits on the step by the scruffy patio, beside an old, corroded exercise bike, smoking a cigarette and reading Goodbye Columbus. He finds the garden an uncomfortable place. When he moved into the flat, the landlady had made him promise to tend to the garden, but bindweed has grown through the plants, the lawn growing dry and tatty under the summer heat, like the pelt of a dead animal. Later, he will experience a recurring nightmare that he has left evidence of a terrible crime in the shed of that garden, a sense of persecution which will haunt him long after those days.

Eventually, he decides to leave the flat. He walks across Brockwell Park, towards the Herne Hill entrance, and visits the restaurant under the railway arches. He orders a pot of mussels, a meal that will always remind him of late childhood and a family holiday, probably his last, to the west coast of France. It was here he learned to appreciate the delicacy of the quick salty flesh released form the black shells. He drinks two beers will his meal, while making his way to the end of Goodbye Columbus, where Neil Klugman loses Brenda Patimkin and returns to his work in the library. The sadness he experiences during the final paragraphs is rawer than anything he has allowed himself to feel about those last months. After lunch, he wanders back across Brockwell Park, the bright sky opening over him, the hill exposing him to the city. Men play football on the five aside pitch, the raw earth almost orange under the sun. A passenger jet hangs low in the sky. He feels a sense of peace in this moment: that despite the upheaval he faces, the city has accepted him.

A few weeks later, coming back from London after the last Tube has passed, he will catch a train to Herne Hill. To save time, he decides to cut through the park, scaling the gates. The night is clear and bright, and as he climbs the path across the hill, he feels as though he has been accepted into a forbidden, equivocal world. Ahead of him, he spies a man and a woman, waiting on the brow of the hill. As he grows closer, he sees that they are walking two Japanese fighting dogs, the white fur glowing under moonlight. Everyone watches as he walks up the path. Although the couple offer no challenge, they follow him at a distance as he heads out of the park, the dogs panting, straining at the leads. The next morning, he will wake alone, fully dressed, with bruises on both arms and struggle to put together the events of the night.

Summer Reading: Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolano

It is 2009, and the summer is a hot one at its best. Most days, he travels to London for work, heading out from the small town where he lives with his wife and daughter. The journey is long, but he has learned to make use of the time, reading, working on a novel, sedating himself as he watches the landscape reeling past the window. He feels on the edge of things, of family, writing, pushed to the margins of his life.

In an effort to somehow stay current, he picks up a copy of Roberto Bolano’s Last Evenings on Earth from a bookshop on Ludgate Circus. It seems somehow typical when he discovers that Bolano had died six years before. That disappointment aside, he begins to find the stories immersive and compelling. These are fictions more than short stories; Bolano doesn’t seem to care for the moment ‘glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing’, in V.S. Prichett’s definition of the form. These fictions strain at the edges of their own structures, and whole lives will unravel over the course of ten pages, filled with silences or narrated speech, calamities and moments of threatening calm. He reads and re-reads the stories, finding echoes of his life and past relationships amongst some of the Bolano’s oddball writers, political agitators, and hapless conspiracy theorists. It seems that he was found an element of himself inside those pages, or at least something he has lost.

One Sunday, he takes the book with him as he cycles out to the coast. He has taken to cycling by himself at the weekend, partly to compensate for his weekly journeys, to escape into space. The sun is bright and high. He cycles along the edge of a faded resort town, to a beach beside a nature preserve, where white egrets gather on the marshes. The beach is surprisingly busy, although the tide is out across the dull sands, reflecting shallow water in long bars, like glimmering knives. He finds a private place to get changed, sliding out of his jeans under a towel and into a pair of swimming shorts. It strikes him that nothing is more sinister than a man alone getting changed on a beach.

It is low tide, with the sea on its way back. He gathers up his bag and walks to the edge of the water. He likes to swim, that is, he likes to immerse himself in water; he’s no swimmer, really. Before he reaches the tide, he dumps his bag on a stretch of dry sand and throws himself into the sea. The water is warm, although it is so shallow as to make his attempts at swimming ridiculous. He feels frantic, like a sparrow bathing itself in a puddle, and this idea makes him laugh out loud. The sun has clouded over in a metallic blur. Further along the coast, he can see the towers of a refinery.

When he returns to his bag, he finds a man and a woman standing nearby. They smile when they see him coming, but say nothing. The water has crawled over the sand, and soaked through the bag. The couple stare at him, smiling in unison, as though the idea that they might have moved the bag from the water is inconceivable. He says nothing. The couple stare at him blankly as he goes through the contents. His phone has moisture under the screen and fizzes once as he goes to turn it on and after that does not work again. The Bolano book has bloated with soaked water. He walks back towards his bike.

On the ride home, he leaves the cycle path and rides down to a roundabout along the road, through early evening traffic. Two boys on a motorbike overtake him, flashing obscene gestures at him as they pass. Something grips him- a burst of anger, frustration, injustice- and he speeds to catch up with the motorbike, weaving through traffic to reach them. For a second, he feels the power in his legs and lungs, the blood surging from his heart. It is the most intense sensation he can remember feeling in a long time. He cycles quickly, weaving his way through traffic and catches up to the motorbike at lights. The boy on the pillion laughs when he sees him, and waves, in a gesture he interprets as submission. At the roundabout, he peels away, still waving towards the motorbike as he finds the turning to his street.

The house is quiet when he reaches home. He return his bike to the shed and sits out in the garden with a bottle of wine, the wet book spread on the garden table in front of him. He spends the evening drinking wine and watching the vista from the garden: the frosted back windows of the houses in front of him, the street lights, the zinc coloured sky with a moon as skinny as a blade. He thinks that the book is ruined, but when he wakes the next morning, he will find that the paper has dried out overnight. From that moment on, whenever he sees the book on his shelf, he will remove it and strum his finger against the pages, thinking of how it warped but resettled itself into the binding, and he will remember the journey of that day.

Summer Reading

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.

Lost Books

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.