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-read 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.

My Copy Of Robinson

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.

Tom Raworth

raworthIt’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.

 

 

 

Walking

‘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
22060805291_30c413672d_bMy 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. internationale-situationniste-300x168When 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 bb7088fa709be9f41cdbd2128d12d175visit 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…’
Knut Hamsun