Summer drifts in with chestnut pollen on the streets and the electrics of occasional storms. The nights open themselves, and we sleep with the windows ajar, allowing the breeze to drift through our flat on the first floor. It brings the smell of smoke in on its back, occasional traffic noises, a blackbird’s evening call. A black cat pads across the balconies to visit us, pausing to look back wounded and wronged when we chase him back out the way he came. A clear night sky and the moon yellow and low over Camden. Routines lose their impetus, become languid and casual. I make my regular journey down to the south coast, never failing to be gripped by the changes in the landscape, the great silent movie of rape fields and birch forests, the isolated sycamores bursting against the horizon amongst silos and farmhouses. The teaching year ends. A day job turns to warm coals. My daughter prepares for the production her summer show, her final hurrah in the school she has attended for the last six years. We have a camping trip to anticipate, a music festival, some time back with my family; afterwards, I will spend some time with my partner in Marrakesh. The time comes to make plans for the books I’ll take with me. I always prepare my reading carefully. A crime novel for a long train journey, poetry for summer in the park. Sometimes, I like to match my reading to my destinations (Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires, Michael Ondaatje in Sri Lanka, Jeet Thayil in Mumbai); other times, the choice is more impressionistic, associative. In part, this is a manic need to relive experiences, the kind of mindset Tom McCarthy depicted in Remainder. If I read Dave Smith’s poetry outside on the grass, I will return the younger version of myself reading Dave Smith, in a photo taken by an old girlfriend. If I read John Sladek on a camping trip, I will return to the summer I spent camping around France, reading old Pan science fiction books from the Fantasy Centre on Holloway Road. Each book is a portal to another universe, but also a portal to a previous self. Read in the summer, and, somehow, you become closer to the book. Sometimes, I feel my reading life has been one long summer of reading and recapturing that sense of what I read. And what do you do when summer has gone? You shuffle in the gaps, idle and anxious, waiting for the next book, to freeze the moment you were there.
It starts in childhood, with the books read to you at night. The words are still fluid, and the dramas become quickly diluted into dreams. I remember: a rabbit running wild along a country path, a ginger cat curling up in a nest of flowers. It continues with the books loaned to you from libraries, or read while waiting in a waiting room for the dentist or the doctor, or while visiting relatives on the other side of the country. Some detail snags at your memory, all the more persistent because it’s so impossible to trace. A comic book panel with a finger pressing a button, the line ‘Jettison cargo!’ written above it jagged script. A sentient silver ball, a visitor from another planet. A friendship between two boys, one English, the other Egyptian, and their discussions of their shared Christian faith. The strong plastic smell of book wrappings, in a library with my mother, one summer afternoon.
Unless you devote your life to holding onto the past, you’re doomed to keep the memories but lose the source. Mostly, I remember an old burgundy hardback, the torn pages already smelling ancient when it came to me. It described the adventures of a group of animals living in a small cottage in the forest. It was a dense book, I think, with a peculiar kind of sadness. (When I read the stories of Bruno Schultz, I felt echoes of it). A bear made to wear a jumper of black and orange stripes, which he feels makes him look like a bumble bee. A ruined cottage at the centre of a clearing. Expeditions into the woods, to search for treasure and perform a play. One animal is embarrassed about a hole in his right ear; in a moment of unreality, it becomes clear that all the animals are toys waiting for their owner to return. I may have invented some of these details, but that’s the compelling thing about these lingering impressions: they lie directly between memory and imagination. That I associate the book with my aunt and uncle’s house outside Machynlleth only adds to the sense of evocation. The smell of wet dog and split bracken. The walls of blue slate. Piles of envelopes and rolls of spare change, from the post office counter my aunt ran from a back room.
In theory, the internet should help trace these lost stories, but some experiences remain stubbornly beyond even the most complex search strings. Sometimes, anyway, the internet is the cause of the sense of loss. Around 2002, I read a description of a novel on a message board. It followed the story of a struggling painter who begins teaching art classes in a community college in the Bowery. One of his students is a quadriplegic man, who overcomes his disability to paint with a brush in his mouth. The painter’s sense of satisfaction at guiding his student through his talent, soon turns to jealousy and bitterness when the student becomes famous, his paintings sought after, celebrated. The novelist in question had a twin brother, I remember, who may have been a writer too. I remember a black and white photo on a website: two earnest and awkward men in dark suits with shirt collars buttoned up, staring blankly out of shot in opposite directions.
For some reason, I didn’t make a note of the title of this book, or try to find a copy. I’ve tried to track it down, occasionally plugging everything I could remember into Google and coming up with… nothing. Blanks. Dead ends. Mis-directions. I wonder if I happened on some early internet hoax, a sort of a John Titor of outsider fiction. Or else, all of that was imagination, and I invented the book as a kind of ideal for the fiction I was writing at the time. When I returned to the forum, the archives had been lost, and my plea to anyone who might remember it became that most forlorn of things, an unanswered discussion thread.
After time, all that remains of any book is a set of blurred impressions: a snatch of dialogue, the colour of a description, the path of a character towards their satisfying end. Fiction fills your mind with persuasive details of things which were never meant to exist. That’s the point of it. Probably our lost books are best left where they are: timeless, curious and unreachable, forever lingering in their power.
I’d like to say that I discovered Robinson for myself, but as usual someone else had to show me the way. I seem to require jumpstarts like this to overcome the indolence, which seems to be my natural state. Alarmingly, as I grow older, I seem more in the grip of this laziness: a paralysis that is something like fear.
At the time, I was staying with a friend in Acton, after spending a few months in the Isle of Wight, recuperating from a nervous breakdown. This was 1998, the year of the Omagh bombing, Clinton’s investigation by Kenneth Starr, and my own divorce. Against this backdrop of terrorism and marital strife, in my own way I think I was suffering from a kind of pre-millennial tension, and the sense of embarrassment I feel in admitting this, can be traced in how dated that phrase now sounds.
One evening, we discussed a dream I’d had the night before. I had become very sensitive to the messages of dreams, an indulgence I have since left behind. This particular dream centred around the ruins of the old Public records Office, outside of Kew, a huge condemned building, which together we had visited the week before. As I picked my way through wrack of shattered glass and tangled metal, the graffiti livid on the walls, I became aware of another person’s footsteps, sometimes tapping behind me, sometimes ahead. Eventually, I walked through to a small room housing a number of decayed and rusting machines: the old generator room. I heard the sound of someone coughing. As I walked further, I saw the figure of a large man, in his fifties, standing against the crumbling white wall. He was dressed in a dark overcoat, his thick hair swept back from his face. He possessed a kind of erotic fleshiness, the look of some decadent Caesar. A door stood open behind him, the daylight impossibly white and harsh. I stood in front of him, half frozen. He walked towards the door.
‘I had the overwhelming impression,’ I told my friend, ‘That if I followed this man, he’d show me what life could really be like, if I lived without fear. He might destroy me, he might drive me mad, but in a way he would release me. When I awoke, I felt awfully depressed, as though I had missed a great opportunity.’
‘That reminds me,’ my friend said, standing up and walking over to a pile of books he kept on the floor. ‘I’ve been thinking that you should read Robinson.’
Published in 1993, Christopher Petit’s Robinson is a hazy portrait of a man and a city. In a more momentous decade, the character of Robinson might have been an English Gatsby; in early nineties Soho, he is a Harry Lime: fixer, control freak, puppet master. He pulls the narrator along, making him leave a domestic life behind, the two of them middle-aged Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, lighting out to stay ahead of the crack-up. With Robinson as guide, the city is a theatre for the pursuits of men: nights in porn cinemas, late licence pubs, propositions to mysterious women, fast cars, pep pills, handguns, secret assignations. There’s even time for a bout of bare-knuckle boxing. Like Ballard’s Crash, or Delillo’s White Noise, the action of Robinson is prompted by a failing marriage turning into a midlife crisis. Urban disquiet is linked to a marriage turning bad. Robinson has a trace of soured romanticism similar to that which fuels the disgusted nostalgia of Derek Raymond, say, or the yearning Anglophilia of Derek Marlowe.
The marriage is falling apart, but this is no Whatever Happen to Virginia Woolf? The narrator’s wife is a shadow puppet, a series of gestures without a voice. Again, like Ballard in ‘Crash’, whose disaffected James Ballard drifts into the company of Vaughn as his marriage breaks apart, Robinson is a skewed testimony. There is a pronounced similarity between narrator and author. The narrator is called Christo. He has worked in film. He is more or less Petit’s age; he is middle class. A quick flick to the back pages of my copy of Robinson confirms all of these details about the author: the career in film, schooled in Yorkshire, reviews for The Times. The game is offered.
I had to leave Acton quickly. I left both Robinson and my friend behind. I didn’t even think of the book again, until the winter of 2000, when I was living on Streatham Hill. An old friend had allowed me stay in his flat, while he and his girlfriend travelled in India. A few things had happened since that night in Acton. I had recently been cleared of blame in a scam to defraud a shipping company of a large quantity of Pol Roger, intended for the boom Millennium champagne market. This whole, regrettable incident arose from a drunken promise to a questionable acquaintance, and I spent a fraught six months facing up to the prospect of prison. I was a mess, I admit. I lost weight, and smoked endlessly. I had also come close to financial ruin, and I was living on credit that was slowly ticking down.
I stayed in Pullman Court, a strange, white Art Deco building which brings a decrepit elegance to Streatham Hill. There was very little to do but pick through my friend’s book collection. I came across a volume by Weldon Kees, each poem like a slim, terrifying novel. Some featured a figure called Robinson, always depicted in a series of empty postures: talking on the phone, hailing a yellow taxi, walking in the park, staring hopelessly at a wall. I remembered Robinson, Acton, and my dream. A few days later, after an evening drinking in the Prince Albert on Coldharbour Lane, I came out into hard cold rain. As I crossed the road, my eyes were drawn to the front of a second-hand bookshop, beside a small café. Robinson rang in my head. I pushed my way through the door, scanned the shelves. It didn’t take me long to find it.
The city traps stories. A street is closed by police tape. We never find out why. The unmarked police car screams through the city, weaving a narrative we will probably never discover. A tube train is suspended because of a suicide. Who’s suicide? For a while, there was a Tube rumour doing the rounds, a cousin to the old story of the phantom who pushed people onto the rails. It was this: that most suicides were invented by station staff as an expedient way of covering up other delays, an easy get out. Failures of administration, institution, infrastructure become clouded by acts of personal tragedy, almost like sacrifices. And who checks up on these suicides? It’s a safe get out. Hands in the air, but no apologies. ‘There is nothing I can do. Somebody died.’
I read Robinson in that borrowed flat in Pullman Court, as a dreary spring turned slowly into a humid summer. The book haunted me. Not only did the fictional Robinson remind me of the man I had experienced in that dream all those years ago, the physical properties of the book were curious, unsettling. It was in fairly good condition for a second-hand paperback (spine intact, pages not bent, no embarrassing markings on the script) but it had been treated rather carelessly. Towards the centre of the book, a large black scuffmark had smeared the edges of a number of the pages. It occurred to me that it was the kind of mark might have been left had the book been kicked by polished shoes, or sent careening onto tarmac from a moving car. I found it significant that where this mark appeared, a paragraph described the narrator’s driving habits.
The cover had been irredeemably bent out of shape, mangled by another reader’s handling. I simply couldn’t hold Robinson the way I would normally hold a book. I began to feel that the previous reader had possessed me, giving me his posture, his habits. My hands began to ache, a pain that would wake me in the night. I took doses of strong painkillers to keep this ache at bay. Eventually, I began to enjoy the warm glow of codeine as a way of upsetting my lonely routine.
The inscription to the book was the most unsettling feature of all, written on the title page, a long, fluid, arrogant hand, an ink pen, not a biro.
“To C, All the best. R.”
According to Petit, Robinson began as a history of Soho, but fact mutated into fiction. All London histories are doomed. The city spreads outwards, leaking into Plumstead, Gravesend, Hertford. The official versions of these places become London stories. Any history requires an overview, the greater picture, but where do you stand to get the perspective? The city takes the watcher over, the flâneur of Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin is jostled by passers-by.
Disappear in they city and you become the white of the map legend. Take Weldon Kees, another writer of Robinson. Kees –poet, painter, jazz musician and film maker— wrote of his Robinson as vacuous and empty, terrified and terrifying: an urban ghost. The end of Kees’s own story is well known: his car was found abandoned by Brooklyn Bridge (in homage to Hart Crane?) and he was never found. Stories were imposed upon Kees’s silence: he had committed suicide, he had run away to Mexico. None were true. He had simply disappeared.
Of course, I became convinced that the book had once belonged to Robinson. I made investigations at the bookshop on Coldharbour Lane. The bookshop owner could offer no clues. The novel had been part of a job lot, bought at auction. I left, disappointed, walking out onto Coldharbour Lane. A man sat hunched on the floor by the entrance to the market, bleeding, crying. I passed him by and did not look down.
Things began to happen at Pullman Court. A film crew set up by the old swimming pool in the courtyard, filming a woman dressed as Marilyn Monroe entering the front door opposite me: the same scene repeated over and over, an insane director searching for the impossible take. I narrowly avoided death when the old, lattice-gate lift lurched suddenly as I went to step inside. One night, I returned late, to hear a commotion in the main entrance, in the room where, when the building was first opened, there was once a bar. There were loud masculine voices, dogs barking, shrill gasps that bordered upon screams of pain. The next day, when I mentioned this to one of the security guards, he stared at me coldly until I walked away.
I soon fled Pullman Court. For a few days a campaign had been brewing against me. Notes were pushed under the door of the flat, and the head of the estate came to visit me. I stole a car, sobbing at my own reflection in the rear view mirror, as I hit the South Circular. That night I slept in a layby outside the hospital in Tooting, drinking myself to sleep with a bottle of Plymouth gin, scrawling into a notebook. Grey foxes teemed through the early morning. It felt like the city belonged to them, that we had stolen the land.
London weather is a season of its own, the grey tropics. In this environment, connections are made in anonymity and with every person encountered, there is a chance to assume a new identity. The narrator encounters Robinson and remembers him from a night in The Angel pub. There is almost a element of sexual jealousy about the narrator’s memory of this encounter: Robinson overbearing in a white jacket picking at bits from an acquaintance’s suit. These initial stages of their relationship are reminiscent of Poe and The Man of The Crowd, (itself a response to Baudelaire) a portrait of the nefarious wanderer of the city, powerful, irresistible. In Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, the narrator drifts around the world, controlled by the whims of authority and chance. At various stages, he encounters a character called Robinson, who always manages to remain one step ahead. A Flanders battlefield, the heart of Africa, Manhattan, provincial France: the globe is traversed, but the journey has only been the accidental pursuit of one man.
I became more desperate. I was sleeping in my car, refreshing myself in public baths and cheap cafes. Sometimes, I was scared that the city was swamping me, turning me into a piece of urban flotsam struggling to stay afloat. And old friend of mine had been slowly building a career for himself in the film industry. I heard that he’d returned from Los Angeles for a visit, and getting in touch, I arranged a hasty meeting in Soho. In a glass-fronted bar, decorated with tangerine sofas and silk screen prints of Japanese flowers, we talked about his career. I remarked how healthy he was looking, with his icy American smile and glowing tan. He refused to return the compliment, saying only, “It’s good to see you. It’s been too long.”
I had, over the previous few weeks, decided upon a way out of my situation. I would write a film script based on Robinson, sell it through my friend in Hollywood, and make enough money to pay off my debts and establish some grounding in the city. As we drank our way through overpriced, badly-mixed cocktails I pitched the film, producing the obligatory treatment, which I had written the night before. While my friend maintained the weary ambivalence of his profession, he seemed intrigued. I left the bar that night exuberant and cocky, strutting through the streets of media Soho as though very soon I would belong.
A few weeks later, my friend called me from Hollywood. It seemed that my proposal was starting to attract notice. A young British theatre director, looking for the ideal film to launch himself in Hollywood, had expressed an interest in the Robinson project. He’d suggested casting Kevin Spacey and Robin Williams, the latter taking the part of Robinson.
I started writing the script, working in my car. I idealised this somewhat, telling myself that I was continuing the traditions of car-bound writers, of Paul Schrader writing Taxi Driver, and Ted Hughes in Yorkshire. I drove around London, mapping the significant places listed in Robinson, Kilburn and Soho, Paddington and the Westway. I mixed these journeys in with places from my personal London, the London of Brixton and Streatham, Acton and Dalston, of Greenwich, Highbury and Tottenham. I toured the city through the changes of late spring, one hand on the wheel, the other on scrawling notes down on a A4 pad splashed across my lap, like Edward Dorn’s driving poems on Highway 101.
My driving was superb, but I was drinking heavily, and I couldn’t finish the script. The character of Robinson acted like black hole on my attempts to follow the three-act structure, sucking in themes and plot and resolution. A few days later, I heard from my Hollywood connection. Robin Williams had pulled out of the project. The young director had returned to England, vowing never to return. My friend sounded bitter and exhausted by the deal. ‘The whole project has just got out of hand. It was cursed from the very beginning. Robin’s very angry. A number of people have been damaged by it, me included.’ He let this sentence hang, a tacit accusation. I hung up the phone.
I took to calling the book’s author, reaching only his answering machine. His voice possessed an icy intelligence, reminiscent of espionage and betrayal. I started to leave messages on his machine, reportages on the run. “I’ve seen him,” I would say. “He’s coming after me. He’s buying extremist videos from a dealer on Blackstock Road. It’s midday. Men are lingering outside the cafes. The pavements are slick with the grease from the Halal butchers. Yesterday, while walking this street, I saw that someone had placed a sheep’s head on the railings at the front of a house. A practical joke or a warning?”
The author never replied.
After Robinson’s faked death and reappearance, the novel discloses a story of voyeurism, obscenity and power. It involves filmmaking, the perfect medium for all three. Robinson re-invents himself as a filmmaker, shooting porn in an abandoned factory in Soho. A major project is embarked upon, with everyone bending to the excesses of Robinson’s personal vision. There is a plot going on behind the I, but what is it? Robinson’s film lurches from set piece to set piece, with no cohesion, no story. Given that its business is the visible, the known, the film industry is a cagey, introverted place. Everyone has their personal vision. Everyone protects their Big Idea.
The film industry is spilling out onto the streets. Everyone has a screenplay, everyone has cocaine. How many home movies do you walk through in this exposed city, how many comedians or performance artists have got you on tape? Don’t look at the camera, that’s what all amateur actors are told, but its hard to look at the camera when you don’t know you’re being filmed. Anyway, why employ straight men, when passers-by can fill the role? Late night TV circulates images of criminals caught on tape, the rogue drivers on the roundabout, the children jumping on car roofs. Would they do it if the cameras weren’t present? Start filming and you invite people to transgress. It is an invitation to become: an opportunity to testify. The film rolls, although the plot of the film remains beyond our grasp. All of us are cracked actors, anxious for the shout of ‘Cut.’
It was the summer of 2001. I had spent six months sleeping rough in the car. One night I was woken by a storm. As I sat awake watching the city drown, I realised that the key to my release lay in that dream I’d had about the ruins of the Public Records office, a three year old figment of my unconscious mind which for all this time I had ignored. I had spent the night in Southgate near the station for the Piccadilly line, the Art Nouveau structure like a fallen Fifties UFO. I bathed in the swimming baths and ate breakfast in a café opposite the tube station. It was a clear day.
As I drove down to the ruins of the Public Record Office, I felt a strange calm descend on me. I tuned in the radio, singing along as I trekked across the city, waved through by white van drivers and taxis, the traffic strangely obsequious. I drove across Hammersmith Bridge, remembering the days I would walk with my wife along the riverbank, pausing to drink in any one of the pubs that stood around here, pleasant afternoons during which we approximated warmth, like actors feeling their way into a part. The Thames was high and tidal. I thought of death by drowning, a death that was faked, a life that was forged.
I parked the car in Kew, next to the green. The day was clear and bright. The previous night’s rain had cut through the atmosphere. I was confident of an end. The jets acquiesced on their way to touch down in Heathrow: slim lazy fish in the sky’s aquarium. There was something so steadfast about Kew in the summer, so pure and inviolable, you can’t see it ever decaying because it has never really been alive. Somehow, this comforted me.
The tennis courts were empty. The river path was dangerously wet after the storm of the previous night. I made my way carefully, sometimes forced in amongst the trees by the mud. Not far from the ruined building, two people on the opposite riverbank caught my eye. I stopped to watch them as they approached each other, taking a seat on a fallen tree trunk, blown over in the storm of the previous night. Their appearance did not surprise me. One was a woman who looked like my ex-wife. She walked towards a man who resembled the figure from my dream. My Robinson. For a moment, I was faced with the people who I had come to regard as the twin conspirators of my life. It seemed inevitable somehow. As I sat watching them, the Thames flowed thickly in front of me like some kind of metal. I felt quite calm.
They passed each other without acknowledging one another. I glanced between them as they walked on their respective paths, until they finally passed out of sight.
After that day, I decided to disappear.
A longer version of this story appeared in Subtle Edens: The Elastic Book of Slipstream, around ten years ago. It’s surprising how little I had to invent. It was a question of embellishing the facts, or distorting them slightly.
It’s taken me a while to get to writing about Tom Raworth’s death, partly because life doesn’t always allow room for the losses which affect us, partly because such things always take me a little time to get right.
I met Tom Raworth in the mid-nineties. He will always feature on the short list of writers I admire who I’ve actually met, and he’s on the even shorter list of those I actually liked. I first saw him read at a poetry reading at UEA, where I was an undergraduate, studying American and English Literature. The reading took place in one of the teaching rooms on the ground floor of the library. After the reading, we all headed to the student bar. I remember it being a bright, warm evening in late summer. We stood outside drinking beer on the concrete pavilion, Tom wearing a white striped jacket and a straw hat. We smoked roll ups together and talked about poetry: about Robert Creeley, Edward Dorn, poets who were names to me, but friends to him. The one time he seemed anything less than genial was when he poured scorn on Roger McGough, for doing a voiceover for an advert. During any lull in conversation, he would hum a tune to himself, and flutter his fingers as though playing on a piano. We swapped addresses and a few weeks later, he sent me a proof copy of The Collected Letters of William S. Burroughs, which I still have on my shelf.
The next time, I caught up with him, I was studying in Boulder, Colorado. Tom had travelled out to perform on a short university tour, (‘living the dream,’ as he mentioned in one of his poems). Through him, I was introduced to the community of poets who gathered around Boulder and Denver. One of my abiding memories of that time is being seated at a table with Tom at a party. Thomas Clarke sat down to join us followed by Anselm Hollo. Ed Dorn took another seat, and finally we were joined by Bernadette Mayer, who wheeled an oxygen cylinder along behind her. Thomas Clarke started passing around an Exquisite Corpse, chiding me to add a line. To say that I felt out of my depth is an understatement.
If I get a little too autobiographical at this point, you’ll have to forgive me. This is a blog post, after all, and if you’re not expecting my version of things, then you can’t be a regular visitor to the twenty-first century. Besides, this piece isn’t intended as an obituary; I don’t claim to be able to sum up Tom’s life or career, or claim to know him beyond what I’ve already described. He had an clear influence on me, though, and it went beyond any desire to imitate his style or approach. I had written poetry ever since the age of sixteen or so, but up until meeting Tom, and reading his work, I had a generally bad impression of British poetry. Before university –and even during it, if I’m honest- I did my most of my significant reading during the summers, chewing through American poetry and novels, Beats, Black Mountain, The New York School. There’s something spirited but also limiting when you are, in Alice Notley’s phrase, a culture of one. Your ideas are what define you, but you can allow yourself to think that they are your’s alone. Discovering Tom’s poetry, where the established canonical assumptions of British writing meant nothing, opened my eyes to a stream of work had being going on all the time, without me knowing of it.
I was still writing poetry by my mid-twenties, but, gradually, the well dried up. Probably, it was a question of aptitude and talent, but I’d become disillusioned as well, not only with the rejections (although these certainly played a part), but with poetry in general. (Bill Herbert sums up things well in his blog post on Tom. I had my rejection from Reality Street too). I felt I’d backed myself into a corner, really, and switching track seemed like the best idea. I began focusing my energy on writing a novel. Fiction wouldn’t be the smooth track I was expecting (think, instead, of a junction of dead ends) but I got my novel out in the end. I would write at work during a string of part time, or low-intensity jobs: in libraries, in offices, in an old call centre over the road from a cemetery on the outskirts of Southgate, which had been converted into a ghastly open plan office. I remembered how Tom had written while working in a telephone exchange. I may have changed tracks, but I’d retained some of his method.
As a final point, it seems obvious to mention Tom’s under-representation in the mainstream. (Perhaps, I am writing an obituary, after all…) His work tends to get ignored by anthologies of British poetry, although, it should be pointed out that he excluded himself from at least one anthology that I know of, so perhaps he was happy not being represented. And, unless I’ve missed something, go looking for an obituary in one of the newspapers, too, and you’ll be disappointed. Reading through his work, as I have over the last month or so, and being drawn once again to those zippy Sixties collages which so excited me when I first read them, it made me wonder why work as fast-paced and, well, fun isn’t more widely known. I’m not sure that I should let that worry me, though. Tom was too fast and elusive for that kind of thing: always too far ahead to get caught out by the messy business of being popular. Unless you met him, of course, in which case, well, there was no one like him.
‘Yet he did not hesitate in his career, but, with a mad energy, retraced his steps at once, to the heart of the mighty London.’
Edgar Allan Poe
My daughter wants to be a detective. I’ve explained to her that this is a high aim. The other day, two men passed us on our way to school. They walked as though being chased, down an alleyway between a block of flats. She watched them pass, and turned to me. ‘I wonder where they’re going.’
I’ve spent a lot of my life asking myself the same question.
For a while around Highbury and Stoke Newington, you might see a man dressed in a double-breasted suit and tie, with a pale fedora cocked low over his eyes, a coat over his shoulders. Everyone called him The Don. He walked the streets between Blackstock Road and Green Lanes and Church Street, always with a languid patience as he examined the prices of the hairdressers, the windows of the haberdashers and cafes. I once saw him help himself to an apple, waving away the protestations of the grocer who wanted to be paid. When I moved back to that area after a few years away, I looked out for the Don as a sign that I had returned, perhaps not to a home, but to a place I recognised. Sadly, he seemed to have moved on. I encountered other familiar characters, however. A woman who suffered from an eating disorder, so weak she could barely walk. A man who wore a high leather hat, who I had once seen pissing over a shop doorway. Another man with wide hips and startling grey eyes, who carried two large bags with him everywhere. He looked like someone moving house, until you noticed him every day, seated on one of his bags on a corner of Highbury Green, looking defeated, and utterly alone. Even psychogeography has its victims.
Edward Bunker once wrote that a definition of a failure in Los Angeles is someone who doesn’t own a car. And if you don’t drive, you measure your life by strides. During the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, I walked back to Highbury from my job in an office near Holborn. Tubes and buses had been suspended. People walked in droves, orderly and urgent. (It occurred to me that tube strikes have always been endured to prepare for such disasters, simulations under the guise of labour politics). I found myself walking with a woman who wore a rucksack and wrap-around shades. Small, but muscular, she had such a sense of focus and power. We walked side by side for a few metres, but I struggled to match her pace. I thought of The Man of The Crowd, Edgar Allan Poe’s mystery of the flâneur, whose narrator is left exhausted by his pursuit of the character of the city. Ahead of me, the woman headed out into the empty street, and crossed down onto Essex Road.
A couple of years ago, I took a trip to Oslo, where I spent a weekend retracing the steps of Knut Hamsun’s narrator in Hunger. In the same way that Tropic of Cancer has a reputation for being about sex when it’s really about food, Hunger is really a book about walking. It was still on my mind when I returned to my home town not long afterwards, to visit my family. I have a strange relationship with that town these days, particularly after writing about it in my novel. Often this relationship entails walking its streets, while wondering why I chose to write about a small town heroin addict, to consider carefully what exactly I had been thinking. That time, I found myself on a narrow road up a hill in the backstreets, where a high churchyard wall seems always ready to collapse on the passing traffic. It was an area I would often find myself, during those awkward years when I practiced my escape into the world, but lacked any real destination. A figure approached me, lurching out across the years. I’d forgotten his name, if I’d ever known it. He would beg for change in the square, accompanied by a thin grey mongrel on a length of dirty rope. We would talk now and then, our paths crossing on our routes through that narrow town. I remembered his voice, which had a shrill, reedy quality to it, as though caught in the process of breaking. His eyes were large and sad, the yellowy-brown of cough medicine bottles. Now, as he approached me, I saw that his hair had frayed away into baldness, and he had grown a patchy beard along his jaw, which only accentuated the overall hairlessness of his cheeks. The dog had long gone. He still carried himself with an air of distress and anxiety. As he passed me by, it was with the same palpable need to be be somewhere, despite all appearances indicating that a timetable had abandoned him long ago. A pattern of hunger and disappointment had set him walking, probably ever since the last time I’d last seen him. I remembered why I’d written that book.
‘I walk, full of hope and faith…’
Front line reports from the Artic war. The light from Proxima Centauri. ‘This is my Husband. Have you seen him? Can You Help?’ The first images from the wastelands of Tehran. A blue whale cub, swimming in the Atlantic. A pod filmed from the ground, its vapour trail unzipping a clear blue sky…
The alarm worked its way into Morgan’s sleep. When he opened his eyes, the bells sounded out in the corridor. Approaching the door, he felt like a crossover had been achieved between two distinct worlds. Outside the residents moved down the corridor towards the stairs; the evacuation happened quietly, without complaint. Probably there was a small fire somewhere in the building. The retreat took its responsibilities very seriously; Morgan had signed a release form when he’d first arrived. ‘Just because we’re searching for something higher doesn’t mean we can ignore our legal obligations,’ the elder had said, the same man who had asked for Morgan’s handset. As he joined the procession down the corridor, he thought of how much simpler this would have been if they’d allowed him to keep it. The thought felt like a pleasant rebellion. Probably it’s time for me to leave.
The sky was clear as Morgan walked outside. Maybe it was the last trace of the pills, but as the crowd swarmed around him, he felt elevated and removed. His mind turned to three months before, when he’d sealed samples of his hair, blood and semen into a small plastic vial and transferred all of his savings to an account based in Mumbai. His insurance, his secret: he’d pushed it to the back of his mind, not sharing it with his daughter or with his friends, trying to hide it from himself. Now, as he stood under the dramatic arc of stars, Morgan pictured those pods as they drifting through the cold and the dark of space, for years, for centuries. Most would certainly fail, but there was always the chance… He thought of something Elena had said. ‘How does it feel to be one of the kings?’
People ahead of him were chattering excitedly. At first, Morgan couldn’t see what had caused this flutter of panic, but as everyone moved around the side of the house, he found himself on the edge of the crowd. Across the back garden, a section of the coast had given way. The wall had simply disappeared and half of the maze had been ripped apart as the earth had given away. A couple of elders waved the residents along the narrow shale-filled path, while the alarm continued inside the building. ‘Make your way around the front,’ one called out. ‘And keep calm… there’s no reason to panic.’ As Morgan shuffled along, he glanced over at the ruined maze. To be on one side, you would see its shape as exposed, ruined and open, but that side was now only the space between the sky and the sea. To enter into it now only meant finding a convoluted path towards the void.
One of the elders stood on the path, hurrying the crowd along. He looked anxious, distraught. Morgan was thinking about his expression when the man next to him nudged his arm. ‘You know what’s happened, don’t you?,’ he said. ‘People were over there when it gave away…’
As they moved around to the front of the house, Morgan looked out for Elena, but the path was too narrow and each time he stopped, the crowd pushed him on. Once he thought he saw her further ahead, but when the woman passed under the lights from a downstairs room he saw that he was mistaken. His group were among the last to emerge onto the lawn. The alarm continued to sound from inside while the crowd milled around, friends looking for one another under the light from the greenhouse. Morgan had been walking towards the front of the crowd when someone reached out for him. It was the Bangladeshi woman.
‘I’m so glad you’re safe…’ she said.
‘I’m fine,’ Morgan replied. ‘I was sleeping in my room and then the alarms sounded.’
They’d moved to one side. The woman stood very close to him. ‘I heard the ground fall,’ she went on. ‘And I knew, I knew that something terrible had happened, even before the alarms.’ She looked up at Morgan, her fingers tight upon his arm. ‘People were killed. You know that, don’t you? They came here to escape. And this happens…’
Suddenly, she grasped at Morgan’s hand. Her fingers felt fragile, her skin cold. They stood together, awkwardly, almost surprised to be in one another’s company. A group of elders took position on the raised ground in front of the greenhouse. One held a handset, the cold square of light giving a blue tinge to her face. As the crowd continued to murmur, she waited for quiet: the quiet which would allow her to speak, and the quiet which would answer her call. Underneath the night sky, holding onto a stranger, Morgan waited for the names.
‘How many more indignities can be heaped upon the divine memory of R Kelly?’ A girl in a red coat running the aisles of an indoor market. Baggage collated from Flight 45. Dawn over the flooded wind farm. A blue car at sunset driving across a deserted seafront.
Morgan spent the next day working in the vineyard. He wore a straw hat to protect him from the sun. He’d found it in one of the rooms on the ground floor, a split yellow panama encircled by a red paisley band. He clipped grapes from the vines. His shoulders ached. He could hear the sea. The shift finished after two hours, but when someone came to replace him, Morgan refused to be moved. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’ll stay. I want to stay.’ He threw himself into the work. He tore the plump green fruit from the vines into a plastic drum. He drank water from a dirty cup drawn from a bucket. Sweat soaked his shirt. Pain spread across his shoulders, up his back. The vines surrounded him, the trunks elegant and atrophied.
He felt, for the first time, complete. My arms are hardening, he told himself. Each time I lift them above my head I develop the muscles. I am improving myself, daily, both physically and mentally, and when these too are combined, with attention and devotion, then I can truly say that I am feeding my self. The pale financial worker he’d once been disgusted him, like something poured from the inside of a bin bag, some pale piece of fetid life nourished on the dust upon old computer screens and the fibres of office furniture, on the crumbs wedged inside the keys of handsets, on stale bottled water, brackish, tainted and old.
It was growing dark by the time he walked back to the house. He could still feel the sun upon his skin. He had a splinter in his thumb. His palms felt dry, like sandpaper. He remembered when he was a boy, when minor wounds— the scrapes, scratches, and those cherished things, scars— were trophies of experience, the desecration of perfect skin. As he walked through to the dining room, he examined the marks upon his hands and arms— cookery burns, accidental nicks from knifes and broken glass— the banal details on a map of a life. He ate his meal alone. A man played the zither on the stage. Morgan had never heard the zither before, but he enjoyed the sound, it felt pure. A group of people at the next table were talking about Kant. Morgan ignored them. He ate beans with brown rice and drank iced mint tea. Lines for a poem formed in his head, but strangely, Morgan didn’t feel the need to write them down. A poem should stay in the mind, he said to himself; the mind, after all, is a poem.
He thought of Elena fleetingly as he climbed the stairs to his room. He hadn’t seen her all day. She had left hurriedly that morning, making excuses about a shift in the greenhouse. She’d seemed distant, almost awkward, missing her usual self-assurance. Morgan wondered if he had said or done something wrong. Wearily, he feared that he’d made a fool of himself. He lay down upon his bed, expecting to fall asleep immediately, but the exhaustion failed to overtake him. Instead, it remained immovable like a dog: a dog that could be shouted at, beaten and kicked, but which would always remain in place. Morgan stared at the ceiling. He saw the sun upon the white paint, even though the sun had now set. A man and a woman walked past his door. Their voices receded into the chasm of this old house, this old hotel at the end of the world. The gentle mellifluence of the voices affected him. He felt tears in his eyes. ‘I am alone,’ he said. ‘I face all of this alone.’ He thought of all the reasons that he had come to the retreat and none of them seemed valid. He wondered what he wanted to achieve. The examined life, which previously had been so important for him, now felt pointless. Probably, Elena was right. This is an illusion, he told himself. And this is all there is. He reached over to his bedside table and took a couple of pills.
Sleep didn’t come immediately. His mind wandered. It was almost like a dream, except that he could still feel the sunburn upon his face and the aches in his arms and back. He saw himself standing upon the hillside above a great city. Glass towers stretched into the sky, traffic steamed in the canyons, an advert chattered upon a billboard. When a great wave surged in from the coast, Morgan watched as people scattered from the fury of the surge, the primal, sacred power. He saw bodies falling from buildings, bodies crushed against brick, bodies pushed under traffic, drowned with other bodies. He saw people fighting, screaming, dying. It was hard to form any judgement on it all. He felt very cold: the wave brought with it a biting prehistoric chill. Something suddenly shifted. Morgan was standing in a room with his daughter. She worked at her desk, headset on, staring at the liquid light of the computer screen. In the window behind, sea water swelled amongst the buildings: a mountain range of simmering glass, quivering with a hesitant intelligence. Morgan watched it for minutes, maybe hours until finally it poured in upon them. At the very second before impact, before the building around them was obliterated into glass and concrete, his daughter looked Morgan in the eyes.
‘I am thinking of a way to make you less guilty,’ she said.