When I was ten my father, who worked all his life in the middle management of the aspiration game, said to me: “The compass knows the map, son, it knows when the map is near. Let the compass direct you to the map but whatever else you do in this stained forsaken world keep them apart. Else there won’t be sufficient salt water in the oceans to quench the soles of yr burning heart. See this tattoo? It says the fix is in with all that hidden treasure shit.” Sound advice, though I never took it & now I work the aspiration game too only I’m out here all weathers.
Tag Archives: autobiographical notes
In the early 80s I stayed for a few weeks with some friends who lived in Ealing. The girlfriend of one of them was a fan of Robert Plant. She had dreams in which, returning to the flat after work, she discovered Robert Plant there, doing the ironing in his shorts; she also went flying and tobogganing with Robert Plant. In another dream she visited the house of a wealthy friend only to find her sister already there, trying to chain a muddy bicycle to a street lamp in the middle of the lounge. “You can’t leave your bike here!” She didn’t seem to like finding me in the kitchen, especially in the mornings, and later complained that I had been using her milk. Despite this, we exchanged letters for a while after I went back to Yorkshire. In one letter she quoted Proust quoting Wilde’s, “Before the Lake poets there were no fogs on the Thames.” I read this as “no frogs on the Thames”, which seemed even cleverer, if a bit of an overstatement. “Somebody I can’t remember,” I wrote in return, “described Proust as sitting in his own lukewarm bathwater occasionally tasting a handful of it.” She thought that unkind. “Sometimes he’s very good,” she said, then admitted, “but sometimes he reads like a middlingly successful 1970s fantasy writer trying to imitate Colette.” The only other thing I remember about that flat was the cheap plastic veneer lifting from the edges of the kitchen surfaces, which in some places made the drawers difficult to open and close.
Note made in 1983: “E’s husband is an economics lecturer with a boyish face which has begun its imperceptible slide into age without any intervening stage of maturity. ‘Washing up!’ he exclaims with a laugh. ‘Sometimes I wake up sweating in the night thinking of it!’ He wears a grey cardigan with dull suede trimmings. It is stretched and a bit thin and hangs loosely, emphasising the academic droop of his shoulders. Is this a game he is playing?” Happily, I never used this, and can’t now remember who “E” was. A bit lower down the page, after some stuff about the difficulty of describing people whose presentational style was formed two generations ago (“we only have the cliches we inherited from them”), I have written, in capitals, in red ink: “Observe facts, exhibit implications. The meaning runs in balance over the surface of the prose; the prose runs in balance from scene to scene; scenes dissolve one into the next in balance over the meaning. Invent your own ancestors. Be brief.” And then: “Sometimes I think that continuity, or the urge to it, the basic flaw of the human character.” Finally, from a letter of Zola’s, “‘What a terrible trade, where you are always beginning again, and always with the same problems…’” It seems to have been a full day in terms of self-invention, but back then I rarely had an empty one.
All things metal tapping together in the wind. Bleached fishbones one thousand miles from the sea. Sheds where you can get directions & diving apparatus. The inevitable airstream trailer. The inevitable rusty boiler. The inevitable graffito of a coelacanth. The highline of the last tide strewn with yellowish swim bladders of unknown animals like condoms inflated then varnished into fragility. Kilometer upon kilometer of unravelled polypropylene rope. Tin signs. Tied knots. A sense of petrol. Then the cliffs! with their abandoned funicular slicing up through maroon sandstone “to the plateau above”. Windows of static ice cream parlours. Buildings filled to the fourth storey with the grey flock from old padded bags. “This is where we’ll dive.” As far as anyone can tell, they lived in threes or fives, odd numbers anyway. Each household kept a small allosaur on a bit of coloured string. We have no idea who they were or when they were here or what they wanted out of life. That’s the attraction. (& afterwards to sit in the boat, tired, happy, washing a small blue item in the most gentle solvent: no one will ever know what it is.)
We believed objects shouldn’t arrive along normal pathways. They should bear a freight of difference. They should be the result of some event. If you needed a cup it wasn’t enough to go out and buy one. Artificial flowers in a thin tubular brass vase: injection-moulded plastic stems bulge into crude shiny buds & calyxes, but their silk petals are delicate enough to remind you, in some lights, of cornflowers & small poppies. I kept them in front of my desk on a bookcase, so I could see them whenever I looked up. The bookcase was interesting in itself. Someone had banged it together out of oddments of softwood. It was slathered with shiny tan varnish. Nails stuck out where the corners didn’t meet. Attracted like children to second-hand shops, builders’ skips, piles of stuff at street corners–anything other people had grown out of or away from–we had found it on waste ground in Camden near St Pancras Way, 1970. That was the last time you could be that kind of authenticity-waif. I was glad to leave it behind when the time came. Everything becomes a symbol in the end anyway. There’s no need to work at it. I kept the vase–it’s in need of a polish–but the flowers got lost somewhere.
I watched The Man From London. I enjoyed the drawn-out opening scene at the dock; the dance to the accordion with the chair & the billiard ball; & the man in the hat eating bony soup in the bar. I liked everything about it except the parts directly imported from Georges Simenon. Simenon always set my teeth on edge. As a teenager I wanted to get him in a corner & scream in his face, “I don’t fucking care what happens to these people!” I felt much the same about Alfred Hitchcock & Patricia Highsmith. Suspense defers narrative for the sake of it. To write suspense of that traditional, formalised kind is to play anxiety games with the reader based on values, identification & expectation. Suspense bored me because all I wanted to know was what happened, not what gluey, simplified, slow-motion psychological game it resolved; or what typical moral identifications & affiliations of my parents’ generation it was masturbating. I couldn’t make the necessary value judgements about the relationship between interior & exterior behaviour. I didn’t care enough about the ideological underpinning to feel pleasurable tension. Only a vast excruciating impatience.
When I was young we had three shelves of books. I remember Little Brother to the Bear and Coral Island. Most of the rest were popular military histories. World War Two was still alive in our house: my father had The White Rabbit; memoirs of Operation Market Garden; biographies of General Montgomery, one of his heroes. The rest of his heroes being engineers there were engineering biographies too. Rolt’s Isambard Kingdom Brunel, an expensive birthday present from my father to me, I could read only under supervision. I didn’t mind. I found it lacked the sadistic punch of The White Rabbit & the calming qualities of Little Brother to the Bear. My father’s record collection was small, we listened to a lot of Chopin. My 78 of Lonnie Donegan’s Rock Island Line had to be played while he was out; when he caught me dancing to it he was confused & angry. That would be 1954, 1955.
What I liked about Climbers was its one-to-one relationship with stuff. My first climbing rope was braided polyprop. They told us: don’t, whatever you do, buy a polypropylene rope & top-rope on it. So we all went out & got polyprop & drove down to the sandstone & top-roped on it. 100 foot of polyprop cost about £3.00 at the time. Nobody was daft enough to do anything but top-rope on it.
So I top-roped my first route at Bowles on three turns of polypropylene rope round the waist. There was a really neat way to tie a bowline on 3 turns, which I probably don’t remember now. My polyprop was blue & in better nick than the string in the picture above. I did a classic abseil on it the same weekend while wearing shorts & a T-shirt & burned big grooves in myself. We weren’t supposed to abseil yet, but I had a book with a diagram in it.
Every morning between nine and ten, especially if it’s raining, Barnes is full of diesel Renaults & Peugots, minicabs called to the high rise flats around the pond. The drivers, who won’t get out of their cars, switch off their engines, turn up the radio & beep their horns. The women, mainly the wives of international bankers & entertainment executives, lean out of a fourth floor window & shriek, “Cammin dahn! Cammin dahn!”, to appear later in a black leather coat, dragging a fractious toddler.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Inside, the cab is equipped with No Smoking signs & Halfords air-fresheners. The blue-grey nylon fur upholstery has soaked up all the characteristic smells of affluent west London from Chiswick down to Richmond, kebabs, sweat & some expensive perfume you can’t name. “AH. FORKEY,” says the despatcher very loudly. “Is anyone near Church Street ? FORKEY ? Church Street, anyone do me Church Street ? GRON,” & is lost in a burst of static.
“Where you want to go ?” the driver asks eventually, with a kind of neutral exasperation. He drives with his eyes fixed on something in the top left hand corner of his windscreen, especially at junctions. He is able to repeat the words “Kings Cross” as if he has never heard them before. Rain shatters the light on the windscreen. You eye the A to Z on the front passenger seat. Suddenly he says, “Cabalists speak of the breaking of the vessels. The World being unable to contain the Godhead, there was a kind of overflowing: there were ‘sparks in everything’. This is the central issue of the Lurianic Cabalists.”
“I think we need to avoid Hammersmith,” you say.
“It has clear implications for your book. Both phrases would make excellent chapter titles. The second would also make good dialogue.”
“I did once imagine a vast lion crouched on top of the Lloyds building.”
Robert Ferrigno: “Time was compressing into a dense moment, an instant around which the rest of their lives would revolve.”* I flash on something from childhood, some feeling, too brief to identify, of entrapment by one’s own choice. Writers write to find out who they used to be, then predict who they might be next. When prediction dribbles away into description, it’s time for change again. Sometimes it’s hard to see just what a fiction does predict. 1986: I thought I was the recipient of the haunted book, but I really knew I was the donor. For a while I comforted myself, “Perhaps I’m both.” But when I looked outside I didn’t really see the mystery island, or hear the soundtrack of my life playing from the dashboard of a white car. In 1986 I hoped I’d been saved from my own rage & obsessiveness: why then dream of writing stories about “starved children in Leeds, bodies in such ungainly attitudes that they already look mummified, limbs dried-up & leathery, as if they have just been dug up out of dry earth, as if they were killed by their circumstances long ago, their eyes empty & puzzled, their mouths open silently in horror & pain” ? It may have been a more complicated nexus than I thought. Restaurant dialogue overheard around that time: “Let’s face it. Cannibalism. We’ve all wanted to do it, haven’t we ? Well come on. Haven’t we ?” The UK we have now was already completely predictable then; what I would be next was harder to see & still is.
*The Horse Lattitudes