Archive for March, 2010

Unpretending Orlando:

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Scratch the fine carpet of green and there is white. The horizon line is untroubled, smooth where it meets a clean glazed sky. Few trees take root here. The powdery downs roll, curvaceous as flesh, soft valleys interlacing. Wind, fresh in every season, sweeps across the tops, smoothing the smooth. The paths are springy underfoot. They vibrate.

I have walked here with Greg, whom I call Leonard some-times, hoping he’ll publish my mistresspieces. And Suna, who drove across America with me to research my last novel. And Bob (who is dead, but left me Suna), and Sam (who is dead, but left me with the memory of his speaking voice, and his writing voice) and Virginia (who drowned herself in a river here, but left us her deep-bright voice, clear and resonant against the clamour of the early twentieth century).

Leonard and Virginia Woolf bought Monk’s House in 1919. It huddles into a slope in Rodmell, an unspoilt Sussex village of flint and moss, with narrow curving streets and sudden prospects of the downs. She wrote in her diary: “It is an unpretending house, long and low, a house of many doors”.1

Life was unpretending here: “no bath, one servant and an earth closet down a winding glade”.2 But with income from Virginia’s writing, the Woolfs spent years removing partitions and doors, installing modern conveniences such as heating and plumbing, painting the walls in wild colours, reviving the patchwork garden where “unexpected flowers sprouted among cabbages”3 and fruit hung heavily from orchard trees. Virginia was writing A Room of One’s Own while the builders were building it. But the new space became a bedroom instead. Leonard brought her breakfast on a tray and she wrote from bed when it was too cold for the place where a woman with means could write fiction: “The Lodge”.

Of course the name is dry and Woolfish. Virginia’s lover Vita Sackville-West inhabited castles with wings and courts and towers, if not lodges. She had lost her grand family prop-erty Knole because she was female. To get over the wrench, she created her own fairytale in the ruins of Sissinghurst. And Virginia created Orlando, the male protagonist who grows up in a literary version of Knole, gallivants through the centuries, writes, quests, becomes a she, and learns that property and power are everything to do with gender. Virginia started the novel “as a joke”.4

The Lodge is a small clapboard shed at the end of the garden of Monk’s House, by the churchyard wall. It has a roof of wood shingles, glass-paned doors to the front, and a window at the back. Two tall horse-chestnut trees lean in to each other by the entrance.

Inside is spare, bare boards, unvarnished. The ceiling is high-pitched to store apples, but I’m not sure if this lofty idea of Leonard’s ever bore fruit. In the corners of the room there are objects that hint at stories: a stack of deck-chairs for the summer, a quaint electric heater, an old travelling trunk stamped Ceylon. In the centre of the room is a plain inky desk of warped plywood. Here, Virginia sat with her notebooks, her pen, her tobacco and her spectacles. She sat and wrote, in her fine leaning hand, crossing out less than most, stopping to think and gaze at the view between her words.

I don’t usually haunt the haunts of the famous. But when I come to Monk’s House I feel inspired. It is intimate, informal, peaceful, colourful. I could happily live here. And Charleston Farmhouse is just a few miles away, up and down a down or two, where Virginia’s sister and assorted Bloomsburys made love not war, and beautiful things with their hands. They are sister houses. Painting and writing.

Virginia wrote steel-sharp political essays and daring poetic fiction. She loved men and women and words. She was a modernist, a feminist, a pacifist. She was the one who pointed out to me that the world’s news was full of men. Always pictures of men making decisions, governments, wars. Their pomp and circumstance, their robes and rituals, were lanced again and again by her mighty pen.

Many things have changed since Virginia Woolf’s time, but her Sussex home is much as it was, and the world’s news is still full of men making decisions, governments, wars. I notice this, fresh, every day.

The Lodge is small and bare, but the view is long. Expansive. Beyond the hedges and meadows there are great motionless waves of smoothest green, skinned to brilliant white in giant oblique patches. The South Downs. I can’t think of a better place to be lost for words. Not that Virginia ever was.

She wrote through the distraction of church bells and the neighbours’ dogs. She walked the downs every day, and she wrote as she walked, her long strides springing with the rhythms of her sentences. She found calm clarity here, away from fraying London. She wrote despite frequent illness, sometimes because of it.

For her character Orlando, writing was something of an affliction: “once the disease of reading has laid upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the inkpot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing”.5 Typical Virginia: wretchedness is wrought until it becomes wry.

After penning a frenzied finale, Orlando “was almost felled to the ground by the extraordinary sight which now met her eyes. There was the garden and some birds. The world was going on as usual. All the time she was writing the world had continued. ‘And if I were dead, it would be just the same!’ she exclaimed.”6

It’s so unpretending. And if she were dead.

Always close to this writer’s hand, death never hides in brackets.

Virginia took to writing when she was very young. She wrote household newspapers and diaries. She wrote Victorian novels and Elizabethan compositions long before discovering her own voice. She devoured her father’s library. “Gracious child”, he said, “how you gobble”.7 He censored her reading supplies until he judged her fit to choose her own books. She was encouraged to think for herself, and not to be swayed by accepted opinion, no matter how authoritative it seemed to be. Critics and opinion-formers “made one feel … that one must always, always write like somebody else”.8 Orlando understood that “the transaction between a writer and the spirit of the age is one of infinite delicacy, and upon a nice arrangement between the two the whole fortune of his works depends”.9

When Virginia was thirteen, her mother died, worn out like a fine bird in a folk tale. “Her death was the greatest disas-ter that could happen”,10 said the daughter who soon discovered deep depression and breakdown. Her father filled the family house with years and years and years of self-pity and rage, demanding devoted surrender from his stepdaugh-ter Stella (until she died), and then from his daughter Vanessa, who was too much of a painter to become fully his martyr.

“Virginia, who witnessed it all, was consumed with silent indignation”, wrote Quentin Bell of his aunt. “How could her father  behave  with  such  brutality  and  why  was  it  that  he reserved  these  bellowings  and  screamings  for  his  women? With men his conduct was invariably gentle, considerate and rational … But he needed and expected feminine sympathy”.11 Virginia  never  went  to  school.  She  missed  out  on  the expensive   education   her   brothers   took   for   granted.   And Cambridge was no place for a lady. Years later, she wrote in Three Guineas, “The very word ‘society’ sets tolling in memory the dismal bells of a harsh music: shall not, shall not, shall not. You shall not learn; you shall not earn; you shall not own”.12 It led her to imagine a new society for the daughters of educated men. The Outsiders’ Society. Between two World Wars, she saw the unisex fight against Fascist tyranny as a mere extension of the female fight against patriarchal tyranny. She knew that it was a short hop, heavy-booted, from the crushing of gender to the crushing of race or creed. At the heart of her feminism was a love of liberty. And imagination. I love her for that.

While boys went to university and sharpened their wits, the girl Outsider stayed at home writing letters instead of essays, devouring more books than was ladylike, thirsting for the clever company of her brother’s friends: Strachey, Sydney-Turner, Bell, Woolf.

Vanessa became a Bell.

Virginia became a Woolf.

And, later, Vita became Orlando – the boy, the Courtier, the Soldier, the Ambassador, the Gipsy, the Hermit, the girl in love with life, the Patroness of Letters. 13

My dearest friends are intimately connected with Orlando. Dena gave me the book and wished me “lots of Orlando-ish adventures” some time before I left Australia for a new life in England. Sonia named her son Orlando, a darling baby who “laughs so heartily at the smallest things” it takes her breath away. Greg – whom I call Leonard sometimes, hoping he’ll take up the publishing business, not just the breakfast tray – was born at the edge of the downs. Together we’ve sought out Knole, and Sissinghurst, and Charleston, and Rodmell. And we’ve returned with my mother to all these places. She’s a fan of Vita’s gardens and stories. In her e-mails, sometimes, she calls me Ginnie.

I get Vita and Orlando mixed up. One is life and one is art, but the two come together as one in Virginia’s words. Her lover/protagonist has eyes like drenched violets, “the strength of a man and a woman’s grace”, a mixture of “Kentish or Sussex … brown earth and blue blood”.14 She is restless, ambiguous and utterly literary. The novel Orlando is pointedly called “a biography” but its subject lives for centuries and switches gender. It’s dedicated to V. Sackville-West, but she is inseparable from Knole. In the dream of fiction, she doesn’t quite hand over her estate and title. In real life, her cousin inherits the earth simply because he is male.

Knole is as grand as Monk’s House is not. Orlando brags about it to some gipsies:

“… she could not help with some pride describing the house where she was born, how it had 365 bedrooms and had been in the possession of her family for four or five hundred years. Her ancestors were earls, or even dukes, she added. At this she noticed again that the gipsies were uneasy … they were courteous, but con-cerned as people of fine breeding are when a stranger has been made to reveal his low birth or poverty.”15

The gipsies’ forebears, it turns out, helped to build the pyra-mids thousands of years before Christ. Against that backdrop, Knole is something of a parvenu. Who needs “nine acres of stone” with all those rooms, all those silver-lidded dishes and housemaids dusting?16 Perhaps this is Virginia’s attempt at consolation.

But Vita, like Orlando, could never quite detach herself from the place. Knole defined her, framed her childhood imagination, linked her to literary history. There were vital clues to Shakespeare here, and a Poets’ Parlour where Pope, Dryden and other literary greats had dined with her poetic predecessors. Virginia has them dine with Orlando and she revels in unpretending: between their flashes of inspiration, men of genius are “much like other people”, fond of tea, prone to jealousies, delighted by praise, and they collect “little bits of coloured glass”.17

Virginia’s fiction was published in 1928, the same year Vita’s father died. Vita was dispossessed at her father’s death, as arbitrarily as a Jane Austen heroine. She persuaded herself that she had “finally torn Knole out of my heart” but, when bombs hit in 1944, she wrote: “the moment anything touches it every nerve is à vif again. I cannot bear to think of Knole wounded, and me not there to look after it and be worried about it”.18 She created Sissinghurst with its legendary gardens and romantic towers, and yet it was Knole that Orlando returned to again and again.

Knole is gothic, fanciful, light. The parkland today is just as Orlando saw it, falling gently like a smooth green tide. Even the deer seem to have stepped off the page. The courtyards are pale and softly golden. The rooms are filled with painted faces, leopards, grotesques and deep silence. There’s not much evidence of Vita, because she is hidden. But there is a clumsy wooden door-stop of Shakespeare – I can picture her hauling him about by the loop in his head. And there is the manu-script of Orlando, open to show Knole translated into words:

“There it lay in the early sunshine of spring. It looked a town rather than a house, but a town built, not hither and thither, as this man wished or that, but circum-spectly, by a single architect with one idea in his head.”19

Virginia crossed out more here than was usual for her. But it took her no time at all to see through the grandeur:

“…This vast, yet ordered building, which could house a thousand men and perhaps two thousand horses, was built, Orlando thought, by workmen whose names are unknown. Here have lived, for more centuries than I can count, the obscure generations of my own obscure family. Not one of these Richards, Johns, Annes, Elizabeths has left a token of himself behind him, yet all, working together with their spades and their needles, their love-making and their child-bearing, have left this.

Never had the house looked more noble and humane.”20

Just before her Second World War, unpretending Virginia wrote about the choice of evils faced by the daughters of edu-cated men: the private house with its nullity and servility, and the public world that revolved around property. She probed the oppressions within society that led to war.

She asked: “Had we not better plunge off the bridge and into the river; give up the game; declare that the whole of human life is a mistake and so end it?”21

At this page in her life she answered no.


  1. Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Anne Olivier Bell, published by The Hogarth Press, 1977-84, published in Penguin Books 1977-85, entry from Vol. 1, July 1919.
  2. Ibid, Vol. 2, 1 October 1920.
  3. Ibid, Vol. 1, July 1919.
  4. Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf A Biography, Volume 1, Appendix A, The Hogarth Press, London, 1972, p 239.
  5. Virginia Woolf, Orlando, first published by The Hogarth Press, London, 1928, published by Granada Publishing Ltd, 1977, reprinted 1982, p 47.
  6. Ibid, p 170.
  7. Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf A Biography, Volume 1, The Hogarth Press, London, 1972, p 51.
  8. Orlando, op. cit., p 179.
  9. Ibid, p.167
  10. Virginia Woolf A Biography, Volume 1, op. cit., p.40.
  11. Ibid, p 63.
  12. Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas, first published by The Hogarth Press, London, 1938, published in Penguin Books 1977, reprinted 1982, p 121.
  13. Orlando, op. cit., p 193.
  14. Ibid, pp 10, 18, 86.
  15. Ibid, p 92.
  16. Ibid, p 46.
  17. Ibid, pp 129-30.
  18. Robert Sackville-West, Knole, The National Trust, Great Britain, 1998, reprinted 2003, p.94
  19. Orlando, op. cit, p 66.
  20. Ibid, p 66.
  21. Three Guineas, op. cit., p 86.


My thanks to Jonathon Zoob and Caroline, Steven Dedman, Dottie Owens and Alma M. for helping me so generously with my research.

On a Monkey’s Birthday

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

It started with cheese. Someone was paying tribute to Brie, that pudgy French “Queen of Cheeses”. This led another to repeat Henry II’s belief in the sovereignty of cheddar, a claim enhanced by the King’s purchase of 10,000lbs of the stuff in 1170. I was rather hoping we might return to our earlier dispute on whether maize is corn or corn is maize. If they are the same, why didn’t the Bible refer to “an ear of maize”? And would the Romans have called their goddess of agriculture Ceres, name-giver to cereal, if they’d had the option of Maizey?

At this point a gnarled old boy wandered over, leant in and muttered “Belloc”. An insult, I thought. A High Wealden verbal slap for our under-age, under-the-influence joutering here in the Rose and Crown. This magical rookery, where the crouching oaks outside are forever insinuating their splin-terfingers between the weatherboards, through the thick sweet fug of logsmoke and hoptalk and dampdogpong, and down into the dark fabric of the pub.

I’d like to say there were four of us – a reflection of the book we were about to meet – but no. Three. A friend obsessive about privacy, so I’ll refer to him simply as Alfie Catt of 2 Spiked Rampion Cottages, Old Forge Lane, Mayfield, East Sussex TN20 9TR. Mark Cross, the extraordinarily hairy lead singer with local super-group Tolkien Heads. And the Holy Ghost, who we can call “I”.

Mark looked into the conker-brown eyes of our interrupter and said: “What on earth are you on about?” Alfie smiled in the man’s direction, and winked. I blushed like Sussex Flame.

Soft, just above the crawks and caws of the pub crowd, the man replied: “Hilaire Belloc. Talked about a cheese argument in The Four Men. Wrote an essay on cheeses, in fact. It’s called On Cheeses. Much better about Sussex matters than that gloompond Kipling over at Burrish. Frenchy. Liked a drop. Ar”. Then he turned and melted into a swaying gang of old boys murdering Hi Ho Silver Lining a cappella.

Mark, extracting a Capstan Full Strength from its coffin, said: “Good grief, clearly insane”. Alfie slurped his Harvey’s, eyes shut. I felt a cold snake of excitement slither down my spine and wondered where I could learn more about this fasci-nating femme écrivain, Hilary Bullock.

* * *

Turns out “Hilary Bullock” wasn’t such an original mistake. Tongue in cheek, Belloc suggested he might adopt the name. Even the family grave at Our Lady of Consolation and St Francis in West Grinstead says “Pray for the soul of Elodie Agnes Hogan, the wife of Hilary Belloc of this parish”.

Searching for Hilary revealed Hilaire, via some hilarity for the ferrety man who ran the village library. A forest of books, articles, careers and events loomed. Born near Paris in a violent thunderstorm. Outbreak of Franco-Prussian war three days later. Family fled to England. Childhood in Sussex. Soldier. Land agent (failed). Journalist. Novelist. Poet. Member of Parliament. Biographer. Lecturer. Religious apolo-gist. Curmudgeon. “How profuse and pure a genius”, noted Evelyn Waugh.1 Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children and its inflammatory star Matilda were what many people knew, along with a refer-ence to his name in The Two Ronnies (a faulty newsroom typewriter swaps each “e” for an “o”). I – a tender and earnest reader – only wanted the sophisticated stuff and ordered The Four Men: A Farrago. I didn’t know what a farrago was; some-thing to do with opera? The book would join my next literary expedition. Wracked by late teenage ennui, I wandered in search of lonely sunlit spots where I might try to understand Camus or Sartre and generally inspire myself to feel alienated. I read The Stranger in a beach-dry field of straw; Nausea in the barky embrace of an apple tree. The fruit was sweet and local, the prose always from elsewhere. Sussex writing seemed stuck in a muddy rut of histrionic doggerel. There was Kipling, but I saw him as a children’s writer (my mistake). Besides, Bateman’s – his morose walled house and garden – was where on hay-scented summer nights I tested my ability to trespass, face blackened with cork soot.

While we’re loitering without intent in Rudyard’s back-yard, I should explain that by “Sussex” I mean rural Sussex. To write both words – Sussex and rural – creates something of a tautology as Sussex is only properly Sussex when it is rural. A place must have the smell of wood about it. There are villages and towns in the heart of the county that are not in Sussex. Where are they? Everywhere and nowhere, perhaps. If this is unclear visit Horsham. Or Uckfield (where, writes Christopher Nye in Maximum Diner, the River Uck is “a site of relentless struggle between the council and the town’s graffiti artists”2). They smell of nothing, those places. In contrast, Lewes and Hastings are very woody, and most definitely in Sussex. Brighton and Hove are marvellous metropolises near Sussex. Crawley should be returned to Surrey. And Bexhill is a Kent town that has wandered down the coast into our county and refuses to go home.

Back in the reading room of some sun-dappled spinney or camomile-speckled slonk, I opened The Four Men and discov-ered farrago meant hotchpotch. I’ve learned since that it’s derived from the Latin word for mixed cattle fodder; a perfect root for Belloc’s discursive ramble from the Sussex-Kent border to his neck of the woods near Chichester. As a recover-ing Catholic who had moved with scurrilous haste from sips of sweet communion wine to illicit nights of bitter, I was relieved to find that the Roman Belloc preferred bibulous debate to pontification. True, he uses drinking to signal a communion between his principal characters, and there’s much breaking of bread to mark pledges, but everyone goes on to quarrel or sigh over very down-to-earth matters, from friendship, wealth and love to whether earache is worse than toothache.

* * *


Immersing myself in excellent biographies by AN Wilson3 and Joseph Pearce,4 it strikes me that Belloc was always an unfash-ionable writer. His religious and social prejudices did for him, perhaps. And he’s probably too prolific, uneven and outspo-ken to win posthumous renown in our world of unique selling propositions, brand reputation and political correctness.

Regardless, I’m drawn back by the verve and exuberance of his language. Belloc’s best work is a counter-blast to current anxieties over readers’ attention spans, to our timid aspiration to write “plain English” that gets to the point quickly. He wanders around his point like a farmer inspecting a cow at market; ruminating, prodding, prompting, proposing. He sets up rumbustious dialogues that stretch and strain his themes. Even his interior monologues have a sense of conversation and exchange; of opinion forming as the writing unfolds.

I find Belloc a particularly fine writer of paragraphs, rather than sentences. And long paragraphs at that. Here’s just a section of a paragraph I love, from an essay called The Mowing of a Field:

“Good verse is best written on good paper with an easy pen, not with a lump of coal on a whitewashed wall. The pen thinks for you; and so does the scythe mow for you if you treat it honourably and in a manner that makes it recognise its service. The manner is this. You must regard the scythe as a pendulum that swings, not as a knife that cuts. A good mower puts no more strength into his stroke than into his lifting. Again, stand up to your work. The bad mower, eager and full of pain, leans forward and tries to force the scythe through the grass. The good mower, serene and able, stands as nearly straight as the shape of the scythe will let him, and follows up every stroke closely, moving his left foot forward. Then also let every stroke get well away. Mowing is a thing of ample gestures, like drawing a cartoon. Then, again, get yourself into a mechanical and repetitive mood: be thinking of anything at all but your mowing, and be anxious only when there seems some interruption to the monotony of the sound. In this mowing should be like one’s prayers-all of a sort and always the same, and so made that you can estab-lish a monotony and work them, as it were, with half your mind: that happier half, the half that does not bother.”5

And here I am sitting in London trying to let my pen think for me about Belloc. The grass won’t cut. Time to head south.

* * *

Shipley. The village he made home. Very Sussex. Very woody. It’s 5 November. Stout-black clouds are brewing to the north, but here by his windmill and house – King’s Land he called it – we have sunshine and short performances of rain. Electric air suggests thunderclaps to follow. Thrushes are singing with the joy of a wet worm feast. A dryad wobbles past on a bike mum-bling “Weather”, or “Whether”. Sussex calls such climatic confusion a monkey’s birthday.

For Belloc this territory was beyond compare, even locally. In Sussex, The Resistant County he writes:

“The lines of West Sussex are long lines, like those of waves following on a wind. The lines of East Sussex are sharp, pyramidal, isolated, pointed … The men of West Sussex will tell you, when they choose to be articulate (and they can be articulate when they choose), that their landscape is the most subtle in the world; but the landscape of East Sussex is quite clearly apparent and needs no mental digging to understand it … It is strik-ing. West Sussex is not striking. It is revealing.”6

An elegant report, but quite wrong, I think. The eastern part is enigmatic. Kipling’s “secret Weald”.7 The western ground is open and inviting to the eye – long, leggy expanses of photo-genic downland with chalk-teeth smiles.

Two Sussex men disagreeing. How very unusual. “We Wunt Be Druv” goes our motto, a polished relic from the drovers. If we had an emblem it would be an immovable pig with mischievous eyes and a bunch of bluebells in its mouth. Belloc adored this theme:

“The County of Sussex has this peculiarity among all the Counties of England: That it is more resistant than any … It has always had this quality. It was a separate kingdom much later than any other county … [To this day] one may talk a little fantastically but without too much exaggeration of ‘the Kingdom of Sussex’.”8

I wonder whom he imagined as King? Later, he states: “Sussex has been equally stubborn and tenacious in its resistance to any other change, even those of our own time”.9

I’m tempted to follow this line, but rural conservatism is a dead-end lane. The past might be pleasurable to visit but you can’t expect people to live there. Besides, old Sussex was never an Eden. Its beauty was formed by the seasonal pilgrimages of swineherds, who drove their pigs into the wild woods to munch acorns. By their settlement in farmsteads, creating small, irregular fields to match tough, irregular land. By the huge growth in iron foundries making cannon, which farmed the woods and funded glorious houses.10 By each new prosper-ous generation preserving these qualities. Yes, Sussex should be protected. From unthinking rurburbanisation. From ubiq-uity. From Leylandii culture. But Sussex needs new life as well as continuity. An appreciation of what is and what could be as great as what was.

Unfortunately, Belloc’s flames burn low when he considers the future. He projects his own maudlin – Magdalene – pes-simism onto the land rather than celebrates its potential. Death, dread and sentiment stalk his feelings. Here he is in the preface to The Four Men:

“ … on this account does a man come to love with all his heart , that part of earth which nourished his boyhood. For it does not change, or if it changes, it changes very little, and finds in it the character of enduring things. In this love he remains content, until, perhaps, some sort of warning reaches him, that even his own County is approaching its doom.”11

“Doom”. How very Catholic. The personal as universal. But enough of all this, we have a public burning to attend.

* * *

A blazing star turns Lewes night to day. Bonfire Night. The oratorio of shrieks and bellows and wails begins. This humpy necropolis at the meeting point of Downs and Weald is shud-dering its ghosts from the mortar. A wake. You are not welcome, however. Lewes Bonfire Council suggests “out-siders” stay away. Police issue health and safety warnings. Trains are cancelled. Parking is impossible. It rains. Seventy-five thousand people turn up.

I can’t find reference to Bonfire in Belloc. Perhaps it offended his Catholicity, for tonight, as always on the fifth, an effigy of a Pope will burn. The infamous “No Popery” banner is already flying down by the Ouse. It’s normally a gift shop area; I’d like to add a banner declaring “No Pot Pourri”. There is serious history at play, however. Bonfires burned

across Sussex in the 1550s. According to John Foxe’s The Book of Martyrs,12 four Protestants went to the stake in my home village, Mayfield. Seventeen were burnt outside the Star Inn in Lewes. A memorial in Mayfield depicts logs and flames and declares “Thy Word is Truth”. I think of Matilda Who Told Lies, And Was Burned to Death. Remembrance of the martyrs was introduced to Bonfire in the 1850s – a Protestant response to contemporary political and religious issues.13

Mark and Alfie meet me by the War Memorial, as arranged. “Good Lord, why are you hanging around here like a bad smell?” asks Mark, now with jazz-grunge experimentalists Horny Devil. Alfie has been helping one of the societies; he can’t reveal which. I mention Belloc and Sussex and the Rose and Crown affair. “What on earth are you on about?”, asks Mark. Alfie smiles in my direction, and winks.

Torches are lit, the procession begins, rook-scarers split cold hard air, and the bacchantes chant “Oi! Oi! Oi!”. There are Cavaliers. Zulus. Mongolian warriors. Siamese dancers. American Indians. Pirates. Space aliens. A man dressed as Herne the Hunter. A long line of mixed metaphors.

Despite the anti-popery, there’s something Bellocose about this combination of dark fuming and expressive zest, this farrago of black powders. Effigies of “Enemies of Bonfire” – usually local officials – are paraded on pikes, but there’s also togetherness and vitality. Sectarian prejudice is a persistent but feint stain. For most, “Popery” has become shorthand for authoritarianism.

Following a Society to its firesite, we find ourselves mixed up in the ranks of torchbearers. A marshall dressed as a Wren screeches “Respect the procession! Respect the procession!” The pyre is lit. The Archbishop of Bonfire hollers his sermon into the wind … to blazes with identity cards … Bonfire prayers rumble. Guy’s head explodes.

I raise a glass and a cheddar sandwich to Belloc. He would probably see all this as a memorial service for lost ways – a remembrance. But I think we can choose our fate. The real story of Sussex is one of resurgence not passive wistfulness. All the energy stored in those woods; the budding promise in the earth; the enduring local passion for the land; the vibrant spirit that filled the alleys of this town tonight – Sussex still has what it takes to inspire exuberant feelings, exuberant words.

It may have ceded ground, but there is life in the old kingdom yet.


  1. From Here’s Richness, Evelyn Waugh’s review in The Spectator, 21 May 1954, of The Verses of Hilaire Belloc (Nonesuch Press (ed) WN Roughead).
  2. Maximum Diner: Making it Big in Uckfield, Christopher Nye (Sort of Books, 2004).
  3. Hilaire Belloc, AN Wilson (Gibson Square Books, 2003).
  4. Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc, Joseph Pearce (HarperCollins, 2002).
  5. The Mowing of a Field, from Hills and the Sea, Hilaire Belloc (Methuen, 1906).
  6. Introduction to Sussex, The Resistant County, Hilaire Belloc (The Homeland Association, 1929) (British Library shelf mark YA 1996 b.4884).
  7. From Puck’s Song, in Puck of Pook’s Hill, Rudyard Kipling (Macmillan, 1906).
  8. Introduction to Sussex, The Resistant County.
  9. Ibid.
  10. For an excellent description of this human shaping of the Weald visit
  11. Preface to The Four Men: A Farrago, Hilaire Belloc (First published by Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1911).
  12. The Book of Martyrs, also known as Foxe’s Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, touching Matters of the Church, by John Foxe (Published by John Day, 1563).
  13. For a thorough analysis of bonfire and religion in Lewes see Burn Holy Fire: Religion in Lewes since the Reformation, Jeremy Goring (The Lutterworth Press, 2003).

This Train Calls at Earl’s Court, Hangover Square and Maidenhead

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Loneliness comes in stylish packaging these days. Stalk the most forlorn of the homebound commuters, as they get off the tube at Earl’s Court, and you’ll soon see what I mean. Follow them to the Earl’s Court Road exit. Make a mental note of The Courtfield pub (I’ll meet you there later), and then track them through the everywhere-and-nowhereness of this metropolitan equivalent of motorway services.

They’re on a pilgrimage to the altar of pre-packed single portions: Marks and Spencer Simply Food. They’ll either forget or try not to buy anything to drink. Perhaps the twinkly clinkiness of Oddbins, a bit further down the road, will lure them in. “To those whom God has forsaken is given a gas-fire in Earl’s Court”1 wrote Patrick Hamilton in his 1941 novel, Hangover Square. Sixty-five years on, it’s a microwave and a ready-meal.

As sprawlingly melancholic as the shabby streets it’s set in, Hangover Square chronicles the gin-fuelled meanderings of George Harvey Bone. On a good day, he finds himself “going to the Kensington movie of an evening without consulting anybody, and walking back down the Earl’s Court Road and having a cup of tea at the coffee-stall and going to bed”.2 After a succession of very bad days indeed, he commits the least malicious double-murder you’ll ever read about.

Don’t assume that gin-fuelled meanderings are best tran-scribed by a gin-fuelled meanderer; Hamilton was more of a wistful workaholic. He once said “the difference between fail-ures or half-failures and the successes in this life is the difference between mild self-control and something partially fanatical”.3 While whisky and wayward women had more than cameo roles, you get the sense that his entanglements were more literary research than real-life encounters. For him, writing verged on being a religious calling, with vows to observe revelry, vitality and experience rather than poverty, chastity and obedience.

Shortly after telling his father he must be free to “follow my own career in my own way, without hindrance or help, standing or falling by myself”,4 he was incredibly committed. He got up at half past six each morning, going to bed at half past nine. He hardly ever went out. If he did, he’d try to limit himself to three drinks, sometimes resorting to a strategy christened the “Hamilton Drop”,5 making drinks last longer by topping them up with water.

Born on St Patrick’s day, Hamilton grew up in a slightly shambolic, fairly well-to-do family with literary leanings. He was riddled with anxieties and eccentricities, later comparing the supposedly cheery noise of children playing with the “unhappy clamour” of the cocktail party. He had something of a phobia about doing anything – not just the usual behind-closed-doors activities – in a room, unless completely confident the door was firmly closed. At the risk of sounding like a quack psychologist, this might have been the first mani-festation of a tendency to compartmentalise his life, going to some lengths to keep friends (not that there were that many) from different spheres completely separate. In a way, Hamilton is Earl’s Court: all those boxy flats in relentless stacks, inhabitants rarely having much to do with each other. Thinking about it, though, that phenomenon is London-wide. I’ve lived in my current flat for seven or eight months now, and have only just managed to meet the neighbours.

In 1920, when he was 16, Hamilton left home to lodge in The White House Hotel on Earl’s Court Square. He renamed it The Fauconberg Hotel in his first novel and Hangover Square, his eighth. The building is still there, but the closest I got to communing with Hamiltonian ghosts was staring at a head appearing and disappearing in a nearby window. It belonged to a woman bouncing on a trampoline and babbling on a mobile. Impressive multi-tasking.

Who knows what Hamilton’s first impressions of Earl’s Court were? When I first arrived in the city, and didn’t realise an 0208 number was social suicide, my flat was just beyond the southernmost reaches of the District line. For a long time, Earl’s Court meant nothing more than one thing: loitering on the platform, willing malevolent retro gameshow arrows to announce the glittering prize of a Wimbledon train. I now know that feeling of waiting for direction extends beyond the station. Earl’s Court is known for its transient population of students and Australians. Hamilton didn’t stay long either, lurching from one rented room to another, with occasional long-stay visits back to wherever his family had got to.

One of these moves, to New Cavendish Street, meant that he was within walking distance of his research ground: Soho. Fired up with alcohol, “the neurotic’s microscope”,6 he searched for and catalogued all the “stored observation”7 he needed for The Siege of Pleasure. The second novel in his great trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, it focuses on the transformation of a servant girl to prostitute.

He  had  mentioned  in  a  letter  to  his  brother  that  he’d decided to work on this theme, and soon set about doing some research. Hamilton’s dealings with women had never been straightforward. He tended to idolise those he found beautiful to the extent that he couldn’t interact with them easily. But he couldn’t really be bothered with those who didn’t inspire this idolatry. He was often so paralysed by his own imagined ideal version of a woman that he couldn’t actu-ally do anything about getting close to her. Hamilton admitted that he enjoyed the feeling of yearning as much as anything else. He was only able to report his first experience of “unequivocal love-making”8 in his mid-forties, with the aristocratic author who would become his second wife.

His research involved a number of prostitutes, most notably one called Lily. He claimed to be infatuated, yet all the while despising and mocking her for, amongst other things, thinking her surname, Connolly, was written “Connerlly”.9 His friends pressed him to pay his money and leave it at that, instead of mooning and yearning. But it was a long while before he could bring himself to do this – about long enough to furnish The Siege of Pleasure with accurate characters and details.

Hamilton revisited the theme of desperate infatuation in Hangover Square. George Harvey Bone is well and truly snagged on the beauty of Netta, a girl who wears her looks like magnetic barbed wire. “The fact that he was crazy about her physically, that he worshipped the ground she trod on and the air she breathed, that he could think of nothing else in the world all day long, had nothing to do with the underlying stream of scorn he bore towards her as a character. You might say he wasn’t really ‘in love’ with her: he was ‘in hate’ with her. It was the same thing – just looking at his obsession from the other side”.10

George often used to stroll around Earl’s Court, apparently without a purpose, but usually to look up at Netta’s flat and divine some knowledge about her from the configuration of curtains and lights. The point where George always stopped to look up was the exact point where, in 1932, Hamilton was almost killed by a car. You can navigate much of Hamilton’s writing by his autobiographical signposts. This is the one where fact and fiction collide most violently. According to one of his biographers, Sean French, his “left leg and arm were so severely broken that the bone was projecting through the skin. Both bones in the wrist were broken, and he suffered a number of severe flesh wounds. His nose was virtually ripped off”.11 It left him unable to write for two years.

JB Priestley believed the accident was the main reason Hamilton never achieved the following he deserved, noting that, at the time, “his public were rapidly growing; the review-ers were waiting to praise the final novel of his trilogy; and he himself was obviously in a fine creative vein, a young artist quickly maturing. Few novelists can have had a more bitter stroke of bad luck”.12 Hamilton developed a hatred of the fast-car set. Disastrous road accidents and their consequences became a recurrent motif in his work.

Of course, London isn’t a place where you can stand still, except in queues, for very long. And Hamilton knew that people become vulnerable when they stop. The city isn’t set up for reflection or contemplation. Diaries are force-fed social events until they yield an oozing foie gras of busyness. Colleagues in lifts no longer open a conversation with “how are you?” but “are you busy?”. New-build flats are marketed as havens from the hectic pace of modern life – yet when they’re next to thundering urban thoroughfares, the chances of any peace (even on that aspirational sofa) are slim. The noughties soundtrack is the white noise of relentless, often pointless, activity.

No wonder we’re starting to see a backlash, with move-ments like Slow Food and Slow City – ideas that originate on the continent, which have found an English accent with farmers’ markets and cycle paths. They’re all about taking time to notice things: flavours, experiences and, crucially, other people. Maybe, today, Hamilton would subscribe to The Idler magazine. And not just because he developed a taste for afternoon drinking.

Still, we shouldn’t get carried away with skipping through what George Harvey Bone called the “violets and primroses”13 version of life. The seamy side of Earl’s Court that Hamilton chronicled so well is still very present. Last time I was wander-ing around the area, I noticed a giant metal container on the pavement. Painted in an inappropriately innocent shade of baby blue, it sported the most depressingly catchy copywrit-ing I’ve ever seen, “Get a life – bin that knife”. It was an amnesty box for lethal weapons. George could’ve used it to deposit the golf club he used to dispatch one of Netta’s lovers. Telling Netta “It’s all right. Don’t be frightened!”,14 he’d drowned her in her own bathtub, the only time he ever got to see her naked, seconds before.

So why did a fundamentally kindly man (look out for the scenes with the cat if you don’t believe me) kill two people? When in a normal mood, George spent most of his time trying to engineer pathetically platonic and ruinously expen-sive encounters at Netta’s preferred restaurants. But things changed whenever he sensed a click in his head “as though a shutter had fallen”.15

George then felt that other people had “no valid existence; they were not creatures experiencing pleasure or pain. There was, in fact, no sensation, no pleasure or pain at all in this world: there was only himself – his dreary, numbed, dead self”.16 It’s easy enough to slip into feeling like this in the city. How can you fully appreciate people when faced with so many of them every day? With George, this feeling is taken to extremes. When his mood is numb and dead, he is controlled by a overwhelming urge to kill Netta. Though the literary device isn’t medically accurate or genuinely convincing, it does allow guilt-free sympathy for George: he does not know what he is doing.

George realised Netta wasn’t the “fireside”17 girl she pre-tended to be in the early days. He knew she’d “hoot with laughter”18 if she found out what he really wanted: a “good old cottage in the country” and “to live happily and quietly ever afterwards”. But George couldn’t help wanting it, even though it reduced him to being a “sad, ungainly man with beer-shot eyes who loved a girl in Earl’s Court”.19 A somewhat more successful dreamer, Hamilton got his country cottage, in Norfolk’s Overy Staithe. But the grass wasn’t any greener there, and he was soon trying to escape back to London for his old adventures. Hamilton’s first wife, Loïs, was described by his brother as playing “her usual part, patient, kind and sadly tolerant”.20

Throughout Hangover Square, George longs to escape, at least for a while, and Maidenhead (a deliberately sexual pun?) becomes a destination where rowing boats and redemption are gift-wrapped in sunshine. But he soon realises he can never escape himself, the idealised women or the murders, and writes “I am taking my life, as coming to Maidenhead was not of any use”.21

So let’s head back down Earl’s Court Road, and to The Courtfield pub. In the novel, it masquerades as The Rockingham, and it’s there where George and Netta first met. “It happened in the big bar of the ‘Rockingham’, opposite Earl’s Court station”, Hamilton writes. For Netta and her “the-atrical gang”, the drinks were on George that night. He “buttered in and paid. He was as tight as they were. He paid again and again, amidst their laughing and incredulous applause”.22

In Hamilton’s later years, workaholism gave way to alco-holism. Booze blotted out the white noise that had seeped into his head and drowned his authorial voice. He even dropped the pretence of the Hamilton Drop, needing whisky “as a car needs petrol”.23 When Hamilton died in 1962, his second wife, whose breathless novels he’d given up reading, described the “silence of snow”24 filling the house.


  1. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 38.
  2. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 119.
  3. Letter (Patrick Hamilton to Bruce Hamilton, 10 March 1927) quoted in Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 66.
  4. Letter (Patrick Hamilton to Bernard Hamilton 28 August 1924) quoted in Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 51.
  5. Page 257, Patrick – A Tragedy (second version of PH’s memoir) quoted in Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 65.
  6. Letter (Patrick Hamilton to Bruce Hamilton 22 June 1934) quoted Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 137.
  7. Letter (Patrick Hamilton to Bruce Hamilton, undated, probably December 1928), quoted in Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 93.
  8. Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 203.
  9. Letter (Patrick Hamilton to Bruce Hamilton, undated, probably December, 1928) quoted in Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 93.
  10. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 29.
  11. Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 124.
  12. JB Priestley’s introduction to Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (Craven, 1935) Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 125.
  13. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 68.
  14. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 273.
  15. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 15.
  16. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 17.
  17. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 51.
  18. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 28.
  19. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 146.
  20. Page 167 Patrick – A Tragedy (first version of PH’s memoir) quoted page 144 Patrick Hamilton: A Life, Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993).
  21. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 280.
  22. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 49.
  23. Hangover Square (Penguin Classics, 2001), p 7 (JB Priestley’s introduction).
  24. Letter (Ursula Hamilton to Bruce Hamilton 27 September 1962) from Patrick – A Tragedy (second version of PH’s memoir) quoted in Patrick Hamilton: A Life, Sean French (Faber and Faber, 1993), p 279.

Notes in the Margin

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

For me, it’s all about the sea. It’s where we came from. The mix of salts in the ancient oceans still echoes in our blood, whether you take this as a scientific fact or feel it in your marrow. Lovely!

Growing up aboard a wooden ketch in Falmouth Harbour, the sea and its moods were my chief concerns. My hopes hung on every syllable of the shipping forecast. Would we be seasick? Would the anchor drag? Would we get ashore to school? My head, when not buried in a book from Falmouth library, was popping out of the hatch on the foredeck to see what other boats had most recently arrived from the shores of America, Australia, South Africa or the West Indies. Did they need fresh milk, fresh bread? My sister and I would be rowing ashore to fetch these delectable prizes, and back to gaze, speechless, at the bronzed faces, bleached locks and crinkled eyes of our local heroes.

We saw hands of bananas hanging from the cabin beams. We saw beads from Canada, carvings from St Helena, scrim-shaw from the Azores, and we sipped, surreptitiously, from mugs of local rum (local to the Bahamas). We sat, quiet as sea-mice, in the corners of these cabins, hoping to remain unobserved and unsent to bed, while our parents exchanged tales, charts and weather reports with the newly arrived. Bottled dorado, Barbadian molasses and biltong from Port Elizabeth were eagerly traded for tins whose soggy labels had slipped into bilges, but whose attraction for sailors on monotonous shoestrings lay in the “surprise.”

Perched on the granite steps of the dinghy basin at the Prince of Wales Pier, where I was dropped ashore to school every day, and picked up at half past four, I smiled earnestly at every landing sailor and dreamed of stowing away. Pomona, Xlendi, Armorel, Romadi, Pegasus, Morgana … for me, the visit-ing yachts offered all the solemn promise of wave-leaping unicorns. Over the years, some of these yachts would return with news of yachts we had met before. Others sailed never to be heard of again, leaving rumours floating like wreckage in the doldrums. The stories went on into the small hours, wreathing with tobacco smoke and the flicker of Tilley lamps, giving me a lifelong fascination with tales tall and small.

The main reason for living on a boat in the seventies, I discovered, was to “escape the rat race.” My visions of giant rodents on the West Way, where we went to visit grandma in Ealing, were crystal clear. Myth and reality mingled perfectly in my life afloat. They still do. It’s what makes me write.

In the breezy May of 1976, Baroque arrived, to excitement in the harbour. The skipper was Bill (Major HW) Tilman, a notoriously grumpy, living legend whose books about voyages in his first boat, Mischief, were on the cramped wooden shelves of every yacht I’d ever been aboard. Mischief in Greenland, Mischief in Patagonia, Mischief Among the Penguins. I hadn’t read them then. Their damp-curled pages ranked, with Slocum, Chichester, Hiscock, and Reed’s Nautical Almanac, amongst the bibles of the world’s sailing population. “See if you can get aboard” grinned my father.

He might as well have suggested I invite myself to tea with Ancient Mariner.

But I was a lot braver then. I simply rowed circles around Baroque, singing sea shanties, until his crew finally let me aboard. I sat chirruping nonsense in the cabin, dark and damp as church and almost as awe-inspiring, until Major Tilman, somewhat surprisingly, offered me a can of coke. He asked my name, but couldn’t catch it: “Benny?” “No, Penny. I’m a girl!” I might as well have said “duchess.” In the disconcerted silence that followed Tilman growled at his crew, “Well, fetch her a glass!” Ladies drank from glasses, even if they were only ten years old. He signed our new copy of Ice with Everything and subsided into his bunk, staring up at the deck beams as if he could see right through them. I’d seen that look before. It was the thousand mile stare of men stuck in port, waiting for the wind. I knew he wanted to be back at sea, and I knew, without having the words yet, why.

Thirty years later, the mere idea of writing about Tilman has me nervously splashing my oars and singing off key. Few outside the sailing or mountaineering communities will ever have heard of him. How to do justice to the man’s deeds, let alone his words?

Tim Madge’s excellent biography, The Last Hero, is an insightful and inspiring account of a man whose life was spent compensating in heroic effort and achievement for all the lives Tilman saw lost in the mud of the Somme, before he was twenty years old. It was as if he was trying to do every-thing he thought that they, “so many better men, some of them friends,”1 could have done, or would have done, if they had not been killed. In Two Mountains and a River he alludes to his distress by quoting Coleridge: “And a thousand, thousand slimy things/Lived on and so did I.”2

Tilman was fond of quoting. It absolved him from more personal revelations that he found uncomfortable. After win-ning a Military Cross in the First World War, still aged only twenty, he went to Africa to carve a coffee plantation from the jungle, where isolation and his own unsociability left him to read the whole of Dent’s Everyman in his spare time. Carving completed, and library exhausted, he grew bored and switched to prospecting for gold. Prospects unimproved, he then cycled across Africa, east to west, living for two months on bananas. This exploit inspired his first book, Snow on the Equator. Real readers can’t help but dream of being writers.

While in Africa, Tilman met and climbed with another exceptional writer–explorer, Eric Shipton. The two became known as the “terrible twins” of their generation, pioneering the oxygen and climbing techniques that eventually helped Tensing and Hillary reach the summit of Everest. Tilman wrote seven books about mountaineering, recording an era, and a sense of endeavour, that is lost forever.

Already into middle age, he then decided to sail to his mountains, and wrote a further eight books. In language as plain and wiry as a salt-rimed length of hemp, he carries the reader safely through icebergs, williwaws, kelp, storms, mutinies, and uncharted islands. His style is consistently understated. “On a voyage to Iceland in Mischief we once watched the eruption and formation of a volcanic island where the successive explosions under the sea and the uprush of steam, smoke and ash to a great height were sufficiently awe-inspiring.”3 Sufficiently!

The only romance he ever refers to was the sea itself. On the trip from Las Palmas to Montevideo, en route for his first adventure in Patagonia, he writes: “For the next seven days we ran in the full swing of the trades. These were days of glorious sailing. The sun blazed down till the pitch in the seams bubbled, the dazzling white twins swayed and curtsied until their booms kissed the water, while the ship rolled lazily along her run of more than a hundred miles every day. … We even had flying fish for breakfast every morning with no exertion at all.”4

Tilman’s love of nature was more than gastronomic. Sighting polar bears in Arctic waters made one whole voyage worthwhile. He frequently identifies wild flowers and plants, noting the “pleasing” scent of wild ylang-ylang, or the fact that Kerguelen cabbage must be boiled for three hours to make it edible. In the Patagonian Channels, he blends admiration with a dry, self-deprecating humour, and a rare reference to his experience in the trenches. “Several more floes of fantastic shape and delicate blue colouring, now drifted by close to the ship and were greeted with pleased cries, much as some ignorant clown might greet the first few ranging shots of a hostile battery.”5 Securing a safer anchorage, Tilman left half the crew in charge of the ship, and went ashore with the rest to make the first ever crossing of the Patagonian ice cap, from Chile to Argentina.

The restraint in his prose makes Tilman’s honesty all the more poignant. In Mischief’s Wake includes his obituary for his first yacht. Mischief struck a rock on someone else’s watch, and, after days of painful rescue efforts, while she was battered by sea and ice on a beach, she sank as she was being towed to harbour. “For me it was the loss of more than a yacht. I felt like one who had first betrayed and then deserted a stricken friend; a friend with whom for the past fourteen years I had spent more time at sea than on land, and who, when not at sea, had seldom been out of my thoughts … I shall never forget her.” His final reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost says it all: “The world was all before her, where to choose / Her place of rest, and Providence her guide.”6

Tilman sailed and climbed without any of the technology or corporate sponsorships that insure the modern hero. Not for him the weeping on camera in a cockpit dwarfed by mighty seas. When they sailed, Tilman and his crew knew that they might not come back. In trouble, the only ones to save them would be themselves. He would not have wanted it any other way.

Writing for a stunt-hungry publisher was the last thing on his mind. He was lucky enough not to have to earn a living, or rely on a sponsor, but worked harder than most labourers at sea or on the mountains. The only solace he could find ashore was in painstakingly trekking ink across pages as empty, white and defiant as unexplored glaciers. For this alone, he is my hero. His favourite word on the map of Patagonia, was “inesplorado.” Unexplored. As a woman who loves the sea, the ice and occasional degrees of solitude, I believe this was not, as Freudians might have it, the desire to penetrate the unbroken, but the desire to be alone with the purity of creation: “to seek those first experiences and try to feel as felt the earlier man in a happier time, to see the world as they saw it.” (Tilman quoting Belloc.)7

Was Tilman a man driven, or drawn? Hard on others, he was harder on himself. Was he driven by survivor’s guilt, a heavy-handed father, or a Victorian work ethic? He stead-fastly refused to comment on his own motivation for doing anything, this time resorting to Stevenson: “In the joy of the actors lies the sense of any action. That is the explanation, that the excuse.”8

I don’t believe any man could be driven to do what he did, given that he had a choice, and could have retired on an independent income to sit on his war laurels. Tilman chose to sail and climb.

So what is it that draws a man to spend most of his years at sea, with companions he hardly knows?

Space. Ice. Waves. Wind. The unexpected. The unknown. The primeval pull of the sea in the blood, salt calling home to salt. Even on the glaciers, or in the ice, Tilman was treading frozen water, frozen sea. My sense is that Tilman went back there because that’s where he felt he belonged.

The feeling of belonging, whether to a lover or a family, a group of friends or a country or, ultimately, in the world, is essential to human happiness. Belonging is the antidote to loneliness. Tilman, a self-confessed hermit, found it hard to “belong” with most people, but perhaps even harder to be totally alone. The fact that he never took the single-handed sailor’s route was not because it was impossible to do so in icy waters, but because he didn’t want to. There is an undeniable satisfaction in putting together a crew of men who might walk past each other in the street, but who, when crisis comes, will pull together and survive. Tilman learned the value, and the vulnerability, of human bonds in the trenches. He never lost it. He was much more human, in that sense, than he is generally given credit for.

Between 1954 and 1977, Bill Tilman sailed over 160,000 miles across the world’s oceans. In 2002, I crewed a paltry 500 miles on a steel ketch from Ushuaia to Antarctica. The month we spent cruising the Antarctic Peninsula showed me a beauty I felt was holy. Magnificent icebergs lured and appalled me in equal measure. The sense of awe was overwhelming. No wonder Tilman was drawn.

Down below in the cabin, I felt as much at home in the frozen south as I did as a child in Falmouth Harbour. I lay in my bunk, listening to the water burbling along the hull, while the “bergy bits” scrabbled past, and imagined the molecules of unfrozen ocean, each linking to the next, all the way back to Falmouth on the other side of the world. Home on the water, is home, anywhere.

Incorrigible as always, and wishing to celebrate his eightieth birthday in Antarctica, Tilman sailed as crew on a converted tug, En Avant. The voyage to Rio de Janeiro was very happy. En Avant sailed for Port Stanley in November 1977. She never arrived. The old man of the sea, and his brave companions, had gone.

I can’t leave him there. In honour of his underestimated humour, and his kindness, I’d rather leave you with his views on elephant seals, as he met them in the Crozet Islands. “Should an aggressive old fellow decide to shuffle forwards one has to step back pretty smartly. The youngsters have better manners. They just lie with one eye open and the other half shut as one approaches, and if one begins stroking them they shut both and go to sleep again.”9 Imagine this fierce old mariner sitting quietly down by a young seal, and stroking it to sleep.

It’s lonely at a keyboard, for any writer. Humdrum, tap-tap, on a voyage across the unknown, in search of the extraordinary. I’m a copywriter these days. It’s an artisan’s job, managing language for people who can’t, the way a ship-wright handles timber. It’s still about telling stories. That’s how I grew up: listening out for the fabulous thread that spins into a narrative spell.

Living on the water taught me to observe the world from its margin: the quiet, unregarded space in which some of the most sincere thoughts are often noted. My marginal life was a gift to me from my parents. Tilman’s was a brave and remarkable choice.

My next adventure will no doubt be on paper, that daunting voyage across the wilderness of my novel. Like the icebergs, this lures and appals.

But “To the brave all things are possible.”10 That’s me, quoting Tilman.


  1. HW Tilman, “Two Mountains and a River,” The Seven Mountain-Travel Books, Mountaineers Books, 2003, p. 517.
  2. Ibid.
  3. HW Tilman, “In Mischief’s Wake,” The Eight Sailing/Mountain-Exploration Books, Diadem Books, 1993, p. 651.
  4. Tilman, “Mischief in Patagonia,” op. cit., p. 42.
  5. Ibid, p. 81.
  6. Tilman, “In Mischief’s Wake,” op. cit., p. 658.
  7. Tilman, “Mischief in Patagonia,” op. cit., p. 21.
  8. Tilman, “Mischief in Greenland,” op. cit., p. 263.
  9. Tilman, “Mischief Among the Penguins,” op. cit., p. 191.
  10. Ibid, p. 203.

The Diadem Books collection includes an introduction by Colin Putt, one of Tilman’s crew, and a more comprehensive bibliography. For anyone seeking a Tilman first edition that might have been to sea on someone else’s boat, these notes might help.

Mischief in Patagonia first published by Cambridge University Press, 1957. Mischief Among the Penguins first published by Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961. Mischief in Greenland first published by Hollis & Carter Ltd, 1964.

Mostly Mischief first published by Hollis & Carter Ltd, 1966. Mischief Goes South first published by Hollis & Carter Ltd, 1968. In Mischief’s Wake first published by Hollis & Carter Ltd, 1971.

Ice With Everything first published by Nautical Publishing Company, in association with GG Harrup & Co. Ltd, 1974.

Triumph and Tribulation first published by Nautical Publishing Company, 1977.

Diadem Books also published HW Tilman, The Seven Mountain-Travel Books. The collection is also published by Mountaineers Books. It comprises:

Snow on the Equator, The Ascent of Nanda Devi, When Men and Mountains Meet, Everest, 1938, Two Mountains and a River, China to Chitral, Nepal Himalaya.

Tim Madge’s biography, The Last Hero, is published by Hodder & Staughton.

Bob Comlay, another of Tilman’s crew, runs a fascinating website with some beautiful photographs at


Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Keep going. Everything is cyclical, all things loop, even those without a tail. Believe in motion and the starts, middles and ends will, by force of nature, play musical chairs. “Time” does little more than coerce us into thinking that a walk is “linear.” Ask Richard Long. On the surface, his life’s work is making circles and lines through walking. It’s not so much his poetic geometry that fascinates as what happens to us all when we walk outdoors. By putting one foot in front of another, I hope in some small way to prove that time, is indeed, a dodo. miles: 1

seeds:  26

longs: gangster rabbits, write dryly under bridge, a gale broods, magic of the moonlit teasel

Thalking already. This is what landscape does to us – begs the brain to take a delta of walks simultaneously. The Harry Hill of rambling. Translating thalking into writing is a hazard. The telepathic ether from land-to-foot-to-head-to-hand is, at its most lucid, a bovine mode of dictation. Keep noting. Words are restless, hungry to the point of mute, from being born on a many-too-many-mile trek through ground that cried every acupunctural step of the way. Start a walk 98 per cent man. End it 98 per cent land.

O    S    M    O    S    I    S    O    F      W    A    L    K    I    N    G

ROCK  –  BOOT  –  SOCK  –  SKIN  –  BLOOD  –  BONE  –  SOUL

Distance loves direction. As the kittiwake flies, the most southerly north coast of mainland Britain lies 26 miles from the most southerly south coast of mainland Britain. With January daylight, at a modest pace and no knee jip, it’s doable. Just. Hurl in a force 8 SW gale and a reservoir of rain per hour, then the distance doubles. Walking into weather that got out of the sky the wrong side is, well, fun. But weather changes the gender of land. Nursery slopes grow muscles with the up of a gust. Rain saturates the pores of a moor that will limpet a trespasser’s boot. “BABAM!BABAM!BABAM!” says the sun as it dries out the moisture cushion so that the heels absorb the daddy of all upper cuts. And finally, beware, the seven fatal interferences of terrain. Sleet. Snow. Frost. Ice. Dew. Dung. And duff shoes. All of which are simply land’s way of playing

hard to get.       miles:  2

seeds:  25

longs:  giant concrete cruet, monkey-puzzle

cacophony, parachuting Santa cruci-

fied to chimneybreast

I write about a walk, while paradoxically, I sit. Still. My memory orienteers through thick skull-fog for eidetic paths. These paths, mown by foot, will fade unless followed. Keep ferreting. Kinetics is a law of Long. Movement is his medium, just as my fingers meander with their own delicious spirit, governed only by the law of QWERTY. Even the finest laptop words are genetically modified. CUT. EDIT. PASTE. Yet, if I channel my thoughts through a single point of pencil lead that was itself once land,

my free-range free-will erupts.       miles:  3

seeds:  24

longs:  panzer of seven

conifers, two

human mornings,

one canine hello, public byway verses private myway

People once belonged to land. Now land belongs to people. Blame the Benedictine monk, Fra Luca Bartolomeo and his double entry bookkeeping that gave rise to capitalism and the owning of everything. As the sea nibbles away at the cliffs, the notion of common land for the common man shrinks. I see it now … “Mother Ocean v Mother Earth … cannibalis-tic tussle of oestrogen … refereed by Old Father Time … book now for your ringside seat … with ever decreasing legroom … at the Great Outdoor Super-Slow-Mo Reality Show.”

miles: 4 seeds: 23

longs: head high footing for a tree house, drunk driver remnants, tarmac stream races to the ford that flirts a fortnight a year

Impermanence appeals to Long.

miles: 5 seeds: 22

longs: confrontations of a bull, “rifle shots ring out in a ballroom night …”

He sings with his feet. The land-scape mucks in as his orchestra. miles: 6

seeds:  21

longs: dolphin stair lifts of Gurlyn Farm where they grow operatic ladies

The hills play Sigur Ros to me. I hear a “landguage” I pray I’ll never understand, for fear of its beauty waning. A waft of wind turns a dying weed into a reed, and blows its last gasp of philharmonic joy. How the fields can sing.

miles: 7 seeds: 20

longs: malachite moss, apish swings over iron oxide swamp, thumb gash gapes open, make-life-up-on-the-hoof-and-it-smiles

Walk a Dogme walk. Take only a skeletal script: to plant a shrine at every mile. Tiny stacks of sunflower seeds hand-grown in urban SE1 to be hand-sewn in tundra TR12. These Lilliputian cairns mark the passing of a point. The walk is a wake. The seeds are my ashes. Head south with my DIY crematorium. miles: 8

seeds:  19

longs: the Shawshank tree, Dr Gilly’s mucus-coated energy bar, apartheid of daffs

Smell the shape of the land. Contours are 50 per cent concave, 50 per cent convex, 50 per cent confusion. With every season, altitudes grow a size, then slim a size. Terra firma is a fib. Nature taught fashion how to move, baby. miles: 9

seeds:  18

longs: lost, went the way the map said no, serendipity, Yorkshire couple contra-Sherpa one another over cup of tea they never offer as I stand there shivering

Long’s precision is my suck-it-and-see. His stride invigilates Ordnance Survey. This disentwined crop-circle-of-a-man is forever in sync with the wild canvas he walks upon. Nature looks forward to Long. miles: 10

seeds:  17

longs: rainbow’s end, sunbow’s start, plant seeds at Rocky Lane nursery and sting forehead

A mountain laun-ders the head of a thousand dilemmas. The air alone sifts the gunk, allowing the heart to think and the lungs to sprint. Psychotherapists should listen to us at the top of a hill if they are ever to sell us happiness. Conquering a peak, whatever the height, can wipe the sulk from a teenager or assuage the grief of a widow. It can unite the most hated of enemies and still make an accountant strip naked. Mountains move men, women and at a push, IT consultants. They offer the peace money can’t buy. Serenity is the freeholder of all summits, so go climb even when the weather’s beating down the door for

the rent.       miles:  11

seeds:  16

longs:  school song sung into oblique wind

on top of Godolphin hill, Turkish

power-lifter holly tree wee

Only when we stop do we sense the random interconnectedness of the world about us. Ground is gravity’s lawyer. Tide is sea’s lung. Cloud is sky’s belly button fluff. That is this there. Me is the geology of I. Every thing is related; all we have to do is unpick the lineage. Keep weaving. We are as much mineral or vegetable

as we are animal.       miles:  12

seeds:  15

longs:  Castle Pencaire, many stone

circles, a Scott-gazumped-by-

Amundsen feeling,stab seeds

in sword-of-remembrance sand

so the wind won’t blow them

all away

Writing outdoors floods our veins with chlorophyll, and strips away that veneer of cosy domesticity. It anchors us deep in dialogue with the land and serves up a 4,600,000,000-year conversation, which may, or may not, include “the weather.” Stand up while writing and our relationship with the page alters again. With both feet firmly rooted to the ground, the earth’s primordial energy and urgency surge up from the core to the crust in half a yoctosec-ond. The writer who stands knows how to boot a benign phrase up the backside. Ask any biped. miles: 13

seeds:  14

longs: 194 metres, Tregonning Hill, I love you text from Kate, prayer out loud for Tony

The Bible, rumour has it, was written by a penguin, stood stark-ers, on a small hillock, in rural Greenland. Keep believing. miles: 14
seeds:  13
longs: seeds sewn and flown, Culdrose clones, camera dies, dead animals run free
Outprisonment is the future for crime. If we sentence the guilty to do time in the open, we remove subordination and their carrot of escape. A one-year walk across “all that nature can throw at him” will redirect the morals of a man much deeper in his gut than serving twenty years inside. For solitary confinement, read solitary exposure. miles: 15
seeds:  12
longs: San Andreas Fault in crust of Queens Arms pie, cycling vicar brags of brass tombs
As the body tires, we try death’s dress on. Call me bleak, but I’ll be happy to die today, providing it’s outdoors, beside a stream, after a full day’s fatigue, with a bird in song, a tree in bloom and a butter-fly in flight. miles: 16
seeds:  11
longs: Breage olde morgue, teasel lapelled pallbearers lay a football team of seeds to rest
Shadows are shy.
miles: 17 seeds: 10
longs: Rinsey road chemical blackberries, hedge is a mile long brolly

Horizons fidget.       miles:  18

seeds:  9

longs:  medusa snake

climbs Kate’s

hair tree,



beach, sea carves granite Buddha for meditating seals

Every journey by foot is a pilgrimage, even if its reason is never to be known. Richard Long teaches us to trust a walk. The land always delivers, even in its most barren moments. Dragging a foot, bead upon bead of cascading sweat, a hermit cloud. He is not precious how he creates his pieces, only that the method is easy and appropriate. Often, the paucity of materials can force the land to declare its composition, as if by chance. This faith in fate gives roots to his work. Every single word of text has to fight for its place in our world, and once we

become witness, it holds us to ransom.              miles:  19

seeds:  8

longs:  Gaza Strip



gusts, cow



See the wall not as an obstacle, but as an element, and all the pieces will fall right into place.

M  A  R  A  T  H  O  N

M I L E S       26 L E T T E R S

A  L  P  H  A  B  E  T

Start to feel the lean of the loop. The centrifugal pull of home. Despite all attempts to walk a line from A to B, I am now convinced that the sequence is not that logical. Fibonacci was onto something. Keep going forward but never dismiss what you leave behind. Destination is overrated and admits as much in its ontology class. All that matters is place. miles: 20

seeds:  7

longs: thrift duvet warren, down below 10 ft barrels of salty insomnia avalanche in, under, up ‘n‘ over

Grass gets springier the closer you get to the sea to help suicides jump. Keep breathing.       miles:  21

seeds:  6

longs:  the wrestling fields,

tamarisk boulevard,

wind freewheels me

like a child

Bottle the sensation of writing downhill. Release the breaks of doubt, the screen goes black and the uninhibited me can feel what darkness does to the written word. Hit the chiaroscuro key. The silhouette skyline clings to the rind of the emerging moon. I sense the odd punctuation of light, an electric bush, palsied sheep with neon eyes. Gulls play crows at aerial chess. The crows cheat. Keep plotting. My route waltzes with civi-lization; a wavy line that marries then divorces then remarries then adulterates then celibates. A river slurs its reflection. Sad tapered tears of light dagger their way into the flickering ripples of an alcoholic alter ego and make me gag for dense, red wine. Is this why sleeping under stars rams 40,000 volts though our soul? Keep camping. miles: 22

seeds:  5

longs: chips with every-thing, deed fried in sunflower oil, potatoes must grow ready-battered

Space. Inner, Outer, Third, Fourth, Absolute. Why do we try so hard to put space in a box? Its beauty is its borderless blankness.

See. Keep pausing. miles: 23 seeds: 4

longs: hate usurps spite, Morrissey miserypiggybacks me, Gunwalloe 334

Nature is innu-merate, thank God, as I am too. Yes sure, there are patterns and rhythms, but every single blade of grass is its own size, shape and colour. Try as they might, plants cannot grow metronomically. Some are social, some solitary, some sow themselves a land mass away. But come autumn and a zealous prevailing wind, they may just park side by side again, such is the freedom of propagation. Keep blowing.

miles: 24 seeds: 3

longs: macabre Loe Bar, shout punk anthem against elements

The weather is having a complete nervous breakdown and I am no Samaritan. I fight thunder with thunder. Angry symmetry. Feel like naming a band after this reaction and immediately soothe. Wondering if Long’s stoic calm ever simmers over. Return aptly, to symmetry. Recall a forty-foot face I made nine years ago in the camber of a cliff at Gurnard’s Head and how, one year on, the sculpture was lost to the unshaven land. When Long does return to his work, it is not to admire or record it, but to dismantle it.

miles: 25 seeds: 2

longs: empty words in fertile mouths, tell the age of a bench by the depth of scuff beneath it

My haggard hands are now caked in Avon mud to feel the phenomenon with which Long makes his installation murals in galleries across the world. Despite two weeks in a bag, the mud has no stench. Yet it retains a viscosity, which with water, allows him to paint by hand using the land. Another beautiful circle com-pletes. Time throws in the towel. I raise my mudded paws, shattered but happy, and expend my last few joules in search of a title.

  1. “AN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF TENACITY.” Kind of true, but kind of bloated.
  1. “OF.” Immense little filler of a word. Poignant, powerful and wedded to landscape, just like Long himself. As is: to, at, in, up, he, me. So no go.
  1. “FOOTNOTES.” First word I wrote prepping for this project. It stuck with me. Intuition says I told you so.

miles: 26 seeds: 1

longs: darkness mugs dayness, right knee sighs & sings “oh coastal path … take me home … to the place … where I belong …”

“A Legendary Lazy Little Black-Magical Bedlam by the Sea”

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Laugharne is a small town on the coast of South Wales, not far from Carmarthen. The poet Dylan Thomas lived there, off and on, throughout his life. His last house is now a museum dedicated to his life and work on the muddy shore of the estuary. The town has made much of its connections with the poet; Brown’s Hotel, one of his favourite pubs, has an image of him on its signage and photographs of him cover the walls inside. There is a five-star hotel called Dylan’s. The actor Neil Morrisey has invested much money in the town, including, allegedly, buying Brown’s. The setting for Thomas’s most famous work, Under Milk Wood – a town called Llareggub (read it backwards) – is undoubtedly modelled on Laugharne, as well as Newquay in Cardiganshire, where Thomas also lived, for a much briefer period. His rotund and crapulent features dominate the town now as much as the huge castle does (and where novelist Richard Hughes once lived. But that’s another story).

FIRST VOICE (very softly)

Let’s begin:

It is mild, wild winter, February in the small seaside town, sunless, herring-smacks abob under a bruised-blue, contused-maroon sky, cobblestreets silent and only the lover’s wood snuffling and shuffling and rustling bow-legged down to the –


Shite! It is 2006! He’s been dead half a century! And the only reason the place is so quiet and not full of gawking Yanks (whose homeland he died in) and be-tweeded scholars agog for the mystique of presence as if a fifty year’s dead ghost could ever offer such a thing is cos it’s so fucking freezing. I’ve been here before, and I’ve seen them peering dewy-eyed into the shed where he wrote and hoping to absorb something of the shore all mussel-pooled and heron-priested and the black cap of jackdaws that dons Sir John’s just hill and the hawk on fire hanging still and never do you hear them cry look! There! Those are the steps he fell down pissed and cut his head open or that’s the tree he vomited on or that’s the bush he pissed his pants under on one of the many nights he spent here parabloodylitic. I’ve seen them, ghoulish, worrying the bones of the talcum dead. I’ve heard them, foolish, blustering and fustian in their attitudes and words. They want him, they do. They’ve always wanted him. They need him desiccated in their studies and they hope that somehow It will rub off on them, the ecstasy that has left him as it always does rotted down to mulchy marrow in the sloping graveyard on the hill. All proxy and vicarious it is. You’re talking shite.

FIRST VOICE (softly still)

No, listen; only you can hear their dreams. Only you can hear the –


Banging techno from the chav-wagons.


Dumph dumph dumph dumph DUMPH DUMPH dumph dumph


And, in the Cross House pub divided now into Polly Garter’s Lounge and Captain Cat’s Bar and where every standing or sitting space is occupied by a close cramped crowd watching Italy play England in the Six Nations on the big screen, the silent local grumbling in his skull:


Them faces I dunno but them faces I’ve seen cos all the same they are; another bunch of Yanks or Sais queer for the ghost of the fucking poet.


C’mon Italy c’mon the Eyeties.




Glug glug. Aaaaahh.


And taken by a booze-buzz you are out of that pub and up the hill and down a wet-stone alleyway past the white clock tower that has a Mediterranean tale to tell and doesn’t ring in the mornings any more. In search of food you are but not yet and the Stable Door restaurant (which, you recall, does good tapas) bears an advertisement for the Dodo Modern Poets, £18.50 including two courses and fuck me you think, eighteen flippin’ quid, and you bend to stroke a friendly cat and hear a high humming like mad wasps caught in a bottle and you look up and you see two propeller planes looping-the-loop over Sir John’s Hill and it is like a small visitation from another age and you wish you had a topper to toss in the air. Who was Sir John? you think and for a while you watch the aerobatics.

FIRST VOICE (softly)

Yes, oh yes, you watch the weakening sun slice silver from their wings.


And you go down the of course Dylan’s Walk past the com-memorative bench-stroke-shelter that bears lines from Under Milk Wood and you stop at the Writing Shed which, on a plaque outside, has lines from “Poem on his Birthday,” the last of which is “as I sail out to die.” You think two words: Melodramatic arse, and you peer in through the window and see the desk and the empty bottles and the crumpled papers and the images of Blake and Lawrence on the walls and the shells and the stones from the beach and the oil lamps and the fireplace with paper balls and dry sticks in it and the whole thing looks half a century old and just as you’re wondering how much at auction those crumpled and discarded work-sheets would fetch the alarm is activated either from some remote point or from a timer-switch and it bleeps and pips in your ear as if it has read your thoughts so you go further down the walk to the Boathouse itself (past a sign that cries “SAVE DYLAN’S WALK!”) which is closed now but you’ve been there before and you remember thinking what a wonderful place it would be in which to live and write and –




at the age of 39 younger than you are now no I don’t think so. I mean being alive is so fucking –


Laa-ger! Laa-ger!


On down slow to the hushed and wave-washed, scalloped shore where –


there’s another bleedin’ monument thing, this one a pair of wooden benches adorned with wooden fish and birds and a central totem between them with the letters “DYLAN’S WORDS” wriggling vertically down it like a worm. “ON MY SEA’SHAKEN,” it says, and “BREAKNECK OF ROCKS,” and the castle looms above it like castles always do. Looming is why they were built. And crows man or rather bird the battle-ments and you feel like you can see their eyes but you can’t, of course. They’re too far away.

FIRST VOICE (softly)

Oh yes but you can hear them, can’t you? Heed their bird-thoughts my lost one bounced from a good home. Only listen to how they fly:


Drink! Drink! Drink! Drink!




And see the marsh from where the Llansteffan ferry once sailed but not any more. And see the buoy in the waves which for one hopeful moment you think may be a seal or a dolphin and yes there are some boats, yes, not bobbing because they’re stuck in mud waiting for the tide to free them. And wonder if those waves lap over any drowned and dreaming sailors and if those drowned ones could talk what words would they utter or what do they murmur in their briny dreams? Maybe just one:

THE DROWNED (in a slow, low voice, like a 45 rpm record played at 3313⁄) reeeeeeeeeeggreeeeeeeeeetttt


But oh the songs they sing! Oh the sadnesses and raptures of their salty celebrations and psalms! Listen, and you’ll –


hear the splat of the shit that leaves the crow like a soft white bomb and lands on the wooden bust of the poet that stands in the little garden beyond the castle carpark. Dark wood now run with white shite over the accurate bulbous nose and across the full and blubber lips. “LAUGHARNE YOUTH CLUB” says a sign and sitting on that sign is a young lad in trackie and Burberry pecking with his thumb at his mobile phone.




And you leave the carpark and cross the road and go back into the Cross House pub.


All go so quick they do once the rugby’s over. Which the fucking Sais won. But they’ll be back after they’ve done the rounds, up to Brown’s and The Mariner’s and then back down the hill to here unless they go off to St Clear’s for the change or off to a club in Carmarthen or Tenby like the young ones do. Don’t know what they see in the oh good evening, what can I get you?




Yes, and what would help you achieve that aim?


Vodka Red Bull.


Vodka Red Bull it is, then. Just passing through, is it? Not local then?




Suit  yerbloodyself  then.  Another  one  wanting  the  fucking  poet.

Three pounds.


Gurgle, hoip!


And three vodka Red Bulls for the energy because no food has been eaten and with that energy you –


need to eat. Why don’t you eat while drinking?


Because of the appetite suppressant qualities of the alcohol. Because of the delirium. Because of the euphoria.


He was like that, you know. He’d never eat while he drank. I watched him starve himself.


Oh yeah? Well how come he was such a porker?


That was probably one of the things that killed him so young, the weakened body –


bouncing jaunty up the hill to –


Brown’s Hotel where he’d meet his father of a morning to share a beer with him as they pored over The Times crossword. See the photographs of him on every wall. See the Augustus John portrait of him on the swinging inn sign above the door.


One of the most famous taverns in the world now thanks to its connections with the dissolute Welsh poet who died in 1953 in New York at the age of 39. His table still sits in the alcove of the bay window surrounded by memorabilia, yet the barstaff and regulars will leave you in no doubt that this is first and foremost a pub, not a shrine.


Yes but this tavern on a tourist trail, heritaged here, this listing building listed now –


and inside; more bloody rugby.

TOURISTS (a discordant choir of clamouring voices)

Where’s Neil Morrisey? Where’s Neil Morrisey? Man behaving badly with the cheeky grin?


And up at the bar the snaggle-toothed old feller orders. Would call him a salty sea-dog type if that meant anything at all.


Whisky and a pint, Rhi.


What kind of whisky, Bill?


Makes no difference.


Double, is it?


Better make it a small one. Started on the stuff earlier, see.


Oh aye? When?


Nineteen sixty-seven.


And yes oh yes now you are drunk the living you can see in this man and the living to come in her. Born another time perhaps she might be saying to him and he to her: “Oh let me crash and come to grief, oh let me shipwreck in your thighs.”


Take pint and peanuts to the bright bay window seat and drink that pint and several more as dark velvet rises over the rooftops and the sounds of the outside night-time blare and blur.

PASSING CAR (same as before)

Dumph dumph dumph dumph DUMPH DUMPH dumph dumph


And you like him love that slow-lapping alcohol rush. And the blurred heiroglyphics on the TV screen that when you squint to read them tell you the best story you’ve heard today: WIG 0 LIV 1 and MID 3 CHE 0. Something else to drink to.


Yes, ahgh ye fuckaaaahh! And drink they do all over the town, beer and spirits in the pubs and wine and green tea in the houses where once it would’ve been –


Laa-ger! Laa-ger!


in The Mariner’s, yes, where –


to me because I can see a terrible sadness prevails. This is the pub where after he died his wife would seek to drown her griefs (which learnt to swim) in beer and men (which burnt to him, for her, for her). Queue up they would to lance her loneli-ness. There is a tale concerning one of their children seeing her mother’s legs straddling the arse of a visiting navvy across a garden wall next door to the pub and his workmates forming a jostling queue up the street. Imagine the spread legs of your mother and that pimply arse and the –


nuts, salted, in a bowl on the bar. You remember reading or being told something about nineteen different traces of urine found in a bowl of shared nuts cos of the, cos of the men who don’t wash their hands after peeing and then eat the nuts. Dirty friggers. Those men over there with the suspicious eyes and urinous hands. The dirty little friggers.


And only you can hear their thoughts:


More of them queer for the fucking poet.


He’s fifty years’ dead, boy. Leave him be. Let him rest –


under the sod like the boundless others and their alone-ness never even stifled by earth or worms. Hear them:


Never leave me.


I can’t, now. We’re in the same grave. You’ve got me forever, now.


Oh to be free of the everyday obscenities, this smear of someone else’s excrement on the toilet bowl. Wiping your arse you hear someone enter the toilets and approach the urinal and then the trickle of their piddle and then a thunder-ous breaking of wind:




And you go back out to the bar through a foul miasma unsteady on your legs now and you drink more and drink more and leave Brown’s for another pub and when the clock in the tower if it still worked would ring twelve times you –


can hear their thoughts, now, yes. All the voices in this small town and all the songs they sing but in such a drunkenness as this it all sounds like one wailing, just one wailing. And there is an ecstasy that must burn itself out and there is a joy that will pillage as much as it awards and there is a long dark trailing shadow that will always leech off a certain kind of happiness. That’s easy to understand now.


And accept?


And accept, yes. Cos now I’m drunker than the crows on the battlements like short black soldiers but I don’t understand how, I mean it was you that was drinking how can I –


fall into sleep and only I can hear the song in the earth:


But I’ll always think as I tumble into bed

Of the silly little ones who are dead, dead, dead.


Hear it? No? You will. Just listen.

How Camest Thou in Such a Pickle?

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010



Subject: Lost the plot

Hi Liam,

Thanks for your latest scene-by-scene outline. There’s the germ of something here, but to be frank, it’s not really floating my boat. We’re building a reputation for hard-hitting, high-stakes drama at Tempest, so this is probably a bit too light for us.

Also, the discovery of the handkerchief doesn’t work. No one uses them any more, particularly the monogrammed ones. I’m not even sure you can still buy them …





Subject: RE: Lost the plot

Hi Johnnie,

Of course you can. I saw some in a gentlemen’s outfitters window the other day. And there was an ad in the Sunday paper for personalised handkerchiefs last week – £9.95 for 12 inc p&p – 100 per cent Egyptian cotton, with 20mm initial embroidered in classic blue thread.

What do you suggest instead, a soiled tissue?





Subject: RE: RE: Lost the plot


At least that would add some gritty realism. That’s the problem. You’ve pulled it back too far. It’s all a bit twee now. Unfortunately, we don’t live in the kind of world where a black guy can work his way up to be a top general in the Italian army. And if he thinks his wife is sleeping around, he’s not going to be so reasonable and forgiving about it. “It’s just a phase …” The man’s supposed to be a killing machine! Where’s the jealousy, the aggro, the domestic violence?

I don’t understand why it has to be set in Venice either.




Subject: RE: RE: RE: Lost the plot


Before, you said I needed to tone it down, that the indiscriminate bloody rampage was too violent for prime-time TV. So I thought I’d turn it into a romantic comedy instead. But with an edge.


PS What about Colin Powell? It must be even trickier in the US.



Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: Lost the plot


Look, a spot of advice. Why don’t you set it in a hospital? O’Teller could be a successful black surgeon, who’s just married Desdemona, the fragile-yet-beautiful daughter of the registrar. That way you’ve got it all under one roof – life and death, blood and tears, power and corruption, class conflict, pathos, comedy, nurses’ uniforms …

And another thing. You really need to fork out for a scriptwriting programme, it makes you look like you know what you’re doing. Try Action!Pro or Director’s Chair. They’re only a couple of hundred quid.




Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: Lost the plot

In my day, all you needed was a sharpened goose feather and a pot of homemade ink.


*  * *

plague upon all their production houses! What the devil do they know about drama anyway? I could serve them up a dish fit for the gods and they’d tell me it was overcooked. Toad-spotted promise-breakers. But hark, what’s this?



Subject: message from an old friend

Dear Liam,

You have a new message. But you’ll need to upgrade your membership before you can read it.

Click here to upgrade now

Kind regards,

The SaladDays team

Just to remind you, your login email is and your password is H****t.

SaladDays – because time cannot wither true friendship.

Now let’s see … Zounds! A week on Saturday in Stratford? Well, well, well … every dog will have its day.

Stratford-on-Avon is a small gold mine in Warwickshire, the so-called Heart of England. If England actually was a person, it’s slightly down and to the right of where the heart would be, but if anywhere has a licence to be poetic, it’s Stratford.

Screaming Lord Sutch kick-started his raving lunatic politi-cal career here. Jack Profumo, whose well-tailored trousers couldn’t resist the Earth’s gravitational pull, was once its MP. JB Priestly, no mean scribbler himself, spent his last days in the ancient town before shuffling off this mortal coil. It boasts a butterfly farm and a bandstand, a museum full of old cars and another full of old teddy bears, a race course fit for the sport of kings, and a barge upon which you can buy baguettes.

But there’s simply no getting away from it. One person has left his distinguished inky imprint on virtually every street in Stratford. And that’s me.

I’m not laying it on with a trowel. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them … I’d say mine was part thrust and part achievement. But these days, I’ve become accustomed to the grubby reality of London, so the more I roam the mock-mock-Tudor avenues and alleyways of this town I once called home, the more my teeth are set on edge. Artifice and authenticity play fast and loose in a spot where even Pizza Express is half-timbered, and the townsfolk’s idea of olde-worlde charm is to be profligate with their use of the letter “e.” No wonder I left. If only the rest had been silence.

I say “roam the streets,” but this isn’t actually possible any more. The sheer volume of pedestrians means you’re snatched along like a small boat in a ceaseless storm, whirred by eager tourists from all corners of the globe, buffeted by rucksacks, street maps and camera cases, drowned in a babel of exotic and less-than-exotic accents.

What’s more, wherever I look, I’m reminded of mine own none-too-pretty visage, emblazoned on the most ludicrous of gewgaws. By now I’m immune to the mugs, tea towels, and the miscellaneous stationery that kids can’t get enough of on school trips. I’ve even come to have a grudging admiration for people who can bring themselves to wear those cringe-worthy “Will Power” T-shirts.

But some of the little shockers make your hair stand on end. Fridge magnets. Ceramic thimbles. Little tin crests to attach to walking sticks. Night caps. I even came across a lusty five-and-a-quarter-inch William Shakespeare vinyl action figure with removable book and quill pen. The pièce de résistance, though, is undoubtedly the £1.99 glitter “snow storm” in which a crude and understandably pissed-off-looking bard-bust is trapped forever and a day to ponder the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I can empathise – shipwrecked with no apparent means of escape in an uncouth, uncultured age where precious talent is given such short shrift.

Nevertheless, here I am … cutting a surprisingly inconspic-uous dash through the tat and the tour parties. And do you know why? Because I bear no more than a passing resem-blance to that ill-favoured caricature, which is based on an engraving of an engraving of a painting by a decidedly untalented Dutchman. Comparisons are odorous. OK, I’m thinning a bit on top, there’s a poet’s gold hoop dangling in my left lobe, and I sport the tidy jazz beard favoured by the burghers of Clerkenwell, EC1. But the smug, dome-headed, bug-eyed creature trying to pass himself off as the great “Swan of Stratford,” looks no more like me than a plucked goose.

I’m making my way to Precious Times in the old town, a photographic studio-cum-costumiers which purveys over 300 types of outlandish fancy dress. You can’t miss it, there’s a six-foot mannequin posing as a bipedal white rabbit guarding the front door. On the way, I stiffen my sinews as I pass the dodgy reminders of my glorious past – the Pen & Parchment pub, Thespian’s Indian restaurant, Bard’s Walk shopping arcade, The Food of Love café, the Shakespearience, and Mexican Hamlet. Forty-odd plays (yes, there are more), some of the most haunting poetry the world has ever clapped eyes on, and it’s come to this.

My choice of disguise for the night is a foregone conclusion. When in Stratford …

* * *

The evening air is thick with bravado and basso profundo. With their mangy, hop-coloured locks, full-blooded beards and pinch-tight leathers, these are the fearsome knights of the road, sitting bestride their growling, gleaming chargers. Passers-by on Riverside glance over anxiously, but these tattooed speed-chasers are supremely uninterested, lost in an arcane kingdom of their own, where chrome and horse-power are the only currency.

I scuttle past them self-consciously in my bard’s outfit, glancing over at the glinting Avon, bejewelled with midsum-mer sunlight. The sky is champagne pink, the atmosphere charged with a strange, invisible perfume that hits the senses. In the car park just outside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, a domed, gently billowing marquee rises upwards, its flower-soft fabric at odds with the brutal red brick of the theatre building. I’m greeted at the entrance by a pair of Elvises (or should that be Elvi?) – their respective girths suggesting differ-ent reference points in the King’s career. The young pretender hands me a fizzing glass, and they usher me in to a strange, enchanted indoor garden that beggars all description.

The centre-piece is a massive, gnarled oak tree, hung, like a blossoming spider’s web with flowing canopies of luscious woodbine, sweet musk roses and eglantine. Skirting the tent’s edges is a long, elevated ha-ha of grass and moss, prick’d with oxslips, primroses and violets, on which an unlikely cast of characters loll and laugh and look back in languor.

The place is already heaving, an exotic collision of per-sonae from every conceivable era and genre. On the far side of the marquee, Caliban has set his sights on a passable Marilyn. Groucho Marx vainly tries to out-aphorise Oscar Wilde under a leafy sylvan bower. Cleopatra, provocatively stroking her asp, tilts her head back and snorts heartily at an illogical quip from a scaled-down version of Mr Spock.

How will I know her? There were precious few clues in her suggestive message on the SaladDays website. A place, a time, a promise. To complicate matters, there seem to be two of everyone. The alpha-male duo who both hired gorilla suits are desperately trying to avoid eye contact. At least there’s some textual basis for the Tweedle Dee/Dum double-act. And there holding court, and truly lapping up the attention, is my alter ego. Clearly, he’s modelled himself on the five-and-a-quarter-inch vinyl action figure, complete with removable book and quill pen. Pah! What does he know? And yet, there they all are, the ignorant fools, hanging on his honey’d words, and dancing his attendance.

I weave my way tetchily to the refreshments table, festooned with ornate finger-food and leafy decoration that are hard to tell apart. The sweetmeats seem tempting enough, but the jellies look vile. In pride of place, like a precious stone set in a silver tablecloth, there’s a huge ice sculpture of a swan peering majestically over the proceedings. Three witches are hunched over the punch bowl, uttering delicious incanta-tions. Though they’ve done their utmost to make themselves look foul and filthy, their girlish vanity has kept them in check, so for all the amateur prosthetics and stick-on warts, beauty still hangs upon their cheeks.

“All hail you secret, black and midnight hags,” I venture, hoping I haven’t gone too far. “Where can I find the Dark Lady I dream of amongst this pleasing throng?”

“She is here, yet she is not,” says the first, in an unsteady voice that seems to belong to an able seaman one moment and a prima-ballerina the next.

“Double, double, toil and trouble, she’ll come and go like a bursting bubble,” warns the second, slightly more convinc-ingly.

“She’s over there talking to Bjorn Borg,” says the third. My gaze follows her crooked finger. And my heart stops

dead … Did I ever truly love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night. I pick my tongue off the floor, and stride over as casually as I can given the tightening of my trousers.

“What took you so long?” she asks in a voice that’s soft, gentle, low, and could melt the stoniest of hearts. “I have plans for the night ahead.”

Her powder blue dress is a wanton explosion of silk and taffeta that tapers into an impossibly small waist. The décolletage reveals a perfect olive skin, and a barely contained cleavage ready to burst out like a pair of greyhounds in the slips. Oh that I might live one hour in that sweet bosom! I try desperately to look behind the white player’s mask she’s holding to her face, but she’s careful to keep up the façade. Her ample black ringlets provide further camouflage, but I convince myself that her lips are quite as plump and inviting as the painted counterfeits that gash her crude disguise.

* * *

How my raven-haired beauty persuaded me to don the blind-fold, I still don’t know. But that night, her beck might have commanded me from the bidding of the gods. Her tender hand pulses intoxicating electricity through my entire body as she gently leads me through the sultry streets of Stratford. Hours pass, or is it mere seconds? My sense of time has van-ished into thin air. We’re floating, weightless in our own private bubble, warm and wonderful, immune to the weary world outside.

I catch short snatches of conversation, the tinny reverb of distant laughter, hear the quiet lapping of the river, the sweet breeze dancing insistently with the leaves overhead. But these sounds are hollow distractions. My heart is tied to her rudder by the strings, carried on her mellifluous voice, at once coquettish and soothing, mysterious and like home.

We arrive at a doorway. Then breathlessly climb some steep stairs. There’s total silence, but somehow, it’s charged with a trembling anticipation. She sits me down on what I can feel is the edge of a downy-soft bed and removes my blindfold. Not that it makes any difference. The room is as black as pitch. Then she loosens my hired ruffle and tunic, and with the most eloquent of giggles, bids me hop in. My heart is pounding like McDuff knocking desperately at the castle gates, as I hear her gently pad across to the other side. Was that a whisper? I can’t be sure. What’s taking her so long?

As we finally lock into a fiery embrace, it strikes me that something’s amiss. Her hair smells quite different, like apples and cinnamon. And I surmise that her dress, though exqui-site, must have been particularly bulky – she’s quite a few pounds of flesh lighter, and her greyhounds fall well short of the proportions I’d envisaged. What’s more, the sweet noth-ings she whispers waft over in a shy, girlish voice, more of a trilling piccolo than the melodious flute I remember. But by now, my ardour is well stoked, so I decide not lose the name of action in the pale cast of thought. Things won are done, joy’s soul lies in the doing. Or as the more contemporary slogan tells us, “just do it.”

* * *

Suddenly, the heavy velvet curtain pulls back, the sun-bright stage lights come up, and the packed Royal Shakespeare theatre audience bursts into rapturous applause. The guy who always whoops and whistles is there too, bringing his familiar descant to the throbbing hum of clapping hands.

I’m still cocooned in the night’s rapturous delirium, spaced out and propped up in the bed I’d been lured to earlier. Next to me lies a strange yet familiar figure. A pale, smiling, fragile-yet-beautiful blonde. Her discarded nurse’s uniform is a crumpled heap on the boards. We find ourselves in a theatre designer’s vision of an NHS hospital ward, surrounded by outsize medical paraphernalia, the over-grown, exaggerated children of an inspired props department.

Almost instinctively, as if I’ve been rehearsing it for the past 400 years, I know the next line.

“Pass the tissues, Desdemona.”

I smile ruefully and think of what might have been. But clearly, it wasn’t written in the script.

(Notes for) (My) Manifest Promise

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

*Epigram added, when read on the plane back from Hong Kong, where first draft of this piece was written, pulling together the Post-It™ notes on which I’d scribbled fragments in a midnight frenzy when visiting Stanmore

“Still, Robert Towne had thought of Chinatown like a creator, or like a writer beginning to open up a private world, albeit one found in such public places that it had meaning for millions. And he could not get it out of his head. Those are conditions, or symptoms, of art or of the aspiration to make something we call art.”2

*Prologue, preamble &c

Places and times of composition: Streatham Hill; on the 159 bus travelling up Brixton Hill; Stanmore; Hong Kong; Clapham; and Stanmore. Between November 2005 and April 2006; primarily 20-31 January 2006.



Here are some working titles† and first lines‡ you weren’t meant to see:

‡Remember those letters you sent to me from Paris, nearly seven years ago now, when you were on the edge of the city? When life was happening elsewhere?

†Letters to the Viscountess Metroland †Letters to Bunny

†Suburban knives harmless ribbon ‡Third we take Stanmore, Middlesex

‡Repine: to feel discontent, to fret, to yearn for something †The Stanmore Syndrome.

*”On author” (or, critical need-to-know about Julian Barnes [JB]):3

“He bathes mundane realities in a transfiguring light, recognising the extraordinary in the ordinary. He observes a boring landscape and endows it with fanciful, wishful pat-terns and symbols – to pedantic and poignant effect.”4

*The bit about the book5

Edition used in reading for, and writing of, piece: Picador: London, 1990. Front cover straplines: “Winner of the Somerset Maugham Prize”, “Now a major film”. Structure: part 1 – Chris and Toni growing up in Metroland; part 2 – Chris living and studying in Paris, having first romantic rela-tionship, and meeting future wife, Marion; part 3 – Chris and Marion living in Metroland, Toni’s re-entry into their lives.

Key relationship: between Chris and Toni, first as school friends, then adults. Chris is the “hero”, and nominally straight man to Toni’s more exotic and restless, rebellious intellectual.

Key term used: épat – demonstration of superiority of intel-lect in whimsical, absurd or farcical situations, to show up persons in/of authority.

*Notes and annotations made (on the back of an



envelope) whilst re-reading Metroland

Orange on red: the colour of suburbia

Being as smug and bourgeois as the area that spawned them

Schooled – expensively no doubt – in town Pt 1: it’s 1963 – where are The Beatles?

Tripartite arc mirroring my own choices of places to live? p 31: J’habite Metroland – wilfully clever, and yet author gently deflates wherever possible

59: sense that best/promise is before them: does it materi-alise? And immortality through art

65: … for want of choice

67:  waiting at Wembley Park6

80:  Jubilee line: grey, not silver

81:  escape – first flower

86:  even in Paris May ‘68, life – as history remembers it – is happening elsewhere. Growing up in suburbia does this

88:  deferment of pleasure – still true

98: on writing

a tour of the places where the mind, interiority, is trapped – and then liberated. Of course we go further than Paris now; but somehow our liberation hasn’t increased exponen-tially

150: trading on resonances Past I; Past II/Future I; Future II 184: geography I recognise.

*The bit about Betjeman

Poet laureate and architectural scholar described Metroland and environs in various poems and in fondly remembered eponymous TV series, fixing term (and becom-ing associated with it) in public consciousness. Mostly mourned yielding of rural “Bucks, Herts and Middlesex” to maw of Jazz Age and beyond.7



*The bit about geographical definitions

Strict geographical definition (i.e., those villages included in the Metroland guide to new developments, as quoted in

Metro-Land: British Empire Exhibition Number): Amersham & Chesham Bois; Aylesbury; Chalfont & Latimer; Chesham; Chorley Wood & Chenies; Eastcote; Great Missenden; Harrow-on-the-Hill; Hillingdon; Ickenham; Moor Park & Sandy Lodge; Northwood; Northwick Park & Kenton; Pinner; Preston Road; Rickmansworth; Ruislip; Uxbridge; Wembley Park; Wendover.8

Concerns of residents of Metroland, if adverts in guide are anything to go by: golf links; season ticket prices; educational facilities; holiday tours; hotels; caterers; mortgages; estates; houses; land; labour savers; insurance.

Philip Davies: “These urban and suburban villages are a unique aspect of London’s polynuclear development”.9

Where we lived and now live: Kingsbury (further north, more salubrious than Wembley Park or Neasden), then more lengthily (and still) in Stanmore, close to Tube station and corner of Edgware branch of Roman road Watling Street, now the A5. Local history books show railway present in Stanmore before Tube, plus evidence seen that the 142 bus author trav-elled on when young was in existence c1918-20.10,11

Stanmore’s relationship to Metroland: Outlier of one of main tube lines through old Metroland country. Until recently, more affordable entry level living in Metroland a possibility. Recent house price boom now most likely excludes this for many families. Strong Jewish population over last twenty years in part displaced by sub-continental migration into area, of which we were one of first families in.

“‘Metro-land’ is a country with elastic borders which every visitor can draw for himself, as Stevenson drew his map of Treasure Island.” JB, as quoted in Metro-Land: British Empire Exhibition Number.12

Stanmore’s contribution to history (2): During World War II, RAF Bentley Priory was the HQ of Fighter Command. RAF Stanmore Park was the HQ of Balloon Command.13



The word “Metroland”: actually creation of unsung copy-writers of the Metropolitan Railway; looking for handy term to describe the new estates all the way up from Neasden out to deepest Buckinghamshire. Estates did not meet with universal approval. Waugh excoriated them in Decline and Fall: “Metroland” decidedly undesirable – the title that Margot’s inappropriate new husband takes upon his elevation to the House of Lords. Shorthand for vulgar, noveau riche attitude.14

*The bit that perhaps reveals Barnes’ true feel-ings about the suburbs

Barnes describes the defenestration of Mrs Thatcher in Letters from London as being “hustled into suburban exile”, managing to make it sound worse than being sent to Coventry.15

*The Big Themes, that Metroland Deals With, all of

Which are So Weighty that it Feels Like This Subheading Should Mostly Be Capitalised

Friendship – Art. Life. Truth – Precocity – Love and Betrayal – Ambition and Betrayal – Domesticity – Settling and Settling Down – Contentment.

*Questions inspired by artists Richard Wentworth and Francis Alÿs16

If the city is theatre, what is suburbia?

The city is a set, thin and shallow; does this make the suburbs “thicker”?

*My Chris (or was I Chris, and he Toni?)

Matt and I met first at primary school (briefly), then again at our Cub scouts pack (he played a flashy right winger to my solid right back). We became solid at secondary school. He was the first in what has proved to be a relatively short list of



creative others/collaborators.

*Where Metroland and my life diverge

Education (1): Chris and Toni came into town for their education (National Gallery and expensive institution). I came into town for my education (Soho, and Berwick Street environs in particular) – in music and shopping.

A certain coarseness: My Metroland, while not rough, had a lack of smoothness, and serrated edges to it. When I go back, the area looks as genteel and protected as it did in the novel. I’m not close enough any more to look beneath its skirts, and check for fraying seams.

How violence comes between friends: When I was 17, I was racially attacked outside the (bottom) school gates. What sticks – the memory of the reaction when Matt and I staggered back into the common room: the instant split into those con-cerned, and having to be prevented from rounding up a posse to go and find the assailant; and those who looked at me, bleeding, in shock, mumbling and barely coherent, and said, “Well, it’s not that bad”.

Education (2): Girls were for us, as much as for Chris and Toni at the same stage of their scholastic careers, subjects for and of fear (roooination [possibly] by unrequited love was still to come, at university). Example: Mr Dawson, a brilliant teacher and an even better manipulator of young men’s minds, had a particularly effective way of motivating Matt and me for third year17 English. He didn’t make us sit on sepa-rate tables: instead he put us together with Karly, Emma and Laura T, three of the four most conventionally desirable/lusted after girls in our year. We survived this heaven/hell situation by smirking at our own private jokes, mumbling the lyrics to REM’s “Moral Kiosk”18 and affecting a studied, “Naah, fancy you?” attitude. Try keeping that act up for a whole year.

*A memory, about escaping

It was an afternoon soon after we’d got our A-level results



but before we’d left for good, and we were still drifting in and around the common room, drinking up the last moments of our childish institution before reality kicked in. I was back in having a quick confab with my economics teacher. As we were finishing up, Laura C——- (occasional classmate [A-level history?] and cause of one moment of mutual embarrassment in lower sixth, when I ended up in a local restaurant where she was working one Saturday night) put her head round the door, and expressed surprise when she saw me there. “What are you doing back? I thought you’d be gone for good. If I was you, I would be. You’ve managed it. There’s no need to hang around.” I said I was just in to say my thanks and my good-byes.

“No real need for that”, she countered. “You’ve pretty much done it yourself. Don’t forget it.”

It’s taken me nearly ten years to remember. That the work and the effort and the solitude and the sacrifice were actually worth it.

*The answer to a Big Question, as influenced by the novel and my own digressions

I wanted to achieve an elegant homage, or at least a smooth parody of Barnes’ style. Instead all I’ve got is gobbets and fragments and shards and thoughts and Post-Its’ and ram-blings. And yet, I think I’ve got an answer.

But I’ve always wanted to live in somewhere else. I don’t want to come back, like Chris, I don’t need to come back, like Chris. I have something still to prove, but elsewhere. I don’t have anything to prove here. I didn’t fuck up here. I left here. That was the right thing to do.

Once a place to aspire to, now a place to escape from.

Trouble is I think I have to answer it again. And again. And again. And no one tells you that you have to keep answering it correctly.



*Some thoughts while drafting (4)

I am at Heathrow, waiting to get on a plane to Hong Kong. I am listening to the Arctic Monkeys whose lyricist, Alex Turner, has done expertly, and first time out, the bastard, what I’m trying to do at the moment, what Barnes did first time out as well – finding some truth, humour, pathos, maybe even beauty in and about the surroundings where he has grown up.

And I keep fixating on the word “manifest” for some reason. The manifest, aka the passenger list that I need to be checked off against before I can board. Manifesto, and a call to arms, a statement of principle. Manifest destiny. As in the conquering of the West beyond the Mississippi.

But I’m about to go east.

Also as in ambition. Will I fulfil it? The promise of this piece? My promise? My manifest promise.

Ah, I think that’s the title.


Growing up in the suburbs now. As reported in The Observer:

“What we have to accept is that we might be seeing a new breed of adolescent, a totally different kind of teenage tribe. A tribe so different they probably should not be called teenagers any more – a better term might be Metrolescents, the defining characteristic of the Metrolescent being that, in the age of the internet and the all-powerful teen media, they are united, bonded, on the same page like never before. It used to be that kids in suburbia, or in villages or small towns, used to feel left out; you had to make an effort to be part of the action, to fight and scrabble your way in.”19

So: you don’t have to escape any more.




1         (But mostly me.)

2         David Thomson, The Whole Equation (London: Abacus, 2005), p 11.

3         Term taken from introduction to Letters from London, which in turn is taken from New Yorker copy editors’ marginalia for when writer will take responsi-bility/blame for a fact in a piece that cannot be corroborated.

4         Mira Stout, “Chameleon Novelist”, The New York Times, 22 November 1992. Downloaded from 01/02/25/specials/barnes-chameleon.html on 18 November 2005.

5         Hopefully, goes without saying that large chunks of book, esp Pt 1, broadly acknowledged to be autobiographical, as debut novels tend to be (Barnes grew up in Northwood, in heart of Metroland).

6         This is a reference to a joke I make to myself, and certain others, wherein I claim that the second chapter in any putative autobiography will be entitled “Waiting at Wembley Park”, due to the amount of time that I have spent on the platforms of that station waiting for a Metropolitan line train to Baker Street.

7         John Betjeman, “Metro-land: A script for television, written and narrated by

…”, in John Guest (ed), The Best of Betjeman, p 217; London: Penguin, 1978.

8         Metro-land: British Empire Exhibition Number (1924 edn), (London: Southbank Publishing, 2004), p 5.

9         Philip Davies in foreword to Andrew Saint (ed), London Suburbs (London: Merrell Holberton, in association with English Heritage, 1999), p 7.

10       Alfred  E  Porter,  Edgware  &  The  Stanmores  in  Camera:  A  Nostalgic  Record

(Farnborough, Hampshire: Saint Michael’s Abbey Press, 1984), p 12.

11      Author did not travel on actual c1918-20 bus when journeying on 142 route.

12      Metro-land: British Empire Exhibition Number, op cit, p v.

13       John F Hamlin, The History of Royal Air Force Bentley Priory and Stanmore Park

(Harrow, Middlesex: London Borough of Harrow, 1997), p 8.

14      Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall, (London: Penguin, 1938), pp 246, 254-5.

15      Julian Barnes, “Mrs Thatcher Discovers It’s a Funny Old World”, in Letters from London: 1990-1995 (London: Picador, 1995), p 45.

16      Questions set while initial attempts to answer the brief were proving fruitless, and it was thought a diversion into visual/installation/modern art might prove fruitful, which in a way it did, but not necessarily useful to this enter-prise.

17      Modern currency: year 9.



18      Mumbled in part because lyrics almost indecipherable, mainly due to Michael Stipe’s singing, and absence of lyric sheet on cassette. Lyrics can now be found at

19      Barbara Ellen, “Meet the Metrolescents”, The Observer, 6 November 2005. Downloaded from 0,,1635481,00.html on 25 March 2006.


Playing polo with Pinter in Hackney

Monday, March 15th, 2010

Take the word ‘home’ and pop it into your mouth like a lozenge. See how it nestles comfortably on your tongue. Now, without making a spectacle of yourself, upsetting the neighbours or annoying the person sitting beside you on the bus, say the word out loud three times. Note how it resonates in your mouth, comforting and full of breathy expectation. Next, impersonating your best cockney accent, repeat the exercise. If you weren’t actually born within the sound of Bow bells think of Eliza Doolittle or as a last resort of Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins. ‘ome ‘ome ‘ome. It’s become a mantra. It’s creating sympathetic vibrations behind your teeth, an aspirate exhalation. The lozenge has become a Polo mint, unyieldingly British, all sweet and syrupy. Your tongue seeks out the hole in the middle, a perfect O.  You keep on sucking until the ribbon of sugar is paper thin and just before it dissolves you crush it in your back teeth and the circle shatters into tiny shards.

If you were to attempt something similar on the borough of Hackney, you end up with spots. The sebum clogs your pores and your face is a rash. Now it might seem unfair to match a London borough with the torment of teenage angst, but to be honest, Hackney isn’t that pretty.  It’s a gangling, awkward bollocks of a place. Try as I might to add the nostalgia of lost girlfriend memories it still comes off at best as ungainly. The Blitz redesigned Hackney, opened up spaces that were filled with low-rise estates called mansions and villas. The occasional lumps of Victorian gothic stick out of a street architecture of one-pound-or-less stores, all-purpose-all-culture-newsagent-grocer-off-licences, and the more recent plush estate agents. It is a borough of fiefdoms and turf wars where rivals vie for corners, a league of nations and nationalities. The occasional square pretends gentrification but they resemble curious pioneer outposts rather than a shift in demography. The huge signs at the museum that say I ‘heart-shape’ Hackney reveals, the myopia of star-crossed lovers and that “familiar acts are beautiful through love.”

“What do you think of the room? Big, isn’t it? It’s a big house. I mean it’s a fine room don’t you think?” (The Homecoming)(1)

Number 19, Thistlewaite road, the birthplace of Harold Pinter is a short walk to the shops. Turn left at the end and cut down Cricketfield Road and you’re at the Downs where he went to school. But the school’s gone of course. Described by Thatcher’s Conservative government as ‘the worst school in Britain’ Pinter’s alma mater and that of Michael Caine, and Steven Berkoff succumbed to the Tory clean sweep. It’s been replaced by the extraordinary Mossbourne Community Academy. Richard Rogers’ wood and glass building in bright yellow and blue is like the massive embassy of an unloved foreign power. The high-tech of its design is definitely alien and somewhat big brother. Surrounded by a high security fence and heavily guarded, the new school boasts an organic kitchen garden designed by Jamie Oliver. It’s a triumphant edifice of New Labour. But it’s hard to imagine Harry picking organic fennel for a vegetable ragout. Instead, just after the war, a teenager with teenage dreams, his anorak hood pulled over his head against a February rain walking down Mare Street longing for summer and thinking of Len Hutton.

“What a remarkably pleasant room. I feel at peace here. Safe from all danger, Please don’t be alarmed. I shan’t stay long” (No Man’s Land)(2)

There are few direct references to Hackney in Pinter’s works, the notable exception being his semi autobiographical novel The Dwarfs.  The sites of Pinter’s plays and poems do however make a map of London, Paddington, Shoreditch, Hampstead Heath, Bethnal Green, the Scrubs and a particular favourite where Stanley in The Birthday Party played his famous piano concert, Lower Edmonton. The city that emerges is not the one of bright lights or the grandeur of monuments, even of the New Labour variety.  It is an urban reach of chintz-curtained propriety, where antimacassars are draped over the decaying armchairs of bed-sits and front parlours. Two up, two downs, basements, shared accommodation and rented rooms. Hackney is always present but in his stage writing, places are presented without geographic embellishment – “a room in North London, a room in a large house, the kitchen of a small house in south London, clean and tidy.” Place is reduced to a prop. When he rewrote The Dwarfs as a play, the Hackney references disappear, as does curiously the main female character. The East End of his youth is replaced with a theatrical backdrop and the character that induces the betrayal and who drives the story, vanishes. Its not that Pinter doesn’t relish place, one only has to think of his delight at inserting names, like Maidenhead and Sidcup into a dialogue. Or one can hear John Gielgud delivering a delicious line from No Man’s Land “I wrote my Homage to Wessex in the summerhouse at West Upfield”. He uses place for comic effect or as a framing device. The wider geography of his writing seems driven by fleeting attempts at getting away from London. The bank holiday trips out of the smoke, the charabanc trips to seaside fish and chips, rendezvous for dirty weekends, in Eastbourne, Worthing and Canvey Island. Dull Saturdays staring at the rain from the bandstand and bracing walks on the front, the haunts of travelling sales-men, adulterers and landladies.

“It’s a nice house, isn’t it? Roomy.” (The Room)(3)

Number 19, Thistlewaite Road is for sale. At the time of writing, the attractive 3bdm, 2rcp, 2bth, 2wc, ample cupboard space, full of period charm has an asking price of £490,000. The advert in the estate agents doesn’t even mention Pinter and Marko the Serbian road cleaner sitting on the wall outside has never heard of him. There is a small triangle of grass at the end of the road you couldn’t call it a park, it’s just the place where Lower Clapton road leads into the Lea Bridge Road roundabout. On the fence that surrounds it flowers have been tied to mark the spot of a recent teenage murder. Two hundred yards down the road another floral tribute but this time browned with age.  Hackney has a history of violence and is currently rated as the place where you are more likely to hear the sound of gunshots anywhere in Britain. Homerton Hospital has become expert at treating bullet wounds of rival ‘yardies’. Harold, as a teenager was chased down the Ridley Road Market by an anti-Semitic gang only escaping possible injury by jumping on a bus. When I lived in Hackney, twenty years ago, it was as it has always been, one of the poorest areas of London. The particular bit of squalor I rented was a single room on the Graham Road with a view of the bus stop. Upstairs lived a man I had been warned was a member of the IRA although I doubt the special branch was particularly worried. If he was part of a flying column he must have been under deep cover because he spent most of his time sitting on his bed or on the one chair in my room, crying into his Special Brew.  The house had a regular turn over of tenants mostly heroin addicts and no bath. I was working as a roofer in Tooting at the time so Friday nights I would go up to the public baths for a wash. There was always a line of the orthodox preparing for Sabbath. Mr and Mrs Snow the old black couple that looked after the place gave you a towel and a short black rubber tube. The tube acted as a plug and ensured that you couldn’t overfill the bath. It’s hard to romanticise about eight inches of tepid water. The house I lived in, my old home, my room, has gone, or rather, the collection of bed-sits have been converted into an attractive 5bdm, 2rcp, 2bth, 2wc, ample cupboard space, full of period charm, property sold!

“The germ of my plays? I’ll be as accurate as I can about that. I went into a room and saw one person standing up and one person sitting down, and a few weeks later I wrote The Room. I went into another room and saw two people sitting down, and a few years later I wrote The Birthday Party. I looked through a door into a third room and saw two people standing up and I wrote The Caretaker.” (Writing for Myself)(4)

I remember listening to an interview with the identical twin filmmakers known as The Brothers Quay. They admitted that when they were younger, much younger, someone had described their often dark and brooding animations as Kafkaesque. They confessed to not knowing who he was and believing that Kafkaesque was a word that meant something a little like morbid. I must confess to something similar when I was younger, much younger. I am certain that I discovered Pinteresque long before I saw anything in the theatre. It was part of the vernacular and it had to do with the difficult bits on Play for Today. I am part of a blessed generation of television drama, doubly blessed with enlightened parents who let me stay up and watch. William Trevor, Mike Leigh, Dennis Potter, Trevor Griffiths, and Colin Welland. So I was already up to speed when I got my first real taste of Pinteresque. Actually that’s a lie! I remember clearly seeing The Go-Between on telly but I don’t think I had a clue that all that Alan Bates-Julie Christie haystack romping had anything to do with Pinter. It does however seem worth marking this grammatical shift. Pinter goes from proper noun (repeat proper) to adjective. Note, it’s not Pinter-like or Pinter-ish or Pinter-ic but Pinter-esque. Linked with Arabs and pictures and burls whatever they are. I have read that -esque differs from -ish and -ic and like, in that rather than just showing resemblance it expresses ‘the possibility for multiple alterity’. Now that seems pretty good to me. Pinter is the urform, the master recipe from which countless dishes derive. So to find the Pinteresque in Hackney I’m not looking for the essence but it’s facsimile. The tension in the newsagent between the Turkish owner, the Polish girl on the till and the gang of teenagers he suspects of shoplifting. The road where half the houses are boarded up and the other half under construction with one house totally burnt out. The Bagel shop on Ridley Road where the onion platzels and chopped herring have been replaced by ackee and saltfish patties, the girl who serves tea asks if I’m from around here.

Mark:  Sure! I’ve got a home. I know where I live.

Len:  You mean you’ve got roots. Why haven’t I got roots? My house is older than yours. My family lived here. Why haven’t I got a home?

Mark:  Move out.

Len:  Do you believe in God?

Mark: Who?

Len:  God

Mark:  God?

Len:  Do you believe in God?

Mark:  Do I believe in God?

Len:  Yes.

Mark:  Would you say that again?
(The Dwarfs)(5)

In 1994 Pinter co-edited an anthology of poetry translations for Greville Press. It is a stunning eclectic, spanning seven hundred years before Christ to now, and includes everything from Catullus and Li Po to Tzara, Neruda and Apollinaire. It would be easy to over-determine the selection but there is a sense of melancholy, sexual tension and pure bloody-mindedness about much of the work. In other words you can find Pinter there. The following snippet from Milosz’s poem Strophes is one example of many.

“It will be as it is in this life, the same room,

Yes, the same!

…Terrible, terrible youth; and the heart empty.

Oh! It will be as it is in this life; poor voices,

The winter voices in the worn-out suburbs;” (6)

Looking for Pinter in Hackney or Hackney in Pinter the same empty room returns. It is a theatrical space, and as much as he prefers the traditional theatre of stage and curtain he also likes the empty rooms that must be filled with characters, filled with writing. The East End of Pinter’s youth, his Hackney doesn’t lie between the library and The Empire but in conversations in coffee shops from long ago, in old friendships and rivalries. “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” And we ‘re all living abroad. As a close friend of mine, who like myself has spent most of his adult life away from Britain, puts it, ‘going home would mean going back in time’. Finding Pinter’s home from the forties or mine from the eighties is no different. Hackney a transitive verb. Past Sutton House where I saw The Fuck Pigs playing, the Barnados home that was a squat where I shared studio space, the night the tree house collapsed and glue sniffers fell from the branches like acorns, the old library where Harold and I both found sanctuary, the Turkish market where they sell sour cherry juice, the cemetery good for a walk on Sunday, the long bus ride into town. Hackneyed, to make trite, vulgar, commonplace or jaded.

On the south side of Stockholm in an area that is more traditionally working class is The English Shop. It is tucked away on the second floor of what Americans call with appetite, a mall, but which seem more like an after thought in old Europe. It is proof, if proof were needed, that the English really do have a separate food culture. The shelves are lined with mint jelly, bread sauce mix, gravy browning, custard powder and piccalilli. It is a veritable home from home, a place for those living abroad needing an old country fix. The advertisement for the shop reads “Our aim is to meet the needs of the ever-growing expatriate population in Sweden, as well as to introduce our Swedish customers to the culinary delights of English foods.”  What dominates the shop however, is a huge selection of junk food, which may say more about the great British diet than Jamie Oliver or anybody else would want to admit. Packets of crisps, quavers, pork scratchings, jelly babies, dolly mixture, love hearts, sherbet fountains and of course Polo mints. The Polo has a long and distinguished place in British confectionary history with its roots going back to the early eighteenth century. The modern mint was originally an American import from the beginning of the last century and it has been the subject of legal battles and a symbol of British independence. Polos also have a curious chemistry. When you crush them they give off a blue light known as triboluminescence. What happens is that the sugar crystals break along planes that are positively and negatively charged. The opposite charges want to recombine and light leaps across the gap. So now, if you happen to have a Polo mint to hand, pop it in. Bring your teeth together with all the force you can muster – blue lightning in your mouth and the sweet taste of home.


  1. Pinter, Harold. Plays Three, The Homecoming (London: Faber and Faber, 1996) p.29
  2. Pinter, Harold. Plays Three, No Man’s Land (London: Faber and Faber, 1996) p.323
  3. Pinter, Harold. Plays One, The Room (London: Faber and Faber, 1996) p.99
  4. Pinter, Harold. Plays Two, Introduction, Writing for Myself (London: Faber and Faber, 1996) p.ix
  5. Pinter, Harold. Plays Two, The Dwarfs (London: Faber and Faber, 1996) p.99
  6. Miloz, O.V, de L, 99 Poems in Translation, An Anthology, Ed. Harold Pinter, Anthony Astbury, Geoffrey Godbert (London: Greville Press 1994) p.77

A Sense of Ulster: Van Morrison’s Belfast

Monday, March 15th, 2010

Belfast is a beautiful city. Or, to be more precise, Belfast is a city in a beautiful setting. Situated at the head of Belfast Lough, an estuarine processional way, our compact conurbation is encircled by escarpments, rugged Antrim Plateau on one side, rolling Castlereagh Hills on the other. Home to half-a-million people, Belfast began life as a muddy ford at the mouth of the River Lagan, burgeoned into one of the mighty workshops of the world-wide British Empire and like many of its GB equivalents – Glasgow, Cardiff, Liverpool, et al – is resorting to the ubiquitous urban Botox of arts festivals, dockside redevelopments and glittering shopping malls in a desperate attempt to stave off post-industrial senescence.

Locally, there is much debate about the most beautiful view of the city’s situational splendours. For some, it’s the seaward approaches, where the ever-increasing constriction of the Lough is offset by the ever-increasing altitude of the swaddling hills. For others, it’s the outlook from the shoulders of Samson and Goliath, the giant yellow cranes that stand guard over Belfast’s once gargantuan shipyard, birthplace of the Titanic and symbol of Ulster’s obsolescent engineering capabilities. For yet others, the most singular sight is reserved for visitors driving in from the International Airport; specifically, a wonderful wide-screen windscreen moment when the humdrum motorway crests the encircling escarpment and plunges precipitously into the Belfast basin beneath. The conurbation spread-eagles from harbour to horizon, lagoon-like Belfast Lough to the left, black smudges of city centre high rise to the right. Most first-time visitors find it hard to reconcile the stunning vista below them with their mental image of a malevolent metropolitan warzone. But then again, Belfast is nothing if not contradictory, as the majority of its citizens will testify.

Of course, one doesn’t need to travel to Belfast in order to appreciate its congenital contradictions. They are crystallised in the work of Van Morrison, the city’s pre-eminent musical export.1 In many ways, indeed, Van the Man is a better guide to the perennial paradoxes of Belfast than any number of citybreaks, guided tours or shoe-leather-sapping circuits on Shanks’ Pony. Ulster culture, after all, is predominantly musical and literary rather than visual. There are very few buildings of note in Belfast, the City Hall, Opera House and Queen’s University possibly excepted. World-renowned actors and artists are somewhat rarer still. However, our literary and musical scenes are preternaturally vibrant, as are those on the ‘noisy island’ as a whole.2 Ireland is the Sizewell B of the music business, a veritable fast breeder reactor, and although U2 irradiates the globe like a dismantled atomic bomb, the artiste with the longest half-life is the Belfast Cowboy himself, George Ivan Morrison.

Born and brought up in the Ulster Protestant heartland of East Belfast, Van Morrison was steeped from childhood in a musical marinade of Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Jimmie Rodgers and just about every shade of the Blues, thanks to his music-loving father who spent time in the USA and amassed an enormous record collection.3 By the age of eleven, he was playing harmonica, saxophone, guitar etc in makeshift schoolyard ensembles and, after paying his dues in a cavalcade of semi-professional showbands, skiffle groups and R ’n’ B bands, he formed the legendary Them in 1964. A series of rowdy hit singles swiftly transpired, though the machinations of the music business brought Belfast’s premier beat boom band to a premature end. Van repaired to New York, where he recorded the signature late-60s album Astral Weeks, which proved to be the first in a sequence of seminal solo recordings, most notably Moondance, Tupelo Honey, St Dominic’s Preview and a live album of staggering brilliance, It’s Too Late to Stop Now. This remarkable burst of creativity was followed by a fallow period of introspective self-discovery and attempts to get in touch with the spiritual wellsprings of his musical muse. After a three-year hiatus, Morrison returned to form with Wavelength, Into the Music, Enlightenment and Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, which were quickly eclipsed by a continuous string of late-80s classics including Irish Heartbeat, Avalon Sunset and the inevitable best-selling Best Of. By the early 1990s, Van the Man was happily ensconced in Dublin, secure in his status as a Hall of Fame- inducted living legend and producing an album a year, or thereabouts. As a rule, these excursions alternated between Morrison’s musical roots – skiffle, blues, country, gospel, et al – and variations on his trademark, Celtic-inflected template, a.k.a. Caledonian Soul.

Van the Man is justly renowned for his prodigious musical ability, a mellifluous meld of everything from big band jazz to Irish traditional, to say nothing of a voice that has turned the unmistakable Ulster gulder into an art form.4 But perhaps his single greatest gift is a truly unique sense of place. Whether it be the rural idyll of Old, Old Woodstock, the sheets of Snow in San Anselmo, bouncing along the boardwalk in Venice USA, politely asking the way to The Eternal Kansas City, or breaking in a new pair of shoes by Going Down Geneva’s lakeside, he is blessed with the geographical equivalent of perfect pitch. When Van encapsulates the Streets of Arklow, evokes Summertime in England, sips cider in the Somerset shade, or gambols merrily among the Cotswolds’ Rolling Hills, he transports his listeners – right there, right then – on a Vanlose Stairway of song.

For most people, the quintessence of Morrison’s genius loci is ‘Coney Island’, a contemplative conversational summary of a musical journey to a mythical Irish place where the craic is good, time stands still and potted herrings are polished off before dinner. But for residents of Northern Ireland, George Ivan Morrison is revered for his ability to capture the urban landscape, specifically the rose-tinted streets of his childhood stomping ground, east Belfast. Cyprus Avenue, Hyndford Street, Orangefield or the voices echoing across the Beechie River, late at night, are inordinately meaningful to the inhabitants of a place most of us love and hate simultaneously. Thus, when Van recalls pastie suppers at Davey’s chipper; or the ice cream cones from Fusco’s; or the man who played the saw outside the City Hall; or the six bells chime of St Donard’s Church; or the desperate Belfast diet of gravy rings, barmbracks, wagon wheels, snowballs; or the tangible, almost oppressive, silence of Sundays in the torpid inner city; or, for that matter, throws in a familiar street name – Sandy Row, Fitzroy Avenue, Cherry Valley – he is tapping into, and drawing inspiration from, the collective Ulster unconscious, one that we all share but cannot adequately articulate. More than that, he is part of the ineradicable soundtrack of our lives. I lost my virginity to Van Morrison. Not the man himself, you understand. His music, specifically ‘Madame George’ (the first verse, come to think of it). I was in the audience for his unforgettable ‘homecoming’ gig in 1979, when he played ‘St Dominic’s Preview’ and the line ‘long way to Belfast City too’ was greeted with a roar that almost ripped the roof off the concert hall and still sends shivers down my spine as I write this essay, twenty-seven years later. I will never forget catching Scorsese’s celebrated rockumentary, The Last Waltz, when Van the Man unleashed ‘Caravan’ and literally wiped the floor with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and every other occupant of rock’s top table. Better yet, I took my teenage, Kayne West-fixated daughter to see him last week, much against her supposedly superior judgement. She had a Damascene musical moment and is not only the latest convert to the cause of Caledonian Soul, but has the commemorative T-shirt to prove it. The circle of song remains unbroken.

Let me put it this way: it’s not very often you’re proud to be from Northern Ireland, not when you’ve been through what we’ve been through in recent decades, but when George Ivan Morrison is in full flight, it’s hard not to take collateral pride in his astonishing artistic accomplishments. He’s one of us. We are the people. For God and Ulster.

So powerful, indeed, is Morrison’s sense of place that guided tours of the Vanscape are regularly organised, usually as part of local arts festivals. It is not unusual to find windswept tourists absorbing the arboreal atmosphere of Cyprus Avenue or attempting to make sense of the circuitous cross-country journey outlined in ‘Coney Island’. Disappointment or frustration is the inevitable outcome. The nondescript nature of the actual locations cannot compare with the nostalgic magic of the Morrisonian invocations. When the William Blake of East Belfast imbues them with bucolic beauty – his brilliant ability to see the world in a grain of Sandy Row – we are transported from the workaday everyday to the cosmic threshold of the Celtic sublime. Van’s Avalon may be off the Beersbridge Road and his Garden of Eden somewhere in the vicinity of East Bread Street, but don’t try looking for them. The troubadours, likewise, may well be coming through town. Don’t hold your breath, however. Celtic Ray won’t be found on Bloomfield Avenue, believe me, though counterfeit Celtic RayBans might.

Morrison, then, doesn’t simply capture our sense of place, he embodies the spirit of the place. Spirituality, indeed, is the single most important component of the Belfast Cowboy’s cosmos. Although he is renowned for his happy wanderings along the highways and byways of New Age belief systems, from Steiner to Scientology, he keeps circling back to the evangelical Protestantism that permeates East Belfast, most notably in his sprawling double album Hymns to the Silence. Being born again is a recurring theme in his lyrics – right back to the title track of Astral Weeks – and his incantatory streams of consciousness are nothing less than the musical equivalent of personal Pentecostal testimonials. Singing in tongues, so to speak. I was lost but now I’m found. Glory, glory, hallelujah.

Piety is central to A Sense of Ulster, today’s sinful secular society notwithstanding. And Van Morrison, in many ways, is a stereotypical Ulsterman. Granted, the very idea of a ‘stereotypical Ulsterman’ is deeply suspect, given the enormous variety of traditions in Northern Ireland, let alone genders, generations and geographical subdivisions (rural/urban, east/west, etc). Nevertheless, many maintain that Morrison is blessed with some, arguably all, of the personality traits associated with Ulstermen in general and working class Protestants in particular.5 Blunt, boorish, brusque truculent, taciturn, tenacious, pugnacious, prickly, paranoid, uncompromising, unco-operative and downright uncouth are just some of the less than flattering terms used to describe Van’s irascible behaviour. This is the man who is not averse to storming off stage in high dudgeon or berating his audiences for their abyssal ignorance. This is the man who rudely refused to attend his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and threatened legal action against local admirers who wanted to adorn his childhood home with a Van-lived-here commemorative plaque. This is the man who has written more songs about the iniquities of the music business and so-called friends who’ve sold him out than he has about moving on up along the ancient avenue to the higher ground where the back street jelly roll is in the garden wet with rain on golden autumn days like this when the healing has begun, begun, begun, begun, begun, begun, begun. And that’s saying something.

The Ulster incarnate analogy is undeniably trite, not least because Van Morrison patently lacks the religious bigotry that is associated with rabid Protestantism. However, if the comparison is even briefly entertained6, then the positive side of the hoary Ulster cliché must also be acknowledged. In this regard, there are two archetypal personality traits that Morrison possesses in abundance. The first of these is industriousness. Whatever else is said about the Belfast Cowboy – and My-Van-Hell stories are legion – it cannot be denied that his work ethic is prodigious. He has enjoyed one of the longest and most illustrious careers in popular music. He started out at the same time as The Beatles and The Stones, but unlike many of his beat boom contemporaries the sexagenarian Ulsterman remains extraordinarily active. On average, he has produced an album a year for forty-odd years and a treasure trove of unreleased material is mouldering in the archives.7 Many of his latter-day albums, admittedly, are formulaic retreads but they always contain a smattering of bone fide Celtic soul classics. We may live in a sated, sybaritic, post-industrial society but in Belfast at least hard workers are still highly regarded. Van Morrison, pace ‘Cleaning Windows’, is a working man in his prime and that counts for an awful lot in our part of the world.

What is not highly regarded in Northern Ireland – well nigh unforgivable, in fact – is humourlessness. Ready wit is one of the province’s most prized possessions. Belfast, believe it or not, is a very funny city (and I do mean funny ha-ha). George Ivan Morrison, if not exactly a bundle of laughs, is much more mirthful than many might imagine or indeed his media image intimates. From his childhood love of The Goon Show, through his teenage showband comedy routines, to his heavily-accented Belfast banter on the fade of ‘Cleaning Windows’, to his jaunty Benny Hill-style saxophone solo on ‘Higher Ground’, to his yodelling homage to Carry On movies on last year’s Magic Time, which ends with a howl of studio laughter, Van Morrison is true to his jocose Ulster heritage. Seriously.

Serious play, in short, is Van Morrison’s raison d’etre. He is inherently contradictory, just like the city of his birth: beautiful, bestial, benign, benighted, bedazzling, bellicose, beloved, beleaguered Belfast. Make no mistake, Van the Man is a hero in my home town. A flawed hero, to be sure, though we prefer our heroes flawed round here.8 We love Belfast because of its flaws, not despite them. George Ivan Morrison may not be an ambassador for the city, much less an advertisement, but by God he’s its apotheosis.


1. Barry Douglas, David Holmes, James Galway and Ruby Murray notwithstanding.

2. On the Irish music scene generally, see Gerry Smith, Noisy Island: A Short History of Irish Popular Music (Cork: Cork University Press, 2005).

3. There are many biographies of Van Morrison. The most recent is Johnny Rogan, Van Morrison: No Surrender (London: Secker & Warburg, 2005).

4. ‘Gulder’ is an Ulster colloquialism for ‘loud shout’. Van Morrison is the gulderer’s gulderer.

5. These are cogently summarised in Geoffrey Beattie, Protestant Boy (London: Granta, 2004).

6. Rogan’s biography (op cit, note 3) is predicated on this very premise. He argues, in essence, than Van the Man is channelling The Big Man (Rev. Ian Paisley)

7. When the box set is released it’ll be the size of a coffin.

8. Ulster’s lionisation of George Best, Alex Higgins, Josef Locke and the Titanic attests to this tendency.