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La Jalousie

25 May

Man, what a bold experiment, what a battering experience! Robbe-Grillet’s hyper-realist nouveau roman doesn’t make for comfortable reading. Given his choice of title, we can’t say he didn’t warn us. We could hardly expect total immersion in the mind of the “green-eyed monster” to be easy. In any case, ARG isn’t interested in making things easy for us. The story, such as it is, is recounted by a disembodied consciousness, whom we must infer to be the wronged husband although he is entirely absent.

The unfaithful wife and the cuckolder exclude the unseen narrator from their conversations, even though they meet in his home. They discuss the novel they have both been reading, “a standard narrative of colonial life in Africa, with a description of a tornado, a native revolt and incidents at the club…”, the novel Robbe-Grillet could have written:

They have never made the slightest judgement as to the novel’s value, speaking instead of the scenes, events and characters as if they were real… Their discussions have never touched on the verisimilitude, the coherence or the quality of the narrative. On the other hand, they frequently blame the heroes for certain acts or characteristics, as they would in the case of mutual friends.

This passage seems to me a manifesto. You can feel ARG’s frustration with the “realist” novel and its readers’ expectations. The target of its ire remains in place. It feels painfully like eavesdropping on a book club meeting.

Like a stage drama, all of the “action” takes place in one location, at a farmhouse on a banana plantation somewhere in the tropics, switching only between the veranda, the bedroom, the office and the dining room. A limited range of props is used over and again – a hairbrush, the chairs on the veranda, a squashed centipede, a coffee pot, an ice bucket. Sound effects are repeated – the cries of small predators in the bush, the crickets’ nightly chorus, the hiss of a kerosene lamp… The cast is small – A…, Franck, the Boy, our cuckold-narrator. It’s an ensemble piece for small theatre, staged that we may home in on the narrator’s corrosive, disturbing, all-consuming obsession. If anyone has ever made you jealous, you’ll know how it can expand to fill your every waking moment. It’s the totality of the narrative here.

The novel is also an attempt to present the true nature of perception, the fractured nature of our binary vision, the role of the mind’s eye, the apparently irrelevant details that absorb our attention. I can’t help but be reminded of Picasso’s similar endeavours in paintings such as The Weeping Woman. And from these fragmented pieces, the reader must put together the narrative for him/herself. ARG is challenging the reader, fully involving him/her in his creation. There’s nothing passive here. It’s not a book club “good read”.

Are the narrator’s geometrical obsessions an attempt to impose order on a chaotic world, one that is spinning beyond his control? His senses are confused, overwhelmed. The crackling of the centipede’s mandibles becomes the crackling of the brush in A…’s hair, the crackling of flames in the bush from Franck’s crashed car… The accumulation of detail – geometry, sounds, objects – serves to build a version of reality as it is experienced as opposed to its expression in the vieux roman. It also signals a mind in the grip of obsession. Consider this:

The shiny black curls tremble on her shoulders as the pen advances. Although neither the arm nor the head seems disturbed by the slightest movement, the hair, more sensitive, captures the oscillations of the wrist, amplifies them and translates them into unexpected eddies which awaken reddish highlights in its moving mass.

The passage is unsettling. The narrator is spying on his wife in her bedroom through the slats of her bedroom window (a “jealousy window” in French, apparently). He spends much of the novel doing this. It is also extremely affecting. We feel the narrator’s adoration of this indifferent goddess, the wife to whom he is a mere absence.

A… then is an ellipse, something that must be circled around as an insect will fly around a kerosene lamp. The narrator is fatally drawn to A… He is an insect attracted to a nocturnal flame, in perpetual danger of self-destruction. He is weakened, unable to confront her with his suspicions, destined to move around her from the periphery. And this is his tragedy, every bit as moving in its way as the Moor’s original green-eyed monster.

None of the characters comes out of this well, except perhaps the serving boy. Jealousy is that parody song, Jilted John by Jilted John (a heteronym of comic genius, Graham Fellows). As John, the pathetic narrator sings, Oh she’s a slag and he’s a creep/She’s a tart, he’s very cheap… Indeed. I have read that Perec was dismissive of Robbe-Grillet’s novels. I’m surprised. The description of objects to tell the tale of a young couple’s disappointments is the exact method he employed in his early novella, Things. I’m not sure how many more novels with protagonist-as-unseen-voyeur I’d want to read, but I’m glad I read this one.

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Le Citta Invisibili

11 Apr

A pair of stoned dudes sits around, imagining possible worlds. And then the thought occurs to them; are they just a pair of mendicants sorting through the rubbish on the city tip? Shot through with the author’s characteristic wit and levity, Invisible Cities adds another masterwork to Calvino’s œuvre. He dreams for us so that we can share his visions.

And so, Marco Polo returns from his explorations to report to the emperor, Kublai Khan, furnishing him with fabulous descriptions of cities that never were and never can be, fleshing out his accounts with mundane details that are never mundane and musings on ambition and mortality.

Invisible Cities was written shortly after Calvino moved to Paris and was admitted to the Oulipo. It’s no coincidence, then, that mathematics lie behind the construction of the book, just as they did in Perec’s magnum opus, Life a User’s Manual. I found a PhD thesis online that examines this aspect of the composition which is a quarter as long again as Calvino’s book! There’s no space to go into that here.

Part of the fun is to think back and choose your favourite cities. Zenobia, the city on stilts; Armilla, the city of which only the plumbing and sanitary fittings remain, inhabited now by water nymphs; Octavia “the spider-web city”, hanging above a precipice (‘the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long’)… We’re spoilt for choice. How about you? Assuming you’re not among the nay-sayers here, which would you select?

Procopia – “I raise the curtain, the window frames only an expanse of faces…” Gormley installation in Colchester, 2020

All of the jaded, parody reviews above this one serve only to illustrate the beauty of Calvino’s surrealist poetry. They bring to mind the enfeebled versions of the cities the writer sometimes describes. Come, ladies and gentlemen, raise your game. Calvino pricks his own bubble with the Polo-Khan interludes. Find a better angle of attack for your rubber arrows. Inject your satire with a little of the wit and originality that Calvino’s work possesses.

I think it was my recommendation of this short piece to a book club that made me finally renounce such groups forever (or it might have been The Spire – I forget which, but the reaction was the same). I should have known better, of course. Apparently, Invisible Cities is pretentious nonsense. Yes, it’s that lazy, middlebrow label for anything that aspires beyond the norm. We live in an age where poetry is something about which we ought to feel vaguely ashamed or embarrassed. I suspect it’s the suspicion that you think it makes you clever for reading it that goads the book club member. Erm, no, clearly Calvino is the clever one here; his reader merely clings to his coattails for the duration of the journey. “Reading group novel”. That’s actually now a category used by the “industry” (another term that tells you all you need to know). Oh dear.

It’s worse than that, though. Not only are you in danger of being labelled a “pseud” merely for being seen carrying a copy of the book… nothing happens in it. There’s no story (obviously, the stories of the fifty-five cities described don’t count). Where is Calvino’s imagination? There, there, Momma’s gonna read you ‘Harry Potter’, even though you’re a 47 year old banking auditor. I actually have no problem with people who want to read a ripping yarn (or should that be a rip-off yarn in the case just mentioned?) What rattles against the oxidated bars of my gilded cage is the suggestion that a book can be nothing more.

Calvino’s metaphysical comedy speaks best for itself:

POLO: Unless porters, stonecutters, rubbish collectors, cooks cleaning the lights of chickens, washerwomen bent over stones, mothers stirring rice as they nurse their infants, exist only because we think them.
KUBLAI: To tell the truth, I never think them.
POLO: Then they do not exist.
KUBLAI: To me this conjecture does not seem to suit our purposes. Without them we could never remain here swaying, cocooned in our hammocks.
POLO: Then the hypothesis must be rejected. The other hypothesis is true: they exist and we do not.
KUBLAI: We have proved that if we were here, we would not be.

Ha ha!

Automatic Writing

15 Nov

I’ve chanced upon a new way of generating stories. My primitive smartphone has apparently developed the ability to send text messages all by itself. It’s a new form of automatic writing. As I was walking into town, I pulled the device out of my jacket pocket to find out what time it was and discovered the following message, addressed to no one:

I was sitting on the bus going home when I saw O’Donnell. Missed your Carlson 😦 

Clearly, it’s the beginning of a story of some kind. But who are O’Donnell and Carlson? And to whom is the first-person narrator addressing himself, this person who somehow lays claim to Carlson? It’s a little disconcerting to reflect that one of the main characters in my last work was called O’Connell and my current one contains several characters whose  surname is Kaarelssens… Has my phone begun to pick up on my subconscious, then? Maybe it’s not so dumb after all.

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The author and his neanderthal-phone.  Disturbingly, The Encyclopedia of Psychotherapy lies just behind his right shoulder…

The things our devices do for themselves – and mine’s not even an Android. The third sentence was absolute gibberish, mind you.

Could okloplooooojn meet two-inchoooa?

I’ve previously considered using predictive text to generate surreal, nonsense pieces in the manner of the Oulipo’s ‘S Plus 7’ technique, replacing the nouns in a piece with the ones that follow at seven alphabetical removes (let’s face it, it’s still preferable to the ‘S Club 7’ technique which replaces all meaning with inanities). So far I’ve resisted. It would appear that my phone has taken matters into its own hands. If you should happen to receive a nonsensical message from me in the near future, blame my phone.  

Maybe you can infer more about O’Donnell, Carlson and that third man than me or my phone. If so, feel free to complete the paragraph for us both in the comment box below. 

All text and images © PSR 2016

Bainbridge Syndrome

17 Apr

Beryl Bainbridge was a real character. She was short-listed five times for the Booker Prize and highly regarded by many. The Times included her in its list of the fifty best British writers since WW2 (it’s an odd litany, mixing populist choices with genuine contenders). I’ve only read two of her novels and don’t feel greatly inclined to read another. Part of the reason I haven’t read any more is that I find them under-written. Yes, they’re intelligent and have great premises but they feel like they need at least another two drafts. Maybe I’ve read the wrong ones. Nevertheless, she provides a useful piece of shorthand for the sin of insufficient revision, Bainbridge Syndrome.

I’ve witnessed it in writers I’ve known. A member of a writing group I belonged to claimed that he never revised his work and could knock out a novel in a matter of months. It didn’t show in his writing, of course… I definitely suffer from it. And my writing suffers too. I never give my manuscripts as many drafts as they need. Bainbridge was pretty prolific. Perhaps this was the cause of the malady in her case. For me, the cause is simple. I don’t have sufficient time to see my projects through to true fulfilment. I’m not a full-time writer and have never enjoyed that luxury. The bills have to be paid. I don’t have a private income. I haven’t ever received a bequest. And thus that extra draft or two that my fiction requires doesn’t materialise.

I’ve recently been reminded of this deficiency in my writing. A reading group, some of the members of which I know, is about to read my novella, Norwegian Rock. So I felt I ought to re-read it myself. If I’m honest, I was quite pleased with how well it stood up. But one thought kept occurring to me – if only I’d given it another draft. Yesterday, I met up with a good friend of mine, who is also a writer, though he has little time for it at present. We hadn’t seen each other for ages and although he’d read my war novel “Mayflies” quite some time before, he hadn’t given me his reaction to it. Although he’d enjoyed it, he found parts of it under-written. It’s a long and complex novel that took me six years to write. I probably could have spent another six on it to get it where I wanted it. Ho hum…

LUAP Special Norwegian Rock

Of course, there’s a danger here. A writer can be plagued by the opposite of Bainbridge Syndrome, becoming unable to let go of a novel, endlessly revisiting it and reworking it. It’s a syndrome by which another good friend of mine is afflicted. It’s not a condition I would wish to endure. Maybe in another life, I’ll be born idle rich and have a bijou apartment gifted to me where I’ll write the fully realised novels that I envisage. And I’ll have the time to make my blog posts perfect too…

Mayflies blank

All text and images © PSR 2016

Recharging Creative Batteries

13 Apr

A week at the writing den soon passed. I made far less progress than I’d hoped for on my almost-finished manuscript. On the other hand, I recharged my sadly depleted creative batteries. I read Michael Krüger’s highly entertaining ‘The Executor’. I went on some wonderful rural stomps, including a stroll around the surreal sculpture park below. I saw a green woodpecker and a raven. I ate lots of good food too.

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I also returned to a remote and inaccessible bay. It’s quite possibly my favourite spot on earth. Being early April, the waters of the Western Channel were far too cold to swim in. I had to settle for sitting on a rock and dipping my welly boots into its jade green but icy water. It’s a place where all cares and worries go whistling away, if only for a short while. The photo below does no justice at all to the beauty of this place. Ho hum…

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I also explored some new places. I had sailed out of Dieppe countless times but never looked around the town. From the ferry it looks uninteresting. Closer to, it turns out to be a ramshackle delight, with grand old churches and a cliff-top medieval castle. By sheer coincidence, I have just picked out Henrik Stangerup’s ‘The Seducer’ as the next read from my bookshelves. It’s subtitled ‘It’s Hard to Die in Dieppe’… Now I’m looking forward all the more to reading it.

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So now it’s back to the grind of the day job and of life with all its hassles. Hopefully, somewhere in amongst it all, I’ll find the time and energy to complete my manuscript this year. In the meantime, here’s a tiny extract. I’ve been much concerned with games, perhaps because my children and I have played numerous games of Cluedo during the holidays…

The Kaffe Muzeesmis is another haunt of the old chess players.  A number of barstools have been crammed against a counter at the end of the compartment.  This leaves room for a single table at which games may be played.  More often than not, the combatants will be Vikktur Kiirilavnas and Valentiin Krutt.  They seem to be working their way through the same restricted and highly symbolic set of moves, as though playing a handful of games from memory.  Are these exhibition matches, then?  Perhaps.  Certainly, they will frequently draw the attention of the other customers, who watch in rapt silence from the bar. 

In the first game, Kiirilavnas plays black.  He undertakes a ruthless demolition of his opponent’s forces, removing piece after piece in rapid succession.  This opening has become known as Kiirilavnas’ Defence.  The older man seems to take particular pleasure in the early capture of white’s bishops and in his deferred pursuit of the queen.  But it is those black rooks, the kjerntuurr that appear key to every move.  In the second game, Krutt is red.  Now it’s the younger man’s turn to go on the offensive.  In a breath-taking display of attacking play, he deploys his knights to deadly effect and the red king or krevnkunikk in an unusually advanced position.  His opponent offers little resistance.  It’s maat in eighteen moves.  For the third game, Kiirilavnas is white.  He plays a highly skilled, counter-attacking game, combining his knights and bishops to destroy his opponent’s defences and soon the black king is staring defeat in the face.  The fourth game sees Krutt draw level again, providing a textbook demonstration in the offensive possibilities of the board’s most powerful piece.  This is Kruut’s Gambit.  The white queen or bjeldronikk controls the game almost from the debut to its endgame, supported by the merciless thrusts of her bishops.  The opposing pawns are soon under her command and then, for black, the game is up.  The old men include in their repertoire a few examples of the modern game, played at irregular intervals – one where Krutt wins swiftly as black, another in which Kiirilavnas sweeps to victory as red – nevertheless, you’d only have to spend a few afternoons observing play at the Museum Café before you’d find the familiar patterns re-asserting themselves, the same four exercises being played out, with minor variations, those sequences to which the players always seem to return.  History repeats itself as tragedy then farce, cataclysm then slapstick, catastrophe then stand-up… 

All text and images © PSR 2016

Is the Experimental Novel Dead?

15 Sep

I note that Tom McCarthy is once again included on the short list for the Mann Booker Prize. He and David Mitchell are touted as the UK’s leading experimental novelists. I wrote before about my experience of reading McCarthy’s novel, ‘C’ and of being unable to finish it. I found its concern with a narrow band of characters from the upper middle class unengaging. In this, the book has far more in common with the work of William Boyd or Sebastian Faulks, it seems to me, than it does with that of Joyce or Beckett. And experimental? Hmm… The timidity of publishers in our dumbed down age stems directly from the industry’s domination by big, risk-averse corporations. I suspect innovative novels are being written out there but no publisher is willing to take a punt on them or the small returns that they might offer. From time to time, something interesting reaches these shores from abroad, a Roberto Bolaño, say, or Diego Marani and reminds us of what is possible. The experimental novel isn’t dead, then. It’s just being buried alive. 

We could draw a parallel with radio. Compare the conservative scheduling of a commercial station like Planet Rock (playing the same old songs by Status Quo and Deep Purple) with the new and interesting bands played on 6 Music. We’ll miss the BBC when it’s gone. New bands will continue to form and experiment but we won’t hear them. They’ll be ignored by Sky Radio 1 and Virgin 6 Music in favour of talent show winners rehashing easy listening from the 1970s. 

‘What genre do you write in?’ asked a new member of my writing group. ‘He writes in a genre of his own,’ remarked Stephen, a writer whom I’ve known for many years. I would make no great claims for the originality my work. I try to write books that I myself would wish to read. I’d describe my fiction as having an ‘experimental twist’ rather than being purely experimental in nature. I aim to intrigue the reader, not to alienate or infuriate him or her. I combine techniques that I’ve encountered in my reading and hope to create something new as a result. And I make no secret of the influence on my work of Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and WG Sebald, among others, even if I’m not worthy to clean their metaphorical boots. 

An image from my latest manuscript - thank you, Herr Sebald

An image from my latest manuscript – thank you, Herr Sebald

If all fiction becomes backward-looking, harking back to the realist tradition of the nineteenth century or to tired genre stereotypes, cultural stagnation will surely result. We need the experimental novel, even those of us who do not read it. In the past, innovative fiction has renewed the mainstream. Think of the influence of Hemingway or Kafka. Without it, what will fiction have that television or film cannot offer? 

The extract that follows employs a univocalic. That’s hardly new, I know, but the device pushes your writing in interesting directions, forcing you to give up a little control…

Toomo Tork stows down on Box No. 15.  Toomo’s story follows. 

Locos – lots of locos! – roll by.  Tow tons of goods, stocks, so on or so forth.  Box No. 15 follows Box No. 14 follows Box No. 13… from Moscow to Oslo, Rostock thro’ to Porto, Stockholm down to Brno.  Look now.  Boozy old hobos, Olof or Oolf, hop on or off – Toomo too – go to or fro, got no work or odd jobs only – work on crofts or chop logs – short of food, knock off hooch or hock or scotch, croon songs on dobros of doom or gloom, ‘got no tomorrow, only sorrow’.  Crooks, clowns, snoops, so on or so forth, show ghostly photos of lost towns or sons, old dogs or smoky motors.  Locos roll on slowly thro’ frosty woods of dogwood, cob, broom, holly, thro’ hollow nooks, follow flow of cool stony brooks, by smoggy old towns, sooty lorry or loco works, by spooky ghost towns of low blocks (no doors, no roofs, no floors), roll on now, God only knows why.  Cows low on foggy moors – ‘Choo-choo!’  ‘Moo!’ – flocks of rooks or crows roost on rocky knolls, owls hoot from snowy rooftops, poor dogs howl, woof-woof, bow-wow… 

All words and images © PSR 2105

Revamp

19 Jul

So, after a couple of years of my blog looking exactly the same, I’ve had a bit of a revamp… I hope all three of my readers like it.

I’ve had a bit of fun with the randomised headers. They’re snaps from my travels, picture postcards from some of my favourite places, seven different countries in all. Refresh the page and a new one should appear – fiendish conjuring! Let me know if you recognise any of them. Here’s one of them in all of its glory.

Mystery destination...

Mystery destination… it’s in an eighth country

Happy summer hols!

Short Cuts to a Readership

11 Mar

My friend, Mari Biella always writes interesting posts on her blog. Recently, she drew my attention to a writing site called ‘Cut’. It’s short for ‘Cut a Long Story’ (for me, this name evokes uncomfortable memories of Spandex Ballet…). To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what this site is. It says that it carries out an editorial process determining the suitability of submissions for publication. But I don’t know if they just say that to all the writers. The team there converts the Word document of your concise masterpiece into e-book format, though, you don’t seem to be able to view your work without paying for it! I may be wrong, of course, given the legendary limitations of my technical prowess. The site takes half of the proceeds from anything it publishes (another reason, presumably, why it’s called ‘Cut’). I’ve been looking at several of these sites over the last few months. Which brings us to another problem that Mari recently posted about… The more time a writer spends investigating ways of marketing his or her work on the Internet, the less time he or she can actually devote to writing anything. Perhaps it’s a sinister plot. If I spend enough time ‘developing my online presence’ on Twitter, my intellect will be totally eroded and I won’t be able to bother publishers with my manuscripts as I’ll have become incapable of writing anything more than 140 characters long. I’ll have committed haiku-kiri.

Anyway, if you’re interested, I put my short story, ‘Horror Story’ up on the site for a king’s ransom (99p). You can find it here. As you might expect from my writing, it’s not in fact a horror story at all. It’s a little exercise, written as a pastiche of Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. Here’s the cover image and underneath a short extract from it.

The Horror Story is set here...

The Horror Story is set here…

And so we set off on our voyage.  Quagdyke is about twelve miles out of town and lies in the middle of a salt marsh.  Kitts had supplied Harkness with some rudimentary directions.  Take the road to Chapel-le-Marsh.  Turn right by the chapel.  Keep the dyke on your left and keep going.  Quagdyke is the last village.

“Don’t tell the old girl where she’s taking us,” he whispered.  “She might not like it.”

We chugged out of town in the direction that we’d been advised.  Fifteen minutes later we arrived in Chapel-le-Marsh.  The building that gave the village its name had been turned into a garage.  Each former arch of stained glass had become a servicing bay.  The graveyard was now a forecourt with a row of dilapidated cars lined up on it.  ‘Remoulds and Salvage’ read the sign outside it.  We didn’t allow ourselves to be fooled by this piece of subterfuge.  We took the right hand turn, signposted for Quagdyke.  It seemed that Kitts’s directions weren’t so bad after all.  The road was one of those dead straight ones that used to be built across the marshes.  It soon joined up with the dyke.  Harkness was happy.  Forgetting his previous counsel, he began to wonder aloud about his new acquisition.  And sure enough, about four miles short of Quagdyke the old girl proved that she’d been listening after all, and that she’d taken umbrage.  The lights faded on her dashboard, her engine cut out and she glided to a standstill.

“Shit!” remarked Harkness.  “We’ll never make it by eight now.”

“What do you think’s wrong with her?” I asked him.

“How the hell should I know?”

“Well, aren’t you going to look under the bonnet or something?”

“Whatever for?  I don’t know what’s in there, do I?”

I tried a different tack.

“I don’t suppose you’ve got breakdown cover?”

“Nope.”

“Hmm.”

“Are you sure you want another one of these?” Stimpson asked.

Harkness didn’t answer.  He appeared to be thinking.  There was something of the England rugby captain about him, in his day job as­ an infantry officer (the blubber aside).

“We’ll just have to continue on foot,” he said at last.  “Shackleton’s pony or whatever.”

“Surely it was a penguin?”

Harkness didn’t dispute it.

All text and images © PSR 2015 

Writing Update

4 Mar

At the moment, my writing seems to have ground to something of a halt. I’m not “blocked”. I don’t actually believe in such a thing. “Mentally exhausted” would come much closer to it. It’s put something of a brake on my blogging too. I realise that I’ve been missing some of my blogging friends, even though I’ve never even met them physically. The urge to gain those insights into what’s happening in their lives and writing is manifesting itself again.

The twin-pronged approach to my works-in-progress has seen me through up till now. Four months devoted to one, eighteen months to the other, another month on WiP No. 1 and back to WiP No. 2… However, I seem to have arrived at difficult points in both of them, at the same time. WiP No. 1 is theoretically close to completion. I have 100,000 words and much of the tale has been told. So ahead of me lies the challenge of pulling together the words on the page into some kind of coherent whole. I’m also going through one of those phases that all writers will recognise where I’m questioning the validity of what I’m doing. From this perspective, it’s making my task with WiP No. 1 look Herculean and myself in need of some Christ-like powers of transformation. WiP No. 2 has 34,000 words but now I’m wondering whether the idea is too slight to make a novel…

Stained glass and iconography encountered on a late winter's walk

Stained glass and iconography encountered on a late winter’s walk

My mind isn’t even right for reading at the moment. I’ve stalled for the last three months over Martin Amis’s London Fields. I usually read between 20 and 25 books a year but Mr Amis’s tome and my psychological fatigue are getting in the way of this target. I took it on my recent trip to the writing den and didn’t read a single page. The trip was more about recuperation in the company of a photographer friend of mine, who was also in need of a break. And the writing den provides the perfect location. Good food and drink, walking and conversation were the order of the day.

The best bar in the town close to the writing den

The best bar in the town close to the writing den

On an optimistic note, I start a new job in September. Even though I’ll be yet more broke than I already am – if that’s possible – it should give me more time and energy for writing and to embark on the logjam of projects that I have stored up over the years. For now, though, I’m off to check out some of my friends’ latest musings…

All text and images © PSR 2015

7/7, In Memoriam

7 Jul

Today, in memory of the innocent victims who died in the London Bombings of 7th July 2005, I’m reproducing in full my own memory of that day, published previously in the sampler of my work, Jamboree Bag.

More by Luck than Judgement, Here Am I

7th July 2005, “7/7”, Britain’s version of 9/11…

Already, on the 8th July, The Sun had begun using that phrase.  7/7, the day on which home-grown suicide bombers first struck Britain.  Four bombers, four devices – three detonated on the underground, one on a bus – killing fifty-five, maiming scores more.  Cell leader and teaching assistant, Mohammad Sidique Khan and his three accomplices, Hassib Hussain, Shehzad Tanweer and Muslim convert, Germaine Lindsay.  The CCTV footage of those four outwardly normal young men has become a commonplace, as they set off for their day out in the capital like a jolly band of hikers, carrying rucksacks on their backs and hatred in their souls.  Neither I nor anyone else knew anything of all this…

For two hours I found myself wandering on the edge of that extraordinary day, like a latter day Pepys observing the Great Fire.  I arrived above ground, twenty minutes after the carnage had begun below, wholly unaware of the strange world into which I had stumbled.  I was to have taken the Circle Line from Liverpool Street to High Street Kensington.  Needless to say, I never got there.  If the course that I was scheduled to attend had begun at nine thirty instead of ten o’clock, I would, in all probability, have been on board that mangled tube train amid the shattered glass and soot and severed body parts.  For hundreds of others, the mathematics worked out wrongly.

Just as anyone who was around at the time is supposed to recall where they were when they heard that John F Kennedy had been shot dead, so it is with the attack on the Twin Towers in New York on 11th September 2001.  I was in a computer room with a group of students working on some mundane project or other.  It was the end of a long day, late in the academic year.  A lab technician came into the room and said that she’d just received a text message from a friend about an attack on New York.  There was a TV in the room and she wondered if we might put it on to find out what was going on.  We watched in disbelief as those scenes from a Hollywood disaster movie were played out for real.  I drove home in a daze.  Later, I wandered the streets of Lincoln (where I lived at that time), pondering the enormity of the day’s events.  The story unfolded slowly, just as the events of 7th July in London would – one ‘plane striking the Twin Towers and then another, the desperate leaps through the air into the street hundreds of feet below to avoid the approaching flames, the collapse of the first tower and then the second, the mobile phone messages to loved ones from those who knew that they were about to die, the ‘plane that crashed in the desert due to the heroic resistance of its passengers, the terrorists learning how to fly in order to turn passenger jets into missiles…  I remember where I was at the time of the bomb attacks on the London transport network on 7th July 2005.  I was there.

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I boarded the train at Ipswich station.  The journey into London Liverpool Street takes a little over an hour.  On that morning it was uneventful.  I switched between reading and gazing out of the window.  Five minutes from Liverpool Street the guard announced across the intercom that he’d received a message that no underground trains were running from the station and promised to keep us informed of further developments.  We drew into the station.  Everything seemed normal except that the shutters were down on the entrance to the underground and the transport police had cordoned off the area immediately in front of it.  I asked one of the policemen what had happened.  He told me that he thought that there’d been an accident of some kind in the tunnel.  I asked him how I might get to Kensington.  He suggested walking to Fenchurch Street station and picking up the underground from there.

When I emerged into Bishopsgate it became apparent that an event of some magnitude had occurred.  A police car came hurtling past with its sirens blaring and then another and yet another…  Now minibuses full of officers were arriving.  About twenty policemen in reflective jackets came running up the street between the traffic.  Quite some accident, then…  Everybody seemed to be going about their business as usual.

As I was walking, I remembered that there is no underground station at Fenchurch Street.  I decided to head toward it in any case and make my way to Tower Hill underground station from there.  I asked a city worker if he knew what had happened.  He’d heard that there’d been a ‘power surge’ on the underground, whatever that meant.  I turned left into Leadenhall Street, heading toward Aldgate, unaware of the grim events that were unfolding in the tunnels beneath that pavement.  I cut down a passage way and into Fenchurch Street.  The Whitechapel mosque was visible between the office buildings.  More passers-by than usual were talking on their mobile phones.  I carried on toward Tower Hill tube station, along Lloyd’s Avenue, under the viaduct, passing Crutched Friars and Pepys Street.  And when I arrived there, the grilles had been pulled across the station entrance, except for a narrow gap where a couple of London Transport officials were standing.

“No trains, then?” I asked the nearer of them.

“The whole underground system is down.”

“What’s happened?”

“There’s been a bang.”

The thought occurred to me for the first time.

“Terrorists?”

“It might be.”

I asked him how I might get to Kensington.  He said that the over-ground trains might still be running.  Or I could take the boat.  The boat?  I’d never heard of that.  He directed me to the waterfront and told me I’d need to make for Westminster pier.

“It’ll be an adventure for you…”

I walked down the hill in the direction of the river, passing the northern edge of the Tower, where bombers from an earlier century had screamed out their lives on the rack.  Odd that those methods should have regained currency, that politicians were once again discussing the etiquette of torture in the name of preventing terror…

And now the air was filled once more with the screams of the sirens of emergency vehicles.  I found myself down on the Thames Walk, heading westward along the north bank of the river.  Tower Bridge lay to the left of me, HMS Belfast on the bank opposite.  London Bridge loomed ahead.  How far did I need to go?  I asked a cool looking city worker wearing black shades and listening to his I-pod.  He seemed completely unfazed.  He thought that I might pick up a boat at Blackfriars.

“No need to hurry now,” he said.  “Today you can be as late for work as you like.”

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I walked beneath the Cannon Street rail crossing and Southwark Bridge.  A black motorised dinghy – from the Special Boat Service? – skimmed past on the surface of the brown water.  I typed out another text message to the mother of my child, providing her with a bulletin.  It failed to send.

I walked underneath the Millennium Footbridge (leading to the incongruous thatched dome of the Globe on the south bank), beneath another rail crossing and Blackfriars Bridge, and there below me I found Blackfriars Pier and next to it some kind of floating tube station.  And there I stood for a quarter of an hour or so with a small band of silent Londoners, waiting.  Two boats were moored there but they weren’t taking passengers.  Whatever force had brought the tube trains to a standstill appeared to have immobilised these boats as well.  I gave up and moved on.

Along the Victoria Embankment, on past the Temple where the iron lampposts are cast in the shape of fantastic fish and the bench-ends are adorned with pharaohs’ heads…  Those Masonic symbols cast their spell on the streets around them, pointing back to the Knights Templar and a centuries’ old clash between Islam and Christianity.   From the bank opposite rose the familiar shape of the Oxo Tower and to my right the grand façade of Somerset House.  I had no idea where I was heading now.  Was I trying to reach Kensington on foot?  Another black dinghy flashed past Bankside power station, keeping its nose high above the surface of the water.  A police patrol boat passed in the opposite direction.

I gazed up at Waterloo Bridge.  Familiar red shapes were shuttling back and forth from one bank to the other.  The buses, at least, were still running.  That was it, then – I’d take a bus.  I ascended the steps to street level and headed for the road that cut across the end of the bridge.  Ambulances rushed southward along the bridge.  I found myself in the Strand.  I chose to ignore its obvious imagery.  I was still making for Kensington, though I no longer knew why.  Where else did I have to go?

Around the corner I found a bus shelter.  A few disconsolate looking citizens were queuing there.  I consulted the timetable.  I needed a No.9 bus to take me to Kensington.  I gazed across the road at the handsome art-deco façade of the BBC’s Aldwych buildings.  Behind them stood a tall office building.  A helicopter was buzzing above it, jittering with nervous energy.  An unmarked police car roared up the street, its lights flashing.

No.11, No.26, another No.11… it seemed that my bus would never come.  Still no No.9…  No.9, No.11 – it was becoming easy to read portents into everything.  Another No.11 pulled up at the stop.  It was going to Fulham Broadway – that was out west, at least.  I decided I’d ask the driver if the No.9 was still in service.  I was last onto the bus behind five or six other people.  I stepped up to the driver’s screen.

“Is the No.9 still running?”

At that moment a message came through on his intercom.  He held up his hand to me and listened.

“All buses to return to the garage…”

He opened the door of his cab.

“Okay, everybody off, everybody off…”

I stood there uselessly at the bus stop, uncertain of my next move.  I wouldn’t be getting to Kensington.  That much was clear.  My pointless quest had come to an end.  Behind me stood a public building of some kind.  I walked through an archway and into a courtyard.  A white van pulled up with two men in the cab.  They were listening to the radio news.  I asked them if they’d heard what was happening.

“Seven blasts – three on the tube and four buses.  They’re telling everyone to get out of central London.”

“But how?  There are no buses or tube trains…”

The driver grinned and shrugged.  And nor were there any trains coming in or out of London, he added.

I walked around the courtyard.  A woman was sobbing into her mobile phone, talking to a husband or boyfriend.  She seemed on the verge of hysteria.  She was telling her loved one about the bombings and how there was no means of escape.

The whole of central London appeared to be closing down.  People had either left or were holed up in hotels or their offices.  Keep off the streets – that was the advice.  Bombs were seemingly going off all over the place.  The city was approaching paralysis.  And therein lay my dilemma.  I’d been told that I should get out of there but had no means of doing so.  The underground system had closed down, the buses had returned to their garages and there were no trains travelling in or out of the capital.

I wandered into the reception area of the building.  A couple of smart young women were seated behind a circular counter in the centre of the space.

“What is this place?” I asked.

The receptionists looked at me as though I’d temporarily misplaced my marbles.

“It’s the Strand campus of King’s College.”

I asked if there was a library in which I might pass some time.  They said that it was only open to staff but I was welcome to sit in reception if I liked.  Well, was there somewhere I could get a coffee, then?  If I walked around the corner into Surrey Street there was a refectory where I might get a drink and something to eat.

I walked around the block and into the college building.  I climbed the stairs to the second floor.  A couple of women were sitting at a table by the entrance.  Otherwise it was deserted.  I asked them where the toilets were.

On my way out of the toilets I met a man who had been doing some building work at the college.  We talked about events.  We discussed how I might get out of central London.  I said that perhaps I’d walk.

“You don’t want to wander south of the river…”

“Why not?”

“Do you know south London?”

I told him that I’d lived for a while in Tooting and then in Balham.

“Oh, well, you’ll know all about it, then.  How long ago was that?”

“About twenty years ago.”

“Well, now it’s twenty times worse.  There are guns and everything…”

I asked him about hotels.

“There are a couple near by.  It’ll be easier if I show you.”

I followed him through the building, back to ground level and out onto a paved area overlooking the river.  He pointed out the hotels.

He’d heard from his daughter who’d been in Covent Garden, near the scene of one of the blasts.  He told me that he’d have an eight mile walk through the city to return home.

We shook hands.

“Good luck,” he said.

“And you too.”

There remained another possibility – a black cab.  It would cost a small fortune, but I was running out of options.  I could take one as far as my hometown of Southend and make my way back to Ipswich from there.  Where was the nearest taxi rank?  Now that I thought about it, I remembered seeing an expensive looking hotel across the way when I’d been waiting for the bus.  Perhaps there’d be a rank outside it.  I walked back along Lancaster Place, attempting to hail a cab as I went.  They all sped past, seeming not to notice me.  The streets were beginning to empty of pedestrians now.  I turned left into the Strand and sure enough, there was a small taxi stand in front of the hotel.  Three burly doormen stood at the entrance to the Hotel.  I asked one of them about my chances of getting a cab driver to take me to Essex.

“You’ll be lucky.  We tried to get one for a guest and there were none available.”

“Perhaps I should put up in a hotel.”

“Well, here you are, sir,” he said gesturing through the door.

“Hmm,” I replied, “I think it might be a little bit out of my league.”

The occasional black cab still raced past.  Although each seemed to be carrying a single occupant none were for hire.  And then one pulled up at the front of the hotel.  Three passengers got out and mounted the hotel steps.  I approached the cabbie.

“This gentleman’s going on,” he said, nodding at the man still seated in the back.  “Sorry.”

Well, that seemed to be that.  I was stuck there, then.  And then another cab pulled up at the rank.  Its passenger paid the driver and hopped out.  The driver, an old bear of a man, was folded into his cab.

“Can you take me to Essex?”

“Yes, sir.”

I was aware of someone standing close behind me – a middle aged woman with claret-coloured hair, dressed in European beatnik clothes and carrying a large backpack.

“Can I share your taxi?  I have to get to Stansted airport.”

“I guess it’s in the same direction as Southend.”

I looked at the driver.

“If you don’t mind, sir.”

I’m told that even the taxis were taken off the street shortly afterwards.  I’d been fortunate to find one.  We got into the back and soon we were talking.  She told me that she was from Stockholm.  She had a husband and two kids back in Sweden.  She often went travelling on her own and had been in the air when both the September 11th and Bali nightclub attacks had taken place.

At first we seemed to be making little progress through those chaotic London streets.

“Are we out of central London yet?” she asked me after a while.

“I don’t think so.”

But soon we were running past grim housing estates in the East End.  We stopped talking from time to time to listen to the coverage on the radio.  Some sort of shape was being imposed on that mass of misinformation and speculation.

Peace, the Swedish beatnik thought, was our most important commodity.  If we are to believe Harry Lime, Orson Welles’ character in The Third Man, all that the Swiss managed to do with five hundred years of peace was invent the cuckoo clock.  At least the Swedes had come up with the Volvo and Ikea in their two centuries of it.  And global travel was a force for good, she told me, increasing our understanding of each other, making war less likely.

“It doesn’t feel that way today.”

“No.”

At midday the Prime Minister broke off from the G8 summit at Gleneagles to express his horror at events and to assert that the British way of life could not be destroyed.  We joined the motorway and were immediately immersed in heavy traffic.  If it didn’t clear my fellow passenger would miss her ‘plane.  And so somehow I found that my taxi had been commandeered to go straight to Stansted instead.

At the airport I took out a wad of cash.  Apparently, the taxi’s credit card meter wouldn’t work outside London.  When I got back to the taxi the Swedish beatnik was gone.  She had wanted to pay the whole fare but the driver had kindly declined on my behalf.  And now there was somebody else wanting to share my cab, a young guy in casual sportswear with a public school accent.  He wanted to go back to South London.

“We’d better get some banter going as we’re going all the way to Putney.  I’m Rob.  What’s your name, mate?”

“Tony,” the bear replied.

And so we set off again.  Naturally enough, we found ourselves talking about the state of the world.  Apparently, the parents of a friend from his schooldays were good friends of the Bushes and sometimes had them over to stay.  This friend reckoned that George W Bush was a great guy.  Rob didn’t agree.

“I don’t know where you stand on the Bush issue,” he told me, “but I think he’s an arsehole.”

He told me that he’d had a computer security business.  He’d made ‘some money’ from its stock exchange flotation and then he and his stepfather in Paris had set up a corporate finance company.  Rob had a different angle.  Peace wasn’t the commodity of the future.  Nor would wars be fought over oil.  In the future, he proclaimed, water would be the major source of both conflict and profit.  His company had arranged for a guy to purchase some land in France on which there was a natural spring.  They’d financed the construction of a bottling plant on the site.   It’s a theory that’s been gaining credence.  Water replacing oil as the commodity that turns the world…  If so, oil will have brought about its own demise in an over-populated and environmentally degraded world.

You’re transported into an alternative universe when you travel long distance by black cab.  Suddenly, caring capitalists seem to be everywhere.  I asked Rob how he squared his leftist views with a career in corporate finance.  Well, he was on the board of a charity, and in any case, finance was just a sideline for him.  His escape plan was fully formed.  He was going to open a hotel complex with bars and a nightclub.  And he was going to buy an island to put it on.  You could see the attraction, of course.  He had to make his money first so that he and his future wife and kids could be comfortable.  That’s what it’s all about, really, he told me.  Then he could afford to be altruistic, to have his friends to stay and so on.

The driver missed the turning for Chelmsford, taking us an expensive distance out of our way.  In the county town, the taxi drew level with a heavily made up young woman in an MG sports car.  The driver asked her for directions to the station.

“Hello,” commented my fellow passenger, making a passing attempt at a lascivious Leslie Phillips.

“My girlfriend’s got the same car,” he said.  “She’s nicer though – she’s American.”

He drew out a photograph of a plain looking girl with dyed blonde hair.  We shook hands and said our goodbyes.  I handed over eighty pounds to the bear.

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I thank God that I saw none of the carnage first hand.  I got to read about it in the newspaper the next day.  Those are not images that I would want to carry around with me.  I passed only one injured person that day.  As the taxi pulled onto the motorway we encountered heavy traffic.  At first it seemed that the rush to leave the city had brought the road to a standstill.  We crawled forward and then the traffic began to clear.  A police car came past.  It was an accident, then, an everyday, humdrum tragedy.  A motorcyclist had been knocked from his bike.  I averted my eyes.

On 6th July, I had been listening to a CD while working on my laptop in the school staff room, the Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Colours Fly away from Me’.  ‘More by luck than judgement here am I,’ runs the first line.  We’ve all heard the tales about those people who were due to sail on the Titanic who for some reason never made that voyage.  Serendipity, synchronicity… I’m not sure that I believe in either of those things.  But why should I have been travelling into London on that particular day?  I only visit the capital on a few days in any one year.  I’m booked onto a course on the Wednesday, but it’s cancelled at the last moment.  The hand of fate intervenes.  I manage to find a replacement course for the following day.   I arrive twenty minutes after the event.  Somebody up there likes me…

All text and images © PSR 2014