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Animal Magic in The Idler, Nov/Dec issue

I wrote a piece for the Idler magazine on the merits of petsitting. You can read it in the latest edition, edition 69 November/December 2019, available from Idler stockists (https://www.idler.co.uk/idler-stockists/) or via subscription to the excellent magazine (https://www.idler.co.uk/join/).

Here’s the piece:

‘Hi Simon, Hi Tam. Welcome to Arizona! This is my husband, John. He thinks you’ve flown 5,000 miles from London to Phoenix to steal all our belongings. Come on in.’

This was the opening gambit from the delightful Vicki, wife of doubting John, who had engaged us to sit for their two beagles, Mojo and Fetch, in their sprawling ranch home in Phoenix while they went off to spend Christmas on Long Beach with their family.

It turned out that this was the first time Vicki had used a house/pet-sitting agency, and it was our first time as sitters. So I could understand John’s caution. Who are these limeys? And do I want them poking around in my sock drawer while I’m supposed to be relaxing with a margarita on the beach?

Well, I resisted the temptation to examine John’s wardrobe. And we had a great time, taking the dogs on walks through the Arizona desert and sitting by the pool in the back garden (the dogs had their own sunbeds, obv). We bought turkey from the organic store in Scottsdale and made Christmas lunch in Vicki’s palatial kitchen. We drank Californian Pinor Noir in a posh restaurant in the centre of Phoenix which John recommended. As it was Christmas, we’d walk the dogs late at night around the wide, deserted streets of north Phoenix and marvel at the fantastical Christmas lights displays put on by neighbours in huge crenellated mansions. On the day itself, all four of us had wrapped presents from Vicki and John to open, with Mojo and Fetch tearing the wrapping paper off theirs with their teeth.

Five years later and we’ve completed lots of pet sits now. There was Bamboo, the charismatic golden cocker spaniel in the eco-house in south-west France, who would sit down on the sofa and watch movies with us after a day running endlessly through the beautiful countryside of the Lot. There were the two grumpy cats in Cyprus who told us off each time we disappeared to the beach, but in true cat fashion ignored us when we got back. And then there was the fabulous smallholding in Devon where we looked after – count them – five dogs, nine cats, two goats, ten chickens and four ducks.

If you’re an animal lover, then the attraction is clear, particularly if, like us, you have a somewhat peripatetic lifestyle which precludes pet-owning. I have tons of photos of animals I now consider to be chums which float up on my screenserver when I’m supposed to be working.

But just forgetting them for a moment, the whole housesitting game is Idle Travel at its finest. No money changes hands for starters, so it is entirely sustainable on both sides. There is no obligation to do anything more than chill out with your four-legged friends and then wander round to a nearby restaurant to eat; the urge to tick off tourist traps never quite seems to kick in once the bags are unpacked. And perhaps most importantly, the mutual exchange of services for property builds trust at a human level which is beyond the control of any politician or capitalist. As Angela Laws, one of the founding members of Trusted Housesitters, says:

‘You look at the news, and you could be forgiven for believing the world is going to hell in a hand basket. But when you get a community such as we have, it really brings it home that there are good, kind, trusting, sharing people in this world. We’re a 70,000-strong, globally-connected community. We’re changing the world from the ground up.’

Angela is one of the brave housesitters who has turned this into a way of life. Three years ago, she sold her house in Vancouver and now has no home, choosing instead to travel from sit to sit. There are other stories of legendary sitters who have criss-crossed the globe with just a suitcase, taking advantage of the opportunities for short and long stays in the 130 countries currently signed up to the Trusted Housesitters service.

I’m not sure I’d go that far but I admire Angela’s lifestyle choice. For us, staying in someone’s home and looking after their pets feels like a really wholesome way of getting to know a city or a country, far more engaging than booking into an Ikea-furnished Air BnB which is contributing to rising house prices and the depopulation of city centres.

And if you’re a houseowner, then it’s comforting to know that you have someone in your house while you’re away, watering the plants and generally making the place look lived-in. So there is a sense, as a sitter, that you’re helping to encourage safer communities, too.

It’s been educational in so many ways. In the old days, I’d certainly have been like John, unable to imagine why I would want someone snooping around in my house while I was away. But having stayed now in lots of peoples’ houses and had no desire of any kind to snoop, I realise just how liberating it is to throw open your door. What do we have to lose? Just stuff. Everyone has stuff. It’s no big deal.

And in the process of getting to know the homeowners before and after each sit, I’ve learned a lot more about their way of life and their culture than I would have done from booking into a hotel.

When you let someone into your home and trust them to look after your beloved dog/cat/mongoose, you move beyond the confines of race, religion and politics, and you enter the slow lane of gentle community sharing. It is a delightfully civilised transaction.

To reduce the potential for ne’er-do-wells or incompetents to spoil this idyllic vision, the process of housesitting is carefully managed, so both parties have an opportunity to read reviews about each other and hold Skype “interviews”. By the time you come to the job, neither of you is really a stranger to the other, and both of you understand the value of clearly defined boundaries. If you tell me you don’t want me to look in the wood shed at the bottom of the garden, then I won’t.

When Vicki and John finally hauled themselves back from Long Beach, we made them supper and entertained them with stories about their boys while they told us about shooting craps in a penthouse casino in LA. Five years on, we still swap stories over the web about John’s new passion for organic gardening in the Arizona heat and our impossibly sophisticated London lifestyle.

So the next time you find yourself flicking through web pages showing empty villas next to a Mediterranean beach with neatly arranged umbrellas on it, imagine what it would be like to get to know the family who live in that ramshackle house at the top of the Old Town who’ve got an elderly labrador that just wants a bit of intelligent company.

This Christmas, we’re actually going back to the Devon smallholding and the mad menagerie, and I am secretly excited about pulling a cracker with Dexter, the ludicrously cheerful and enormous St Bernard puppy.

There are several house-sitting websites, but the one we use is www.trustedhousesitters.com. 

A belated apology to Richard Branson

In November 1974 I was the first boy in school to buy the new Roxy Music album, Country Life. It was an all-boys’ school in the middle of Plymouth and the fourteen-year-olds in my year identified ourselves competitively through our music choices. That is, those of us who weren’t strong and physically powerful enough to achieve success on the playing field; the big tough boys in the year would strut around school with their long greasy hair curled around the collars of their shirts, boasting of sexual exploits us more timid souls read about on the lyrics printed on the back of the albums we bought.

            My primary source of money in those days was the income from a paper round I did in the mornings before school. In November, it was dark as I walked my patch in the early morning with a big canvas satchel, soaked in black newsprint, bulging with folded up Daily Telegraphs. I loved the silence of Plymouth in the early morning, the sour smell of the newspapers as I tugged each one out of the crammed bag to squeeze it through a Brasso’d letterbox. When I was younger I’d collect conkers in the autumn on my route, but by the time I was fourteen I’d moved on to thinking obsessively about what Phil Manzanera, the Roxy Music guitarist, might be considering having for his breakfast, or whether it was true that Chris May had really slept with that girl from Plymouth High last Saturday night.

            Loving your band was a significant and meaningful act then. Lloyd Martin had his own look at school in 1974 with his Diamond Dogs Bowie tribute: loose flared trousers, high-collar shirts and that spiked up hair which seemed so rebellious, particularly in a boy whose Dad was a crew-cut disciplinarian who taught at our school and whose nickname amongst us kids was Muscles. Then there were the prog rockers, still clinging fiercely to their turtle neck sweaters and their Barclay James Harvest albums, contemptuous of what they considered the pop choices us arty boys favoured.

            I was mesmerised by Roxy Music. They were so impossibly, outlandishly cool. Their previous album, Stranded, had a depressing, piano-led dirge – A Song For Europe – about the European cultural tradition which Bryan Ferry sang in several different European languages, and I would sing this quietly in my quavering little high-pitched voice as I tramped around the early morning streets with my delivery bag, imagining that I would run away from all my unhappiness at home to Paris, where I would smoke Gitanes and discuss Simone de Beauvoir with a beautiful dark-eyed French girl.

            In those days, the NME was the main source of information about what each band was up to so I knew in advance that the fourth album, Country Life, was due to be released and I had ascertained from the slightly intimidating and hairy staff at the tiny Virgin Records store down by Plymouth market which day they expected delivery. And so on that day, in the lunchbreak, I walked into town and spent my paper delivery money on one of the first copies of the album to appear in Plymouth.

            The cover itself was enough to cause a sensation back at school when I took it out of the plastic carrier bag. That extraordinary photograph by Eric Boman (which I didn’t know at the time featured the sister of Can’s Michael Karoli and his girlfriend Eveline) temporarily elevated me to a position of respect: it was sophisticated, it was art, but it was also incredibly horny. I sat on the wall outside the assembly hall, proudly reading the detailed information about recording locations on the back cover, pretending not to notice that the other side boasted the most erotic image that any boy in Plymouth College had ever imagined: two powerful, beautiful European women in their knickers standing against what looked like a jungle, dazzled by a parapazzi’s intrusive camera glare.

            My triumph was short-lived. As I casually flicked the album over, the black vinyl disc inside slowly rolled out of its sleeve and fell to the ground, smashing immediately into countless jagged pieces. There was mocking hilarity from those who, seconds before, had been impressed by my latest cultural statement, who had had briefly to reconfigure my position in the pecking order now that I had imported such an exotic triumph. All this lay in shattered ruins on the ground and I was immediately relegated back to being the skinny, irritating little ginger kid. It was a total humiliation.

            But here’s the strange thing. I bent down and picked up all the pieces and stuffed them back into the inner sleeve, squeezed the sleeve back into the now-ignored cover and put the whole lot back into the plastic carrier bag. Once afternoon school was over, I walked back down to the market in town and re-entered Virgin Records.

            The picture at the top of this piece is the very same shop, taken in 1975 if Pinterest is correct – I can’t find out who took the photo. Virgin Records in Plymouth in 1974 was an illicit sanctuary for those seeking enlightenment. It was tiny, dark and flavoured with joss sticks, run by young men and women with afros who looked like they had sex constantly. They had headphones hanging off the wall where you could listen to tracks from albums which John Peel had played the night before on Radio One. They also sold secondhand albums and once I sold all my elder sister’s albums there when she was away working at a hotel in Cornwall for the summer (I have apologised to her many times about this in later years).

            At about 4.30pm, I marched back into the shop, still wearing my Plymouth College grey trousers and hideous striped green, red and black blazer, and handed the album over the counter.

            ‘I bought this at lunchtime and look at the state of it,’ I said.

            He opened up the bag, took the album out and, pulling out the inner sleeve, let the remnants of the pinnacle of British art school rock scatter all over the counter.

            ‘Hey man, I’m really sorry,’ he said, genuinely concerned that I’d been sold such a travesty. ‘We like to give discounts on music man, but this is something else.’ He turned round and scanned the new albums all lined up on the wall behind him, then pulled out a brand new copy of Country Life and handed it over. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Sorry about selling you a dud. Enjoy it.’

            I thanked him, turned and left for home, where I put the perfect, prinstine album on the record player and listened to the opening guitar riff from The Thrill Of It All and stared with shocked wonder at the bodies of Constanze Karoli and Eveline Grunwald.

            Now, forty five years later, I look back on this incident with a sense of melancholy for the unhappy little fourteen-year-old boy who yet appeared to be filled with such bravura and self-confidence that he could hoodwink Richard Branson’s new employees with such careless insouciance. I know now, with the self-knowledge which age has gifted, that it was a a trick learned in the bewildering school of my late parents’ unhappy marriage, where I was tasked with playing out the role of unwilling emotional consort to my poor depressed mother, dazzling her with my brilliance in an unconscious Oedipal roleplay sanctioned by my defeated father. I carried on using this trick throughout my adult life, entirely unaware, which is how I ended up doing what seem in retrospect to be such strange things, like buying the Queen’s dressmaker, Hardy Amies, and going to Buckingham Palace for chats with the Queen on what dresses she wanted. Or organising rock concerts in Hyde Park or being sued for libel by Sharon Osbourne. Thankfully, I’ve been able to turn the switch off at last and in many ways have reclaimed the carefree little ginger boy who used to find life so sweet before he discovered how unhappy his parents were.

            So, better late than never: I’m sorry, Mr Branson. I owe you a tenner.

The Idler magazine, July/Aug 2019: How to self-publish

The Idler magazine

I wrote a piece for the Idler magazine on the rise of self-publishing. You can read it in the latest edition, edition 67 July/August 2019, available from Idler stockists (https://www.idler.co.uk/idler-stockists/) or via subscription to the excellent magazine (https://www.idler.co.uk/join/).

Here’s the piece:

As will be familiar to readers of the Idler, Virginia and Leonard Woolf launched The Hogarth Press in 1917 to publish her fiction and those of their friends. They spent £19 on a printing machine, set it up in the front room and taught themselves typesetting. She justified their self-publishing adventure by telling everyone her own publisher “couldn’t tell a book from a beehive.” Now, initially printing no more than 300 copies a title, she had taken back control.

Wandering around the London Book Fair at Olympia this Spring, I discover a renewal of enthusiasm for the DIY approach which reminds me very much of the wake of the upheavals created in the music world by the punk explosion of the late 1970s. Rather than drive yourself mad trying to please The Man, just ignore him completely.

“If you’re a mid-list, non-genre fiction writer (ie not crime, romance, sci-fi, horror etc) and you’re published traditionally, the likelihood is a) you’re not earning any money at all and b) all you’re doing is acting as a content-provider for an antiquated system.” No fear of controversy from self-published poet and author Orna Ross, who is also head of the Alliance of Independent Authors. Orna took back her publishing rights from her then publisher, Penguin, and has enjoyed both creative and financial success ever since striking out on her own. She is a passionate advocate of the self-publishing road to creative fulfilment and self-empowerment.

A more cautious approach comes from Kate Pool, the thoughtful Society of Authors spokesperson who told me: “If you are not writing within a genre, then the odds will remain stacked against you if you shun traditional publishing. As well as priding themselves on quality, traditional publishers also still remain the gatekeepers: of the media, the festivals, the bookshops, the prizes. It’s very difficult to break into those areas without a gatekeeper, and if you can’t, then how can a reader find your book?”

But in an era when, as one of our leading literary publishers told me, “The Big Five are losing market share because they are cutting back on speculative fiction”, it seems to make sense to consider taking control of your own literary destiny.

The ever-positive Sam Missingham of Lounge Marketing, one of the UK’s key supporters of independent and traditional authors, points to a future where authors, not publishers, are likely to stimulate changes within the system. “The curation of books is where it’s all leading: if I trust you to recommend a title, then you are an influencer, whether you are a blogger or a celebrity or an algorithm. And influencers like authors, not necessarily their publishers.”

What would most please Leonard and Virginia is that the technology is now leaning heavily towards the self-publishers. Even ten years ago, it was very difficult to persuade one of the country’s leading printers to go much below a 2,000-copy print run on a paperback. Now, as Andrew Howarth, head of self-publishing at CPI Print confirms, it’s possible to print as few as 100 copies of a paperback to the highest quality standards without breaking the bank. “We expect you to work with us in a professional way but if you understand what you’re doing, then you can have a book that the average reader will not be able to tell from one published by the Big Five.”

The same goes for distribution: Amazon will treat you in exactly the same way as they do Harper Collins as long as you approach them in a professional and consistent way. Even Waterstones will allow you to pitch them, again if you use the right channels. You may struggle with Tesco, but that may not be a bad thing.

Which is why I think idlers should seriously consider adding self-publishing to their to-do list of dignified and soul-enriching occupations, alongside beekeeping and ukele-playing. Why?

Well, firstly, there is nothing more satisfying, let me assure you, then debating the merits of the American typographical ’em’ rule for a dash, and the traditional English use of the slightly shorter ‘en’ rule. Typography is one of the great human achievements and a few sessions watching YouTube videos on how to get started on InDesign will have you hooked for life.

Secondly, the manufacture of your own book brings you into direct contact with a range of skilled and fascinating craftspeople: illustrators, calligraphers, book binders, indexers, paper manufacturers…you will be amazed that you survived for so long without the pleasure of their acquaintance.

Thirdly, all of this is accessible to you without great lumps of cash. If you are patient and diligent in your studies, you need never pay a penny to any of these middlepeople who will tell you they can arrange for the publication of your book at such a reasonable cost. Avoid them all and devote your evenings to the pleasure of packing up a small parcel of your books to send to those nice people at the bookshop in Wales who have agreed to host an evening for you.

It is important, as Kate Pool of the Society of Authors warns, that you remain realistic about what is possible: your dystopian vision of a savaged world written in rhyming couplets is not going to be as easy to get on the front tables of Waterstones as the new Peter James.

But as Sam Missingham says, the first rule to yourself must be: define what you mean by success. If success to you is contributing to and benefiting from the great ocean which is our culture while increasing both your skills and your creative talents, then self-publishing could be for you.

The Sirens

Sirens Odysseus Homer

Two weeks away crewing on a boat in the Ionian Sea this month was made even more pleasurable by the company of Odysseus in Emily Wilson’s quite stunning new translation of The Odyssey (Norton, 2018, https://www.wwnorton.co.uk/books/9780393089059-the-odyssey-66fb35b3-90cf-4bb9-b8c2-ac2da15d61bc).

We anchored one night halfway between the mainland and the island of Zakynthos beside the uninhabited island of Arpia, one of the Stamfani Islands. About two o’clock in the morning, I woke up thinking that someone had left a radio on in the yacht: there was a strange, almost metallic singing noise quite clearly audible down in our cabin.

I went up and stood on deck. It was a beautiful starry night, the moon days away from being full. And this was the sound I heard:

It was one of the most mesmerising sounds I’ve ever heard. I was transfixed, lying down on the roof of the yacht for an hour in the dark, listening to the calling of the birds and watching shooting stars overhead. The next day, we worked out through diligent Googling that the birds were Scopoli’s Shearwaters – it turns out that the Stamfani Islands hold the largest collection of Shearwaters in the whole of Greece, 17,000 at the last count.

And then one of our crew made the brilliant suggestion that perhaps these were the Sirens whom Circe commanded Odysseus to ignore. Here’s Circe’s advice (which, in typical Odysseus fashion, he has to ignore, preferring instead to be strapped to the mast by his crew so he can’t be lured) in Wilson’s translation:

“If anyone goes near them
in ignorance, and listens to their voices,
that man will never travel to his home,
and never make his wife and children happy
to have him back with them again.”

Thankfully, I’ve managed to make it home and have spoken to both my kids today on this Father’s Day and they seemed quite cheerful, so maybe these weren’t the Sirens after all, or maybe Homer was toying with us as usual.

But they have left a mark, that’s for sure. Unfinished business, I suspect.

I Am Cuba

This long scriptwriting project which I’m co-authoring with my chum and colleague Tobias Steed – our working title is REVolution – continues to fascinate. The film is to be set in 1958 Havana and only recently, thanks to a tip from great filmmaker and director Peter Macdonald, I finally saw the 1964 Russian film I Am Cuba by Mikhail Kalatozov. It is astonishing in every way: technically, culturally, artistically. I asked my much cleverer friend Phil about it and he said:

“The cinematographer in question was Sergei Urusevskii, universally acknowledged as one of the greatest cinematographers of his time, both in the Soviet Union and abroad. The film has been extensively written about in Russian. The opening sequence was filmed with a handheld Konvass-avtomat camera, the Soviet equivalent of the Eyemo. Basically, Urusevskii stepped onto an exterior lift which took him down to the poolside. He had a specially made glass case fitted around the camera which allowed him to film underwater. There are tracking shots in the film which were more complicated to organize, but basically they involved fitting the camera to wires stretched between buildings. The opening shot is referenced in the long-tracking shot at the beginning of Spectre, the last Bond film.”

Scorsese and Coppola re-championed the film in recent years, hence its new availability in DVD format.

The storytelling – in the spirit of the great ’60s directors like Varda and Antonioni – is bold, graphic and entirely aligned with the filming techniques and approach. It is genuinely unforgettable.

The Rolling Stones in Hyde Park in 1969

The Rolling Stones in 1969

On 5th July of this year, two months away, it will be the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones free concert in Hyde Park. Here’s the chapter from The Damnation Of Peter Pan which describes the protagonist, Peter Mannering, meeting the love of his life that day:

It was the morning of 5th July, 1969, and the Stones were due to play in Hyde Park. The night before had been a really strange one. I knew the promoters of the Stones show, Blackhill Enterprises, a bunch of public schoolboys who were all in the Pink Floyd hippy set. I used to publish programmes for them, not because they made money, which they didn’t, but because the scene was so wild: beautiful girls, more drugs than even I could consume, just endless hedonism.

            Everyone was really hyped up the night before. You won’t know about all this, but at the time it all seemed as important to us as the moon landings: Brian Jones, the Stones guitarist, had died the day before in his swimming pool, a month after the Stones had fired him and replaced him with Mick Taylor. You see, I can still remember all this shit; like I say, it seemed important to us then. The Stones announced they would continue with the free gig in Hyde Park, so the night before everyone seemed manic with expectation about the gig – it was their first in two years – and shock about Brian. I’d met him a few times, smoked massive joints with him in Cornwall Gardens, so I suppose I probably got caught up in the whole strange atmosphere in London that night.

            I remember it being warm, and someone suggesting we should leave my apartment and walk over to the park because they’d heard people were already gathering near the Cockpit on the north side of the Serpentine where the stage had been set up. People were wanting some kind of tribute to Brian, apparently. When we got there, it was past midnight, and there were a few thousand people already sitting around on the grass in the moonlight, not much noise, just people smoking and talking and the occasional strum of someone’s guitar. There were a few bemused-looking coppers wandering about, but it was all very peaceful, and you could see them just shrugging their shoulders and letting the hippies get on with it. They normally shut the gates to the park at midnight, but with all these hippies around they just left them open.

            I was with a group of people I hardly knew, and I remember lying down on the grass and looking up at the moon as it illuminated the tops of the trees on the island in the Serpentine. I was stoned, like most of us there, and I drifted off to sleep with the murmur of people around and the water of the Serpentine lapping quietly against the edge of the lake.

            When I woke up, the dawn was just breaking and the birds were singing in the grey light. There were snores around me, people all over the lawns asleep, a few groups still awake and talking quietly. I got up and walked over to the lake and looked out at the island. I remember thinking: it’s dawn, he’ll be back now. He’ll have sailed back to his island. And then I could see something move. You know the island on the Serpentine? It’s only about twenty yards from the edge. I tried to focus my eyes in the grey dawn light, and then I could see someone standing on the island, at the tip. It was a woman, and she was naked. She wasn’t moving, one hand was holding on to the branch of a tree.

            I took off the heavy Afghan coat I’d slept in, kicked off my shoes and waded into the water. There was mud on the bottom so I began to swim in my jeans, and soon I was just a few yards away from her. She was staring up the water towards the bridge where The Gardens begin, and she was crying. She had a chic French-style short haircut, very black hair and slim arms and beautiful delicate hips, and she seemed entirely unaware of me.

            ‘What’s the matter?’ I called out quietly. ‘Can I help you?’ I was treading water, making little splashing sounds as I kept afloat. She turned to look at me, her face was so terribly sad and I could see the tears still trickling down her chalk white cheeks. She shook her head.

            I swam closer and reached the edge, put out my hand.

            ‘Come on, I’ll look after you, I promise.’ She didn’t move. ‘My name is Peter,’ I said. ‘What’s your name?’

            So softly I could hardly hear, she said, ‘Elise.’

            ‘It’s too cold for you here, Elise,’ I said. ‘Come back with me, I’ll look after you.’

            She glanced once more up towards the bridge, then she hesitantly put her hand in mine and knelt down and slipped into the water beside me. We swam the short distance back to the shore, and I got out, my jeans and shirt dripping water over the path, and I held up my big Afghan coat for her. She put it on, I buttoned up the front for her, and she shivered. She wasn’t crying any more, but her perfect face with her high cheekbones and the black hair and her careful dark eyes: she seemed so vulnerable in that huge heavy coat of mine. And so sad.

            The first hint of the morning sun was showing from the opposite end of the lake, and I picked up my shoes.

            ‘Where are your clothes, Elise?’ I asked her. She looked over to where everyone was lying on the grass, most still sleeping. No-one had really paid any attention to what had just happened.

            ‘There somewhere,’ she said. ‘I was lying awake there and I wanted to swim.’

            ‘Let’s go and find them.’ We walked around for a bit, stepping over sleeping bodies and finally she pointed to a little pile of clothes beside some guy with long hair who was snoring on his back. She looked at me, and for the first time, she smiled. She picked up the clothes, and turned back towards the lake and started running. I kept up with her, and we were both laughing as we ran down the side of the Serpentine with the early morning sun in our eyes. Eventually she stopped, down by the old bandstand, and she took off the coat and slipped on her clothes, looking in my eyes as she did so.

            ‘Now you,’ she said, handing me my coat. ‘You’ll freeze in those wet clothes. Take them off.’ She began to unbutton my shirt, and I took off my jeans and slipped naked into the coat while she hung my clothes on the brass rails of the bandstand.

            ‘We can sit here while they dry,’ she said. And we sat on the floor of the bandstand and listened to the birds and watched as more people began to drift into the park and head over towards the Cockpit. We talked about things, I told her about the business, she told me she worked in Harrods on one of the perfume counters. At one point, when we’d been quiet for a moment, I asked her why she’d been crying, and she just said, ‘Oh you know, that happens with me. You’ll have to get used to it.’

            Just like that. It was all assumed, we would be together, and I did try to get used to it, and I did try, in my own way, to look after her. But none of us was good enough, none of us was strong enough. We could have been happy; I think that now, remembering that day here on my own in the dark, in this awful empty mansion. We could have been happy, but instead, we created a hell on earth. There was nothing either of us could do about it.

            The rest of that day went by in the park. Because I knew the guys from Blackhill, they told the Hells Angels guarding the stage to let us slip in to the side just before the Stones came on later in the afternoon. Jagger came on in a white dress, and read a poem by Shelley to the crowd – there were a couple of hundred thousand people there that day. Some roadies set a flock of butterflies free from sacks on the stage, supposedly as a tribute to Brian Jones, but it was too hot by then and they’d been cooped up in the sacks for too long so most of them fluttered about the stage a bit, then fell dead all around us.

            All I can remember is that last song, Sympathy For The Devil, when they had all these black drummers on the stage whipping up a storm with Charlie Watts, and Jagger’s voice sang out over the water of the Serpentine:             ‘I’ll lay your soul to waste.’

You can buy The Damnation Of Peter Pan here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0957629478?pf_rd_p=330fbd82-d4fe-42e5-9c16-d4b886747c64&pf_rd_r=CC6VZ7XH1MR3QAKWQY1G

Hereafter

Pictures from life's other side

Another new story from the collection about death, Pictures From Life’s Other Side, which I am very slowly and laboriously assembling:

I had on occasion pondered upon the question of life after death: did it exist, what form did it take, with whom was one sharing the afterlife? Or was there to be nothing at all, a blank, a shutdown following the final heartbeat, no more fuss than you’d get after switching off the TV after News at Ten?

            Without wishing to give the appearance that the question had preoccupied me – which as I say I suspect it had done no more than it has perhaps exercised your own fine imagination – I can say that along with more ephemeral questions about the meaning of life, such as the definition of happiness or the difference between good and evil, this speculation as to whether there was a life after death had only occasionally diverted me as the years passed; unless one were a theologian or a great thinker, the ‘life after death’ ding-dong never really raced my motor.

            Had you asked me, I would have said something along the lines of: ‘One can never be sure, there may well be but of course one can never know.’ Had you suggested that in your own opinion there was not a shred of evidence to support the contention I would not even have ventured to argue with you and would in all likelihood have merely nodded in agreement, pulled at my ear and commented, ‘Yes, you are most probably right: from dust to dust it must be.’

            I have never had the same instinct for philosophical questions such as these as I have for the clear things in life. I could never focus my attention on such musings in the same way as I could watch the arc my greyhound ran across the field to corner the rabbit or as I felt when I saw the dew on the corn on the morning of the day when we knew the harvest was ready. Life after death? I’d discuss it with you genially in mixed company after the coffee had been served, but no more than that.

            Since it is now, according to the clock in the operating theatre, almost two minutes since I died, I can confirm that, had I been more insistent upon the view that some form of existence might persist beyond the end of physical life, I would have been correct. There is no question of it: I can clearly see my own body lying upon the operating table, and the heart on which the surgeon was operating is visible to me through the sizeable opening in my chest. My skin is still pinned back around the entry point and there are clamps and tubes scattered about my torso.

            The surgeon and his team have moved away a little and are deep in discussion; I wonder if they are discussing liability? That would not surprise me in the least: this modern day obsession with culpability and compensation is one of the more depressing symptoms of our national decline.

            I appear to be a little way off from my own body, although as far as I can tell I have no physical presence. That, I have to confess, is somewhat disconcerting: to be able to view one’s own body lying there several feet away in this bright white room was not an outcome which I expected when they wheeled me in here several hours ago.

            I should explain: I suffered a rather significant heart attack this morning. The emergency services were surprisingly efficient, more so than I might have given them credit for beforehand, and from falling down in the yard in front of one of our stable boys to entering this brightly illuminated operating room can have been no more of a matter than a couple of hours.

            So, yes, this has certainly been what one might call an unusual day. How do I know that I am dead? Well, look at me: I bear more than a passing resemblance to one of the stags that the hounds have been set upon. My chest has been opened up with considerable skill but now it lies there, ignored by the medical team who are gathered around a computer screen over to one side.

            Oh Good Lord, that was a comical moment: my left arm just fell down off the table and is now swinging free of that ghastly green nightgown which they put on me earlier. No-one even noticed that, they’re too busy examining what went wrong, I suppose. How curious to find myself the only witness of what I assume was the last movement of my dead body.

            How the devil am I seeing it? I can’t see me, if you get my meaning: the me that I remember is lying over there. But the me that is talking to you can see all around the room. I have no means of movement, as far as I can tell: I can’t go and join those fellows around their computer screen and find out what they are discussing. I’m rooted to the spot.

            Ah, now they’re coming back to my body and the surgeon is poking a scalpel into that rather unpleasant hole in my chest. Well, they clearly can’t see me otherwise I presume one of them would have pointed me out by now. What’s he doing in my chest?

            Oh dear oh dear, now of course I realise there will be all sorts of commotion. I know I’m dead, but I’ve only just died; I presume my friends in white here are the only other people to know at the moment. Which means that my poor dear wife will be outside in a waiting room somewhere, hoping to hear the All Clear.

            Poor old stick. Fancy me going first: she won’t credit it. Longlivers, the Randolphs, that’s what she always said; no chance of her outliving the old boy, she’d tell her chums. His father lived to ninety eight, he’ll outlast us all. Well, you got that wrong, old girl. What am I? Seventy three. Bang: heart attack at seventy three and it’s Goodnight Vienna.

            Ah, he’s stopped fiddling with his scalpel. Good, that was making me feel a little uncomfortable. Although I can’t feel anything, and come to think of it, I realise now I can’t hear anything. Everything is silent. I can see their lips moving but it’s like one of those old silent movies. No noise at all. Volume button’s kaput. That’s odd too. So I can see perfectly well, despite not being able to change my position, but I can’t hear and I’m pretty sure I can’t smell anything either.

            Hello, they’ve covered me up with a sheet now. What about all that spadework on my chest, doesn’t that get a bit of clean up? Obviously not. That pretty nurse is starting to gather up all the utensils; rather her than me, I must say. They look a bit grim. Surgeon wallah is heading for the door; I imagine he’s going to have to break it to Diana. I must say, this is all quite fascinating, although I’d like to be able to move myself; it feels rather strange to be stuck in this position while all these chaps are bustling about.

            Oh Lord, now two of them have got hold of the bed and they’re wheeling me round. I do believe they’re taking me out. They’re not hanging about, are they? Look, there I go, straight through the swing doors. Cheerio, old boy. Wonder where they’re taking me? Mortuary, I suppose.

            Now it’s just the nurse left. She’s got a twinkle in her eye, no doubt about it. Given other circumstances… She’s got all the kit and caboodle into that machine in the corner, washing-up machine I imagine. Damned efficient. Peels off her gloves. Now she’s heading for the door too.

            Oh, don’t turn off the light! Damn. She has. Flash of light from outside in the corridor, now the door’s shut and it’s all dark. I can just make out the odd chair, I think I can see the outline of the screen they put around me earlier. That’s about it though.

            Now what?

The Oldie Magazine: Shirley Collins wins The Penderyn Music Book Prize

Shirley Collins Penderyn Prize
Photograph by Emyr Young http://www.emyryoung.co.uk/

I did a short piece on The Oldie website yesterday on the great English folk singer, Shirley Collins:

For the last ten years, an eccentric arts festival has taken place in the West Wales township of Laugharne, once home to Dylan Thomas (pictured, his old house, the Boathouse) and a gaggle of pre-war bohemian refugees from London.

It feels like little has changed since Dylan and Caitlin were squabbling in the Boathouse by the estuary and then making up in the boozy bar of Browns Hotel. Elegantly tipsy festival-goers at the Laugharne Weekend stand about on sunny pavements listening to poets and drinking beer while the residents tolerate them with a weary but amused accommodation.

Each year, the festival also announces the winner of Britain’s only music book prize, the Penderyn Prize, and today this year’s winner was announced: Shirley Collins, for her account of a life in English folk music, All In The Downs.

Collins is perhaps the most authentic folk singer the English have produced, beginning her career as an ambitious 20-year-old in London, up from the sticks in Sussex, having to dodge the drunken advances of the largely male folk fraternity of the early 1960s (‘charming when sober, horrendous when drunk’).

For the next twenty or so years, she recorded a series of albums which celebrated the purity of the English song. ‘I had to defend English folk music because so many people didn’t understand it.’

Then, in the late 70s, a painful divorce literally took her voice away.

She was heartbroken and humiliated, and her voice began to crack and finally abandoned her. It was not to return for 35 years.

All In The Downs tells the triumphant story of her return to singing in 2014 after years of surviving – working as a cleaner and as a job centre clerk just to keep her two children fed and clothed. Now, with an MBE behind her (‘The Penderyn Prize means much more to me – they don’t even give you a cup of tea at the Palace’) and a successful new album Lodestar released in 2016, she is finally recognised, not as the great Unsung Hero of the English folk movement, but one whose song is now being sung loud and clear.

At 82, Collins is still filled with the desire to, as she says, ‘sing to people, not at them’, much as her grandfather sang the songs of the Sussex landscape to her and her sister Dolly in the indoor Morrison shelter during the air raids in Hastings during World War Two. Her prize-winning book is an eloquent account of a vanishing world but one which, in her wonderfully capable hands, might prove oddly resilient in years to come.

The Damnation Of Peter Pan

My third novel, The Damnation Of Peter Pan, is published today. It’s a dark and unsettling story of one family’s blighted relationship with JM Barrie’s most famous creation.

From the blurb on the back cover:

“Peter Mannering, the 75-year-old son of Maimie, one of the characters featured in Barrie’s novel The Little White Bird, reflects on a life of wealth, misfortune and violence. Demons summoned from the past combine to present an horrific foretaste of the future, yet down in the basement of his Kensington mansion, a new generation of the family surely offers the possibility of redemption?

“Ranging from the sweet green hills of Laugharne, the Welsh town made famous by Dylan Thomas, to the frenetic life of Soho and the new pop culture of the 1960s, The Damnation Of Peter Pan tells the story of the twentieth century through a prism of love, literature and the lexicon of the occult.”

The novel arose from a number of obsessions: an excessive interest in the life of JM Barrie, a curiosity about the turn-of-the-century secret societies such as The Order of the Golden Dawn, an abiding affection for the township of Laugharne in Wales where Dylan Thomas famously wrote Under Milk Wood, and an underlying thread of Oedipal psychological impulses.

You can buy the novel in paperback or e-book at Amazon or by contacting the publishers.