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:


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

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.

In pursuit of Ford Madox Ford

Having finally finished the first draft of the novel about London, Like Fire Unbound, it’s refreshing to forget about it for a while and instead go back to obsessing about Ford Madox Ford and his 1915 novel, The Good Soldier.

I can’t think how many times I’ve read this. It’s the novel that is lodged most firmly inside of me and finally I’ve decided to embark on a new project based upon it. This will involve a line-by-line examination of it, which I’ve already started, the typed notes on my iPhone already yards long.

Most people know of the two most familiar descriptions of The Good Soldier: a) it is the novel about passion b) it is the definitive example of the “unreliable narrator”. There are of course plenty of other ways of looking at it – is it a modernist classic or an impressionistic harking back to Henry James? – and now I’ve started to think about it properly and read more widely, I’m more overwhelmed than ever by the scale of Ford’s achievement.

Graham Greene, who was a big fan of the novel, once said something along the lines of, reading it is rather like watching the construction of the most beautiful Gothic cathedral, brick by brick.

For those who haven’t read it, the novel tells the tragic tale of two doomed couples in early twentieth century Europe, one British and one American, whose intertwined lives leading up to the outbreak of World War One end in the most unimaginable hell.

The novel is constructed as a disjointed first-person account by our unreliable narrator, the America John Dowell. Ford uses this mechanism to build an unbelievably complex text which belies its fiendish complexity by a seemingly simple narrative. The text is so complex that it has produced a whole ream of semiotic interpreters, some of whom have even identified a subterranean novel lying within it which actually sets out a murder story entirely absent from the surface storyline. It is one of the few novels where almost every sentence contains at least one clue deliberately planted by the author. It is utter genius.

Writing of it in 1927, Ford said: “Great Heavens, did I write as well as that then?”

Yes he did. And so now it’s head first into FMF land and who knows what will emerge at the other side?

Antonioni and the language of film

Antonioni Monica Vitti

The last few weeks have seen the wonderful Antonioni retrospective at the BFI Southbank. So far I’ve caught the extraordinary The Passenger with Jack Nicholson from 1975 (seemingly quite a rarely seen film today which is just bizarre given its remarkable quality and Nicholson’s brilliant performance), and tonight hopefully catching up on the second of the 1960s trilogy, La Notte. The first, L’Avventura, I saw a week ago and am still overwhelmed by it.

The only Antonioni film I’ve seen before is Blow Up, which everyone’s seen. That didn’t prepare me for L’Avventura, two and a half hours of utter bliss where not a lot happens in the most unforgettable way. And the one actor doing not a lot in such an intense and dynamic way is Monica Vitti whose performance is genuinely spellbinding. Antonioni lets the camera just gaze at her for what seems like minutes while each muscle of that beautiful face twitches and turns as she plays out about a hundred different tragic scenarios of ennui, culminating in an extraordinary scene towards the end where she lies in bed, unable to sleep because she suspects her lover is up to no good, and all she can do is count, writing down ascending numbers on the cover of a trashy magazine. One, two, three, four, five, six…It’s genius.

Antonioni’s films demonstrate how language, the written and spoken word, must sometimes be relegated to a supporting role if the truth of an artistic vision is to be achieved. His cinematic language, which as he says he used to show how morally ill-equipped his contemporaries were to deal with the modern world of 1960, is so much more eloquent than any words could achieve. For anyone who spends their time rooting around with words, it is a salutary and entirely fulfilling lesson.


peter ackroyd london

Am eking out the Xmas period still, down in the Ashdown Forest and almost at the end of all 800 pages of the magisterial London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. It’s part pure pleasure, part also of the mulling around the novel I’ve been working on for almost a year now about the city (55,000 words so far, slow bugger that I am).

Ackroyd is one of those writers whose absence would severely diminish our cultural landscape: he is unique, extraordinary, flawed, limitless in his ambition, vulnerable, a joy to read. London is not set out as a history but as an attempt to write the biography of this character, London, whom we all struggle to identify. Ackroyd is not so foolish as to think he can nail it but he has such fun in getting as close as anyone might.

The book is packed with remarkable people: the defrocked ecclesiastic who stalked the streets of Shoreditch and drugged young women of wealth to marry them off to ne’er-do-wells, who went under the name of The Bishop Of Hell; the fraudulent bailiffs whose punishment was to be led through the city towards the stocks with a turd in their mouths; the pitiful children who were enslaved to chimney sweeps who were never washed but who once a year were allowed to dress up and dance in the streets.

This is a London more fantastic than any fiction and should remind us to treasure those rare talents like Ackroyd (from whom the critics inevitably tend to keep their frigid distance) who remind us what it is to be alive and living in the metropolis.

English Arcadia


English Arcadia novel.

I’ve got a new novel out today: English Arcadia. It’s available from The Word Machine here or Amazon here.

Its subject is one particular strain of left-wing English history in the 20th century, that of the Common Wealth party of the 1940s, which won remarkable byelection victories during the Second World War on a leftwing platform of the common ownership of land and the means of production.

In 1988, I travelled to Devon to interview Sir Richard Acland in his house which stood on the lands of the Killerton Estate which he himself had given to the National Trust in 1944. He was 82 at the time and graciously agreed to be interviewed by me on the subject of his latest book, Hungry Sheep, an attack on the individualistic political philosophy he identified in all contemporary parties. He was a truly remarkable man: in the 1940s, he led Common Wealth, the ultra-left wing political party which won byelections against both Conservative and Labour oppositions only to founder with the Labour landslide of 1945; in the 1950s, with Harold Wilson, he formed War On Want and subsequently championed Harrison Brown’s seminal green document, A Challenge for the Future. In later years, in his own words, he believed that “good causes will founder and evil causes will prevail unless moral and religious forces are brought in on the side of the good.”

I have thought about this decent, determined, kind and intelligent man for thirty years since that meeting, which is perhaps why he has served as the inspiration for the fictional character Sir Zachary Frome in this novel. The novel and the characters portrayed in it are entirely fictitious and the extended Frome family bear no relation to any people alive or dead, but I would simply like to express my thanks to Sir Richard Acland for indulging a curious young man all that time ago with such sincerity and humour.

If you are curious to find out more about Acland and Common Wealth, you can start with the official Common Wealth archive at Sussex University here.

Hollywood Forever

Picture's From Life's Other Side Hollywood Forever Simon Petherick

Here’s a new short story which will form part of a forthcoming collection called Pictures From Life’s Other Side.

I’m spending a lot of time in the cemetery. You know the one, up on Santa Monica Boulevard. Hollywood Forever, that’s what they call it. It’s a beautiful place. You wouldn’t think that if you walked down the Boulevard, which frankly is a shithole: a four-lane piece of beaten-up asphalt with used car lots and overhead electricity cables. A couple of blocks down from the entrance to the cemetery, there’s a Chinese food supermarket and on the other side of the road, empty-looking sand-coloured office buildings with no windows.

That’s the thing with Americans, isn’t it? They’re not sentimental, not like us Brits, drooling over some piece of the past we’ve misremembered. Just because there’s a fucking gorgeous cemetery with Rudolph Valentino and Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland buried here, it doesn’t mean they have to make the street outside look nice. They don’t care. You want to go see the cemetery? Take a cab.

But once you’re through the gates, it’s different. The sprinklers keep the lush trimmed green lawns in emerald health and there’s a silence here which calms me down. If you stand on one of the roadways inside the cemetery and look back out through the other gates, you can see the Hollywood sign up there in the hills, the wonky white lettering gazing down on the dead.

I’ve been coming here for a few weeks now. I take a cab from Downtown and I sit in the traffic on the overhead freeway thinking about what to do about them. I never know what I’m going to do about them, so I end up here walking around the gravestones.

If I don’t work out what to do about them…Anyway, that’s why I started coming up here, to the cemetery. It’s the closest I’m going to get to an estate agent’s now. I was going to buy a nice plot, except I can’t afford a plot, so it had to be one of those weird little crypts in the mausoleum, the ones with the glass front and the stuff inside. They’re pretty cheap. They can burn me, put me in a nice urn.

OK, let’s walk down this path. Neat gravel and the edges of the grass on either side have been cut very nicely. Who’s that? Leonard B Ravelstein. 1922-2001. Good long life, Leonard. Doesn’t say much on the stone about him. Had a loving wife and was a great father and grandfather. What did he do? Something to do with the movies, lots of them were. Maybe not though. Maybe Leonard was in insurance. Maybe he escaped the Nazis and came over here before the war and walked up and down the streets in old Los Angeles knocking on doors and selling insurance policies. Good for you, Leonard. I bet you didn’t owe anyone a dime when you died.

Marjorie Blatsky. Hello Marjorie. Phyllis Stoops. Bernard de la Reine. What kind of name is that, Bernie? Do you try and lord it over your neighbours here, with your de la Reine thing? I don’t think Phyllis is impressed. George Nash. George was in the movies, look: ‘And cut!’ Very funny, George. You must have been a wag on the set. Were you as funny when you got home? I hope so.

I haven’t been funny for quite some time. Or maybe I have. Americans use that word differently. Back in London, if you were funny, it meant you cracked jokes outside the pub before you got the late train back home to some Godforsaken semi-detached house in Surrey. In LA, funny is different: funny is like being a wiseguy. Funny means not on the level. I was never funny in London, but I’m funny now.

The palm trees line the edge of the cemetery and their leaves stand out against the blue sky like a line of eyebrows looking down on me. It’s hot, there’s hardly anyone here in this midday heat. There’s a fat Chinese woman cleaning dead leaves off a stone just over there. Is it her husband? Her sister? Or is she paid to do that? Even when the old sod died, she still has to go and clean up. There’s a couple over the other side posing by the Joey Ramone gravestone, the one with the statue of him standing over it with his guitar.

If I’m honest, I don’t even really remember London. Ten years now I’ve been here. Never been back. You can disappear, you know, if you really need to. Why don’t I disappear again? Because I can’t this time. They won’t let me.

Gareth Fishburn. Weird name. ‘Left for a greater adventure.’ You sure about that Gareth? I hope so. Donald Bright. My Dad was called Donald. He and my Mum are side by side in a grave in Yorkshire. I’ve made him turn a few times over the years, I suppose. Flipped Dad over, round and round, but there’s nothing he could do about it, stuck inside that freezing Yorkshire mud, trying to mouth insults at me through the cheap wood of his coffin.

It won’t be long. I know that.

Here’s the mausoleum. Front door’s always open when I come here. It’s very grand but honestly, the prices were pretty good. When you stand inside, it looks impressive, the long parallel lines of glass-fronted crypts stretching down the never-ending corridor. I think they shot a movie in here, some horror thing.

It’s quiet. My footsteps echo on the cream-coloured marble floor. Who’s in here? Daisy Fortune. Haven’t seen you before Daisy. You sound great. She’s got a brass urn in the little box behind the glass, and a pair of ballet shoes. Dancer, Daisy. Good for you. I bet you were cute. I bet there was just one thing that you always wanted to do and that was to dance and you went ahead and that’s exactly what you did. Now you’ve hung up your shoes.

Bit further. What’s that up there? Someone’s actually put a teddy bear in with their urn. That’s a bit sad, isn’t it? It doesn’t even look that old. Oh, kid died aged twelve. That explains it. That’s no good for people, is it, kid dying at that age? Then you’ve got no-one to mourn you, when you go. No-one at all.

Here we are. I’m pleased with it, actually. My crypt. I bought a ten-year lease. That’ll do. After that, they can just take the urn out and kick the ash into the gravel on the driveway. But ten years here, with everyone, hanging out. That’ll be nice. There’s no name on mine, they said I couldn’t have a name until I’m actually using it. But I’ve had my urn put in there, empty at the moment, and after a lot of discussion – they kept saying it wasn’t usual, whatever that means – they’ve let me leave a couple of things. I told them that I couldn’t be sure the undertakers would remember, so I wanted to make sure. Anyway I won, so there’s my gold signet ring which I took off a couple of weeks ago and put inside together with a little black and white photo of Ricky, my dog. Someone will look after him, he’ll be OK. And I’ll like having him there with me.

There. Looks OK, doesn’t it?

They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old Peter Jackson

Last week I went to see the premiere of Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, which was followed by a Q and A with the director. As interviewer Mark Kermode elicited from him during the post-film conversation, this is probably the film of which Jackson (Lord of the Rings etc) is most proud.

The technical achievement alone was remarkable. He gave insights into some of the feats: employing lipreaders to work out what soldiers in the 1914-18 Imperial War Museum footage were actually saying so that contemporary actors could overdub; Jackson himself locating the original script of a battle instruction in a library in the Midlands; the painstaking colourisation work carried out by an American team aligned with the justification of so many different film speeds in the originals.

The film manages like nothing else ever seen about the war to humanise it, to give identity to the men who fought, died and survived. And one of the most fascinating insights, which again Jackson concentrated on in his talk, was the theme running through so many of the survivors’ testimonies: not only had they looked forward to going to war, but many of them actively enjoyed the whole experience. One described it “like being on a camping trip although with a little more danger thrown in”.

When the survivors returned home in 1918 (and Jackson points out that the million who died were not able to give their own postwar testimonies) they found a country largely embarrassed by their presence, neighbours and workmates and families who simply didn’t want to hear their stories of bloodshed and horror.

But the fact remains that many of them did look back on their experiences with what one can only call nostalgia. For those years as they survived together, they lived a life which gave them meaning, direction, hope. Back in 1982 when I was reading the submissions pile for publishers Robert Hale, I used to read endless autobiographies of men who had served in World War Two. I suppose at that time, many of them were hitting retirement and so wished to set down their memories. The same theme ran through all of those autobiographies: the men – and we are obviously talking about men – who served in the Second World War looked back on the existential freedom which war provided them with a huge sense of loss. Some admitted in their typescripts to horrific levels of violence on the battlefield but none evinced the slightest sense of regret. All clearly saw their war years as the time when they most felt alive and all to a greater or lesser extent struggled to match that sense in the years that followed.

This contrasts significantly to the fascinating descriptions in Max Hastings’ new history of Vietnam, which I’m just getting to the end of, where he describes the breakdown in discipline amongst the American troops from about 1969 on. Amidst a blur of cannabis, heroin and booze, American men began to turn on their own officers, killing them with grenades and fragmentation bombs as the nightmare of that country’s involvement in Vietnam staggered to its inevitable and tragic end. American men didn’t come home from Vietnam in the early ’70s with any kind of regret, they came home confused and angry, so much so that the wounds from Vietnam in America’s politics have yet even to begin to heal.

Perhaps WWI and WWII were the last conflicts which still took place within a social ethos of obedience, respect for authority and straightforward patriotism. It remains fascinating and shocking, watching Jackson’s brilliant film, to see and hear for the first time how men could regret the passing of a war.