Watch “Terry”

Terry ponders his life in Salford, now that his parents have passed away. A certain silver screen bombshell provides distant inspiration in the gloom.

Story by Jeremy Worman, and appears in “Swimming with Diana Dors”.
With William Wyld as Terry.
Filmed, edited and produced by Alexander Mayor for Papercasting.

Lanterns (For Alan Ross)

(Published in The London Magazine, June 2003)

Last Christmas I was told of your despair
And I saw in a dream you falling down
A dark valley bottom, but high above
On hills there were lanterns waiting for your
Return, keeping faith. A few months later
I read of your death from a heart attack.

But now, far clearer, I see you in a
Bright fishing smack coming into an island
In Greece, in the bluest sea at sunset
Steering with pride. The deck is full of live
And shining silver fish. You anchor, drink
Cold white wine and salute the harbour.

All along the hot, stony road from the sea
There are lanterns on the squat houses,
Each illuminates a cover
Of all The London Magazine you made.
Every lantern honours you.

Swimming with Diana Dors and other stories

swimming-with-diana-dors-webIn his first collection of short fiction, Fragmented, Jeremy Worman traced a narrative from hippy squatter in the seventies to established husband, father and lecturer reflecting on life in inner city London in the present. In Swimming with Diana Dors he digs deeper, bringing to life memorable characters who remain with the reader. Variously personal, elegiac, political, and humorous, the stories range over themes of outsiders, loss, death, ghosts, change and the importance of place, with many stories set in London.

Several stories have been previously published in anthologies and literary magazines, including Signals-2 and Signals-3 (London Magazine Editions),The London Magazine, Ambit, The Frogmore Papers, Pen Pusher and The Penniless Press.  ‘Terry’ was broadcast on BBC Radio Manchester.

 

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Published poems

Jeremy has written poetry for many years. Although not all are available to read online, here’s a complete list of his publications:

Anthologies
1 poem in London Rivers, a Paekakariki Press anthology (2011)
1 poem in a Cinnamon Press anthology, The Ground Beneath Her Feet (September 2008), p. 45

Magazines
1 poem in Manifold, 48 (December 2004), p. 16.
1 poem in Manifold, 47 (July 2004), p. 6.
1 poem in Poetic Hours, 22 (June 2004), p. 11.
1 poem in The Coffee House, 9 (July 2003), p. 1.
1 poem in Current Accounts, 16 (Spring / Summer 2003), p. 36.
1 poem in Poetry Nottingham International, vol. 56, no. 3 (Autumn 2002), p. 50.
2 poems in Breathe, 14 (September 2002), pp. 17-18.
1 poem in The London Magazine, [New Series] (June/July 2002), p. 23.
1 poem in Links, New Series, no 1 (Spring 2002), p. 8.
1 poem in Exile, vol. 13, no 2 (Winter 2001), p. 8.
1 poem in Purple Patch, 101 (December 2001), p. 1.
1 poem in Iota, 55 (August 2001), p. 37.
1 poem in Rising, 22 (April 2001), p. 18.
5 poems in Understanding, 8 (November 2000), pp. 118-122.
2 poems in Sheffield Thursday, 8 (Spring 1999), p. 91.
1 poem in Rising, 14 (August 1998), p. 12.

Barbara Hardy, June 2014

“Worman’s new collection reminds us what Henry James meant when he said the writer must be someone on whom nothing is lost, and it shows what the short story can do – memorialise place and time, concentrate feeling, relationship, sensation and history, in glimpses and vivid moments.”

Lies, Fiction, Truth: My Acquaintance with Alan Ross

(First published in The London Magazine, May 2003)

My first printed story, ‘Simon Carver Looks at Life’, a dark tale about a prep school boy and cricket, appeared in the October / November 1996 issue of The London Magazine. This should have been a happy start to my belated writing career except that I had lied to Alan Ross about myself. It was a fertile lie, which forced me to reappraise myself radically, during a time of mental exhaustion.

Alan Ross, who throughout his life also suffered from crippling bouts of depression, had phoned me, sometime in August 1996, to get biographical details. He was renowned for being curt on the phone, and I found him intimidating and slightly grand in his manner. Initially I was straightforward with him, although he asked a number of probing questions – he had been in Naval Intelligence. Then he asked me which school I had been to, and I tried to sidestep the question by saying that I had been to Haileybury prep school, and briefly to public school. Then I talked quickly about my time at a tutorial college in Windsor, the Polytechnic of North London, Birkbeck College and Cambridge University.

‘Yes, but which school did you go to?’
‘Haileybury,’ I blurted out, ‘but I was only there for a year or so.’
‘Which house were you in.’
‘Edmonstone.’
The interrogation over, he said my story would appear soon, and we said a clipped goodbye.

In fact I had run away three times in my first term at Haileybury in 1968 and never went back. I returned instead to my alcoholic parents in Egham, Surrey, my mother vivacious and violent, my father benign and in the early stages of dementia.

After my first two weeks at Haileybury, I had no intention of staying. I don’t believe it was anything to do with the school. The previous school holiday had determined my fate. My father was failing in mind and body, my mother was often drunk and also involved in a messy relationship with my father’s chauffeur. Her mood swings, from most loving mother to Lady Dracula, were terrifying. But I was sure that if I were at home I could help my mother and make everything better.

Perhaps my initial half-truth to Alan Ross was understandable, as I did not wish to dig up these things. I just hoped that he wouldn’t use the Haileybury detail in the contributors’ notes, but he did – perhaps because, ironically, he was himself an Old Haileyburian. After this I met him briefly on two occasions at his funny little hut of an office in Thurloe Place SW7, but I never mentioned my lie. I brooded on it, and in the spring of 1998 I wrote him a letter revealing the truth. He probably knew anyway as he had many connections with the Old Boy network.

But that lie showed to me the need I had to cling to some fictionalized idea of myself, and how I still erased the painful, or what I interpreted as most shameful, parts of my life.

My father died in 1970. My mother went on a world cruise and I stayed in Egham. Mrs Dent came in to cook my meals and to keep the house clean. I had my first intense sexual relationship, with the gorgeous Virginia, which cheered me up no end.

From this point on my life was a series of vignettes, lacking connection and purpose: dropping out in Wales; a philosophy degree at the Polytechnic of North London; squatting; involvement with performance-art; chauffeuring an eccentric barrister in his Rolls-Royce; teaching adult education in the East End; getting a First in English from Birkbeck College. In 1987 I found myself doing research in Cambridge, and I soon began to supervise students at Peterhouse. Some years later, the Cambridge examiners ‘referred’ my PhD thesis (meaning that I had more work to do on it) – and I accepted an M.Litt degree.

I had already begun to teach American undergraduates in various colleges in London and in 1994 I was in America on a promotional tour with the American director of one of these colleges. We were driving from Chicago to Galesburg on a long, bleak Midwest road, when I suddenly decided I could not go on. I took the train back to Chicago, then a plane to England and six months of free psychotherapy, courtesy of Tonic, the charity supported by Mike Oldfield.

After this I began to write seriously. At first the autobiographical element was dominant but began to play a smaller part. I believe it was Robert McCrum who said recently in The Observer that writing a novel is perhaps the most probing form of psychoanalysis there is.

I am now far happier and living in Hackney with my wife, Nicola, head teacher of an infant school, and our two-year-old daughter, Myfanwy. I continue to teach English literature to American undergraduates at Birkbeck. I am writing another novel. My short stories, poems and reviews have been published widely.

In After Pusan (1995), the third book of Alan Ross’s autobiography, he wrote with directness about his ‘present self, emerging shakily from the wreckage of breakdown and depression, cut wrists and crisis’. My sufferings have not been on this scale. I feel that the surface of life is never quite stable.

My lie to Alan Ross was a turning point. He printed two more of my stories. Over the years he also sent me a number of witty postcards about my stories and reviews or other things. He was a man of great sensitivity and dry humour.

William Boyd, whose first short story was published by Ross, wrote many years later in the Evening Standard, that The London Magazine is ‘a fantastic magazine whose place in the history of twentieth-century literary life grows ever more secure and significant’. At the time of his death Alan Ross was in a state of severe depression.

Meditation on a photograph of the Romanovs, 1913

(Published in Understanding, November 2000)

The Tsars of Holy Russia!
How well you looked four years before your death
The girls smiling, on the boy’s head a sailor’s hat.

Standing in furs, snow hard upon the ground
And behind, a black wood tipped with ice.

Your open smiles defied the world
The private dreams, a family joke
While they waited in the woods.

How blind, to your names
dangling on Rasputin’s silver cross.

Serene you stand, arrogant no doubt, and yet
The elder sister’s hand upon Alexie’s head,
The mother’s touch upon the father’s arm.
And from the woods their burning eyes on you.

*****

Against the wall the family stood.
They fired so many bullets in your flesh
They left the shape of icons on the floor.

Stalin placed his spies in every private heart,
He made a nation of himself.

You waited as a family under earth
For over eighty years picked pure.
The icy winters gathered over you.

To St. Petersberg at last your poor and equal bones:
Do the bells across the steppes ring out
To call you home again?

Tilbury

(Published in the anthology London Rivers, Paekakariki Press, 2011)

Nowhere, Tilbury, the place,
the town square flimsy like a film set,
not a place of coming from
but arriving at, to go beyond.
Today a girl on horseback
rode in, then trotted out
into a kind of shrubland
with old shire horses, rusty
Cortina, dead plough.
here, where the East End ends
and the flat marshland
sinks to the wide Thames edge,
silver slivers of a ship’s funnels
leave England’s grubby bend
to everywhere.

A Book of Silence – Sara Maitland

(Published in The London Magazine, June/July 2010)

This lively book sets out to restore the importance of silence to our frenetic culture. Although classified as ‘Memoir’ by the publisher it embraces many aspects: autobiography; quest; discussion; history; polemic; confession; travel book. The author has written several novels, short story collections and theological works. She was also editor of the illuminating Very Heaven: Looking Back at the 1960s (1988).

silenceFor over twenty years, from the late sixties, Sara Maitland described herself as an ‘Anglo-Catholic socialist feminist’ (she is now a Catholic). She relished her ‘noisy life’ in London but in 2000 decided that a withdrawal from society would allow the expression of a deeper self. She asks why there is ‘a fear of silence’ in our culture and argues that in solitude we gain a sense of inner happiness that is not dependent on commodity culture. She travels to the Sinai Desert to research her premise.

The author is an Oxford-educated, upper-class bohemian: is she following an egocentric hippyish path to enlightenment? David Willetts’ provocative book The Pinch, about ‘the baby boomers’ (those born between 1945-1965) claims that they have ‘concentrated wealth in the hands of their own generation’. A corollary to this is the way in which this privileged group has assumed the right to sample any new experience – LSD, travel, psychotherapy, alternative lifestyles, the search for inner tranquillity – as a norm and a right. The sitcom Absolutely Fabulous illustrates such a way of life.

Maitland is one of those spoilt baby boomers, as I was, but A Book of Silence is far more than mere indulgence. The author is following in a long line of religious thinkers who have written about silence and personal liberation. Before the birth of Buddha, the ancient teaching of the Vigyan Bhairava Tantra Text was advising: ‘Toss attachment for body aside. I am everywhere. One who is everywhere is joyous.’ In 2003 Eckhart Tolle published the best sellerStillness Speaks. Maitland’s study is more exploratory, and original, in its aim to discover the importance of silence in various cultural contexts. The personal candour of the writer is refreshing, about her stay in a mental hospital, the personal changes caused by the menopause, her relation to her children and ex-husband. We side with her against the babble in the world and with her apoplexy that people even cheer at the funerals of heroes and celebrities. The intellectual energy of this study – about myths, hermits, the power ascribed to language – is wide-ranging and impressive.

But the heart of the writing is the search for ‘the bliss of solitude’ She also found that being alone for long periods could be psychologically difficult and the chapter ‘The Dark Side’ is a kind of manual for the negative fears one will come across, and how to defeat them. The underlying thrust of her argument is that ‘the modern boundaried self’ of Western culture is limited until silence is embraced when a radically different self is uncovered: ‘A whole world in and of itself, alongside of, woven within language and culture, but independent of it.’ What does this really mean and how useful is such a dimension for those working full time or bringing up a family? The author is clear about her intention: ‘I want to encode silence, so that out there in all that noise, people can access and love it. I am not sure that this it is possible, but it seems worth a try.’ Conveying the meaning of mysticism is a daunting task and this book is a valiant attempt to do so.

There is no manifest sense of a political perspective in A Book of Silence, which is surprising when the writer has been such an active campaigner on so many issues. Yet, in this exciting work, Sara Maitland remains a sixties girl in spirit as she makes a passionate case for silence.

Classic Novel

(Published in The Salisbury Review, Spring 2004)

The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) is one of the most underrated novels in English literature, about the kind of people who were once the backbone of the Conservative Party, hard-working shopkeepers and traders. The world of the central characters is underpinned by a code of Noncomformist Christian values. Old Mr Baines hated ‘the modern craze for unscrupulous self advertisement’, and in our age obsessed with celebrity it is refreshing to read about ordinary people, real heroes in their struggles and celebrations of life.

The Old Wives’ Tale tells the vivid but down-to-earth stories of two sisters, Constance and Sophia, whose lives take radically different directions. Their father was a well-respected draper in ‘Bursley’, at the heart of the Potteries. It is a deeply-woven historical novel, full of atmosphelic details, and begins in the 1860s and ends in the early year’s of the twentieth century. The novel gives a picture of the type of moral, regional community that should surely be the core constituency with which Conservatives must reconnect, or recreate, if they are to become again a convincing political force.

One must first bring the novel out of the shadow of the patronising criticism that has always hung over it. Henry James’s long essay in the Times Literary Supplement of March 1914, ‘The Younger Generation’, elegantly undermined Bennett’s writing style. James complained that The Old Wives’ Tale was ‘vividly covered by an exhibition of innumerable small facts’, which ‘exhausts our reaction’. He could detect no deeper artistic form to the novel than its ‘solidity’. Virginia Woolf, in an article in The Criterion of July 1924, ‘Character in Fiction’, attacked the novelistic ‘conventions’ of ‘Mr Bennett, Mr Wells and Mr Galsworthy': ‘They have laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things. They have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there.’

Both these writers were condemning Bennett from the rarefied heights of Modernist criticism. Their key ideological demands were that the true literary work must both eschew authorial commentary and show the world from an inner perspective of character. They condemned Bennett on both points. Their judgement was also that of an upper-class elite against the lower-middle-class Bennett whom they did not consider to be ‘one of us’. They thought of Bennett as a hack rather than an artist. Nothing could be further from the truth. In The Old Wives’ Tale Bennett does show the world from the inner perspective of character. But he also has a sociological range, and a precision of analysis about his culture, beyond the scope of Hemy James or Virginia Woolf.

The importance of belonging to a particular place, as a way of conferring special affirmation to our sense of personal identity, is a deeply conservative value. The opening chapter of The Old Wives’ Tale expresses this theme. Near Bursley ‘rose the liver Trent, the calm and characteristic stream of Middle England’. But the reader’s focus is drawn to a ‘district’ and then to the ‘square’ where the central characters live. There is great lyricism in the first chapter, showing the relationship between the small, constrained world of the characters and the wider, potent images of an historical idea of England that is always present at the edges of the narrative. The importance given in the novel to the geographical roots of characters is intensified because Arnold Bennett was himself brought up in the Potteries.

D.H. Lawrence seems clearly to have developed this theme, of characters set in a provincial setting and their relationship to a broader concept of England, in the first chapter of The Rainbow (1915). The central difference between the two writers is that Bennett does not allow his characters the spiritual or sexual release that Lawrence explores in The Rainbow. Bennett’s characters are internally shaped by the values of the Wesleyan chapel and the harshness of puritan morality: ‘Sophia had sinned, it was therefore inevitable that she should suffer.’

Sophia elopes to France in 1866 with a salesman who has pretensions to be a gentleman. He then abandons her. Sophia lives through the siege of Paris in 1870, successfully running a pension. Bennett, who knew Paris well, writes dramatically about Sophia’s time in France, and subtly draws out the different values between French people and those of a working English woman. The novel implicitly demonstrates a faith in status, order, and fair play in business, that are distinctly conservative. At the age of fifty Sophia returns to Bursley.

Her sister had married Samuel Povey and they run the draper’s shop. The details of their small lives, as they grow older, are revealed so acutely that we can almost taste and touch the fabric of their world, as well as understanding their inner motivations and disquiets. Bennett’s ability to explore the interpenetrations between public and private worlds demonstrates an artistry like that of a more regional Tolstoy. Rarely have the internal dynamics of a lower-middIe-class world been better revealed than in The Old Wives’ Tale. Larger historical events, for example the balloonists escaping the siege of Paris, the ‘Free Library’ opened by Gladstone, electric trams in Bursley, are drawn subtly into the story, always keeping the characters at the centre of the stage, as they struggle with the events of history that work through them.

The Old Wives’ Tale is obsessed with the negative implications of change. The author successfully breaks the rules of Modernist fiction by inserting authorial interjections, for example, ‘How can you be so blind to our fleeting existence?’ It is as if Bennett feels an awful sense of urgency about what is coming to the world of his characters. The author’s occasional use of a prophetic voice intensifies rather than diminishes the themes of the novel, and illustrates his insistent tirade against progress.

This fear of progress is linked to a horror of death. His description of a dead body chills the reader with its physical accuracy. Time and death, the sense of an inevitable erosion to individuals and communities, haunt the book, and the reader feels a deep melancholy at the death of the central characters.
In a more political sense, The Old Wives’ Tale asks the difficult question of how a conservative vision of a small community can hold on to a sense of continuity in a world of increasing national commercialism that threatens regional solidarity. At the end, the sisters live together. Bennett’s concrete, pictorial imagery strikingly expresses the contrast between the sisters’ memories of stability in their youth and the juggernaut of inevitable change that is destabilising their community.

The Old Wives’ Tale offers a kind of narrative meditation on conservative beliefs. For the underlying values of the novel – thrift, hard work, civic pride, the importance of duty – were those at the roots of Thatcherism. Margaret Thatcher’s father, Councillor Roberts, would have grown up in a regional urban community similar to that depicted in The Old Wives’ Tale. But in an increasingly uprooted world of vapid E.E.C. values and global capitalism, how can such communities survive, or be restored? And what now, in a post-Thatcher world, is the relationship between Conservatism and the bleak Noncomformist values of the novel? However, The Old Wives’ Tale should be read first as a brilliant and moving story about a particular vision of Englishness.

Liam Nolan – Gwales

“Worman’s writing is delicately crafted and clearly thought through. This, along with excellent ordering and editing of the stories, makes Fragmented a perfectly cohesive collection to be read in one sitting or a good one to dip in and out of. I’ll certainly be dipping back in.”

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Mark Hannam

“Jeremy Worman’s Fragmented offers us a verbal picture of London and its low-life. It is drawn with strong strokes and conveys lively images of many kinds. Reading it is both a pleasure and an education.”

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Harry Slocombe’s East End Return

(Published in Signals 2 – a London Magazine Anthology of Short Stories, 1999)

Harry Slocombe pulled back the duvet, smiled at the little wooden Buddha on the windowsill, and burped. It was 7a.m. on a grey lead coffin Hackney morning in January. But Harry had a contract with his analyst that he was going to get up in the mornings.

‘What fucking for?’ he thought. The heating hadn’t come on. The slate grey canal bubbled past, carrying its polluted secrets. He lit a Benson and Hedges and waited for the ugly plastic kettle with flowers on the side to boil. ‘Canal Side with a View’ the estate agent had said. He stood on the balcony in his dressing-gown and sucked in the diesel-rich mist which settled like sweat on his bald head.
A dead puppy, a retriever looking mongrel, its belly bloated and tight like a drum skin, in stomach-up-tickle-me position, was caught on the broken branch of a fallen willow tree. It was the second this week. Always a rush after Christmas.
He switched on the answerphone. ‘Mistah Sylvester is veree pleased you haave taken the caisse of his misssing dauughtah. He will contaact you sooon.’ The line went dead. ‘Sounds more like a fucking threat!’ He flicked his cigarette into the canal. But beggars couldn’t be choosers.
‘Positive thoughts in the morning, Harry, why is that so difficult for you?’ Roz Aust, his analyst, had asked him that at their last session. He looked wistfully at the reunion invitation on the windowsill to ‘Detective Chief Inspector Slocombe, Flying Squad.’ He’d cried when it arrived last week, it had been two years since he resigned from the squad . . .
But it was no good. Across the marshes to Walthamstow the sky was death grey. And so low he was sure it would soon take a last gasp and sink into the marshes to shroud the bronze age inhabitants who were its first human spectres. To the south east a church spire was mocked between two high rise blocks. ‘There’s nothing bleeding positive here, Roz, is there love, it’s the end, darling, this is the beginning of the bloody end.’
He sat at the kitchen table, absorbed his second fag, third mug of tea and laid out the information he had on Jasmine Sylvester, seventeen year old daughter of Mr Nicki Sylvester, Jamaican Import-Export specialist, six foot four, fourteen and a half stone, no fat, crocodile shoes, gold chains as thick as his fIngers, a driver called Pod …
Yes, pretty girl, he thought as he shaved, the instincts of the detective rising through his marsh gas of despair. Of course, the case was far too sensitive for the police to handle. Mr Sylvester loved his daughter so much he just wanted her back …
He imagined the marshes outside, the fIrst settlement, village, town, city:
Harry wanted to bring order to the world of Mr Sylvester, keep the wolves of chaos at bay. ‘Karma, Harry, everyone needs good karma.’ Beth, the yoga teacher at Hackney Institute, talked to him like that. He went for his arthritis.
He slapped on Eau Sauvage (threw away the Brut last week) and finished dressing. He’d never worn a black leather blouson before but at fifty five he was excited about the change. He leered at the eyes that analysed him in the mirror. The skin was smooth for a smoker and ex-alcoholic; the large, round moon face had lost weight. He still carried thirteen and a half stone but was training again at the gym. A powerful body, like a second row forward but taller (five foot eleven) and a belly too much like a sumu wrestler. But the head was made by the generous lips that reshaped his face when he laughed or frowned, and the hooded, hot coal eyes that surprised you with their intensity and hardness.
He hunted for his car keys. Roz Aust had cropped hair, but he’d got over that. It was part of the deal, no threats to his pension, no inquiry, if he agreed to sort out his alcoholism. But sorting that out brought on other problems so he kept her after the money ran out from the police charity which had given him twelve months therapy free.
The old off-white Volvo, a 1967 saloon, started first time and he tapped the steenng-wheel affectionately. His ex-wife, Brenda, always hated ‘that common old banger’. She’d finally kicked him out two years ago. He’d drifted for elghteen months, bought this little place last July.
The girl, Jasmine Sylvester, Jasmine Sylvester, he rolled her on his tongue, swallowed her name and let it course through his bloodstream. He would find the girl. He was on a search again, a hunt, a game, a race with gold at the end of the journey. It was his first real case since he set up the agency six months ago. The excitement carried to his genitals. He had an image of Martha the Bondage Maid handcuffing him to the bed. Control or be controlled, the dark angel that shadowed his life…
‘Sam James, Hackney Auto Sports, Furlong Lane, E9.’ His first contact, Sam’s daughter, Hope, was the best fnend of Jasmine Sylvester.
‘Sam James?’ Harry spoke loudly above the sound of the music,
‘I’m Harry Slocombe, Private Investigator, I’m working for Mr Sylvester.’
Sam turned down the cassette inside the car.
‘Like classical music, Mr James?’
‘Wagner’s my man, Songs from Goethe’s Faust, one of his early bum fluff works’.
‘Very knowledgeable.’
You think niggers only like jungle music?’
‘Ha, ha, not at all, Mr James, I’m a jazz man myself.’
The tall, supple Sam James put his head deeper into the end compartment of a red MGB.
‘Mr Sylvester said you’d help me, his daughter’s gone missing.’ ‘Mr Sylvester?’ He picked up a plug spanner.
In the corner of the workshop a fierce shaved-head black guy dropped a heavy wrench. Harry tensed.
Sam hit his head against the bonnet and gestured for Harry to follow. He led the way up a metal staircase to a large, bare storage room or office.
‘I don’t see my daughter, we quarrel, she gone off … ‘ Sam wandered around.
‘Address, Sam?’
‘Don’t know, we quarrel .. .’
‘Wonder if Mr Sylvester thinks his daughter’s got something valuable his, something he wants back .. .?’
‘You talkin’ riddles.’
Harry clicked into gear like an old boxer who never forgets his stance or his footwork. ‘Jasmine Sylvester, had a boyfriend, Winston, big handsome, clever, worked for Mr Sylvester, courier, being trained for, er, management … ‘ He gave Sam his cold owl look, known to unsettle the toughest gangsters.
‘Girls have boyfriends, man, make the world go round.’
‘And Jasmine and her boyfriend, Winston, they went off together?, It happens all the time, man.’
Harry took off his cold owl look, sighed, went over to the window, listened to Sam breathing heavily, rubbing his hands together. Harry’s trainers squeaked across the workshop floor towards the bottom of the stairs.
Harry gazed out at Homerton High Street through the grimey window, followed the endless line of roofs to the marshes. His mother’s aunts lived in Burma Road, his grandad was born in Bethnal Green, Harry had been a young copper in Bow. Now he was back, in the chaos, in the movement, the low life inevitability of misery, dealing with people who had nothing to do with his roots. He wanted to smash the whole bloody lot, Brenda and her golf professional boyfriend, blow up the fancy hall Chingford, say sorry to his daughter …
Harry shook his head and turned: ‘Mr Sylvester’s a powerful man, . doesn’t get his possessions back … ‘
‘Don’t twist me up, man.’
‘You want Mr Sylvester to find your daughter himself, use his men?’
‘So why Mr Sylvester not here now then, man, if he so keen.’
‘Keeping a professional distance, Sam, may I call you Sam?’
Harry tiptoed to the door. Sam picked up a pen and scribbled down his daughter’s address, ‘I think she know where Jasmine is, I don’t want no trouble for Hope.’
‘Trouble, Sam?’
‘Sylvester’s gone crazy. Drugs, big time … ‘
‘Grass?’
‘Big deal!’
‘Cocaine?’
‘Heroin, takin’ over London, if he trouble Hope … ‘
Harry pulled back the office door. ‘Like listening to other people’s conversations, son?’ The vicious looking man who had dropped the wrench stood motionless.
‘Me worry ’bout Sam, having an ex-old bill sniffling round like a dog on heat … ‘
‘Who told you that, son?’
‘Me got ears everywhere, remember dat, Sam!’ Got a car to work on, sonny?’
‘Rasclat!’ He slammed the door.
‘If I need you, Sam . . . drink, meal together, the Dutch Pot, best Caribbean food in London?’
‘Thought you a pie-and-mash man.’ Sam held his head in his hands. ‘Here’s my number, keep it from Voodoo Face.’
Harry sat in the Volvo, well satisfied. This is Sam’s London too, he thought, which his mind believed if not his heart. He read Hope’s address, 29 Vallance Road, Bethnal Green, and sped off. ‘Getting bigger all the time, if I get the H back to Sylvester, big money, I’ll call him, let him know I know … ‘
The adrenalin swam round his body like a narcotic, pumped his genitals like a dose of oysters. Martha the Bondage Maid, seen her for twenty years, wife never knew until the end, holding his body, his body, his self, all he was in one place, ordered, controlled. ‘Talk to the images, talk to them, perhaps enter a dialogue?’ . . . Roz Aust was keen on dialogues. But he wanted change, freedom, love …
He parked at the end of Vallance Road and rubbed the tears from his eyes. ‘Where the bloody Krays were born!’, he sniffed the curry in the air and slammed the car door.
Sam must have phoned his daughter and she let Harry in quickly. Hope was a tall, pretty girl, like a swimmer, hair in ringlocks. Like Sam she knew nothing.
‘Turn the lights off, look outside,’ he said. On the corner of the street, two black heavies slunk by a lamppost. ‘Don’t worry, love, they’re only checking I’m doing my job, they won’t get involved, after all Mr Sylvester had his reputation to consider.’
‘I’m frightened, Mr Slocombe, Jasmine Sylvester’s my best friend, we’re like sisters, such a stupid girl, so stupid, going off with Winston like that, stealing Mr Sylvester’s … ‘ Her body shook with tears and Harry handed her his damp handkerchief.
‘They won’t trouble you love, I’ll sort it, thanks for the address.’ Harry drove back slowly up Bethnal Green Road. The drizzle polished the pavements, reflecting the tail lights and the displays of drinks, perfumes and magazines in the gaudy shop windows. The things we do for money! Harry laughed suddenly and the image of the little wooden Buddha came into his mind.
Winston wanted out from Sylvester, so he thought he’d steal a kilo of heroin, and make a new life for him and Jasmine ‘back home’, in Jamaica. ‘Back home’, they were both born in the bleeding Homerton Hospital!’ He didn’t try to lose the old, red Xj6 that was following him, not yet, no need to make anyone suspicious.
Inside the maisonette, he yawned, didn’t turn on the lights, checked the towpath. By the Anchor the two heavies looked back and forth at the canal, glancing up regularly at his flat. They flicked their cans of Special Brew into the canal.
It was only 4 o’clock but Harry was dog-tired. He took a cold shower and lay on his bed, feeling as raw and bare as the marshes outside. He phoned Sylvester, insisted on talking to Sylvester. ‘No games, Mr Sylvester, two grand straight up, I’ll get it back to you, and leave the kids alone, I’ve still got contacts in the squad … ‘ ‘Of course, Mr Slocombe, no trouble, always trust an ex-Metropolitan bobby.’
He made thick coffee and straightened his mind. He would clear it up, no time for morality, too poor, got nothing. A commotion outside. Only kids with white plastic bags. Glue sniffers. Girl and two boys, white as death, going onto the marshes for their evening fun. It would never end, the muddle, the mess . . . only Martha understood, as her leather thighs straddled his tightly held body …
He woke cold from a fitful sleep. He’d dreamed of himself with his head in a plastic bag of glue, heading for the marshes. ‘Well, how different is my fucking life?’
On a whim he called George Ormrod, now a detective sergeant with the squad. Harry had trained him up. They used to call him Sissy Hot Pants, he never believed in ‘perks’, even rumoured he was a Methodist. But he gave Harry a load on Sylvester and it was all bad, and there wasn’t anything Sylvester wouldn’t do, if Harry could give them anything on him … Harry replaced the receiver and sighed deeply. What could he do, he had to make a living too, he would never change the world, and when it was over, when he’d collected his fat wedge for returning the heroin he could phone Martha, better value than his dyke therapist …
Harry shaved and dressed. There was a skylight in the ceiling which gave access to a fire escape on the other side of the buildings. He put on his mac, and climbed nimbly up the stepladders. Bellying over the V roof was more difficult with the arthritis in his knee but he kept low and out of sight of the thugs on the towpath.
He slipped round Digby Road and into the Volvo, already facing the right way. ‘Start, my darling, start.’ He charged off, into second at five thousand revs before the heavies had even shifted from their Special Brew malaise. ‘Too late, you bastards, hope Sylvester cuts off your balls, useless gits.’
He took the back roads to Commercial Road then followed it east until he turned onto the Isle of Dogs. Jasmine Sylvester and Winston were living in a posh flat on Narrow Street. He wanted to clear it up quick.
He ran to the lifts, smelt the river behind the facade of flats, sixth floor, number 129, knocked, again, again: ‘Hope James told me I would find you here, I’m Harry Slocombe, love, I’m here to sort things out … ‘ Winston opened the door, large, smiling, as if welcoming a star guest to the party. He led the way into the living-room.
‘I hate Sylvester,’ Winston shouted, ‘Praise the Lord, I hate him, evil man, son of Satan.’

Harry stood back, open mouthed.

‘Be happy, Mr Slocombe, happy days!’ jasmine shook his arm, ‘we’re born again, praise the lord. Sylvester’s not my real dad, he just live with me mum, one of his women – and he take a fancy to me too, many times – the Lord will punish him, Praise the Lord.’
‘Hallelujah, Hallelujah!’ Winston clapped his hands.
Harry, who had seen most things, stood silent, blinking, repeating their conversation over and over in his head. ‘I’m very happy for you both, naturally, but there is one small problem.’
‘The heroin, Mr Slocombe, the devil’s friend ‘ Winston’s smile widened.
‘Mr Sylvester wants his property back, he ‘
‘Never!’ Winston shot up a black panther clenched fist which Harry thought rather incongruous.
‘You destroyed it, you born again, dead again little twit … ‘
‘We hide it,’ he said.
Harry sat down while Jasmine and Winston looked out at the river, their arms round each other. Harry stared angrily at their backs, he’d never known anything so stupid – and the bloody throbbing began again in his balls, his need for Martha, for his body to be tied, controlled, known, certain – would he never change?
‘All right kids, how far you really prepared to go, will you testify against Sylvester?’
‘Testify, testify!,’ they cheered. ‘Oh my God.’
They sat down on either side of Slocombe. Jasmine held his hand, so tenderly, ‘We not mad, Mr Slocombe, we are afraid to testify, he will try to kill us, but Winston’s brother die from heroin last month, we going to do it, all the way.’ Her eyes, so clear and truthful, gazed into his. For a moment he lost all sense, felt free, heard the handcuffs unlock …
Winston stood, ‘We’re not crazy, we’ll do it, we are afraid, but the Lord will protect us.’
It’s only money, Harry sighed, he saw the two thousand pounds burning in front of his eyes. ‘All right kids, all right, if you really want to, I’ve got a contact in the Flying Squad, they’d love to hear from you two, can I use your phone?’
‘Next door, Mr Slocombe,’ Jasmine pointed.
‘In the meantime, put that chest across the door, and the wardrobe against the window … do it, do it, now!’
‘George, Harry Slocombe here, look I’ve found Sylvester’s heroin, and I the two kids will testify against him.’
‘No, George, I’ve not been drinking, they had a conversion experience.’
‘No, George, they’ve not changed to Mercury, they’re born again, explain later, get down here, now, quick.’
‘He’s on his way, kids, make us a cup of tea will you love?’
George Ormrod arrived with three other detectives, began to take statements, delighted by the turn of events.
‘George, I’ll be back in a minute, there’s something I’ve got to do.’
He opened the boot of his car in East India Dock Road, took out a package and walked across some gangplanks to the river. He tied string round the little cardboard box, and gave his favourite handcuffs a final kiss. He crouched into a military second world war grenade throwing position and flung the package as far as he could into the middle of the ancient river. ‘Won’t be needing them any more.’ Half a moon flicked highlights of silver onto the ripple tops of the little waves.
He wouldn’t be seeing Martha tonight. It was over. When Jasmine looked into his eyes he knew even he could change. ‘What’s money, Harry?’ He saw his two thousand pounds on a bonfire and laughed as it burnt to dust.
He was ugly, he hated his body. But he wanted someone to look into his eyes and, and to love him … That’s what he had always wanted. The money, the handcuffs, he’d let them go together. He sat on the mud of the river bank and cried uncontrollably. Bondage was the only way he could be loved, but no more. It had failed him.
He thought of his handcuffs travelling beneath the river towards Millwall and oblivion. The river was always moving: Bronze Age settlers, Elizabethan explorers, pirates, convicts, the Queen Mary, the end of the docks, carrying its cargo, Russian Jewish immigrants, Bangladeshis, Somalis, Jasmine and Winston, him, all citizens of London, all changing.
Harry walked back to the flat. He felt old and very alone, unchained and naked in the vast city. But from somewhere out of the deeps of London he hoped love may one day find him.

Madame Sossi

(Published in Pen Pusher, Summer 2008)

I was doing a little shopping in Berwick Street market. Bobby, who sells exotic fruits, called out, ‘Madame Sossi, where’s that blonde bombshell you promised me last week?’ ‘Be patient,’ I said, ‘wait for Jupiter to enter Capricorn next week, that’ll do the trick.’

Scallops for my supper tonight. Of course, I’m long retired, though I still do a few séances for favoured clients, but it’s only pocket money. I’m well provided for. But Soho isn’t what it was.

Last week, who should I see in the mirror but Dylan, Dylan Thomas. He’s always sober these days, radiant: ‘Hello, my petalled rosebud’ (what a voice); ‘How is my angel of the eternal valleys?’

Poor Dylan, he was up here in January 1953. I was at my peak then, ‘Mademoiselle Sossi Predicts’ had just begun in the Daily Sketch, lovely figure, auburn hair, long Diana Dors dresses, a bust that hypnotized. I said to Dylan, we’d all been out to dinner at the Eiffel Tower, ‘Don’t go to America, Dylan, don’t go!’ He roared, ‘Will it be my ruin, you mermaid of the deeps?’ His hands lurched round me, ‘Give me the strength, you lissom temptress. You are my ruin, you, you – come to me!’

I never…with Dylan. You wouldn’t have known where he’d been. He had a place in Redcliffe Street then, Earls Court, but he stayed with anyone who would accommodate him, and many did. Poor Dylan. I couldn’t sleep while he was in America. My calling is not an easy one.

I was born in Ladbroke Grove in 1925, if you can believe it, and “ruined” in 1941 on a summer’s day in a boat on the Thames at Cookham. It was the making of me. My mother, Betty Turpin, was red with rage. She knew the moment I walked in: ‘You bloody trollop, who you been with?’ I licked my lips.

On the boat with Luigi I saw an aura round his head like flowing silk scarves. I had been touched by the gift. Luigi encouraged my calling. He had a revue bar in Brewer Street and gave me a job as a receptionist, as well as finding me a flat at the top of a house near Golden Square.

The mirror is going misty, always a sign I’ll be visited later.

I moved in to Golden Square on 17 April 1942. There was an old medium and astrologer living in Lexington Street, Miss Veronica Hanson, she’d been a friend of Annie Besant (I’ll put those scallops in the frying-pan, with a little oil, lemon, parsley). I studied with ‘Miss Veronica’ for two years. One day she said, ‘You need a name, darling – “Rosie Turpin” lacks refinement perhaps? – and El-o-Cu-Tion lessons. Does bloody wonders for business.’

Luigi arranged for Sybil Merchant to give me voice lessons. I love the smell of scallops cooking, and the colour, like eating jewels of the sea. Luigi was so kind and I called myself ‘Mademoiselle Sossi’ (It was the Daily Sketch that introduced the ‘Madame’). He was Luigi Rossi but his wife would have been unhappy if I’d called myself ‘Rossi’. One of my early clients, a Polish cavalry officer, used to say to me, ‘My special angel, my darling, you’re so saucy, saucy,’ which sounded like ‘sossi’. So Sossi it was.

As my voice became more refined it was marvellous not sounding like mother. But she found out where I was living. One evening she waited until Luigi arrived, then jumped on him, kicking and screaming wildly. It was very bad for business.

Darling Luigi had troubles with the taxman and a gang of Maltese thugs – he fled home to Sicily with his wife and children. That was in January 1944. I never heard from him again. There have been no sightings from the other side.

These scallops are gorgeous, and with a little green salad, rye bread. Soho is not what it was though – lots of young men with firm bottoms and girls with badly applied make-up. As my old friend Don Lawson used to say, ‘They’re just designer bohos, sweetie.’ I won’t bother with the curlers tonight.

One night, towards the end of the war, December 1944, mother stood drunk outside my flat for three hours. I pretended I wasn’t in. All associations between us were over. She was shouting some quite horrible things about poor Luigi, and what a slut I was. I’d had enough. The next morning an old acquaintance gave me an introduction to a disciple of Aleister Crowley.

So, in January 1945, I travelled into deepest Surrey to meet one of Mr Crowley’s protégés. I handed him a large fee and a brooch of mother’s that she’d given me years ago. We went into the woods and in a most potent ceremony a curse was placed on mother. A tension began to leave me at once.

On 21 February 1945 a handsome policeman came to my flat and told me that mother had dropped dead waiting for the 43 bus (they found my address in her handbag). I could have kissed him.

It’s lovely lying in bed, watching telly. I’m never lonely. Jeffrey Bernard still visits me, ‘Hello, lover, time for a vodka?’ – and could he drink vodka! I hope you’re happy on the astral plane, Jeffrey. He gave me a tip last week, ‘Running Wild’, in the 2.30 at Catterick – came in last. Some things never change.

I think I’ll go to sleep in a minute. General de Gaulle loved Soho, virtually set up his headquarters at the French Pub – a most attractive man considering he was so ugly. I did his astrological chart – but I mustn’t go into this, I’m probably still bound by the Official Secrets Act. I love these soft pillows. Never economize on pillows.

And duck feather duvets, what an invention! I never married, not that I was short of offers. It’s funny being so popular at my age…

Jeremy reviews… Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination by Peter Ackroyd

(Published in The Salisbury Review, Spring 2003)

Peter Ackroyd has produced a long study of great ambition, which in 53 short chapters explores the sources of the English imagination. It seems clear that Ackroyd has set himself two main tasks. The first is to trace the origins of the imagination in Anglo-Saxon texts, early myths, historical documents and religious imagery. The second is to show how certain central themes that Ackroyd has identified recur over the centuries, for example: the myth of King Arthur; the use of dreams and visions in literature; the strain of melancholy in the English imagination; the love of gardens; the need for a connection to landscape; the central motif of ‘character’ in English fiction. Throughout the book, Ackroyd maintains a deep belief in the imagination’s role as the storehouse for the ‘origins’ of the collective consciousness of a nation.

The introduction is titled ‘Albion’ (the ancient name for England) and the first sentence claims: ‘Of the English imagination there is no certain description.’ Ackroyd gives us a feast of material in these densely packed chapters that investigate this point, but no clear guidelines about how to judge what are the most important elements of the English imagination. However, in chapter 5 the author makes two points about the seventh century historian Bede, which suggest clearly the approach Ackroyd has taken to his own work: ‘Bede lent English history the coherence and consistency of art’ and ‘history is an art, in other words, and cannot be finally distinguished from drama or from fiction.’ Ackroyd implicitly favours as a method the use of the historical imagination, of the ability of the individual to feel, know and reconstitute the past. But his approach to history is paradoxical. For he often treats the concept of the imagination as if it were timeless, embodying transcendent truths, to which the properly-tuned individual may connect: ‘our ancestors shine through at that moment of quietus and we are but a palimpsest of past times.’ This attitude seems to link strongly to an idea expressed by T.S. Eliot in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919). T.S. Eliot wrote: ‘The historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the termporal together’ (Ackroyd’s brilliant biography of T.S. Eliot was published in 1985).

Ackroyd’s technique is illustrated in the first chapter, ‘The Tree.’ The author draws together various forms of evidence, religious, symbolic, mythic, literary, that have collected in the English imagination around the idea of the tree. For example, the spiritual importance of the tree to the Druids, the mythic resonance of the forest in the legend of Robin Hood, the magical quality of trees in Kipling’s Puck of Pooks Hill, the symbolic relevance of trees in Jane Eyre and Women in Love, and much else, all in five pages. Ackroyd concludes the chapter, ‘So the tree grows through the literature of the English.’ The connections he makes, ricocheting across genres, places and times, are electric. It is as if the origins of the imagination, in this case ‘the tree’, form a special category, ‘of the timeless and the temporal together’ in Eliot’s phrase. This category may then be detached from a particular place or story, to form a simultaneous and timeless source of inspiration, which may be drawn upon at any time by reader or writer.

Ackroyd consistently makes revealing connections in these chapters. However, because each chapter feels like a fresh endeavour, there is a lack of an underlying argument to Ackroyd’s project. The reader does not always know where we are being led, or why.

As the book proceeds it becomes clear that this is less an objective study of the origins of the English imagination than Ackroyd’s own subjective interpretation, guided by his longing for a lost Catholic tradition: ‘the Catholic culture of fifteen hundred years ago could not wholly die. Its inheritance is buried just below the surface of our own times.’ He also points out that ‘John Milton’s family were Catholic’, and of Shakespeare ‘that the evidence suggests that his father was a Roman Catholic.’ This study leans towards a Catholic interpretation of the origins of the imagination, in the sense of a quasi-mystical connectedness between all phenomena, which thus transcends historical time. But there is far too little close analysis of a great Protestant work, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress for instance, to illustrate differences from, and similarities to, a Catholic interpretation of the imagination. Nor, as a subsidiary point, does Ackroyd deal with the issue of social class and the English Imagination: what origins are shared between, say, a Leveller and an upper-class Anglo-Catholic?

The Catholic perspective does not lessen the reader’s pleasure, but two particular absences from this study may do. First, there is very little discussion of how the political perspective of writers shapes their sense of what they consider the origins of the English imagination to be. For instance, Evelyn Waugh (I am thinking especially of Brideshead Revisited) would surely have had a radically different taxonomy of the English imagination than George Orwell. Perhaps both authors do have in common some shared concepts of the imagination, but the absence of any discussion on this point disappoints. Second, Darwin’sThe Origin of Species is dismissed summarily as ‘essentially a work of fiction.’ This is nonsense. When this minutely-researched scientific study was published in 1859 it reshaped, or even uprooted, Victorian culture’s sense of its own origins. According to Darwinian interpretation, mankind was no longer a unique species that began with Adam and Eve. Instead the human species was part of a vast temporal flow, which predated Christianity by millions of years, and made mankind brother to the monkey. In turn, the English imagination, in Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878) for example, showed the importance of Darwin’s ideas in shaping a different idea of the relationship between landscape and man. Hardy’s characters are diminished by a temporal order that views humanity as transitory and inconsequential. Hardy explored how the long history of geology marginalized human history, and forced the imagination to engage differently with its beginnings. And perhaps each generation reinterprets the origins of its nation’s imagination. Ackroyd does not discuss these points.

Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination is a beautifully presented, delightfully illustrated book. In the otherwise full bibliography there is one unfortunate omission. There is no mention of David Gervais’s superb book, Literary Englands: Versions of ‘Englishness’ in Modern Writing (1993), which deals in a more scholarly manner with a number of themes that are considered by Ackroyd.

Albion is a study that is best read and savoured in small portions. In this way the concentrated illuminations are fully appreciated, and the reader is able to engage, empathize and argue with the author, without being irritated by the lack of a cohesive argument. Ackroyd has written a work as quirky and wilful, fresh and vivid as the English imagination itself.

Teatime

(Published in a Cinnamon Press anthology, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, August 2008)

Cake darling? Mummy asked.
Daddy smoked with shaking hand.
She drank from her smudged whisky glass
As the cherry winked on the iced cake.
Daddy topped up his milk with Grants.
I knocked the tumbler from her hand.
She ran from the house
Cherry blossom fell in the wind.