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.

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.

Taking the Rise

(Published in ROOF, the Shelter Magazine, July/August 2009)

In July 1975 I returned to London from a month of hitchhiking in Ireland. I was full of hippy dreams. Someone I met in Galway suggested I should live at Hornsey Rise, North London, which was reputed to be the largest squat in Europe. It was difficult to find accommodation in London and the political protest of squatting – doing something with the thousands of empty properties – was something I believed in. 

taking-the-riseOn a balmy evening the 14 bus dropped me at the foot of the Rise. Aromas of kebabs and peppers from the Greek restaurants tempted me but I headed up the hill to three blocks of flats – Welby House, Ritchie House and Goldie House.

At Welby House, two Alsatians, tethered to a post, barked and spat. Rubbish, washing machines, old clothes and abandoned cars were scattered around the yard. Banners hung over balconies. The slogans stuck in my mind: ‘Don’t Dump Rubbish!'; ‘Meeting about the Future in the Square Tomorrow'; ‘Stay Cosmic, Meditate’ and ‘Hornsey Rising. Yippee!’

I went up the litter-strewn stairs to my contact address. The flat had been boarded up. A man walked towards me. I’m Graham,’ he said in a broad Lancashire accent. ‘I’m like the local estate agent.’ It was getting dark and I told him I needed somewhere to live. He showed me a flat on that landing. I handed over £5 for the key. In the bedroom I put in the 100 watt bulb Graham had given me and unfolded the sleeping bag from my rucksack.

I went to buy a takeaway kebab and sat by the window enjoying the food. There were sounds of drums and laughter, of The Moody Blues and The Doors, of children playing in the square and people chatting through open windows. I hated the straight world. I drifted into sleep believing that something good was happening.

The next day I collected my Mini van from my mother’s house in Surrey. The following week was filled with preparations for the second year of a philosophy degree. In a nearby squatters’ cafe I picked up a lot of information as we drank coffee, ate wholesome cakes and played chess.

In the three blocks of flats there were about 400 people. Each block had its own loose structure. For example, Welby House had a ‘stash fund’, organised by Ernie, which was to help people out if they were having trouble with social security, or if they needed money for an emergency. People who came looking for a squat were informally vetted, so that anyone who appeared too unhinged would be discouraged. I joined an organic food group and each month we would buy in bulk and sell cheaply. There was a committee, of representatives from each house, who tried to liaise with the council, generate publicity, and make contact with other big squats in Europe.

The flats had been built in 1927 by the GLC on the site of a former orphanage. By the 1970s the flats had few council tenants left. They were squatted en masse in 1974. By the late 1970s, after the squatters had been evicted, the flats were again let. They are now owned by Islington Council and in 2008 planning permission was granted to upgrade all three blocks.

But in the 1970s there was a surprising mix of people living there: students, intellectuals, a group of Italians who, it strikes me now, may have been part of the Red Brigades, ex-soldiers, junkies, anarchists from Paris, acid heads, families, rent boys, a few professional people, older teenagers who were past the age of foster care, a former professional boxer. Of course, there were conflicts but I have never known another place where spontaneous events, friendships and romance occurred so naturally.

One evening I went for dinner at Graham’s where we ate Moroccan stew from a tagine. Another guest, Will, with bushy red hair and a Glaswegian accent, spoke passionately about the London demonstrations in 1968, the Isle of White festival and a commune he was joining in Wales. I believed at that moment that my hippy dream could still happen. It was like a huge, unmade jigsaw – and once complete the world would be magic.

By Christmas 1975 things began to change. Rumours spread of the council’s plans for a mass eviction. Some of the best people left, burglaries and vandalism increased. Someone we all knew as the candyman, who sold cannabis at a fair price, was murdered. I had seen him as a talisman. Ernie ran off with the stash fund.

I held on until mid-January. The place had become frightening. The mass eviction, supported by a small army of policemen, took place a few weeks later. I retreated to live with my mother. I decided not to go back to college for my third year at college. In autumn 1976 I squatted again in Stoke Newington, London. I went to a Squatters Union meeting in Church Street and bought a copy of The Squatters Handbook. But the battle felt too big and the councils were refusing to license short-life property, even though there was a huge amount of empty council dwellings all over London. I moved with a friend to a rented house in Reading.

In September 1978 I returned to London with my new girlfriend, Nicola, and completed my philosophy degree. We lived at Madame Lillie, a sculptor’s house in Stoke Newington. I still yearned for a collective way of living. Towards the end of 1978 we began to attend meetings of Hackney Community Housing, a short life housing organisation. From this a group of us formed Hackney Community Housing (October).

There were negotiations with the council, which wanted to change the policy of trashing properties to deter squatters and use them instead for short-term housing. After six months, five of us were given a substandard house in Shakespeare Walk, N16, at a peppercorn rent.

We received funds to restore the property. Our work was overseen by a down-to-earth architect from a community group. We learnt a lot about repairing houses. Many other people were given similar properties. Our organisation appointed a rent collector, we bought a Transit van for removals, and the council trusted us. Nicola and I stayed for two years.

And, looking back from the comfort of the Victorian house I live in now, I still yearn for the life we had then. It came closest to achieving the revolutionary’s dream of alternative living.

Hackney Community Housing was successful but it was undermined by the lack of a coherent vision. With so many fragmented perspectives – Marxist, feminist, socialist, vegan, pacifist, anarchist – we spent more time squabbling among ourselves than on remaking the world.

Politicians speak glibly of ‘Community’ without any sense of its emotional or social reality. At its best Hornsey Rise embraced differences without fuss or ideological prescription. There was a feeling of conviviality and compassion that I have not found in any other situation since.

Abney Park N16

(Published in Pen Pusher, November 2008)

abneyIf you enter the cemetery from Church Street through the renovated entrance gates you find the perfectly-maintained monument to Charles Booth (1829-1912), social reformer and founder of the Salvation Army. His Christian soldiers are a good lot. Yet his sarcophagus no longer represents what this place is about. There are more powerful energies at work.

On a fine day you would not be aware of these forces. For this is the brightest of spaces. The trees make a harlequin’s cloak across the acres of the dignified dead. Children, parents, young lovers, frolic between the shadows. Dogs, cats, squirrels, mice, wander cheerfully. Birds flourish. The winding paths takes you into such dense green spaces that you almost believe London no longer exists.

In a rainy autumn there is often the strange sense of being touched, by hanging branches, bushes, leaves, spiders’ webs, slugs’ slime. I once had the fear that if I stayed still too long I should be encased in ivy. On that occasion I was restored by the sight of a tomb to the Bostock family on which sat a finely carved lion. The inscription reads: ‘In that happy Easter morning / All the graves the dead restore / Father, sister, and mother meet once more.’ Tender love defies oblivion.

There is variety in the expressions of death. I notice on one headstone a well preserved photograph of a dark haired, handsome woman. I fantasize that she is about to set out, on a Friday in late-Fifties London, a Du Maurier between her fingers and fragrant from her weekend scent, for an evening of ballroom dancing. The reality of her perished flesh beneath the earth chills me. On a connecting path there is a small black marble memorial to two brothers, who both died in their twenties, in 1993 and 2002 respectively. Behind this is a sapling, to which a printed note is attached: ‘Please stop stealing my flowers. You are upsetting me very much. I am David and Tom’s mum, Margaret. Thank you.’

Although this place encourages reflection, one is also struck by a bravado: in the face of death the Victorians developed the elegance and drama of mortality. The main entrance on Stoke Newington High Street has Egyptian-style gates, and the entrance drive is wide. After this there are a series of tall pillars, some with angels, others depicting a broken column. All of them are three times taller than the average man. Was this cultural tendency for excess due to a confidence in the after life or a terror that there may be nothing there? Whatever the reasons, Abney Park gives us a glimpse into the Victorian sense of spectacle.

Like that age, this place is one of extreme contrasts. Behind the grand thoroughfares are secret areas where graves cluster together like snug hamlets. Such places are perfect for a quiet picnic or a lovers’ tryst. Generally, there is a feeling of peace amongst the dead. As you read the names on the graves, ‘Maeve Bowles’, ‘Lucy Turton’, ‘Charles Ryder’, you feel part of a restful community. However, a sense of disharmony is never far away. Recently I came across lurid pink handwriting scrawled over an old stone headstone: ‘Here lies Popadom, May she rest in peace.’

Abney Park was a non-denominational cemetery laid out in the 1840s by a private company. In 1972 the owners were declared bankrupt, although unauthorized burials continued for a few more years. Hackney Council now has responsibility for the site. In 1974 the Save Abney Park Cemetery group was set up, and the volunteers of today originate from that beginning.

There are many dignitaries buried, or memorialised, here. For example, Isaac Watts (1674- 1748), poet, writer of hymns, headteacher, who was educated at the prestigious Non-conformist Stoke Newington Academy, is honoured by a huge statue, which was paid for by public subscription in 1845. A War Memorial gains in dignity through its understatement.

There is always the hint that chaos may break through. This anxiety is at its strongest in autumn or winter, especially after twilight. In certain spots nature seems to have become unnaturally fecund: ivy hugs the curves of graves, tombs and benches like a forbidden lover. The moss is thick along the paths where weeds, fungi and graffiti struggle for dominance.

Once, a glue sniffer, a large young man with a skinhead haircut, his face stiff and his lips dribbling, jumped out of the bushes in front of me. Another time I passed on quickly as two people copulated noisily behind some trees.

In the middle of Abney Park is a chapel designed in the 1840s by the architect William Hosking, which combines elements of Gothic architecture with an overall geometric shape that is severe in its classicism. It is ruined now, closed to the public, and its roof is open to the elements. The presence of this building haunts the cemetery and to stand close to it, even on a sunny day, is to feel depressed. The ornate plasterwork of the tall Gothic windows is crumbling. Higher up, the four round, mandala-shaped windows have no glass in them although they would once have been a central aesthetic feature of the chapel. The spire, tall for such a small building, is intact and so are the spindly little turrets. So much effort came to this. Through the locked steel fence I can see dog shit, old clothes, rubble.

God has abandoned this building. There used to be occult symbols – a pentagram, an ankh, an upside down image of Christ on the Cross – painted onto the church. On a bench outside the chapel was the inscription: ‘Do What Thou Wilt is the Whole of the Law’, a quotation from Aleister Crowley, most evil of magicians.

In the 1980s there were articles in the local press about Satanists and witches holding ceremonies here (I gather there is still a group of black magicians practising their craft in the locality). These inscriptions have now been removed. Yet to stand here at night is to sense a force that is frightening.

As I walk out past the good General Booth I imagine the muted singing of hymns. The tinkling cymbals I half hear sound flimsy and far away. Death is dense and luscious in this place.