Concrete and tall grass: inventing a place

After World War II, a second great wave of housing estate building began, with off-the-peg urban landscapes pushing up against the shrinking countryside. The Sydenham Estate in Bridgwater, Somerset, was one such manifestation.

Until I read this passage in a 1945 edition of the Taunton Courier it had never occurred to me that where I grew up had once been nameless – not a place but a void between them:

Regarding Eastover housing scheme, it was reported that the Minister of Health agreed in principle to the proposal to acquire 75 acres of land between Bath-road and Weston Zoyland-road. The District Valuer was instructed to negotiate for acquisition of the land, and it was decided that the site should in future be referred to as the Sydenham Estate.

On pre-war Ordnance Survey maps it is just a series of numbered cells – digits afloat in paper snow. But maps, and especially administrative maps, tend to reduce anything but the densely urban to an off-white nothing. In fact, those numbers represent individual fields on farmland stretching out behind Bower Farm. Bower Estate would have been a good name for the council development that grew there in the 1940s and 1950s but instead the authorities got its new name from the Manor of Sydenham, on the other side of the main Bath Road.

The present Sydenham House was built c.1500 for the Percival family. It was marched past by the Duke of Monmouth on his way to the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685, and was later the site of a famous incident of nocturnal levitation, but otherwise sat quiet and alone in the flat landscape. Then, in the 1930s, Bridgwater burst its boundaries yet again and the British Cellophane factory was built on land adjoining Sydenham House. Trapped in a no-man’s-land between industry and the railway line, used by Courtauld’s Ltd for hospitality and meetings, it became inaccessible, invisible, and forgotten. The name lingered, though, having been given to Sydenham Terrace, a row of red-brick cottages built in 1865, and to a grand Victorian house called Sydenham Villa.

Oh, yes – red brick. Bridgwater was a brick-making town, and the West Country a brick-making region more generally, and the fact that the houses at this new place, the Sydenham Estate, were to be built from concrete caused some controversy in the late 1940s. BRIDGWATER WANTS BRICK HOUSES read one 1948 headline as the town council were repeatedly criticised for failing to take advantage of a supposed stockpile of 10 million local bricks ready for use. Not Bridgwater bricks, though, replied the council, and anyway, where was the manpower required to turn them into homes?

The town wanted to build 2,000 houses, public and private, as quickly as possible and there was no room for sentiment, so concrete it would be.

Perhaps this was a mistake. A place being created from nothing, in the middle of nowhere, literally on the wrong side of the tracks, could have used something to tie it to the town of which it was supposed to belong.

As it was, those Laing Easiform and Cornish Unit prefabricated concrete houses not only seemed alien but were also the same as thousands of others up and down the country, which meant the Sydenham Estate could have been anywhere. Shown photographs with only the name for a caption, wouldn’t most people guess that it is in south London?

Sydenham was constructed around a kilometre long boulevard called Parkway, down the central green spine of which marched crackling pylons. The streets that branched off Parkway were closed loops, leading nowhere. Sydenham Road, one of the four half-mile-long crescents, had an advantage, however: it formed the eastern edge and backed onto what everyone called The Fields.

The Fields were what remained of Bower Farm, overgrown and beautiful in their own way, with waving blonde grass and the remains of orchards, like something out of Laurie Lee. There was no formal access to The Fields from the estate because, after all, why would we want to wander there when we had public greens and playgrounds? All that meant, though, was that kids clambered over back-fences, crushing the chain-link to the ground over the course of years, while certain enterprising residents installed their own back gates in breach of the tenancy regulations. During the day, and especially during the summer holidays, that meant cousins and friends could run in and out of each other’s gardens using folk paths worn through the vegetation. At night it facilitated more sinister goings-on – muttering, scurrying, cold torchlight, clothes-line raids, and outright burglary.

As a frankly cowardly child The Fields scared me. There were things concealed in the grass that I didn’t care to encounter – hunks of rusting farm machinery, plastic bags full of hardened glue, all sniffed out; the remains of illicit bonfires; and, most terrifying of all, nests of adders. In autumn, low mist would lie on The Fields, and only on The Fields, like gatherings of ghosts.

They started building on The Fields when I was about 11-years-old, and I wasn’t sure if it was good or bad news. On the one hand I knew it would bring the wilderness into line – no more snakes or child traps, and an end to the sinister whispering of the grass beneath my bedroom window. On the other hand, I disliked change. I sulked when they installed double-glazing and pebble-dashed the council houses, but this was more drastic again – a fundamental reordering of the very landscape. Much as The Fields unnerved me, they also provided a contrast to the concrete and municipal repetition of the estate, and it felt simply wrong to turn them into yet more streets. Within a few years The Fields became the Bower Estate. Hundreds of just-too-small red-brick private houses arranged in whorls and loops along dusty new artery roads. 

Sydenham, meanwhile, became a place, but one defined by negatives. It was referred to on the news as ‘the troubled Sydenham Estate’, and my peers called it The ‘Nam. This was a self-deprecating joke, of course, but also reflected a low-key ghetto mentality. We’re stuck out here together, us versus them, and it’s a combat situation. Who ‘they’ were depended on context. Within the estate, Sydenham Road and Longstone Avenue had a wary rivalry, each convinced the other was a no-go area; and the Sydenham Estate as a whole was set against the Hamp Estate on the other side of town, where we kids were warned never to go. Of course when I did go, I found a twin – approximately the same kinds of houses, an exact clone of the shopping arcade, and a secondary school which looked like an off-kilter version of mine.

Because of this reputation, steps, as they say, were taken, and Sydenham seems to be fading away. In around 1991 my secondary school ditched the doubly toxic Sydenham Comprehensive label in favour of ‘East Bridgwater Community School’. Then, in 2011, Sydenham ceased to exist as a council ward, replaced by Fairfax and Dunwear, two new wards that split the estate through the middle and effectively deny its existence. Estate agents marketing houses in the area tend to refer to them as being “on the east side of town” or, even more vaguely, “a popular residential location”.

But those Cornish Units and Easiforms, designed to last a few years at best, are still there 70 years on, albeit with raw concrete disguised by paint and pebble-dash. They invaded, they persisted, and they saw the countryside off. There are no orchards anymore – no adders, no whispering grass, no wild frontier.

FICTION: Old Rag

Sally was collecting a trolley from the far corner of the supermarket car park, where the shadows were deepest, when the black dog appeared and told her she was the firstborn child of one in the line of Thomas Fletcher of Crediton and would die before harvest was over.

‘But I’ve never been to Crediton,’ she said.

The dog, which seemed at times to meld with the night, at others to glow, licked its teeth and yawned.

‘A Fletcher you be and ever shall I hunt your kind, be you ever so far from the hills where Thomas brought about the curse which marks you as surely as Cain was marked.’

‘Don’t be stupid,’ she said with an awkward, honking laugh. ‘There’s no such thing as curses.’

The dog growled.

‘Am I not proof of what weird things may be?’

A white van passed and its headlights multiplied in the spots of rain on Sally’s glasses, dazzling her for a moment. When her sight cleared, the dog was gone.

She chewed her lip and stared at the bounding hedge with its green plastic rat traps and rotting pizza boxes. It would be difficult to concentrate on anything else, now, but her shift wouldn’t be over until ten.

She stacked shelves smiling weakly and repeating the names over and over under her breath: ‘Fletcher? Crediton?’ It had the sound of the West Country about it. As had the dog, she realised – a warm rumble, nothing like her own London Basin whine.

Her family had nothing to do with the West Country and weren’t big on moving about. It had taken them two centuries to move from Kent into London and then back again.

‘Crediton? Fletcher?’

She was a Dawes. Her mother was a Holdstock. She’d heard Paylis, Whiffin, Ovenden, but never Fletcher.

Driving home in her yellow hatchback, with the murmur of late night radio and the flat white of retail park light all around, she spoke aloud.

‘Well, what does a silly dog know about anything anyway?’

The next morning, Sally put on her unicorn slippers and a towelling robe and went down to breakfast. Her mother, Ruth, was standing at the counter, busy with a knife on the chopping board.

‘Morning, love. A bit of compote and some Greek yoghurt? Do wonders for your complexion, your regularity and your weight.’

Ruth was pale-skinned, blonde-haired and so slim she barely had hips.

Sally fell into her seat like an emergency sandbag.

‘I’m not hungry,’ she said.

‘Even better,’ said Ruth.

Sally, blinking behind smeared lenses, looked at her mother.

‘Mum?’

‘Yes, darling?’

‘Have we ever been to Crediton?’

Ruth froze, first, then chopped with renewed intensity. Her face reddened, then drained of colour. She laughed, then frowned.

‘Crediton? Never heard of it.’

Though Sally didn’t rate herself a great reader of emotions – most faces looked as distinct to her as dinner plates – even she could tell that her mother did know Crediton and wasn’t pleased that Sally had brought it up.

Sally fidgeted with the head of a plastic flower, stroking a gaudy, striped petal. She liked the texture.

Ruth continued chopping, dumping raw green pepper into the salad she was making.

‘Mum?’

Ruth didn’t respond.

‘Do we know anyone called Fletcher?’

‘No we bloody don’t!’ said Ruth, spinning to face Sally, holding the knife across her chest as if in self defence. ‘What the bloody hell is this? Who’ve you been talking to?’

Sally blinked and chewed her lip.

‘Nobody. It’s nothing.’

‘Look, I’ve got to go to work. When’s your shift today?’

‘Midday to nine,’ said Sally.

‘Well, do something useful with your morning, eh? The bathroom could do with a wipe-down for starters.’

‘I was going to go to the library.’

‘Why?’

‘To look up Crediton.’

Ruth pretended she hadn’t heard. She made a fuss about packing her handbag, attached her name badge to her blazer, and gave Sally an uncharacteristically intense kiss on the forehead as she swept out. The front door slammed and Sally sat alone in the house listening to its humming and ticking, heating and clocks.

From somewhere outside came the sound of a terrier yapping.

The black dog made its second appearance in Sally’s own bedroom. She awoke to flickering blue light and the odour of sulphur, the air full of static.

Sitting upright in her single bed, she clawed around the bedside table until she found her glasses, which she put on with both hands. She stared into the hound’s red eyes and yawned.

‘Hello again.’

The dog whined and pulled itself into the shadows but said nothing.

‘I know where Crediton is now. It’s in Devon. Population 8,000. Main industries: dairy farming and tourism. Named after the River Creedy.’

She switched on the lamp.

The dog disappeared.

With a sigh, she turned the light off.

The dog, back, ran its dripping tongue around its teeth and gave a satisfied whine.

Sally picked up a book.

‘I also got this. Can’t read it in the dark but it’s called Devon Ghosts and you’re in it.’

The dog took a step closer and broke its silence.

‘My tale is often told, rarely well, and never truthfully.’

‘It says in this book that you haunt unbaptised babies.’

The dog gave a low growl that Sally felt more than heard.

‘I am servant to neither God nor Satan. My master, long absent, came from the far north, long before Christ, and cared not for church rituals.’

Sally sniffed and rubbed a finger under her cold, wet nose.

‘What’s this business about Fletcher, then?’

The dog seemed to expand in size, pulling shadow into itself to form new muscle.

‘You are Fletcher’s child and you will die,’ it said, its breath hot and with the stink of burning peat.

‘Yeah, I got that the first time. I’m not, though, that’s the thing. But say if I was – how long would I have?’

‘The days of ripening barley and the sharpening of scythes are upon us.’

‘Soon then?’

‘Soon.’

‘Can I do anything about it?’

‘The law is the law. Foreknowledge is fear and fear is punishment.’

The dog snapped its teeth together, bone on bone, and began to dissolve.

‘One more question,’ Sally said, swinging her feet over the edge of the bed.

Hovering between being and absence, the dog waited.

‘What’s his full name, this so-called Fletcher? His first name?’

The dog hesitated, fading further into nothing, and then as it crossed the threshold, half-spoke, half-howled the most prosaic name imaginable.

This time when Sally spoke to her mother, Ruth cracked. She let the melon baller fall to the counter with a clatter and flopped into a dining chair.

Sally polished her glasses on her pyjama top and waited.

‘Your father and I tried very hard to have children.’

Nobody held a blank stare as solidly as Sally.

‘But for some reason, it didn’t work out.’

‘Yeah?’

‘He took many hot baths, I expect. We looked into adopting–’

‘Are you telling me I’m adopted?’

Ruth shook her head and winced.

‘No. We looked into it, as I say, but your grandparents, both lots… Well, we just didn’t think they’d accept an adopted kid. But someone told us about this clinic, see, where a very kind lady…’ She began to cry, clasping bony hands over her quivering mouth.

Sally thought she ought to reach out and comfort her mother but that was a trick she’d never learned, somehow, so, instead, she waited, blinking, with her head tilted to one side – a gesture she understood sometimes conveyed sympathy.

‘She was a pioneer in what they call donor insemination.’

‘Sperm.’

Ruth tutted reflexively, then nodded.

‘Well, yes, that.’

‘Dad wasn’t really my dad, then?’

‘He was your father in every meaningful sense. He… We… You were very badly wanted.’ Ruth sniffed and looked up at the ceiling, letting tears make tracks through the pale foundation that had barely dried on her cheeks.

‘Is that why he left? Because I wasn’t his?’

‘He found it difficult. He didn’t bond with you the way he was supposed to. I suppose I pushed him into it a bit. The clock was ticking, love – you know how it is.’ She looked at Sally and almost rolled her eyes. ‘Or maybe you don’t.’

Sally tried to picture her father or, rather, Ruth’s ex-husband. She didn’t remember him but there were pictures – a lean, sharp-featured man with hair like Luke Skywalker.

‘We didn’t look much alike, now I think of it.’

‘And you certainly don’t get this from me,’ said Ruth, gesturing at Sally’s body.

‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’

‘Well, what good would it have done? It would only have upset you when you were young – remember what you were like? Such a bloody crybaby. And now you’ve made it this far…’

She shrugged.

‘Medical stuff, for starters,’ said Sally, coming as close to raising her voice as she ever got. ‘What if he’s diabetic or, you know, I’ve… uh… Inherited something else.’

Ruth tutted.

‘Don’t be such a drama queen. Have you got diabetes?’

‘No.’

‘Well then.’

‘What do you know about him?’

‘We know his name was Fletcher. He looked a bit like your dad because they tried to find a good match. No ginger babies for blonde parents or anything like that. And we know he did… Well, he did his business, with the–’ She silently mouthed the word ‘sperm’ – ‘in 1988.’

‘That’s ten years before I was born.’

‘They keep it refrigerated, don’t they? Like Häagen-Dazs. It lasts for ages.’

Her eyes narrowed and she brought her thin lips together into a wrinkled pout.

‘Here, how did you find out? Who told you? Your Dad’s not been in touch has he?’

Sally let her face settle back into blandness and just stared. Silence had always been her secret weapon.

After a few seconds, Ruth clapped her hands on her slim thighs, wiped a finger under each eye, and said, ‘Fine. Whatever. Anyway, now you know, and I’d best get off to work.’

The third time, Sally summoned the dog herself. Somehow, she just knew how to do it: find a dark place – the basement was perfect – and whistle.

‘Why have you brought me here?’ the dog rumbled, bringing its own spectral light. It patrolled with soundless steps the edges of the room, sniffing where mice had been running.

‘Do you have a name? It would be easier if I could call you something.’

It growled.

‘My master called me Old Rag.’

‘Pleased to meet you, Rag. I know what’s going on,’ said Sally.

She pushed her plump hands into the pockets of her high-waisted jeans and shivered. The basement was cold and damp at the best of times but the dog seemed to suck up the last of the warmth.

‘I’m technically this Fletcher bloke’s daughter, but not really.’

‘Tech-nic-ally?’ Old Rag slavered over the new word as if it were a marrow-rich bone.

‘He was a sperm donor. He donated his sperm, the clinic gave it to Mum and Dad so they could have me.’

At this, Old Rag fell to the ground and lowered his head upon his forelegs, like settling smoke. A deep whine came from his gut.

‘Tell me more.’

‘It’s not complicated: they took his sperm, kept it cold for years, and put it inside my mother. Then I was born.’

‘Not complicated?’ said the dog with quiet astonishment. ‘In older days, people were inventive in ways to nullify such curses. One Fletcher of old dressed the firstborn daughter of his line as a boy, and named her for a boy, but it mattered not: still I tore out her throat among the haystacks at Yeocombe in her twentieth year. Another rode to a far town where he seduced an idiot woman of low birth and left her there with child. Still, when the stars commanded it, I came for the girl and feasted on the meat of her lungs.’

Sally frowned and shifted the weight on her hips in such a way that she seemed almost to stamp a foot at the hound.

‘Well, that hardly seems fair.’

Rag’s red eyes dimmed.

‘Fair?’

‘If the curse is punishment, how does killing some young woman this bloke’s never met, and doesn’t care about, hurt him? I think he did you there, mate.’

The dog stood and began to prowl, circling Sally, more thoughtful than menacing.

‘It is how it has always been done. A curse is a curse,’ he said, though his voice had a distant, uncertain quality. He had lost his snarl.

‘Well, it’s a bloody stupid curse, then. Someone should have gone over the contract.’ She stamped her foot again. ‘Like I said, you’ve been done.’

Rag barked, full-throated, foul-breathed, gut-deep, and shook himself out of existence.

On her first break, after the lunchtime rush, Sally wandered out past the smoking area, beyond the bins and recycling skips, to the grassy slope between the store and the petrol station. As she sat in the sun eating a discounted egg and cress sandwich, she dialled a number she’d saved to her phone at the breakfast table that morning.

‘Fletcher and Sons Heritage Builders, Angela speaking, how may I help you?’

The woman had a buttery country accent with soft, round vowels.

Sally, who avoided speaking on the telephone as much as possible, had to clear her throat before she could say at an audible volume, ‘Can I speak to Nigel Fletcher, please?’

‘May I ask who’s calling?’

Tempted as she was to say, ‘His firstborn child,’ Sally simply gave her name.

‘And what’s the call regarding?’

‘I’m calling about a dog.’

‘Thank you, please hold,’ said the receptionist.

Sally watched a seagull strutting nearby, pecking at cigarette ends in the stubble. After two bars of ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ and two rings, a man’s voice snapped in Sally’s ear. It wasn’t buttery at all, more like coffee grounds and broken eggshells.

‘What kind of bloody joke is this? I’m not selling or buying a bloody dog.’

‘I don’t suppose you like dogs much, do you?’ said Sally, not meaning to be arch.

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘I’ve been talking to a big black dog, or a sort of dog, called Old Rag.’

Nigel Fletcher switched the receiver from one hand to the other to buy a moment and then spoke in a strangulated whisper.

‘Very fucking funny. Fucking hilarious. Who put you up to this? Jerry, I suppose? Well you can tell him this from me: he can harass me all he likes, he ain’t getting one penny from the sale of that house.’

‘I’m sorry, I don’t know who Jerry is, or anything about a house.’

‘Mum’s house – Mum’s bloody house!’

‘I really have met Rag and he says I’m going to die because you’re my… Because you… Because we’re related.’

The breath whistled down Nigel Fletcher’s nose and Sally heard the wet, wordless working of his mouth. The seagull, she noticed, was getting nearer.

‘I told him I’m not your daughter, not really, so it doesn’t count.’

‘Of course you’re not my–’ he said in a near shout before stopping back down to a subdued growl. ‘Of course you’re not my fucking daughter. What are you after? Because you’re not getting a penny from the bloody house either.’

‘Did you know about the curse when you donated?’

Sally heard a beep in her ear and knew the call had ended.

‘Not had much luck with dads, have I?’ she said to the seagull which pretended not to hear as it side-eyed her half-eaten sandwich.

That night, Sally sat up in silence, in darkness, waiting for Rag.

He materialised slowly this time, as if his battery was running low, and his blackness seemed less black than before. His eyes were dim, too.

‘Firstborn, you have delivered the message of the curse to Fletcher.’

‘You took your time. I was nodding off.’

Rag whimper-growled and slunk beneath the desk, among the cables and wires, beside the pink wastepaper bin.

‘It was simple, once. Bloodlines were bloodlines. Must you children of mud, you offspring of ash and vine, always make such obstacles?’

‘Sorry,’ said Sally, ‘but it wasn’t my bloody fault, was it? I just got born.’

Rag licked and breathed his butcher’s bonfire stink.

‘I call forth Black Edwin.’

‘What?’ said Sally, even as she became aware that there was now a large, musky goat in the room, regarding her with milky, dead eyes. Her room was narrow with only a few inches between the bed and desk and this creature occupied most of the remaining space.

‘This is the child?’ it said in a voice neither male nor female, glancing down at Rag, now trapped beneath the desk. He faded away and then, weightless, reappeared on the bed, standing over Sally, panting wisps of cold light.

‘It is – the firstborn in the line of Fletcher.’

‘But not his daughter, by his own declaration,’ said the goat, like a barrister.

‘How did you know that?’ said Sally, pushing herself back against the headboard and grimacing. Her room smelled like a barn on fire.

‘I attend always once I have found the scent,’ said Old Rag. ‘In other forms. In shadow. Invisible.’

‘Fletcher has another child?’ asked the goat.

Rag snorted.

‘The second-born, a boy, his heir – Tyler Fletcher, of the city of Exeter.’

‘I’ve got a brother?’ said Sally. A smile broke across her face, then faded, then returned. She laughed and then laughed at herself laughing. ‘I always wanted a brother.’

Then another thought occurred to her.

‘When was Tyler born?’

The dog answered too quickly, ‘It matters not.’

‘No, seriously – when was he born?’

The curtains rippled in the breeze through the half-open window.

The goat answered.

‘Nineteen-hundred and eighty-two.’

‘So he was the first-born?’

‘Your seed was first,’ said Rag with a snort.

‘But he was born first, right?’ Sally laughed. ‘We are complicated, aren’t we, humans?’

Four eyes, two red, two pearl-white, stared at Sally. The goat kicked a heel. The dog panted.

‘My decision is made,’ said the goat at last. ‘The days of the bough and pasture are behind us. We must adapt.’

Tyler Fletcher was vaping outside a bar on the edge of Cathedral Green when the lights went out. He watched the black lamp-posts flicker, dim and die one after another, and the shopfronts fall black, as if a wave had washed through.

He turned to go back into the bar and found it dark, too, and the door locked.

‘What the fuck?’

He looked at the glowing face of his Swiss watch. It was suddenly, somehow, three in the morning. He exhaled one last, long mouthful of cinnamon-flavoured smoke and slipped the device into the pocket of his quilted jacket. A shiver took him over, from jowl to ankle.

Then a voice echoed across the cathedral square or, rather, a howl with words in it: ‘Son of Fletcher! The curse is enacted this night!’

Who was that? Chidgey? Snegs? One of the lads. A wind up, of course. They’d probably dosed his drink or something – that would explain the missing hours and the headache. Massive, massive banter. Epic. It probably explained the dog, too – the thing as big as a horse that was running towards him quickly but slowly, heavy as stone but light as mist, across the green where, as a child, he’d danced around the maypole in beret and tunic.

Old Rag pounced, knocked him down, and for just long enough took corporeal form. Real fangs. Real claws. A tongue as rough as sandstone.

As the beast clamped onto his windpipe and carotid artery, Tyler Fletcher thought, ‘Oh, so this is why Dad wouldn’t let me have a dog.’

When Rag appeared to Sally the final time, his jaws seemed to sparkle with rubies or pomegranate seeds. He woke her by crying like a wolf from the back garden with its patio furniture and compost bin, threading her name into the infinite vowel. She opened the window and leaned out into the late summer air.

‘Shush,’ she hissed. ‘People will hear you.’

‘Not tonight, daughter of Fletcher. I am powerful now. I command light and sound and time and space.’

‘Oh, that’s good, isn’t it?’

‘Tyler Fletcher has been taken.’

Sally sighed.

‘I never did get to meet him – my little brother! Or big brother, was it? I don’t know.’

With that, she felt herself lift on the breeze and levitate from the window. She drifted, frictionless, out above the garden, until a soft, unseen wall stopped her above the dog. Its red eyes shone beneath her.

‘But a curse is a curse, child of ash and vine, and now the second-born, first-seed child must die before the harvest is complete.’

She began to fall slowly towards the dog, like a drifting leaf.

Work in progress: the next novel

IMG_20190911_124441-04

A few people have asked if there’s another novel on the way, and there is.

As if today, 29 June 2020, I’m 47,500 words done on another crime novel, which will be 80-90,000 words when complete.

This one is set in Bristol in the 1950s and features a character I hope will fuel an entire series of books – a detective, of course.

I like him a lot. He’s not boring. He doesn’t listen to opera or drive a vintage car. He does things I don’t expect him to do – always pleasing.

I’ve been sharing chunks of it with my writers’ group for a while and so far, the reactions have been largely positive. And it can be a fairly brutal forum, so this is encouraging.

I’ll be honest, writing during the height of the coronavirus crisis wasn’t easy.

It didn’t seem important, for one thing – at least not as important as refreshing Twitter every five minutes for a fresh shot of condensed doom.

At the same time, when I did sit down to wrote, constant background anxiety made every word harder to extract.

I’m in the flow, now, though, thank God.

One job I’m not looking forward to is rewriting the whole thing in the present tense. Having devoured a few currently popular crime novels, I decided to give it a go and it was an obvious, immediate improvement.

Books set in the past always bear the risk of feeling distant; this small tweak transports the reader and makes the action feel way more vivid.

But 40,000+ words now need fixing.

I guess it’s one way to force a close edit of my own text.

At my current pace, it should be done by the end of September. Then I need to put it aside for a while, rewrite, edit, edit, edit, edit and…

Send it away with great hope and low expectations in January 2021, perhaps?

Reading 1959: Absolute Beginners

Absolute Beginners

Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners is an invigorating virtual reality experience – a hot London summer spent swimming in the primordial soup of a teenager’s head.

If No Love for Johnnie was about a generation struggling to break free from Victorian tradition, the misery of slum-life and the trauma war, then Absolute Beginners presents what is left when the cocoon is finally shed.

The nameless 18-year-old protagonist didn’t fight in the war, though he is a ‘Blitz baby’, and doesn’t care for the ‘sad, gloomy and un-contemporary’.

He successfully presents himself as cynical for the first half of the book, professing to care about nothing, not even the ever-present threat of atomic war. He seems to despise his pathetic cuckold of a father, his promiscuous mother, and his hopeless half brother. At one point, just when the reader might be warming to him, he exploits a girl’s heroin problem for his own ends.

But a steady tap, tap, tap of optimism and enthusiasm begins to shine through: he loves his on-off girlfriend, Crepe Suzette, wholeheartedly.

He loves jazz, too. Really loves it, not for show, but in his bones: it ‘sends him’.

He takes pornographic photos to pay the rent but all the time he is slowly turning into a real photographer – into an unashamed artist.

When he is really tested, when he is asked to prove his humanity as race riots turn West London into a warzone, he cannot pretend to be other than an idealist. He sides with the underdogs, against the racists, and risks his neck to do the right thing in a pocket civil war.

Ultimately he can’t even conceal the love he feels for his parents. “Don’t be a c–t,” says his his mother at one point, but we, and he, know what she really means.

Almost everyone in this book behaves surprisingly, from the proto-hippy pimp who turns out to be a bright-eyed fascist, to the retired Admiral who refuses to be homophobic for the TV cameras. These characters are hard to grasp and all the more real for it.

But Absolute Beginners was written in the late 1950s, and so perhaps Crepe Suzette is lacking a dimension or two – a manic pixie dream girl with the sex dial turned up. On the whole, the female characters aren’t as convincing or as interesting as the male characters, even Big Jill the lesbian pimp.

After a stretch where it seems black characters might be treated merely as a background mass, individuals emerge, though still primarily as non-player-characters for the white protagonist to react against or move towards. Some of his best friends are black, and all that.

(But, come on, let’s be fair: compare this with the grimmer, greyer angry young man novels where there are hardly any non-white characters, and in which women are generally either fantasy figures or ambition-crushing marriage traps.)

Quibbles aside, spat out of the far end of Absolute Beginners, my heart was beating fast. I could still see the colours, hear the beat, and the roar of the Vespa. I felt 20 again. I wanted to go out on to the streets and do something to make things better. (And, very badly, to see my Dad for a pint.)

Smoke & Mirrors

Grandpa smoking.

I’ve never smoked but I spent my childhood in smoky  rooms, surrounded by grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles, all smoking.

Bronzed fingers, yellow nails, picking at cellophane and gold paper. Those fingers flicking at lighters, pressing a fresh cigarette to the orange glow of another already underway, or pushing one through the bars towards the orange-purple flames of a gas fire. Those fingers hooked around cigarettes, lifting them to lips that kissed me goodnight or spat into tissues to wash my sticky face.

The smoke itself had a warm smell of home, not the wholesome smell of a wood fire but sweeter and dirtier. Like an animal. It created its own fog, sepia toning as practical effect, until breathing was like chewing and my eyes ached and ran wet. And there was no escape: “Shut that window, it’s bloody knottling.”

There were ashtrays on tables, windowsills, the arms of chairs, all full of smooth grey dust and bent filter tips, some with lipstick stains. Ashtrays were souvenirs, gifts and ornaments — the lozenge of green and red glass, the magic machine with the button to open the trap, the porcelain Whitbread promotional piece the size of a toilet seat, the vintage car with the red plastic seats — and yet nobody could ever find one, which is how cigarette ended up in tea cups or the empty foil trays from Sunday’s jam tarts.

All the houses were tanned brown, nicotine jam on every smooth surface, from fireplace tiles to the smoked grey plastic lid of the Hi-Fi. Scrape it with a nail and it would come away, pleasingly, in curls. There were burns in odd places, like either the tracks of tiny meteors or wormholes, depending where and how the tip of the fag had landed.

Player's No 6.

Smoking was a mode of personal expression: Uncle Ernie’s meagre roll-ups, Grandpa Newman’s stubby naval non-filters, Dad’s attention-grabbing pipes, his mate Mark’s cigars, all made some sort of statement. Some brands were ladylike, others masculine, and everyone had a preference.

I asked my Grandpa Roland what he wanted for Christmas every year and he always gave the same reply: “Packet of fags.” (Players No. 6.)

We woke to morning coughs — to the sound of lungs trying break the belts that bound them with a hack, hack, hack, rattle and release, and then repeat. Later there were inhalers and oxygen tanks, and yet still cigarettes. Give up smoking or you will die, the doctors said, and most of my relatives looked from cigarette to doctor and back again, and took another drag.

I sometimes miss the smoke, the smell, and especially the smokers, happily smoking, sharing cigarettes to show their affection for each other, sitting in a cloud they made together.

But, like I say, I’ve never smoked.

The Comprehensive Club

The Comprehensive Club (exterior)

Do you know the Comprehensive Club on Pall Mall? It’s an extremely exclusive institution whose members are required to have attended a non-selective state school.

It’s housed in a plain brutalist building built in around 1964, and quite discreetly advertised. The bar is a pub, the restaurant a canteen, and instead of leather armchairs and grandfather clocks it’s all knackered but comfortable sofas, and plastic school chairs. There are TVs and lots of noise and if you want a cup of tea, there’s the kettle, make it yourself.

But for some reason – I’m vague on the details – membership is much sought after by posh types. They grovel and beg to be admitted but, no, they’re simply not the right sort of people. It sometimes seems as if the committee takes a perverse pleasure in humiliating them as it turns them down in favour of someone from one troubled council estate or another. The chair can sometimes be heard to mutter, “Taste of their own bloody medicine…”

"Guests must be signed in the visitors books at all times."

Other than the comprehensive school requirement, the rules are quite simple. First, only fifteen new members may join in any given year, based on their personal achievements, and bearing in mind the circumstances of their upbringing. Secondly, members must avoid wearing jackets, ties, black tie, gowns, or any other symbols of formality at any time. And, finally, it is a serious offence to do anything to belittle, embarrass or otherwise ‘lord it over’ (those are the words in the constitution) any other member. If someone wants to eat chips with their fingers, mind your own business.

But beyond that, despite having been a member for 25 years or so, I’m not entirely clear about how it all works – about the practical details. Where does the money come from? Surely the members can’t be expected to pay huge fees, unless it’s only for people who’ve somehow got rich, which would hardly be desirable. I’ve never been asked for a penny. Another thing: what does it offer that the real world doesn’t? Why not just go to the pub, or a café? And isn’t the idea of an exclusive club, even on these terms, just a bit… wrong?

Truth be told, I go there less often these days. I don’t need it as much as I did in my teens and twenties when I found it a refuge – somewhere my manners could never be too clumsy, my tastes never too crude – and, at the same time, a delicious means for exacting revenge against the public school set. In fact, as the weight on my shoulders has lifted, and the wounded creature that used to whisper in my ear has become less insistent, I sometimes wonder if the Comprehensive Club ever existed at all.

Smiling Somerset

Grey concrete in black-and-white.
The sea wall at Burnham.

When I tell people I’m from Somerset they usually say, ‘Oh, lovely!’ recalling holidays they’ve had. But my home town, Bridgwater, isn’t lovely. I mean, I love it, but it’s a working town, with barely a touch of twee about it.

When I bumped into one of my former A level tutors in a pub in London years after leaving home he described Bridgwater as being ‘Like Barnsley or Bolton dropped into the middle of the rural West Country.’ Someone else once summed it up as ‘a small town with inner-city problems’. And a graffito left in the town centre, on display for many years, was pithier: ‘All this town cares about is fucking carnival.’

I should explain Carnival. It takes place every November and is the town’s pulse — an obsession for many and something of which the town is rightly proud. To understand the scale and drama of the event you can do worse than listen to this excellent episode of The Untold narrated by Grace Dent and produced by Polly Weston which goes behind the scenes of  a friendship rent asunder by competing carnival club loyalties.

One of my favourite things is to make habitually unimpressed sophisticates watch videos of Carnival on YouTube; imagining bumpkins prancing about on the back of flat-bed lorries, their jaws drop when they see the fully illuminated mechanically animated behemoths thundering along in clouds of noise and steam. It is amazing. Barmy, brash, camp, yes, but truly amazing.

Then there are the holiday resorts of Burnham and Weston where the sea is merely a concept, once popular with working class Brummies and northerners who would pass us on the motorway as we headed towards Fleetwood and Blackpool. Again, there was no twee in Burnham, just full-throated fun when there was sufficient booze and sun, or oppressive uniform greyness when there wasn’t.

Wintry scene with morning colours of pale purple and orange.
Frozen nettles on the Somerset levels.

When I started to take myself for long walks as a teenager, it was along the banks of drainage ditches, in the orbit of the sinister Royal Ordnance Factory. However far I walked, I could always hear the sore throat of the motorway and occasionally military aircraft would thunder low overhead. There were pillboxes everywhere, unremarked upon, brutalist cubes in the middle of otherwise pretty fields.

As a young man my council estate conditioning and a comprehensive school cringe made even the most ordinarily pleasant town or village feel intimidatingly posh so that for many years the prettier side of Somerset felt all but inaccessible. It didn’t matter, though, because I liked the flat, grim, gritty, gleefully tacky version that I understood. I never called it a ‘shithole’ like some of the other aloof university-bound kids. I never really wanted to leave.

More recently, fuelled by homesick reading, and with the chip on my shoulder finally beginning to disintegrate as I enter middle age, I’ve begun to explore — to appreciate the nature, architecture and deep history of a place I thought I knew. I’ve realised it’s not all institutional severity — there are orchards, forests, cliffsides, ancient churches and a thousand other delights. And I like that version of Somerset too, even if I still feel like a tourist there.