Grandpa’s hand feels like soft, rumpled leather. His nails are thick, curved and brown. His black Harrington jacket smells of tobacco and sweat. When he smiles, only one side of his mouth turns up. He’s been dead since 1990 but I can remember him in 3D, HD, stereo surround.
I remember more things, in finer detail, than many other people, or so I gather. As a writer, that’s handy. I can summon places, people and textures from storage and describe them.
As a human being, it’s sometimes a problem. Once or twice a day I’ll wince with embarrassment or sigh with sadness at something that happened more than thirty-five years ago.
“It’s weird that you remember literally every moment of your childhood,” someone said recently, which prompted a conversation with members of my family about how their memories work.
My Mum swears that her earliest memory is of Grandpa, her dad, leaning over a balcony in a checked dressing gown. When she asked her late mum about this she all but spat out her tea: this moment, she thought, could only have occurred when Mum was a nine-month-old baby in her pram, looking up at the house from the garden.
My brother, on the other hand, got quite emotional admitting to us that he didn’t really remember Grandpa at all. He died when my brother was nine, not even that young, but my brother doesn’t have deep memory banks. He lives in the present and doesn’t do nostalgia. It’s interesting, too, that he’s the mathematician-scientist in the family and proclaims himself totally uninterested in the visual arts.
Outside the family, there’s my friend Jack and his photographic memory. We only discovered this when, years ago, he recalled some minor historical detail.
“How do you remember stuff like that?” someone asked.
“Same as anyone else,” he said, shrugging. “I just picture the front page of the newspaper for that day and then, you know, read the headlines and then zoom in on the story for the details.”
My partner’s sister is similarly gifted and seems able to remember useful things like what everyone in the family ate at her twelfth birthday meal and who got what for Christmas in 1987. She’s also got a knack for recalling sporting statistics and who won what at which Olympics back to 1984.
I sometimes doubt my own memory, though. Am I a good writer because I have a good memory, or does my memory seem good because I’m imaginative?
In the last few years I’ve been working on novels set in the 1950s and seem to be able to draw on memory to fill in their details, too. Not my memories but secondhand memories from my parents, grandparents and other relatives, filled in with details I’ve plucked from family photos, film, television, novels and goodness knows where else.
I remember holding Grandpa’s hand, the curve of his fingernails, the smell of his jacket… Or I have a few sketched lines, a single fuzzy frame, and, like one of those machine learning demonstrations that lights up the internet every other week, my brain fills in the gaps with guesswork and borrowed textures.
The newspapers had promised ‘apocalyptic snow’ but Alice Li ignored them. They were always predicting blizzards and gales when the sky delivered only drizzle and damp breeze. But as the afternoon wore on she was forced to concede that, this time, they were right. The flakes fell in sheets and driving became impossible.
‘…being advised to stay indoors and only travel if essential…’ said a voice on the radio.
She wasn’t going to make Manchester, not today. Even if she could get there, the Mayor’s office would be shut and the meetings she had scheduled would certainly be cancelled. When she saw a lorry that had skidded into the verge, its trailer tipped, surrounded by blue lights and high-visibility jackets, she decided there was no other choice but to find a hotel.
Of course Nina wouldn’t be happy, even though it was she who had told Alice not to cancel the trip, pointing to the swimlane chart and the scheduled deliverables. ‘There are too many dependencies,’ she’d said. ‘Or do you want to tell Stephen that he’ll have to tell the Minister that we’re going to have to cancel the announcement in February?’ Alice certainly didn’t want to do that. It would be severely career limiting, as Nina liked to put it. Alice hadn’t worked flat out, from school to college to university to Fast Stream without a pause, only to let the weather get in the way.
The next junction was for Wolverhampton. Alice came off the motorway, struggling up the off-ramp in low gear, wheels slipping in the thickening snow. After following a loop and curl of two-lane road thick with grey sludge, Alice saw the neon light of the Sleeping Beauty Motel – a concrete slab standing proud in a whited-out car park. She pulled in and crawled across the blank space, windscreen wipers scooping gobs of snow back and forth, and parked as close to the front door as possible.
She turned off the engine and the radio faded away. She breathed out with relief, uncomfortably aware of the pumping of her heart.
Fortunately, she’d brought an overnight bag with a change of blouse, socks and underwear, because local authority types sometimes changed the times of meetings at the last minute. She took the bag from the passenger seat, along with her quilted coat, and stepped out into the blizzard.
The gale fluttered and snapped across the empty retail park, hurling snow around and over her. It whooped in her ears and instantly petrified her hands, lips and cheeks. The few steps to the concrete canopy felt like half a mile.
She rushed through the automatic doors and into the warm yellow of the hotel reception. Her body convulsed with shivering as the doors snapped shut and silence fell, except for the royalty-free ambient music drifting, bassless, from hidden speakers. Everything was beige. ‘We regret that our restaurant is closed due to staff shortages’ read a sign on a metal stand in front of a darkened dining hall.
There was nobody at the desk.
Alice stood on the spot and waited. She sighed. The space was blandly peaceful and, for a moment at least, there was nothing she could or should be doing. Then she frowned: except, of course, she ought to call Nina to confess, and call Manchester to let them know, and call Sue in central services to authorise the payment for a hotel not on the approved supplier’s list and…
A movement in her peripheral vision caused her to spin to the left, towards the lifts. There was nobody there but she thought she caught a glimpse of a sliding shadow reflected in the polished steel of the lift doors.
Alice started at the sudden sound of a voice from her right, at the reception desk.
‘Do you have a reservation with us today?’
He was a tall, lean young man with very black skin and a name badge that read EMMANUEL next to English and Italian flags. He wasn’t smiling and before she could answer, he spoke again with a mournful note in his voice.
‘Terrible weather, innit? I can’t go home tonight. I gotta stay here.’
Alice smiled tightly, humping the bag back onto her shoulder.
‘I had to come off the motorway,’ she said. ‘It was getting dangerous out there.’
Emmanuel waited, staring, then repeated his question: ‘Do you have a reservation?’
‘Oh, uh, no. I’d like a single room for one night, please, if that’s at all possible,’ she said.
This prompted Emmanuel to move to the next section of the script. He took her name, address, asked to see ID, and took credit card details. He then made a keycard for room 804, sliding it across the counter.
‘Top floor, good view, very quiet.’
‘Many guests today?’
Emmanuel shook his head like a doctor sharing bad news about a terminal patient.
She took the lift up eight floors. Synthesised jazz-funk played. She stepped out onto a long corridor lined with doors. There was a window at the far end, plastered with snow and glowing white. She found her room easily enough and let herself in, dumping the bag on the bed.
The room smelled of cigarettes, despite the multiple warning signs forbidding smoking, and everything was scuffed, chipped or discoloured. The bed was soft, though, and the duvet heavy. There were thick white towels, a desk, a kettle and a TV. She didn’t need much else. She even had a couple of packets of instant ramen and a plastic bowl in her emergency overnight bag so she wouldn’t need to order room service.
Emmanuel had no doubt oversold the view but there was no way to be sure. All she could see from the window was a shifting, warping wall of white. If she peered hard, she thought she could just discern the edge of the car park as a thumb-smear of pale grey across the canvas. She watched a figure move through the blizzard and was struck by how little this person seemed to be hampered by the wind or cold. A dark, dogged speck almost gliding towards the hotel.
Her phone rang. Rushing to her bag, fumbling, fingers still numb, she answered. It was Nina.
‘How are you, Alice? Safe, I hope? I’ve been watching the news.’
‘Yes, thank you. I didn’t make it to Manchester, I’m afraid. I’ve had to pull off the M6 and find a hotel.’
‘Oh, right – what a shame.’
Nina was clever. She never said or wrote anything that could possibly sting her during an union intervention or employment tribunal. Alice had worked with her long enough, however, to tell that she was furious.
‘I don’t want to add to your burden when no doubt you’re no doubt already feeling at least a little stressed–’ She gave her dusty, mummified laugh.
‘Oh, no, I’m fine, but–’
‘– with end-user outcomes in mind, it would be good if you could arrange a video conference or phone call so we can get this squared away on schedule.’
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ said Alice.
Nina left a silence just long enough let Alice know how disappointed she was with this weak response and then said: ‘Great, thanks, do keep me in the loop.’
Alice called Sue who tried to convince Alice to drive to another hotel five miles away, because it was on the Department’s approved list. Alice explained that it was impossible and Sue said: ‘Fine, right, so, um, if you could just put that in writing, for the record…’ To cover your arse, thought Alice, but agreed to do as Sue had asked.
She set up her laptop on the scratched desk and then realised there was no wi-fi in the hotel. She checked her phone and realised she had no data connection there, either, perhaps because of the storm. No video-conference with Manchester, then, and no emails to Sue or anyone else. It was only two o’clock and she ought to do some kind of work, but what? There was a paper for the board due, perhaps she could work on that, offline.
She glanced at the bed. The drive had been exhausting and it couldn’t hurt to sit for two minutes. Then, once she’d sat down, she couldn’t resist the temptation to lie down – just for a moment. Kicking off her low-heeled shoes, she reclined and knitted her fingers over her belly. It was a long time since she’d found herself anywhere near a bed during the day. Even at weekends, she usually ended up working, or worrying about work, with no time for naps. But there, in the muffled gale and the soft blue snow light, she released a thirty-year-long sigh.
* * *
Arms flinging out in terror, a numb-tongued shout into complete darkness.
Alice thrashed until she woke herself up. She rubbed gum from her eyes and saliva from her cheek. She remembered where she was and groaned. She held a hand to her aching head. Did she have Paracetamol in her bag? Or maybe some water would do the job.
She listened to the room for a moment. It seemed to hold the echo of a sound, the scene of someone recently departed. She would have to remember to double lock the door and maybe put a chair in front of it.
The window was yellow, now – fluorescent retail park lighting diffused by snow emulsified in the swirling air. Alice lowered her feet to the floor and stumbled stiffly to the bathroom. She couldn’t find the light switch at first and then, when she did, it didn’t seem to work, so she drank lukewarm water from the tap, feeling her way with her fingers.
She hoped Nina hadn’t called while she was sleeping. She wondered if she ought to work now, until late, to make up the time.
There was a knock at the door.
What was this? Emmanuel, perhaps, coming to tell her the hotel was closing? Or bringing an extra blanket, maybe – the room did feel cold.
She peered through the peephole. The fish-eye showed an empty corridor – though only just vacated, Alice knew, somehow. An oddly familiar sweet tobacco tang caught at the edge of her senses. She sniffed but couldn’t catch it again.
Alice snapped the door open and stepped out. Left, nothing, but to the right, disappearing around the corner, the last glimpse of a shape in black.
‘Hello? Did you knock on my door?’ Alice called into the empty hall. There was no reply. ‘Did you… did you want something? Hello?’
Breaking into an ungainly half-jog, she made it to the corner but all she found was a hundred metres of mottled carpet, thirty brown doors and the green glow of a fire exit sign.
* * *
The next morning, she could hear the silence of the snow. It had stopped falling but not before covering her car, the car park, and most of the details of the landscape for miles around. She checked her phone and found it had no connection at all.
‘Morning, madam,’ said a weary Emmanuel when she went down for breakfast. ‘I’m so sorry to say that we are snowed in completely.’
She glanced towards the sliding doors. They had been locked off and presented a wall of grey-blue. There was a slit of sunlight at the top.
‘There are very much worse places to be, however,’ said Emmanuel. ‘Plenty of food, good emergency generator if, God forbid it, the electricity lines come down, and of course more than fifty TV channels.’
‘Got any books?’
Emmanuel gave a nod-shake-bow.
‘Oh, yes, plenty of books. People leave them behind. I will bring out a box for you to take your pick after breakfast.’
He gestured towards the dining room and Alice followed the line indicated by his long fingers.
The dining room was as big as a school hall and the five other guests had arranged themselves, as British people always will, so as to leave the maximum possible space between themselves.
A man with a bald brown head and a wrinkled shirt; a muscular builder with a slogan in Polish on his T-shirt and paint-spattered boots; a miserable middle-aged couple staring at their phones; and, finally, what looked like an old lady dressed in black – a hump of dark, dusty cotton, a curl of grey hair. She was in a corner facing the wall, pouring green tea from an iron pot into a dainty cup with no handles.
Alice looked for a seat. The necessary distancing calculations ran in her head and she deposited her key on a table away from the window, near the toasters, and went to fetch coffee and juice.
A radio murmured. ‘…since the winter of 1963, according to the Met Office. Further snowfall is expected later today with storms clearing by midnight, leaving a bright, clear day across the country from tomorrow morning. Now, let’s see if these lads can get those motorways moving – it’s Mike and the Mechanics.’
Emmanuel came through the dining room stopping at each occupied table – one, two, three, four, then Alice.
‘No cooked breakfast today, I’m afraid – no cooks! But we have toast, pastries, cereals and if you like, I can boil an egg.’ He gritted his yellow teeth in a tense smile and she knew that having to boil an egg would make him very unhappy, so she shook her head.
‘Toast is fine.’
As he began to move away, she grabbed at his sleeve.
He stopped, looked panicked, and rubbed his arm where the fabric had been pinched.
‘Can I have a pot of green tea?’
Emmanuel shook his head and stuck out his bottom lip.
‘We don’t have green tea, sorry – only summer berry, fresh peppermint, soothing camomile and traditional English breakfast.’
He drifted away.
Alice, irritated, looked towards the old woman’s table. She was gone and the table was clear. There was no teapot, no teacup, no sign that she had ever existed.
After breakfast, Alice looked through the box of paperbacks in reception for something to read once the board paper was drafted – the only piece of work she could do. She actually wanted to read a thriller but a voice in her head tutted at her, told her it would be a waste of precious time, so she took a copy of Bleak House instead.
Throughout the whole of the day, she didn’t read a single page. She didn’t write anything worthwhile, either, only moving around the words she’d already produced for the executive summary. At first, she reproached herself for her idleness, until logic won out: what could she do? Nothing. It wasn’t her fault. So, slowly, she began to think about starting to consider the vague possibility of relaxing.
She watched the window turn from white to blue to orange. She ate a limp room service pizza that Emmanuel microwaved. Finally, she did something she hadn’t done since she was a little girl: she turned on the TV and watched nothing in particular, for hours, until she began to drowse.
She didn’t sleep that night, not exactly. Hotel rooms are never really dark, even with the lights off and curtains drawn, because there’s always a glow leaking from somewhere – under the door, the air-conditioning control panel, the gap at the top of the curtains – so she lay in the almost-blackness, at turns fretting and fantasising.
After a series of short, disturbing nightmares, none of which she could quite remember even though they left her heart knocking, she got up to check the time. Three thirty three.
Then a memory came, or a memory of a dream: the veined hands of an old woman setting and then winding a bedside alarm clock – one of those clamshell clocks designed for travel.
‘Three-thirty three, all the threes, very lucky,’ Alice muttered to herself. She frowned. She didn’t believe in any of that stuff. Neither did her parents.
She got up and walked, stretching and yawning, to the window. Pulling back the curtain, she looked over the car park. The snow had stopped and the air was clear so that distant lights picked out hillsides and suburbs.
Squinting, she peered at the off-white sheet through which a stripe had been ploughed, right up the front door of the hotel.
There was somebody down there, waiting, in the middle of the channel in the snow.
A black shape, small and crooked – a figure that, for the first time, she recognised without doubt.
Alice let the curtain fall back and stood in the almost-darkness listening to the hum of the heating and her own short, fast breaths.
She dressed quickly, pulling on her quilted coat and unsuitable shoes, and slipped out of the room, letting the door close with a whisper of insulation on wood.
The corridor was cold and smelled stale. The lights were on but flickered sickly in her periphery. She took the stairs, not the lift, and entered reception through a fire door beside a set of vending machines. The sliding doors had been cleared of snow, now, and had become murky mirrors with the night behind them. She punched a green button and, after a moment, the doors opened.
She stepped into the cold. Her breath condensed, creating a wavering veil that came and went. Brown grit ground beneath her feet as she stepped slowly, reluctantly, towards the old woman.
Yes, it was definitely her. She was wearing the clothes she always had one when she visited or when they went out for dinner – a two-piece suit with thick seams, as stiff as cardboard. The polished black handbag gleamed. Her tights sagged around her bony knees. The black pumps she always wore pointed inward.
Alice didn’t want to look at her face. She was afraid it would be decayed or distorted. As she came within a few steps, she felt her eyes being pulled upward. Her heart thumped. Her face was perfect, exactly as it had been when Alice last saw it twenty-five years before. Her eyes weren’t filmed or fogged but wet and glowing. She looked at Alice with a severe expression, expectant.
The air seemed heavy with static and sweet with perfume – Yardley English Lavender mixed with a background note of clove.
Alice wondered what she was supposed to do. Then she heard her own voice, dead against the surrounding snow.
‘Are you proud of me, Grandma?’
She didn’t know what had made her ask that question but she knew the answer was important.
Grandma’s face opened in a smile as warm as midday sun.
‘Of course I am.’
The electricity intensified, the perfume bloomed, and somehow Alice Li both passed out and woke up at the same moment.
The neighbourhood. Quiet, curving streets where children play in the road, making way now and then for a wood-panelled station wagon or Chevy pick-up. The houses are probably painted white, with white wooden fences, and perfectly green lawns. There might be a paperboy slinging rolled copies of the local daily. TVs are always on and always showing black-and-white movies or Looney Tunes cartoons. Kids have Star Wars posters on their bedroom walls and play games on Atari consoles. Teenagers listen to pop music on chunky Sony Walkmans. There will certainly be tall, tanned dads watering lawns and washing cars and faintly glamorous moms cradling brown bags overflowing with shopping. For dinner, it’s Wendy’s or McDonald’s, accompanied by cans of Coke or Tab for the kids and Budweiser for Dad. And it is always Independence Day, or Halloween, or Christmas – golden hour glow, warm autumn leaves, perfect snow. America is on top, life is good, adventure is just round the corner.
I spent my early years on a concrete council estate in a small town in Somerset but, like Rick Deckard in Blade Runner finding succour in his implanted memories, the images that spring to mind when I think of childhood are often American in flavour. That’s because, like many people my age, I grew up largely in front of a rented Rumbelow’s TV, absorbing the sunny glow of Spielburbia.
Spielburbia is a name for the American suburb as envisioned by Steven Spielberg. It manifests in films he directed such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), those he produced such as Back to the Future (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1985) and others which simply imitated his style in pursuit of a share of his incredible commercial success. As far as I can tell, the term Spielburbia was first used by Tony Williams, disparagingly, in his 1996 book Hearths of Darkness, with reference to Poltergeist, a pop horror film that Spielberg produced and was long thought to have shadow-directed over Tobe Hooper’s shoulder. Williams sees Spielburbia as a reflection of an ‘infantile mindset’. To those living through less than perfect childhoods and, worse, the crushing weight of adventureless adulthood, that is precisely its appeal.
My gateway to Spielburbia was a branch of Ritz Video on the Sydenham Estate shopping arcade in Bridgwater. That’s where my parents rented, in big yellow boxes, also-ran kids adventure films like D.A.R.Y.L., The Boy Who Could Fly, The Explorers and Flight of the Navigator, all of which I saw long before E.T. or Close Encounters. When I talked about this with my brother, he recalled the colour-coding system that dictated the rental price: E.T. was expensive, D.A.R.Y.L. was cheap. So we watched D.A.R.Y.L. and loved it. Television was also important, five- or six-year-old big-budget American movies being the key events in what continuity announcers called ‘a very special Christmas here on BBC1’, or bank holiday matinees.
To a child in Britain in the 1980s, Spielburbia was both familiar and alien. We had kids on bikes. We had fences. We had plastic action figures and even American footballs, for which there was a brief craze in the UK at the tail-end of the decade. But it lacked the scale or glamour. The bikes were rusty non-brands from Halfords. The fences were steel mesh, also rusting. There was no mountain behind our estate – no pine forest or field of corn.
The cinematic Spielburbia came into being, I think, with Spielberg’s first big hit, Jaws, released in 1975. Though set on a tourist island, not in the suburbs, the feel is there in the scenes of Chief Brody’s domestic life and the arrival of tourists on Fourth of July weekend. Spielberg has a delicate touch when it comes to portraying the barely-blessed lives of ordinary Americans – adults and children bickering and laughing together over unmade beds, coffee machines and bowls of sugary cereal. In Jaws, Martin Brody awakes reluctantly and stumbles stiff-legged across the bedroom to check on the kids in the yard. “In Amity, you say yaaahd,” says Ellen Brodie, teasing. “They’re in the yaaahd, not too faaaah from the caaaah. How’s that?” replies Martin. “Like you’re from New York,” says Ellen. While Brodie fields a garbled call about a missing swimmer, his son Michael swaggers into the kitchen and proudly shows off a wound – the result of playing on poorly-maintained back-garden swings against his father’s instructions.
Swings! A minor detail but, oddly, a recurring one in the run of Spielberg’s movies from Jaws to Poltergeist. I’d bet any money his own childhood home had a set. And that mention of New York is important too: this is not New York City, or Los Angeles or Chicago – the default urban settings that define many cult films of the 1970s. The appeal of Spielburbia is that, at least until killer sharks, aliens or sinister government agents arrive on the scene, it is not ‘gritty’ or dangerous. It is – I can’t avoid the word any longer – ‘sleepy’.
Spielberg’s next film, Close Encounters from 1977, develops the idea. Centreing on a family man, Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss, it grounds the fantastical alien visitation plot with a portrait of a down-to-earth lower-middle-class suburb in Muncie, Indiana. Muncie – the very word sounds like an adjective, something from The Meaning of Liff, perhaps meaning dull or bland. The neighbourhood provides a pointedly sane backdrop against which Neary’s UFO-induced madness plays out. Spielberg delights in the background details: backyard swings, again; dads in shorts washing cars and boats on sloping driveways; children practicing their baseball swings, or riding bikes.
Though set in Indiana, in the American Midwest, it was actually filmed in Mobile, Alabama, in the southeastern US. That Spielberg could make this substitution tells us something: American suburbs are American suburbs, utterly interchangeable. Or, if you prefer, universal. The house that played the part of the Neary home is in a post-World-War-II housing development called Colonial Heights – an arrangement of near-identical single-storey houses along meandering streets designed to go nowhere in particular. It is a classic example of ‘tract housing’.
Tract housing, sometimes known as ‘cookie-cutter housing’, was primarily a post-World-War-II phenomenon. As the US population grew, increasing by 50 per cent between 1940 and 1970, millions of Americans moved from rural settlements into urban and suburban settings. By 1970, there were around 75 million Americans living in the suburbs – more than the entire population of the UK.
This suburbanisation was brought about by the advent of techniques for mass-producing appealing homes, and of heavy-duty construction vehicles which made it possible to clear great areas of agricultural land, wilderness or even desert plains. Hills could be flattened, terracing imposed, and landscapes composed – new spaces into which thousands of individual homes could be dropped with maximum efficiency.
The most famous examples might be the Levittowns built by Abraham Levitt & Sons in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and Maryland between 1947 and 1970. The houses were built on production lines and could be erected in a single day.
While many applauded the democratisation of home-ownership this brought, the uniformity of this new suburban architecture – it’s sheer bloody munciness – unnerved some. What had happened to American individualism? A 1950 catalogue for the tellingly named Standard Homes Company entitled Homes for Your Street or Mine boasts that the designs within were ‘standardized to avoid waste… America’s best planned small homes’. The utopian illustrations depicting ‘The Lorain’, ‘The Lexington’, ‘The Wayne’ immediately bring to mind Spielburbia.
These suburbs also came in for criticism from those who saw in them the potential for ever-greater alienation and detachment from society – where were the neighbourhood bars or diners? Where were people supposed to congregate when not at work? Ray Oldenburg, author of The Great Good Place, published in 1989, saw the loss of this vital ‘third place’ from American culture after World War II as the root of many societal ills:
What opportunity is there for two men who both enjoy shooting, fishing or flying to get together and gab if their families are not compatible? Where do people entertain and enjoy one another if, for whatever reason, they are not comfortable in one another’s homes? Where do people have a chance to get to know one another casually and without commitment before deciding whether to involve other family members in their relationship? Tract housing offers no such places.
Ira Levin’s 1972 novel The Stepford Wives, made into a film in 1975, takes the uniformity of suburbia to its logical conclusion – if all the houses are the same, why not all the people? His sour, satirical take has housewives killed and replaced by compliant robots.
Spielberg isn’t unaware of suburbia’s downsides. As Roy Neary has his breakdown in Close Encounters, for example, the neighbours gather to watch, gawping from their driveways or leaning out of bedroom windows. When he speaks to them – ‘Good morning!’ – they ignore him. These people are crammed together and yet miles apart. But, overall, his take on suburbia is fond.
Spielberg himself grew up in just such a post-war neighbourhood, in Phoenix, Arizona. Joseph McBride made the pilgrimage while researching his 1997 biography of the director:
When a visitor enters Steven’s old neighborhood in Phoenix today, with its 1950s-era ranch houses still lining a broad, tranquil street crisscrossed by friendly kids riding bicycles, the feeling is inescapable: You’re not only going back in time, you’re entering a Spielberg movie.
Nowadays, anyone can visit Spielberg’s childhood home at 3443 North 49th Street thanks to Google Street View and to do so is startling – McBride is absolutely right, and it’s easy to imagine Spielberg location hunting, always seeking somewhere that felt just like home. Whereas others of his generation rejected suburban upbringings and wrote songs or novels mocking square life, Spielberg apparently yearned for it.
The two films in which Spielburbia really comes into focus are both from 1982: E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, directed by Spielberg, and Poltergeist, which he wrote and produced.
E.T. takes the growing list of tropes – or tics, perhaps – from Jaws and Close Encounters and amplifies them. For example, Spielburbia is defined by an abundance of mass-produced toys. In Close Encounters, Roy Neary tinkers with a model train set while a music-box in the shape of Pinnochio plays ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’. By the time we get to E.T., however, with the action playing out primarily in an eleven-year-old’s bedroom, there are moments when it feels like a commercial. ‘This is Greedo,’ says Elliot, showing his friend from outer space his Star Wars figures, ‘and then this is Hammerhead. See, this is Walrus Man. And this is Snaggletooth. And this is Lando Calrissian.’ A Texas Instruments Speak’n’Spell machine is even part of the contraption E.T. builds to ‘phone home’.
In E.T. we’re treated to sweeping crane shots of the suburb, filmed and set in the San Fernando Valley outside Los Angeles, and the majority of the action takes place there. Children on BMX bikes use their knowledge of the topography – its back alleys, broken fences and empty lots – to evade capture. Near the end of the film, a glimpse of a half-finished development on a new tract of land, into which the children escape, threatens to turn this into a film about the suburbs. Poltergeist, released in the same month of the same year, completes that journey.
The family man at the centre of Poltergeist, Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson), doesn’t just live in a suburb – he’s a salesman for the development company that built the bland but pleasant Cuesta Verde estate. Early in the film, director Tobe Hooper plays a sly trick, fading from a shot of the cluttered Freeling family kitchen to what looks like the same room stripped bare. Then Steve walks in with a couple who are considering buying what turns out to be a different house. ‘l can’t tell one house from the other,’ says the potential buyer.
At first, Cuesta Verde seems almost perfect, with all the Spielburbian signifiers. Then its flaws become apparent – the houses are crammed so close together that the Nearys and their neighbours keep switching the channels on each other’s TVs. As the haunting begins we learn that the truth is grimmer yet: the land on which the houses were built was a former cemetery and though the headstones were moved, the corpses were left in place beneath backyards and porches.
Perhaps this is the moment where Spielberg soured on Spielburbia, or at least moved on. He would not himself direct or write any more films with this setting, leaving his disciples to carry the baton.
If 1982 had the ‘Summer of Spielberg’, 1985 was the summer of Spielburbia, seeing the release of four notable films in the sub-genre.
Back to the Future was written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale and directed by Zemeckis, with Spielberg in the producer’s seat. Like Poltergeist, it offers a critical portrayal of the suburbs, taking advantage of the time travel plot to show a post-war Californian development, Lyon Estates, in both its well-worn 1980s incarnation and as a mere aspiration in 1955. ‘Live in the home of tomorrow…. Today!’ reads an advertising hoarding outside gates which open onto a tract of dusty land that is naked but ready.
The Goonies, directed by Richard Donner and based on a story by Spielberg, who also hovered around the set. It takes elements of E.T. – the child’s-eye view, the pursuit by sinister adults – and fuses it with the skeletons, subterranean tunnels and treasures of the Indiana Jones movies.
Neither Explorers, directed by Spielberg protege Joe Dante, or D.A.R.Y.L, had any involvement from the man himself, but both took components of Close Encounters and E.T., shook them up and glued them back together.
Even after 1985, the films kept coming – Flight of the Navigator and The Boy Who Could Fly from 1986, for example – but Spielburbia began to feel like a cliche and the movies like ever-weaker echoes.
Then, in 1989, Joe Dante directed The ‘Burbs, which might be said to put a neat full stop on this first phase. Dante’s films always walk a fine line between sincerity and satire and The ‘Burbs, which features Tom Hanks in an early outing for his ‘America’s Dad’ persona, tackles the strangeness of the suburbs head on while also celebrating them. Unlike Spielberg’s own suburban-set fantasies, which used real streets in real towns, The ‘Burbs was filmed on the backlot at Universal Studios. It used a set known as ‘Colonial Street’ which you will have seen in hundreds of TV shows and films – The Munsters lived there, as did the Desperate Housewives.
For twenty years or so after The ‘Burbs, Spielburbia was more or less neglected on film, even if a generation of us homesick for it, and for the comfort of childhood, drifted back there when the opportunity arose. Then in 2011 one of those children, director J.J. Abrams, revived Spielburbia in his own film, Super 8. Set in Ohio in 1979, it takes the masterlist of tropes and ticks them off one by one as a band of plucky kids on bikes take on both aliens and the military-industrial complex. It kicked off a run of similarly self-conscious homages including, most notably, the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix-produced Stranger Things, now approaching its fourth season, as well as a distinctly Spielburbian take on Stephen King’s scary clown story IT spread across two films.
What are people yearning for when they watch these films and TV shows? For some of us, it’s straightforward nostalgia for the pop culture we consumed as kids. For others – those who grew up in Ronald Reagan’s America – it must be a fond memory of a time when things felt less complicated.
And, dare I say it, Spielburbia is terribly, unashamedly white. Not only are there no black neighbours but scarcely anyone not presented as Anglo-Saxon or Irish. The first Levittowns were explicitly racist, with contracts stipulating that only members of ‘the caucasian race’ were allowed to buy or let. Spielberg, who often describes himself as having been the only Jew in his neighbourhood as a child, even turned Jewish actor Richard Dreyfuss into Roy Neary, apparently an Irish-American. It’s a dream of the 1980s as the 1960s or 1950s – a continuation of the American Graffiti tendency of Spielberg’s friend and frequent collaborator George Lucas.
More than anything, though, Spielburbia is a mood. Whatever outlandish events might be occurring, thanks to Industrial Light & Magic or the devil or visitors from space, as viewers, we’re invited to remember the best moments of being eleven years old. We’re reminded of sharing meals with our imperfect parents, around cluttered tables, knowing that there were toys to be played with upstairs and outside, in the golden light of the evening, streets to roam. Whether it’s Muncie, Indiana, or Bridgwater, Somerset, or a muddling of the two in memory, the feeling is real.
This piece originally appeared in the ‘zine The Happy Place published by the Bristol Writers’ Group in June 2020. You can still get paper copies. Our next ‘zine, Stepping Out, is due imminently and we’ll be performing new pieces as part of the Bristol Festival of Literature on 21 October. Get a ticket here.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.’
‘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.
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.’
‘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.’
‘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.’
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…’
‘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.’
‘Don’t be such a drama queen. Have you got diabetes?’
‘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.’
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.’
‘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.
The car labours up the snow-covered road. You ride the accelerator and the brakes. The high pines on either side shed silver dust and show black against a cloudy sky slipping from grey to blue. Then, as the road curves, a warm glow – the neon sign of a small diner, a box in prefabricated aluminium. What does the sign say? It isn’t clear, even when you squint. If you can just…
The car labours up the snow-covered road. You ride the accelerator and the brakes as it slips and resists. The car’s heater exhales warm, dusty air from a slot on the dash. The high pines on either side shed silver dust, quiver with the weight of snow on their branches, and show black and razor-backed against a cloudy sky slipping from winter grey to night-time blue. Then, beyond the curve of the road, a glimpse of red – the warm glow of the neon sign of a small diner, a box in prefabricated aluminium. The sign says ‘Red Hill Diner’. Just a hundred more yards. Almost there.
The car labours up the snow-covered road. You ride the accelerator and the brakes. The car’s heater exhales dusty air. The pines shed silver, and quiver. They show black against the winter dusk. Then, beyond the curve, a red neon sign: Red Hill Diner. Just a hundred more yards, if the car will allow it. Come on, baby, come on. Off the road, into the small parking lot, salted and snowless. Park between two pickup trucks, neither old but both well-used. Switch off the engine, kill the heater, feel the cold at once.
The car labours up the snow-covered road between black pines until, beyond the curve, you see the red neon sign of the Red Hill Diner, two pick-ups in its parking lot and windows bright. You coax the car into the parking lot and switch off the engine. The heater dies. The cold begins to bite. You sit for a moment, looking out, beyond the faded red flank of the Ford truck to the yellow light of the diner window and the hot sizzle of the sign. Gloves on, hat on – time to leave the safety of the car and go inside, eat something, drink some coffee.
The car labours up the snow-covered road between the pines, towards the neon of the Red Hill Diner. You coax the car into the lot and kill the engine. You sit in the cold for a moment, looking at the light from the diner, before putting on gloves and your hat and opening the car door. It’s only a few steps to the door and as you get near, the sound of country music drifts on the air. You reach for the handle.
The car labours between pines, drawn towards the neon light of the Red Hill Diner and the promise of hot coffee and fatty food. Into the lot, kill the engine, gloves, hat, and out. Just a few steps in the cold to the door. You reach for the handle and pull. A bell rings as you enter. The lights are off, suddenly, and nobody is here. A voice on the radio sings ‘The Sounds of Goodbye’. You wait for a moment, listening, watching the shadows for movement. Everything abrades.
Up the hill between the pines, as fast as the car will go in the snow, desperate to reach the neon sign of the Red Hill Diner and drink a cup of hot coffee. Into the lot. The car radio is playing ‘The Sounds of Goodbye’ and you leave the engine running so you can listen to the final verse and the sob in Vern Gosdin’s voice as he realises his wife is leaving for good. The song ends, a jingle begins, you kill the engine. The cold hits at once. You glance towards the door of the diner and its warm light and will yourself to move.
The car struggles along Red Hill Road as it curves towards the sign of the Red Hill Diner, beneath tall pines and covered with snow that looks blue in the twilight. You park between two Ford pick-ups and don’t hesitate – you need a cup of coffee and something to eat, and it’s cold in the car. You slam the car door, lock it, and dash across the salted asphalt which crunches beneath your leather soled boots. You grab the handle and enter. A bell rings as you slip into the heat and light. The smell of used coffee grounds drying on the griddle give the air a black tang. On the radio, ‘The Sounds of Goodbye’. There is a woman behind the counter. She has dirty-blonde hair and a blue uniform that needs pressing. She opens her mouth to speak but no sound comes. Time holds, space distorts.
Red Hill Road seems to go on forever. You push the car over the snow, riding the brakes and accelerator. Every now and then, the tires fail to bite and the car slips backward. Your hands, in the leather gloves Sherry bought you the Christmas before she left, grip the wheel too tight. You need a break – you need a coffee and something to eat. As if you’ve summoned it with that thought, you see a glow ahead beneath the black pines with their silvered branches: a diner in an aluminium box with a neon sign. Just a hundred yards more and then, under a blueing sky, you glide onto the salted parking lot and take a spot between two Ford pickup trucks, one blue, one faded red. You kill the engine and brace yourself for the cold. It’s only a couple of steps to the door but you know it’s going to bite. After a moment, like somebody jumping into the frozen sea, you launch yourself out of the car, slam the door, and head for the entrance. A bell rings when you enter and you hear country music, smell burning coffee grounds, and see a woman who looks a little like Sherry at the same age. Before you can utter a greeting she says, in a quivering whisper, “Go! Get help. Get. Help.” But you can’t – you are stone and the air is heavy electricity.
You sit in the car with the engine off. Your hands are on the wheel, warm in the leather gloves Sherry bought you before she left, and the neon light of the diner washes you red. The Red Hill Diner, Red Hill Road, Davisburg – you’ve been here before, though you can’t remember when. Perhaps you drove through this way back in ‘76 when head office was pushing those new livestock insurance policies. You need a coffee but you’re too tired to move and you know it will be even colder outside the car. You sigh. You make a move. A few steps across the salt-strewn asphalt, up two steps, and in through the door of the aluminium box. A bell rings. “I call your name and hear a deafening silence and the closing of a door,” sings Vern Gosdin from a radio. The waitress behind the counter looks afraid. Her eyes lead yours to the floor: at the end of the counter, a pair of legs and feet in heavy work boots. A shadow moves across the back wall – someone is coming from the kitchen, whistling along with the music on the radio: “…a violent rush of teardrops from my eyes…” Somehow, his very tread is mean.
The car labours up the snow-covered road beneath dark pines that disappear into mist. Night is falling and the world is turning blue. You see a neon sign up ahead – Red Hill Diner. You could really use a cup of coffee, you’ve been driving in this god awful weather all day, but as you draw near, something tells you not to stop. As you pass, the car floating soundlessly, now, you watch shadows move beyond the condensation on the window – slow, submerged ghosts. People you will never know.
Rod was a regular in the George. He had his own special pint glass and a place reserved at the bar. I knew he’d been an actor but didn’t recognise him from any film I’d ever seen, and I’ve seen nearly every film ever made in Britain. That’s my special area of expertise; I’ve written two books on it.
Maybe he knew that.
Maybe that’s why, one Thursday night during the interval in the film quiz, when Wayne was playing his usual selection of Barry Gray TV themes, Rod spoke to me.
‘Like films, do you?’ His voice was wet and his breath smelled of lager.
‘Like films? Your, er, whatsit. T-Shirt.’
I looked down. I was wearing a tacky print of Michael Caine in Get Carter I’d bought at the Vintage Magazine Co twenty years before.
‘Oh. Yeah. I write about them.’ I picked up the three pints from the bar, and made to move away.
‘Ahh. Well, then. I’ve worked with Mike Caine, of course. Lovely bloke. Horse Under Water, back in seventy-eight.’ Rod, wheezed, and turned away. I slowly lowered the pints back onto the bar top.
‘Did you say Horse Under Water?’
He looked over his shoulder, evidently pleased to have grabbed my attention.
‘That’s a Harry Palmer novel, right? Len Deighton. A sequel to the Ipcress File.’
‘You do know it, then? Not a bad film. Tremendous fun to work on. I played a naval officer in that one, all decked out with the proper kit, scrambled egg on the hat and what have you.’
‘I didn’t know they’d filmed it, actually. I thought the last one they made was The Billion Dollar Brain. And those two TV movies recently, but they don’t count.’
‘Well, they did. Pinewood, summer of seventy-seven.’
‘Why haven’t I heard about it, then?’
‘You learn something new everyday.’
He raised his glass and downed two thirds of a pint of Stella as if it were Tizer.
That night, after dinner, I picked up Halliwell while I was watching TV, and flicked carelessly to where Horse Under Water would have been, if it existed. I grunted to myself – it wasn’t there. Of course it wasn’t. Just to be sure, though, I shuffled over to the computer to check IMDB. Nothing there either. I smiled, and shrugged; I had been worried for a moment that an important item of trivia had passed me by, but I had obviously been the victim of an imaginative old pisshead prankster.
The next time I went into the George, Rod greeted me with a wave. I waved back, but purposely ordered my drink at the other end of the bar. He slid down from his stool and, leaning on the bar the whole way, made his way along to stand at my side.
‘Hello again.’ He raised his glass in a salute. ‘I’ve got something to show you.’ He reached for his inside pocket – the jacket didn’t have one – and then into his trouser pocket. He pulled out a dog-eared Polaroid and slapped it onto the bar, into a ring of spilled beer.
The picture showed the water tank at Pinewood with a half-formed fibre-glass submarine floating in it. In the foreground stood middle-period Michael Caine – a little doughy, thick wavy hair. He was wearing his Harry Palmer glasses and a toothy smile, alongside a younger version of my drinking companion. Caine was holding a clapperboard: HORSE UNDER WATER, 03/08/77.
I thought at first it was a Photoshop job. I picked the picture up and looked closely. If it was a fake, it was beautiful work, printed on genuine Polaroid paper and with just the right amount of fading. All the red had washed away with the years.
‘Mmm.’ I tried not to sound too interested. ‘I couldn’t find any information on this film, though.’
Rod’s face fell. ‘Oh. You looked it up, then? And you didn’t find anything at all? Shame.’ There was something more there – not only disappointment but also… fear? ‘What about these?’ He reached back into his pocket and this time retrieved a small stack of similar polaroids. He dropped the first one onto the bar. Rod and a young Timothy Dalton; in the background, a sub-James Bond set, decorated with tape-banks and steel staircases. On the clapperboard:WHO IS JERRY CORNELIUS?
‘Jerry Cornelius? As in The Final Programme?’
‘Eh?’ Rod smiled absently.
‘The Final Programme. Robert Fuest, 1973.’
‘Ken Russell, 1969. I should know.’
‘Are you sure? With Jenny Runacre…’
‘Marianne Faithful. Here’s another for you.’ He looked excited, and knocked back half a pint or so, before tossing another picture onto the bar. CARRY ON ROCKING. Rod, Kenneth Williams and Freddie Starr.
‘Oh, come off it! Freddie Starr was never in a Carry On film.’
‘He was in Carry On Rocking. I should–’
‘You should know, right.’
‘Look.’ He pointed at the photograph with a thick brown finger. ‘1983. Poor Ken’s last Carry On. I had a speaking part in that one. You must have seen it.’ He looked at me, nodding and gesturing, as if that would help me remember. Pleading.
‘I’ve got to go. Thanks for showing me these. They’re very clever.’ I turned to order at the bar, and did everything I could to signal dismissal.
‘There are a couple more here. This one. Do you like those old Hammer Horror pictures?’
It had to be a set up. My second book was on Hammer. I was well known as an enthusiast. Despite my suspicions, when he proffered the photo, I snatched it from his hand. ’The Horror of Frankenstein. Ralph Bates.’
‘Nearly! That’s Ralph alright. 1972. Read the clapper.’ Rod was triumphant. He knew he had me. I admit that I was excited. The board was a little out of focus, but I held it close, and squinted. FRANKENSTEIN 1980.
I shook my head.
‘I know every Hammer film made. Even the handful I haven’t watched, I’ve seen stills.’
‘Well, if that’s what you think, then I will leave you be. Of course, I’ve got a lot more than just photos, but you wouldn’t be interested in those. I don’t suppose posters and props and things of that sort are in your line.’ He snapped the photo from between my fingers, and scooped up the others from the bar before dropping them back into his pocket. ‘Good luck with the quiz.’
‘Wait, wait, Rod, just wait a moment. I need to know a bit more about your collection. I’d like a copy of that photograph, if nothing else.’ The song Wayne used to open the second half of the quiz, the theme from Timeslip, exploded from the struggling PA system and Rod’s reply was lost in the noise. He returned to his perch, and as I made my way back to my table, raised his glass one more time, and winked at me. There was something in his expression which made me feel I was failing to appreciate a very rich joke.
I was keen to talk again the following week and was disappointed not to see him when I came in from the rain an hour before the quiz began. I had spent the week scanning newspaper review archives, back issues of Sight and Sound, and even ringing a few people I knew through work, but hadn’t come up with a single bit of evidence that any of Rod’s films had ever been made.
I went up to the bar, staring at the empty stool. Eventually, I caught the landlord’s eye, and beckoned him over. He was a glum looking Yorkshireman with a drooping white Teddy Boy hairdo. ‘What can I get yer?’
‘I was wondering if you knew… Where’s Rod tonight?’
He nodded as if I’d said something wise.
‘Did you know him well?’
‘No, not well. We were just chatting last week.’
‘It’s bad news, pal. Ambulance came last weekend. He’s dead.’
My legs seemed to soften in an instant, and I felt blood flood my head.
‘Makes you think.’
I ordered a pint and retreated to a quiet corner. I felt slightly guilty that the first thought to cross my mind had been about his collection. Who would get it? Were there relatives? What if they just threw it all away when they were clearing his flat? I jumped up, leaving my pint, and made my way back to the bar.
‘Do you have a number for Rod’s family? I’d like to send flowers, or a card.’
The landlord held up a finger.
‘Wait one moment.’
He ducked behind the bar, and came up with a sheet of notepaper.
‘Here you go. His daughter. Said to give it to anyone who was a friend of his.’
I scribbled the details into my notebook, thanked the landlord, and left the pub without drinking a drop.
I used a phone box not far from the George, and got an answer on the first ring.
‘I was a friend of… well, I knew your father. Rod.’
There was a silence, followed by throat clearing.
‘I suppose you’re another of his alcoholic friends from that bloody pub.’
She was far better spoken than Rod, but there was still a touch of estuary nasal in her voice.
‘Well, I did meet him there, but I’m not an alcoholic.’
‘People rarely recognise when they are.’
‘No, really. I’m a journalist.’
‘Jeffrey Bernard was a journalist.’
‘I write about films,’ I said, and then found myself improvising. ‘I was interviewing your father for an article.’
‘Oh, really?’ Her voice became warmer.
‘Your father was in some very unusual and interesting films, including some I didn’t even know had been made.’
‘Oh, well, you’re in luck. He has copies of all of them, I think. Used to make me watch them when I was a child. Would you like to see them? A published article would be a lovely memorial to Dad. It’s just a shame that it didn’t come sooner.’
‘I will do my best, Mrs Harwood, to honour your father’s memory in what I write.’ My performance was sentimental enough to make Tom Hanks gag.
We arranged that I would meet her, with her husband, at Rod’s flat on Saturday morning, and said goodnight. My head was throbbing. Those films had not been made. I knew they hadn’t. I shrugged. Saturday morning would settle it.
I arrived early and was standing drinking coffee when they pulled up in a waxed and polished BMW. Mrs Harwood was older than I had expected, with stiffly dyed orange hair and the kind of wide eyed ogling expression that contact lenses encourage. Her husband was shorter than her, completely bald, and wore polarised aviator glasses. When he shook my hand, his palm was cold and smooth.
The flat was above a Halal butcher, and the door was burned black and graffiti covered. There were three locks. I forced myself to stay calm, and resisted the urge to push past Mrs Harwood once the door was open. The flat smelled of antiseptic and urine and there were cat scratches all over the stair carpet. There was another door into Rod’s flat itself, and this seemed to take even longer to crack, even though I suspected that a good push would have done the trick. She gestured grandly, ushering me into the sitting room.
‘Please. Go ahead and have a good rummage.’
I stepped through the doorway, and whistled aloud. One wall was lined with photo albums dated from 1965 to 1993 and there were several old fashioned tea crates in the centre of the floor. These looked exciting so I approached them first. Reaching in, I grabbed a roll of 8mm film in a Scotch box. Written on it in biro was DAN DARE, PILOT OF THE FUTURE, REEL 3, 1979. Excited, I grabbed another: BLEAK HOUSE, REEL 1. Then another: YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES IN NEW YORK, 1990, INCOMPLETE.
‘We’ve got some papers to go through in the bedroom. Make yourself comfortable,’ said Mrs Harwood. Mr Harwood snorted sardonically. Once they had left, I pulled out my notebook and began to write down each title as I pulled the reels out. After thirty minutes or so, Mrs Harwood shouted from the other room.
‘If you’d like to watch some of those, there’s a projector in here. It’s not in very good condition, but I think it works.’ Mrs Harwood was clearly impressed by my enthusiasm, unlike her husband, who shouted over her: ‘Load of old rubbish anyway. I suppose muggins here will have to take it all down the dump. Typical.’
‘The dump?’ I walked over to the doorway with a reel in my hand, and my eyes wide with amazement. The bedroom was damp and reeked of cigarettes and lager. There was a well-used 8mm projector, and a screen on an easel, but little else. Mr and Mrs Harwood were kneeling on the floor, sifting through a stack of yellowing papers, most of which they then transferred to a bin bag. Mr Harwood looked up.
‘Yeah. The dump. Where you take old things that aren’t any use anymore.’
I couldn’t see his eyes behind the sunglasses, and I was glad.
‘You can’t do that. This collection is historically important.’
Mr Harwood’s lips pulled back from slick yellow teeth.
‘Don’t tell me what I will and won’t do, son.’
Mrs Harwood began to cry. Unsure what to do, I carried on as if I hadn’t noticed and set to work with the projector. After a minute or two, I had had Dan Dare threaded. My fingers were crossed as the silent, scratched image faded up. There was Nicky Henson in a sub-Star Trek space tracksuit, his hair hanging down around his collar and pipe in hand, piloting a poorly realised but nicely designed spaceship. Next to him, Richard Griffiths, presumably as Digby, was snivelling and doing his usual bit of business whilst grappling with a control lever. Cut to a treen destroyer in pursuit – Gerry Anderson’s work? Cut to Rod in facepaint and a plastic vest, as a Treen commander barking orders and pressing buttons. Cut back to Henson and Griffiths; more shouting; a fizzy explosion. I was captivated. A lost British response to the Star Wars phenomenon. Dan Dare’s ship crashed into the surface of a lush, jungle planet, and then the reel ended.
I stared at the white rectangle of light for a moment, and then exhaled.
‘That was very interesting.’
‘What you could see of it, through the scratches. Load of old rubbish.’
Mr Harwood looked at his watch.
‘We’re done. Are you going to be long?’
‘I’d like to watch another, if you don’t mind.’
‘There’s plenty of time for that later.’
Mr Harwood switched the projector off, and drew the curtains. As we left the flat, Mrs Harwood grabbed my arm.
‘Sorry about my husband. He’s always been jealous of Dad. To be honest, I think he’s glad to have me to himself again.’
‘Please don’t let him do anything silly,’ I pleaded.
‘I’ll try.’ She gave me a smile, and squeezed my arm. She was flirting. I’m not used to being flirted with, but in comparison with Mr Harwood, I can see how I might have appealed.
‘Can I come back soon? I’ll need to catalogue the films, and all the photo albums.’
‘I’ll see what I can do. If it was up to me…’
‘Please. I’d really appreciate it.’
She pushed her hair behind her ears and nodded. Her husband whistled for her, as if for a dog.
‘Are you coming, or what?’
As the BMW pulled away, I waved limply, and lowered myself to sit on the kerb. There was every chance I was going to become a rich man, or at least famous on the cult film circuit and, despite the sheer improbability of it all, I was excited.
I spent the next few days carrying out some peripheral research when I should have been writing my column for Cable and Satellite Monthly. First, I phoned every expert on British film in my professional address book and ran some of the titles by them. ‘That one rings a bell,’ was a common response, but I knew that these were the Emperor’s new films – no one wanted to admit they didn’t know them. I took the opportunity to gloat a little: ‘You haven’t seen it? Oh, you should. It’s a real lost classic.’
I also tried phoning agents and relatives of Michael Caine, Nicky Henson, Diana Rigg, Brigid Forbes, Nicholas Rowe, Timothy Dalton, Freddie Starr, Eric Idle, Joan Collins, Lewis Collins, Shane Bryant, Jane Asher, Marianne Faithful, John Alderton, Dennis Waterman, Paul Freeman, and a lot of other actors. No-one was very helpful, but even those that were didn’t recognise the films I was asking about.
What I couldn’t understand was how Rod had managed to act only in films no-one had heard of. I actually had a panic attack – tight chest, near-blackout, wobbly legs – at the thought of how embarrassing this whole business could be if someone analysed the film frame-by-frame and found that it was a trick. Perhaps Rod was just a front for some hoaxer’s elaborate con?
That Wednesday, I phoned Mrs Harwood to confirm the second viewing. Her husband answered the phone.
‘Oh, it’s you. I’ve been thinking about these films.’
I could hear him breathing across the mouthpiece of the phone, and the phlegm rattling in his throat.
‘Since you seem so keen, I might be willing to let you take them off our hands.’
I nearly whooped.
‘That’s fantastic news, Mr Harwood. I’d be happy to look after the archiving for you.’
‘Calm down, son. I was thinking that, just between you and me, this might be a business transaction. Funerals aren’t cheap, and that old sod sure as bloody hell didn’t leave any cash behind to pay for his own do. How much?’
‘Well, if you can’t, then I’ll have to dispose of them some other way.’
He seemed to be enjoying himself – the thrill of bargaining. I hadn’t done much bartering, and gave myself away immediately.
‘No! No. Right. Two hundred reels of damaged 8mm film, mostly incomplete features. That can’t be worth more than…’
‘I’m not a mug, sunshine. Don’t waste my time.’
He put the phone down. I redialled.
‘Mr Harwood, I was going to say that they can’t be worth more than, say, £200.’
‘£200? I might not be Barry Norman, but I know this stuff is interesting. I’ve been doing a bit of research, see? I was thinking of five grand.’
There was a long silence. I switched the phone to my other ear and cleared my throat.
‘I don’t have that much money. I probably never will. You’re not really going to dump it all if I won’t buy it, are you?’
‘Maybe. Or maybe I’ll sell it to someone else. I can put an advert in one of those film magazines.’ He was twisting my arm very effectively. The thought of Barry Furst, Mark Sidley or any of the others taking my story from me made me feel nauseous.
‘Can I speak to your wife?’ If Daddy says no, ask Mummy. The old classic. Laughter echoed down the line, sounding like a saw cutting tin. For the second time, I heard the click of a phone being dropped into the cradle.
I spent the afternoon trying to think of ways to get £5,000 together. No sources I hadn’t already tapped sprang to mind. That evening, not long after I’d finished putting together an estimate of how much I could make by selling everything I owned, my phone rang.
‘Hello?’ I said.
It was Mrs Harwood.
‘Mr Riley? Can you meet me now? My husband’s out, and I thought you might want to take Dad’s stuff away before he gets back.’ She giggled, exhilarated. ‘I feel very naughty.’
She picked me up at my flat in her worn out Nissan Micra.
‘We’ll have to be quick. My husband will ring me when he gets home and finds I’m not there.’
‘Well, he won’t be too angry, will he? I mean, it’s not as if…”
She raised her eyebrows suggestively.
‘Not as if what?’
The evening was drawing in, and the flat was dark when we entered.
‘Where’s the light switch,’ I whispered.
‘I’ve brought a torch,’ she replied, suddenly standing very close to me. I could smell her perfume, which was the same one my grandmother had used. She clicked it on, and shone it around the flat. The broken circle of yellow light slid across bare walls. And bare floorboards. I snatched the flashlight from her hand and jogged forward into the living room. My footsteps echoed – the room was empty.
‘Where’s it all gone?’ I whimpered.
‘Daddy’s things! Where are Daddy’s things?’
The torch dimmed, and went out.
‘For fuck’s sake!’
I pushed past her and slapped the wall around the doorway until I found the light switch. The forty watt bulb on the ceiling bloomed, illuminating an almost completely stripped room. In the middle of the floor, though, was a shoebox. I went over and knelt next to it. A note was sellotaped to the lid.
‘£200 worth of tat. Pay the wife. H.’
‘Daddy’s things,’ said Mrs Harwood again, before wailing. She launched herself toward me, rested her head on my chest and grabbed my arms with her fingers. I wasn’t sure what to do, but let her sob over me without hugging back. I was in shock.
She pulled away after five minutes, leaving my t-shirt covered in warm salty water and snot.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. I nodded. ‘What’s in the box?’ she said, pointing at it.
I looked down and nodded again.
‘I’ll open it.’ Inside was one reel of film and a handful of photographs – just Rod, alone, on one anonymous sound stage after another.
‘Is it worth anything?’ she asked hopefully, looking up at me with a contact lens stuck to her cheek.
‘I don’t know. The reel’s not labeled.’
* * *
They found Harwood’s BMW later that night. Mrs Harwood called me to ask if I’d go with her to identify the body.
‘I don’t have anyone else, Mr Riley.’
The body on the gurney was him, alright. His bald head wasn’t white anymore – it was a sticky red – but his yellow teeth still grinned from behind his shrunken lips.
I spoke to a policeman while Mrs Harwood cried.
‘Looks like the daft bastard flipped a cigar out of the front window and the wind whipped it in through the back window. The back seat was piled high with flammable material – film reels, apparently. Went up like…’ He gestured an explosion with his hands. ‘Ka-boom.’
‘Know him well, did you?’
‘No. Talked to him twice. Hated him. But it’s a shame about the films. Some of them were rare.’
I laughed grimly at my own joke.
‘Well, we did find a couple of reels intact.’
* * *
First the leader, then suddenly a handheld shot of the inside of a car taken from the back seat. Above the driver’s seat, a shining white bald head.
Cut to an exterior shot. The car passes at a leisurely pace. It’s a BMW.
Cut to another car, in pursuit – a 1975 Ford Escort, being pushed hard. The driver looks familiar, but glare on the window half conceals his face.
Cut back to the BMW. The driver fiddles with the radio, and laughs. He looks startled when a horn sounds.
Cut to a POV shot from the Ford Escort. It pulls up alongside the BMW, and a hand extends. It’s holding a fat cigar.
Cut to the terrified face of Mr Harwood.
Cut to Harwood’s POV as a smiling mid-period Michael Caine, riding shotgun in the Escort, flicks the cigar through the open window of the BMW.
Jump-cut: the BMW exploding and careening from the road. The Escort pulls up alongside. Rod, in the driver’s seat, turns to Michael Caine, and gives him a nod of approval. They pull away.
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?
Here’s the story: I like rummaging through boxes of ephemera in bookshops and antiques markets, which is how I came across my original copy of the 1968 booklet Modern Buildings in Wessex by the architectural critic Stewart Brayne.
I bought it for 50p because of my interest in post-war buildings but soon discovered that there’s a lot more to it than that.
Among notes on schools and civic centres, there are entries concerning the work of émigré architect Hälmar Pölzig who built extensively in Wessex:
And that’s just the start…
* * *
I really do like ephemera.
And I really do like post-war buildings, especially as described by Ian Nairn.
Nairn’s London from 1966 is one of my very favourite books, especially this entry:
I also love the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James, Universal horror films, folk horror and all that eerie Scarred for Life TV from the 1970s and 80s.
I first wrote a version of this story 15 or more years ago, with a character inspired by Nikolaus Pevsner exploring the buildings of a backwater Somerset town. It was a rewrite of ‘Shadows over Innsmouth’, essentially, and didn’t quite click.
Somehow, though, it must have been locked away in the back of my brain, evolving and ripening, until a few weeks ago, I suddenly thought, oh, yeah, that’s how to do it.
It’s not just a short story – it’s an object, a work of pastiche.
I’m really happy with how it’s turned out, from the typography (like Nairn’s London, the body copy is set in Plantin) to the photos to the cover design.
I’ve only had 50 copies printed because, honestly, when you draw a Venn diagram of people who like Ian Nairn and those who like creeping horror, I don’t think the overlap is huge.
If you want a copy, get in touch. It’s got 20 pages and costs £5 delivered. Email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or DM via Twitter (@MrRayNewman) to sort out payment and postage.
The final book for this year’s reading project is a suitably dense full stop of a novel that forced me to attempt a revival of long-dormant skills of critical interpretation.
Günter Grass’s magic-realist historical epic was published in German in 1959 and in English in 1961. Grass, born in 1927, served in the Waffen-SS as a conscripted child soldier at the end of World War II. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999.
A very brief summary: Oskar Matzerath is born in Danzig, a city both German and Polish, in 1921; at the age of three, he decides to stop growing, and so remains a child throughout the rise of Nazism; he expresses himself through compulsive drumming and, every now and then, by smashing glass with his scream. Oskar’s family evolves, dissolves and reconstitutes as he falls into the orbit of one character after another, from Bebra the Nazi propaganda dwarf to the bedridden jazz musician Klepp. The war ends, Danzig becomes Gdansk, Oskar decides to give up his drum and grow, at last, before washing up in Düsseldorf and, finally, a madhouse.
You could, I suppose, take it at face value as a macabre fantasy story about a man-child with supernatural powers. As a Stephen King novel with extra eels, however, it’s a failure, being episodic, rambling and bewildering for long stretches.
No, it’s obviously about Germany and the madness of the 20th century. The reader’s job is to unpick more specific meaning from the rock-slide of imagery and symbolism.
Let’s start with the easy stuff, then: Oskar, who cannot say for sure whether his father is the German Matzerath or the Pole Bronski, represents Danzig-Gdansk, or Prussia more generally. Both he and the city exist in a state of permanent, unsustainable tension.
What about the horse’s skull crawling with eels the sight of which makes Oskar’s mother vomit before driving her to commit slow suicide by gorging on fish? This feels like a pivotal moment and suggests war, holocaust and the destabilisation of Europe through its infestation by nationalism. But it’s also about the human body – we all rot, we’re all meat and slime and bone.
The erotics of disgust are a constant theme throughout the book. Bullying children make Oskar eat a ‘stew’ of bodily fluids; the smell beneath his grandmother’s skirts reminds him of mushrooms; his first lover eats a particularly stomach-churning mixture of Oskar’s spit and sweet ‘fizz powder’; he fondles the beautiful scars that cover the back of a pugnacious acquaintance; another lover wallows, unwashed, in a filthy bed; Oskar pickles the severed finger of an almost-lover retrieved by a rented dog from a field of tall grass; and so on.
Oskar, the deformed, malevolent pervert, stands for Germany, a deformed, perverted nation.
It’s hard not to see Oskar’s reluctant decision to abandon his drum and start the agonising business of accelerated growth after the war as a reference to West Germany’s apparent overnight conversion into a modern, prosperous nation. Oskar almost seems to become respectable, self-sufficient and productive but the veneer is thin: at night, he’s still capable of crawling naked into a hallway and writhing on the coconut matting in a kind of sexual fit.
I’m going to be thinking about this book for a long time, I suspect, and dipping back in to enjoy, if that’s the right word, specific episodes.
The account of a post-war Düsseldorf nightclub where people peel overpriced onions and join in bouts of collective crying, for example, or Oskar’s tour of the concrete fortresses along the Normandy coast as part of a wartime cabaret troupe, both work as unsettling short stories.
What does it tell us about 1959? Nothing new, perhaps, but it underlines the dominance at this precise moment of the twin topics of sex and war. If processing the war was difficult for American and British writers, it was altogether more intense for Germans, forced to contend with guilt, the redrawing of borders and the snapping from existence of entire cities.
A version of this piece appeared in The Modernist magazine for spring 2019 which had the theme of ‘Infrastructure’. You can buy a copy here.
Throughout the 20th century, Bristol’s civic leaders bet everything on roads.
First, they ran a dual carriageway through Georgian Queen Square in the 1930s, bending it around an equine statue of William III.
Then in the 1960s, “it was decided to provide for UNLIMITED CAR ACCESS to the City Centre”, as Dorothy Brown explains in her 1975 booklet Bristol and How it Grew. Planning was dominated by road engineers who were allowed to create out-of-scale 6-lane throughways, enormous roundabouts and motorway-standard curves, right in the middle of the city.”
In 1967 they installed a flyover near Temple Meads, simultaneously dominating and pathetic, resembling a rollercoaster as much as a road.
Plans for a grand Outer Ring Road, with a projected completion date of 1975, were abandoned, but parts did appear – stuttering into existence at the Cumberland Basin and Hotwells, and at Lawrence Hill roundabout.
Everywhere pedestrians were shoved into underpasses, herded along streets in the sky, or forced to wait at at anxiety-inducing crossing points.
The M32 was part of this unfettered road-building strategy and one of few parts that was completed, and that remains in place. The first stretch of motorway opened in 1966, then a second in 1970, and the final length in 1975. It is generally spoken of as a scar, an eyesore, or even a ‘dagger into the heart of Bristol’, reflecting the trauma of its birth.
To enable its construction, families were forcibly relocated to new estates, houses were demolished, streets cut in two, and communities broken apart. The new borderlands, bristling with brambles and dead ends, attracted graffiti, fly-tipping, muggers and caravan shanties. In 2018, the outrage might have died down, but resentment lingers.
Infrastructure is usually intended to be invisible, or hidden, or at least ignored. Accordingly, pedestrians are held at arm’s length from the M32 for much of its four-and-a-half miles, as it cuts through Bristol, up the Frome Valley, and out into the Gloucestershire countryside.
It grows out of a dual carriageway in the city centre, like a river taking on tributaries, finally bursting into full being at Junction 3, in a frothing tumble of looping slip-roads and subways.
This is where the fences and walls go up, grey blocks and corrugated metal, protecting walkers from the roaring road, and the road from the strange behaviour of pedestrians. LET BRISTOL BREATHE reads repeated graffiti; LAND OF HOPE & GLORY says a banner on the bow of a concrete bridge, promoting a YouTube channel.
Between St Werburghs and Easton, the motorway is pushed down into a deep cutting, and the path is pulled away from the road’s edge. Through black branches in buffering parkland there can be seen the odd glimpse of grey, the blue shimmer of overhead signs, the roofs of lorries whipping by. But the sound – the waterfall rush of rubber on asphalt – is swallowed.
Then it rises again, shooting above the rooftops, launching traffic into the sky, and pedestrians are allowed back, this time into the void left beneath the road. The space is extraordinary, a world of monumental columns and holy reverberation. People live here, in permanently parked caravans or converted vans, or curled up next to shopping trolleys full of possessions.
Thin men in broken trainers conduct urgent, secret business in underpasses. In the deepest shadows, children, teenagers, young adults, and adult adults, send skateboards scraping and clattering, up and down graffiti-covered ramps.
And then a symbol just too on the nose: the River Frome emerges from its man-made tunnel, following the course of the motorway for a few hundred metres, fenced in and covered.
At Eastville roundabout it reaches a crescendo of on-ramps, off-ramps, levels and layers. Pedestrians are directed to hostile above-ground crossings, or channeled into subways where leaves and litter drift. One one side is the landscaped anti-wilderness of Eastville Park. On the other, soot-soiled suburban houses, and Pur Down, with the ever-watchful telecommunications tower like something from a Simon Stålenhag painting.
As Eastville becomes Stapleton, the motorway curves off across Bridge Farm, where trespassers are not welcome. It doesn’t appear again until the bridge at Heath House Lane where parked vans advertise breakdown services and fly-tippers ignore ‘No Fly Tipping’ signs.
Scrambling up to wind-battered Stoke Park reveals the stroke of the motorway laid out almost in its entirety, headlights like tracer fire connecting the city with its target.
Even if the Queen Square carriageway has gone, even with the Temple Meads flyover demolished, the 20th century at least left its signature here – careless, but with a certain elegance, and distinct vigour.