Blessay 52: On the Washing of Clothes

There was a time, way back in the 20th century, when Monday was washday. For generations of housewives (How ancient that title now sounds with its unspoken instruction that women are married to their houses once obtaining their spouses) washday was a hard physical drudge. In the 1940‘s / 50’s / 60’s life without the washing machine and tumble dryer meant the hand-washing of clothes or if you could afford it the washhouse or the launderette.

In Liverpool in 1962 it cost one shilling (5p) to use the council washhouse or 3 shillings (15p) to play and / or play at ‘my beautiful launderette.’ Poorer women chose the first option and stuffed their pram with laundry to wheel together to a kind of municipal communal wash factory. Huge machines, supervised by middle-aged men who delicately poured in the detergent, provided not a consumer product but consumer cleanliness. The stained clothes of the poor were made to shine and smell fresh again: their poor materials were not alchemised into finer cloth, for women only desired the pride and respect of cleanliness, a chat and a cup of tea. This epiphany of pure clean whites only lasted till the next Sunday night when newly accumulated grubbiness waited for dawn and the re-commencing of the Monday wash cycle.

In Lodge Lane, Toxteth, public baths and washhouses were opened in 1878. And from 1909 some of them had film shows as well.* After pummeling clothes on a washboard or dolly tub hot drinks and Kinematographic entertainment was made available. I wonder about those film programmes. Where they themed to be aquatic? Lumiere’s 44 second long-take Washerwomen on the River (1897) or Melies’s Under the Sea (1907)? I suspect it would have been the latter as it’s the famous Jules Verne story. Or maybe filmed water was the last thing that you wanted to see on washday!

*This window for showing films in wash houses only lasted from 1909 – 13. The Livery board didn’t want to renew the licence for Lodge Lane or Walton. Only Garston in Liverpool 9 was approved for renewal. I wonder if the reason for this was something other than class discrimination.  Did clean clothes for the seamen and dockers take priority over other workers because the docks were so economically important? Best keep the housewives entertained with movies as they worked and keep the capitalist wheels in motion.


But what was most personally fascinating for me was to learn not a film connection but a photographic one. In 1962 Henri Cartier-Bresson was in England to help with work on a TV documentary about the Northerners of England. I’ve  been unable to discover if this project materialised. Cartier-Bresson scouted the streets of Liverpool and actually visited Toxteth. (My birthplace) and took a photograph of a group of empty prams just outside of the public washhouse (Not in view) in Grierson street, off Lodge Lane (Go Google images, please.) Our house was at Cedar Grove, just a 15 minute walk way from the washhouse. I was 13 and at school at Princes Park Secondary Modern in Princes Park Road a continuation of Lodge Lane. I would have had no idea who Cartier-Bresson was but three years later, in my first job, and in my lunch-hour, came across a reference to him on reading an article on the French New wave in Sight and Sound.

My imagination wanders. I could have passed this iconic Frenchman with his camera whilst, after school, walking up Lodge lane to visit the library, very close to the washhouse. But no, of course not, it would have had to have been a Monday morning.And Mondays at school were double periods of English and maths. Even if my mother had passed him by, she’d wouldn’t have given him a second glance.

Today it’s Monday again, but not of course my time tabled day for washing clothes. It could have been any day as I stuff my shirts into the washing machine, apply Vanish to their collars, and feed them Daz.

It wasn’t till my forties that I bought myself a washing machine. Before that I took my clothes in my backpack to the Swiss cottage launderette (now long gone). But I was never a person to sit and watch my wash spin round, preferring to visit the library and read the newspapers.

In other photographs from 1962, Liverpool housewives carried their laundry bundles on their heads, Asian style. My backpack was the closest I ever got to being bodily connected to the laundry. There was no 1990’s equivalent of Cartier-Bresson to photograph me, and why would they want too? For I was torn out of any ritualistic context with the group or crowd: no line of guys like me heading for the launderette,

“Under the window somebody was singing. Winston peered out, secure in the protection of the muslin curtain. The June sun was still high in the sky, and in the sun –filled court below, a monstrous woman, solid as a Norman pillar, with brawny red forearms and a sacking apron strapped about her middle, was stumping to and fro between a washtub and a clothes line, pegging out a series of square white things which Winston recognised as babies’ diapers.. Whenever her mouth was not corked with clothes pegs she was singing in a powerful contralto:…He could hear the woman singing and the scrape of her shoes on the flagstones, and the cries of the children in the street, and somewhere in the far distance a faint roar of traffic, and yet the room seemed curiously silent, thanks to the absence of a telescreen.”

1984 – George Orwell


Home and Kitchen Section – – 2017

“But as for washing-up, I see no solution except to do it communally, like laundry. Every morning the municipal van will stop at your door and carry off a box of dirty crocks, handing you a box of clean ones (marked with your initial of course) in return.”

As I Please in Tribune 9th February 1945 – George Orwell

Mr. Eric Blair certainly got around on the washing circuit. To him and the rising up of the Proles, female and male, hanging out their ‘Monday wash’ I dedicate this essay.


Blessay 51: Occupations

I’ve been thinking about identity and roles. Not seriously serious. More playfully serious. Not personal crisis, but what might have been possible and what was partially achieved. What occupations I might have taken up when younger and why I would have. “Occupation” a word meaning taking over a territory or a performing a work activity and, for me, a more comfortable term than career or profession. Those last words often ring-fenced occupation. And in our once again utilitarian age we’ve tended to drop career or profession in favour of getting a job in “The world of work”- as if the UK world only existed to perform work (Not quite an Orwellian concept, though I do think a “job-seeker” working hard to earn their “job-seeker allowance” is.)

I’ve never had a planned, competitive and determined urge for status and money. My vocation was to write. And any other work either aided or detracted me from doing that. I only wanted to be occupied bringing in enough money so that I could be creative. But if I hadn’t been a writer what role would have pleased me? Was there another occupation I could have carried out with some success?

The moment you ask yourself that question, occupations only matter if you had really developed a talent for a different one. This isn’t a question of I wish I could have been a … etc. I’m trying to imagine a different personal history whilst playing with the idea of fantasy fulfilment and real possibility. Being an astronaut is, for me, speculative nonsense. Whilst becoming a musician a lot more probable. I don’t have a passion for science nor the physical or mental aptitude to be shot into space (Even being solitary in my spacecraft would never be the same as solitary at my writing desk.) I do have a sensitivity to music that could have made me a performer, and then ideally, for me, a conductor. Yet whether I could have achieved that circumstances, connections, talent, intellectual and emotional disposition, luck, money (Not always, but often) and the urge to compete hugely matter.

Dancer, artist, social worker, musician, teacher, actor, film director, psychotherapist, doctor, nurse, priest, private detective or interior designer, were alternative occupations for me. If I hadn’t been marked out to write (This dealing with ‘inner demons’ is a either a curse or blessing, creating artifice to entertain an audience -Ingmar Bergman once harshly termed it as a shedding of the snakeskin.) I’d have been fully drawn to these roles. Why didn’t I take them up, as well as writing? Where they real or fantastic propositions? I certainly dabbled in the fringes of these occupations. My trying out was a non-comitial daydream. Whilst my narrower focus on writing was the committed daydream. Here then are my occupation try-outs: real, imaginary and a collusion of both.


Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly for me, rather than Rudolf Nureyev or Joaquin Cortes. Ginger Rogers or Cyd Charisse rather than Margot Fonteyn. They’re my kind of dancers (Nureyev, Fonteyn and Cortes are geniuses but I have problems appreciating classical ballet and I can take or leave flamenco’s ‘fire.’) If Astaire had a consummate insouciance then Kelly had a consummate sensuality. Of course these qualities often overlapped. I wanted to be dancing ecstatically inside Swingtime or The Pirate but I was no good; swirling round the living room coaxing my bulky television to leap of its stand and join me.

I tried hard to learn to dance properly but only achieved a self-taught tepid waltz. I was over-ambitious taking on the tango. And my clumsiness proved too much for an evening class dance group. So I was left with clubbing: that was fine but I failed to connect (In the E. M. Forster Howards End connection sense, I was aiming far too high!) with a partner, a supposed hidden self and the music.

I believe tap-dancing to be an amazing art form that everyone should aspire to: musically agile feet beating the earth is comparable to hands belting out, with spontaneity and precision, jazz-piano. The Nicholas Brothers in the 1943 film Stormy Weather (See You-tube for an amazing demonstration) called it flash-dancing which was an hybrid of tap dancing, ballet and acrobatics executed at a phenomenal level of expertise. Achieving those splits on the stairs, re-bounding their bodies back up and beginning to tap again, was a sight that even Fred Astaire thought awesome.

It feels very natural that human beings ought to dance and celebrate their bodies. When a little drunk I still work-out my clumsy feet. But I wanted to be high up there with the gods or even be a competent mortal instructor.


At school I was good at art. Yet painting didn’t appeal as a profession – it was the off-putting smell of the paints, turps and the messiness. But chiefly the fixity of the canvas felt limited and intimidating (Only as creator not later as a visitor to art galleries.) I wished the image to move unaided by my brush stroke. I wanted animation. I desired cinema. No, not even installation art or happenings provided the answer. I could enjoy all that blue-paint covering people, as they rolled over canvases, so joyfully realised by Yves Klein but would have quickly tired of such fun.

It was too extrovert – a genuine expression of my social make up – but not fundamentally me as a creative person (I hate the fashionable use of the term “to be a creative”. Sounds like an alien being, alienated from the hard craft of creation, only ‘creating’, like emoting, as if taking an aesthetic laxative to constantly produce for friends on Face-Book or the celebrity culture.)

I do love the visual arts (Painting, Cinema, Photography) but tempting though they are they’re not my way to make art.

Social Worker / Doctor /Nurse / Psychotherapist.

Apart from writing, these occupations were the principal way I could have had a strong empathy with others in a professional sense: yet these outlets for human were still dangerously close to control of people. I did pursue healing but not along the conventional route. I trained as a reflexologist and masseur. The reflexology made me concentrate on feet as a map of the body minus any connection to the dancing feet that I so lacked. Whilst massage proved exhausting for I didn’t have strong or thick enough hands to effectively pummel flesh.

Orthodox medicine didn’t appeal because of (a) learning anatomy, physiology and naming of diseases. (b) The long training required to be a doctor. (c) Being a nurse wasn’t sufficient for my curiosity about health and the mystery of human organisms (c) My criticisms of the philosophy of the NHS – it’s still not preventative medicine enough. Yet if I had qualified as a physician, the role-model who would have inspired me would have been Anton Chekhov – both country doctor and writer.

“Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress: when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other.”

I envy Chekhov to have loved medicine and writing with equal power and his untiring ‘wife’ and ‘mistress’ not to have cheated on him as he circulated between them.

Upfront, counter service for social work appealed more than being a trained social worker with a case-load of crisis intervention issues. And I did voluntary work in residential care homes, hostels for the homeless and paid work in a children’s nursery.All gave me insights into people. All left me burnt-out from helping people to help themselves.

Psychotherapy would have been a rewarding occupation in so far as attempting to understand the human condition, for this comes close to a writer’s sense of observation and detachment. I would have found continuing self-analysis and assessment by other therapists difficult especially long after I’d qualified. Maybe I could have taken this on board. Maybe not. My writer’s ego wouldn’t have made it through.

I have the disposition to be a therapist or counsellor but not be a writer as well. And anyway I need to creatively lie about others so as to form characters, situations and images.  All those clients. All that material. Potential subjects. The confidentiality. The trust. You could change the names. But? Chekhov not only had the strength to have two professions but be good at them and, most importantly, stay responsible to both. I would have to choose. I did, giving up the complementary medicine path to write again and maintain a caring edge or hopefully disturb readers in the right way.

“I think I am here on this earth to spread a little misery in the world”

That was dramatist Dennis Potter during a TV interview with Michael Parkinson. I love the anti-sentimental thrust of a partly mischievous, yet deadly serious, claim from a man who was such an ironic and passionate healer through words. (It’s a tall order to write convincing dialogue for a female character who’s dying of cancer. Most TV and film doesn’t convey the gut reality of that, for it’s over-occupied in conveying instant, violent death. Potter’s play Joe’s Ark eschews sentimentality, through the writing and the brilliant performance of actor Angharad Rees to convey the dying process more powerfully than I can remember.)

It was one of those rare moments when acting and writing took on such a reality, an almost super-medicinal gaze, harrowing, affecting, wanting to save yet being unable, that shook you to your core. Potter as dramatist and word-doctor fusing art and medicine. Imagining a young woman’s death not to console or shock but simply witness became an act of healing. The other side of the mirror is someone brought back from the dead as in Carl Dreyer’s magisterial film Ordet (The Word). Here a miracle occurs and a mother is restored to her family. As you watch Ordet the illusion of the miracle is so intense that you leave the cinema convinced that a real resurrection actually occurred.

The medicinal-cinematic gaze restores life for Dreyer and completes death for Potter,with both works containing sincere religious overtones. It’s a cliché to call an artist a healer. Yet I feel that here medicine and art were fused. That those occupations became inextricably linked. These are rare extremes when your creative work performs other work too. Of course it’s all contained within a fiction (Film or play) but does that make it a less healing experience and therefore less real for the spectator? Vicarious forms of transcendence. Occupations can miraculously beget occupations.


The role of a priest, in our post-Christian society, is problematic, less sure, though not quite redundant. I would love to be projected back to an early 19th century England (Pre-Darwin) enjoying a priestly role of pastoral care. A country parson, on horseback, visiting his parishioner’s ala John Kilvert’s diary style. It’s a role that would have satisfied the writer in me. As well as being a ‘social worker’ I could have been an earlier poet/priest like George Herbert or John Donne (His sermons are masterpieces of commanding rhetoric.)

In my fantasy pulpit I’d have been a compassionate but uncompromising vessel for the voice of God. Endowed with the vocal authority of an Orson Welles or Richard Burton I may have gone as crazy as the priest that Burton portrayed in Huston’s film of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana. His angry denunciation of the congregation always gives me such a high: as if in my English pastoral role there’d inevitably come a time when I’d gleefully, and probably drunkenly, turn my back on the religious establishment. Such a renegade, de-frocked priest, now free-lance and available for hire, would have been my spiritual firecracker! Unfortunately I won’t ever get there as the 21st century version of me doesn’t believe in God.

The few priests I’ve ever met didn’t impress me. They were too eager to please and frightened to offend. The exception being a Roman Catholic priest named Father Bennet whom I encountered in Brighton. During my old friend Suzanne’s conversion to Catholicism I met her converter. Bennet was a tall man in his fifties and had handsome if satanically inclined looks. He also bore a permanent boil on his neck that you imagined contained the pus and poison of his real business. I always felt uncomfortable in his presence and was shocked at how acquiescent Suzanne was towards him. Behind his soft-spoken, but acutely precise voice, lay a chilly force of a man. I’d no evidence of any abuse of power just a disquieting intuition that this priest wasn’t to be trusted (Others sensed this too and mentioned rumours of a sexual nature.)

I accompanied Suzanne, perhaps naively, for her protection to Midnight Mass, drank the wine, chewed the bread and felt not so much his indignation at my ‘playing’ with the ritual but his suppressed fury that I might be guarding Suzanne. Thankfully she wasn’t harmed by the priest. A year later Suzanne gave up Catholicism. But I’ve never forgotten the glance that Father Bennet gave me on the altar that night, “What’s your game then, unbeliever?” it mentally cried out. If I’d ever wished for a religious ‘game’ it would have been to have warned people about priests like him. I may have fantasized about being a dismissed priest but my excommunication would have been on the grounds of questioning clerical authority not shaming it.

Teacher / Actor / Film Director

Few writers make a living from their writing. A second occupation matters – usually an academic teaching post. I’ve done bouts of teaching – English as a Foreign Language and Adult Literacy. They brought in a small income. Yet neither challenged me in the role of being a teacher who really wanted to impart knowledge. Life as a university lecturer didn’t appeal. But Adult Education once did.  I was offered a place to do a teaching certificate but didn’t take it up.

As for acting, I do, as a writer, live in my head (probably too much) and enjoy self-dramatisation. But I have too much of a writer’s self consciousness to be good at professional acting. My writer introspection would get in the way of giving a disciplined performance. I write the inner life of a character. Yes. I inhabit what I create. Yes. But I myself can’t re-enact to make it come alive on stage or film. That’s a job I designate to others.

With a love of cinema and an imagistic style of writing being a film-director might have seemed obvious. I have written scripts to films that were later produced and at one level I could have story-boarded them in my head. Yet directing a film has always struck me as the most stressful of jobs. You have to designate work to others, please actors, calm producers and try to raise money for projects. It takes too long to finish a project and I would have been frustrated by keeping together the collective process.

On one short film production that I worked on as scriptwriter there were times when I wanted to interrupt the director and his DOP and say “You surely don’t want to place the camera there, do you?” But unlike Orson Welles, who acted in so many bad films for the money, that being denied directing jobs, caused his ego to interfere, with the technicalities, I would have let it go. For me directing was a daydream where I might always lose control. Whereas writing allows me to daydream that I’m God and sustain control until a writer’s workshop or editor says that it can be better. Then God’s open to new ideas.

Private Detective / Archivist / Interior Designer

All these activities demand facts, analysis, information and solving a problem or a mystery. Being a private detective, unhindered by the Police authorities, is perhaps an over-romantic role. Being a Philip Marlowe or Sherlock Holmes could be a risky business. So I may have occasionally called on the police for assistance whilst staying a loner. It’s the deduction that appeals. The assemblage of facts. And those small details fitting into the overall plan. All analogous to the writing of a novel or play.

Archivist also taps into my analytic powers. I was a public-library assistant for 10 years and enjoyed it. Yet when younger it would have been exciting to have been more specialist, but not with books, but celluloid. A film restorer / preservationist probably working on silent cinema. I’m fascinated by those DVD / Blu-Ray extras that explain how restoration work was carried out. Cleaning up a Metropolis is the equivalent of restoring an Italian Renaissance painting.

Interior Designer is the easiest (unpaid) occupation to take on board. That’s a fantasy role I can constantly work at in my flat as I move furniture and objects around, decorate a room, add a new feature and imagine new arrangements. People talk of harmony and Feng Shui. With me its reasonable order, a small amount of expressive mess (I work and live in this room) and enough comfort. I’m not a minimalist (The photographs of apartments featured in the London Evening Standard property pages make me recoil from their uniform vacuity – they all have such a cold and forlorn exclaiming “My property shall be emptied of extraneous things that make it look lived in”.)


Well, I’m already that. And can now reminisce about the other work I once did. Even write about it. Writing occupies my time and provides sufficient meaning to get up in the morning. And I can’t stop doing it. Not an easy occupation but who said that living was easy anyhow? It can’t be an effortless Summertime all the time as the song declaims.

“When you make music or write or create, it’s really your job to have mind-blowing, irresponsible, condomless sex with whatever idea it is you’re writing about at the time.”

Lady Gaga

My variant on Lady Gaga’s wild activity is the practice of writing as a gentle but probing anarchism. The freedom I like is when the shackles of occupation are subtly broken!

Blessay 50: Books that Travel

This is my third piece on travelling. Like the previous essays on my mother and China, it’s an old piece that’s been hanging round on my desk. I wrote of carrying abroad lots of books in my luggage. That was in the 70s 80s and 90s. Today we have the kindle and I can now electronically store thousands of texts, but despite its convenience and non-glare screen I still take at least two paperbacks with me. Here’s my account of books and the countries they ended up in.

Firstly you decide on a book, or books, (not counting a guide-book) for your journey. I always manage to do this two hours before I leave home to catch my transport. It’s best to choose a book not in the presence of a partner or friend: for me books have to be deliberated on, and my slow choosing can drive them crazy. (I’ve you’ve read Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller you’ll recall the superbly absurd chapter about endless categories of unread books and the exasperation at to what read next.)  It has to be a novel, for a decent time span and narrative drive. If possible it should flow smoothly with your travelling. Ulysses is a linguistic Everest of a book to get through and shouldn’t be taken if you are thinking of climbing the real Everest; more to be read tottering lost round any great city, but preferable at home, drinking cider, on the sofa. Also beware of over-dense narratives. I love Kafka, but The Castle has always been a hurdle I could never overcome. Three times I’ve tried reading it and only got half way through. It’s an unfinished novel and maybe that’s the point: my never finishing it means I, like K, is doubly less likely to make it to the castle. As K struggles through the snow, ice, bureaucracy and tries to escape from its menacing characters, Kafka’s prose induces an eye-closing tedium. Sadly it was a disastrous choice for my Czech Republic trip.

Stories are allowed (though they’re more like snacks than a meal) and my personal favourite would be editor Alberto Manguel’s stunning anthology of fantasy stories, Dark Water. Reading H.G. Wells’ wonderful story The Door in the Wall in Romania had me speculating on quite a few bricked off entrances in the older streets of Bucharest. (Alas, the white wall with its green door opening into an enchanted world has never been discovered on any of my travels.) Poetry is too reflective and really doesn’t synchronise well when you’re on the move. My only exception was the great Polish poet Zbiegniew Herbert in Poland. His humour, surrealism, dark irony and cutting strangeness partnered well with the sceptical Polish temperament – especially when in Gdansk the month after Solidarity was set up in 1980. Essays are passable but like stories are a quick eat, and if they’re good you just want more and more and end up getting through them too quickly. (There’s nothing worse than finishing all your books within five days of a three-week trip and not finding a single bookshop that has anything readable left in English to buy.)

As for non-fiction, don’t bother. History books and biographies have never worked for, as my mind flits rapidly onto more books to instantly check out about the First World War or Dickens when my book collection or local library can’t be accessed. It really has to be good long novel or three short reads

Having the selected novel with you, during the first stages of travel, presents you with a dilemma. There’s a tense pull between the journey that imaginative prose demands and the journey that your prosaic actions – getting to your airplane seat, and strapping your seat belt –absolutely requires. Whilst the escapist part of you wants to be belted into your book, the realist side suddenly learns that the book isn’t resting on your lap but buried in the hand luggage. Stuffed amongst your clothes and travel guides are a book or two of that druggy stuff called fiction. You un-belt and retrieve it – ‘some author’s’ completed and paper-backed journey of his/her imagination. A yet to be read world is planning to kidnap you and hold you hostage – much more likely to happen than a real terrorist attack.

You get of your plane. Arrive in an unfamiliar land – usually the glaring sunlight of a Spain, Italy or Greece. You stagger round with too much baggage but make it to your hotel.  Up early next day to do the town or an out-of-the-way monument, being quickly exhausted by a dirt track road or tarmac highway. There are the gems in a great art gallery or the remains of a temple to take in. The mind soon begins to weary of its impaling rota – find a room, buy a meal, see some sights, catch a train, find a room, buy a meal, see some more sights, find a room, buy a meal…  Then you remember that you can return to chapter 12 of your Patricia Highsmith thriller. You read on – hopefully persuaded by the writer’s mind that you’ll get safely there and back, that the journey will be good one and you’ll enjoy being its surrogate author.

Why do we take certain novels away with us? Have they already been unconsciously chosen? If so, are they the right books? Does the unconscious lie and control us? Have they been carefully consciously chosen? An exasperated ‘anything readable will do action or ‘let’s return to my original choice, after a dozen wrong ones? My only rule about selection is to be a bit wary of taking the literature of the country you’re about to visit. (I recall reading Homer’s Odyssey in Greece. By a quiet deserted edge of Corfu I kept imagining Odysseus sailing towards the shore, anchoring himself in a real terrain, and me wanting to invent new stories for him.) My Penguin classic’s translation had to be put away, as the grip of the landscape was overpowering. Only after sailing back to Italy did I re-open The Odyssey and allow that amazing Greek to recount his own adventures.

You can pack old English novelists. Conrad, James, Dickens or Eliot in your bag. Or some modern Americans, Bellow, Roth, Ford Cynthia Ozick and Marilyn Ferguson. The beautiful clarity of their English helps calm the mind and expunge it of the terrible pidgin English you’ve been inflicting on the locals and they’ve inflicted on you. It always feels clumsier than your attempts at their language. (This was very apparent in the 80s in Europe. Now English is the dominant second language. Business speak has ‘saved’ the English race from being linguists. In Asia there can be ‘problems’ but less so because of the internet and charm of football.)

I remember being huddled in a tent on a hard Moroccan camping ground. An effusive argument, in Arabic, was raging nearby. I was reading Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady: the moment when Isabel Archer’s regrets having married Osmond.

“In that sense, that of the love of harmony and order and decency and all the stately offices of life, he went with him freely, and his morning had contained nothing ominous. But when, as the months, had elapsed, she had followed him farther and he had seen her into the mansion of his own inhabitation, then, then she had seen where she really was.”

I was 6 kms from Rabat and under the canvas of my cheapo tent. The two Arab men’s argument was getting louder. But the suspense of Isabel Archer’s doubting and the pressing anxiety of her dark night of the soul drew me further into the Jamesian scene. James wrote many stories speaking of the mystery and power of it. It is never properly explained – the heart of the matter or ineffable mystery? That night I felt it pressing in on me.* Was I really listening to that argument or sympathising with Isabel? The language of Henry James and the incomprehensible sound of the Arabs competed for attention. I couldn’t decide where I really wanted it (My story-reading frustration and story-writing yearning) to be. I threw down the book, inserted my earplugs and tried to fall asleep.

Travel brings a constant stimulus both good and bad. A novel pulls you inwards trying to make you forget how hard your seat is on a long bus or train journey. In 1974. I was returning home on the Athen’s express train to London. (It was scheduled as a 30 hour trip but took 36) and was reduced to my last bag of peanuts and a bottle of mineral water. I was avidly reading Lawrence’s The Rainbow. Unknown to me, and my wife, was the fact she was one month pregnant. After a bout of morning sickness, on the train and then boat, she plucked the book from my hands and read some D.H. at his most fecund.

“She faced outwards to where men moved dominant and creative, having turned their back on the pulsating heat of creation, and with this behind them, were set out to discover what was beyond, to enlarge their own scope and range and freedom: whereas the Brangen men faced inwards to the teeming life of creation, which poured unresolved into their veins.”

Half-way through our shared reading of Lawrence we were interrupted by a young sociology teacher. At first we exchanged banalities about the weather. Then he stopped and asked us to hear him out. He launched into a gloomy projection of a severe economic crisis for England after the oil crisis of 1972. His apocalyptic tone was accompanied by the rain of Munich lashing against the compartment window.

Three weeks later Prime Minister Edward Heath was struggling with the miner’s crisis. A three-day working week was coming: forced upon us by people, who in the Heath’s words,” want to change our whole democratic way of life.” That remark caused me to pick up again an other Athens Express read, Women in Love and read this.

“There were always miners about…They belonged to another world, they had a strange glamour, their voices were full of an intolerable deer resonance, like a machine’s burring, a music more maddening than the siren’s long ago.”

One definition of the occult is a form of hidden knowledge that’s miraculously connected to coincidence. Books that travel can play a strange and quite magical role in reflecting political acts. Or being prescient. So even stranger than the Lawrence case was Dostoyevsky.

June 1989 saw me touring the art cities of northern Italy. One evening in Perugia I encountered members of the local Communist Party. They were showing videos on large screens in the centre of town. It was TV footage on the uprising in Beijing’s Tian’ anmen Square. The C.P. had appealed for financial help, sung protest songs and delivered speeches of solidarity with the Beijing protesters. I strolled quietly away wondering what China’s old guard leadership would do next. On reaching my hotel I realised that I’d left my copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Devils on the table of a restaurant. I hurried back to find it being read by a C.P. worker I’d noticed collecting funds. He looked up and smile. “Ah, my friend. You have the right book here….look what I’ve found.” He stood up to read this paragraph.

“The great writer was most painfully afraid of the advanced Russian revolutionary youth, and imagining, in his ignorance, that the keys to Russia’s future were in their hands, he ingratiated himself with them in a most fulminating way, mainly because they paid no attention to him whatever.”

“That’s exactly my problem to. Wanting to be accepted by the group but staying a free and individual writer. Joining the Communists didn’t help me!” I said that at that at this moment in China people were exerting more power than one writer could ever do, in order to change things. “Yes I suppose that’s true,” he admitted,” But I’d have liked to have written important stuff like The Devils so that people of the future would respect me!”

“You know the novel well then?”

“Not at all. Just read a few chapters waiting for you to return.”

He handed over The Devils – probably the blackest and most savage critique on revolutionary activity in all literature, an uncomfortable text both for Beijing’s revolutionaries, pseudo-Maoists and Trotskyites. I wanted to talk to him but he suddenly left, leaving a CP leaflet on the table.

Never read extremely leisurely paced fiction on bumpy buses or crowded third class Indian trains. The first volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past suffered greatly. Its immensely long and allusive sentences, with their challenging syntax, are hell to concentrate on when beggars are singing in front of you, tea sellers are crying out Chai! Chai! and the train screams to a halt and your backpack crashes to the floor. Re-positioning myself in my seat (The long luggage rack that I paid the guard 8 rupees baksheesh for) I once more attempted Proust.

A Hindi voice recited what I thought to be a prayer in Sanskrit written in an exercise book. The old man was closely watched buy a second old man who explained it was a Hindu translation of a poem by Longfellow called The Psalm of Life. He complained that great English poetry was no longer being read by Indians anymore. The man asked me what I was reading. “Just some French book” I replied wearily. For the reader’s Longfellow I swapped him two stanzas of Wordsworth. These were then translated into Hindu.

It was days before I returned to the vicissitudes of jealousy expressed in Swann in Love. In my new hotel room I devoured more Proust and unfortunately some very sweet Indian sweets. I was sick all day and couldn’t handle sentences either very long or very short. Books that travel have to be careful. For their readers may fall ill. And they may go for days without being picked up and loved.

“Its not that great books are not being written anymore. It’s more that there aren’t any great readers.”

Gore Vidal

Nor great travellers to enjoy them too.


* This is my feeble reference to the opening sentence of Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch. “I can feel the heat closing in.”