London, early 1980s
It was a Tuesday. Ferret and I had passed Monday evening in the Compasses. He had lectured me on why once the oil ran out the country would replace it at the bottom of the North Sea; why Europe was finished, and Russia and America; why I should join the struggle, and why he was drunk.
They threw us out at quarter to twelve. the cops drink there, he explained, that’s why it was open all hours. I felt terrible the following morning, or afternoon. I didn’t get up until one o’ clock, which is always demoralising.
No one can work until their head is clear, I told myself. I didn’t need much persuading. I took a walk to clear my head, from Highbury to Chalk Farm.
I was writing a history of the 1930s, a picture history. I still am. I select the pictures and write the captions, and a co-operative of four spiky-hairs are going to publish it and we’re going to share whatever proceeds there are. Just then I had about four picture postcards of Stanmore in 1932 and the collected works of George Orwell. It was an inauspicious start.
Crossing Tufnell Park Road I wandered into the side streets which thread through into Chalk Farm. Railway arches ensure that the area has problems keeping up with Camden class. I took several dead ends before locating a north-west passage to the Roundhouse. It didn’t matter then; it was a desultory stroll, on a grey day down a long street of Victorian terrace houses.
Just ahead of me was a little square of ravaged grass and bent beercans; a pub whose Victorian credentials were belied by bogus brass lamps, and a shop I almost didn’t see…a shop hovering around junk status.
Because there were books outside, I stopped. ‘First Editions A Speciality’, proclaimed a scrawled notice, yellowing but optimistic, in the window. the only ones outside were some dog-eared ‘Man From Uncle’ paperbacks and an LP, Tribute to the Sweet.
I pushed open the door, and a bell jangled. I was in a short corridor, lined with half-empty bookshelves. A peeling image of John Travolta on a mirror leered at me from out of the gloom.
I made my way into the main shoop. Books were stacked untidily on and off shelves. They were mostly hardback, Reader’s Digest selections, Sorrell and Son, When It Was Dark. Among them were a brace of Left Book Clubs’ Hannington’s The Problem of Distressed Areas, and a Forward From Liberalism for ten pence, or so it said on the flyleaf. They raised the shop’s tone, slightly.
There was a desk with a lamp which augmented whatever light was making it through the window. A cat was curled up on the desk. It glanced at me, but didn’t seem too interested. Radio Three played operas to no one but me. I don’t like opera.
In one corner there was a pile of Illustrateds. There aren’t too many of those around. A lot of people seem to be unloading their Picture Posts these days, but I don’t care about how the blimps are wrecking the Home Guard any more. In one issue a family explained how commercial TV wasn’t turning them on any more. It wouldn’t last, they reckoned.
I had just finished an article announcing that Natalie Wood was not, after all, getting married, when I saw it. A heap of pictures, cuttings, calendars, newspapers, the scrapings of years. I started digging, slipping back to the dawn of my childhood. A 1950 cutting from the News of the World about Liverpudlian prostitution, then my time machine took me back to the war and the good stuff. Pre-war Tribunes some Actions, and a lot of stills; Hunger Marchers sitting down in the Savoy foyer, photographs of Hyde Park demonstratiions. They didn’t seem to have been pulled out of their elastic band since the marchers had gone back to Eccles. there was a studio portrait of some debutante with a sweet smile and cute little swastika badge affixed to her fashionable little bosom, the launching of a battleship with the Queen Mother looking older than she has recently. Seagrave waving from a streamlined car. Most of the pictures had neatly pencilled captions. there were a couple of copies of New Weekly, and those are rare. Harold Nicholson explained how the old gang should be seen on their way, with Oswald Mosley providing the maps. there were some family snaps, a dead lion with a family group, a dead deer, and a couple of dead monkeys, all with the same family.
The father was dressed in ‘Sanders of the River’ kit, with a gun, a thin wife and a boy and girl aged between eight and ten squinting into a tropical sun. There was an African attempting to look enthusiastic about the whitle hunter’s decimation of wild life in his homeland. In another series, the family were sailing down, or maybe up, a wide river, and father had sprouted a neat little beard. In another, he co-starred with a kangaroo, dead of course. He may have got around but he certainly slowed down the fauna. then there were some shots of open-air meetings with boaters much in evidence.
A door in the recesses of the shop opened.
She was about twenty-eight, I guessed, short brown hair, quite tall, with a spot on her chin. She was probably worried about it, I thought; I would have been. She wore a long smock, mass produced in some Asian Woolworth’s. It was an intelligent but bored face and my presence did not transform her mood. ‘Yes?’ she said, stating some pedestrian reality more than asking a question.
You’ve got a lot of pictures and cuttings here.’
‘Yes. Have we?’ The accent was transatlantic, just.
‘Yes.’ It was catching. I fingered the pile to provide the evidence. ‘How much?’
‘I don’t have a clue. Mr Astin left them there. He must know. I don’t have much to do with that side. I cover fine arts.’ She gestured at a Buddha with a skin problem in the corner.
‘How about two quid for the lot?’
She looked at me, looked at the heap and shrugged, plunging her hands into the pouch of the smock.
‘Fine. Two quid. Do you want a receipt?’
I did. Was I interested in the Buddha? No, I wasn’t. I put the purchase in a large envelope she gave me and made off down the corridor through the door.
I looked back. She had pushed the cat off the desk and sat cross-legged reading a copy of Cosmopolitan and rubbing the spot on her chin. The Buddha’s habits and skin problem seemed to be catching.
It was about four o’clock. I walked towards Camden Town. It was still llight, but there was a slight mist hangng over the streets. I wondered who Astin was, and why the girl worked there and where the cuttings had come from. I was drifting. The residue of the drink was still paralysing any will I might have had. I decided to go to Regents Park and look at the ducks, if there were any. I like ducks, busy little creatures.
The events only had a meaning in retrospect. At the time they had a dream quality. First , there was the man, about twenty-wight; long brown hair, jeans, a slight limp, a beard. London University turns them out in thousands, they’ve set up production lines at the Polys, too. He hurried past me down Regents Park Road.
Then there was the woman, about fifty, well but boringly dressed, with what looked like dyed blonde hair.
I have always liked the houses around that part, tall and white, with muffins for tea…I ambled down the road, a vacuous smile on my face. The woman looked at the man. She was walking towards me.
The smoke and the sound seem separate now, but they must have been together, a grey puff, a bang and a flicker of flame. The noise was like a car backfiring, then there was a rumble as masonry collapsed. the lower part of the facade on one of the tall white houses had crumpled.
The house was between the man and the woman. They both stopped. She looked at him and he looked at the house. There were no screams, no panic, a few more bricks fell, then silence. A brick had dented the bonnet of a parked Cortina. Cars began to stop in the street. I was immediately tempted to hurry on. Nothing to do with me, squealed a noisy little midget in my psyche, get away. Social responsibility and curiousity intruded. Doors opened, within a minute a crowd had formed. A man realising some childhood fantasy began to direct the traffic. Everyone to their own, I thought.
Smoke drifted out of what by then resembled a dolls house, deserted by some giant north London child. the man with the beard glanced at me, glanced at the woman, and then walked on.
The police may have been slow when I had my head kicked in outside the Moonglow Chinese Take-Away, but they weren’t slow then. The first Panda was followed by a Range Rover, a fire engine and an ambulance.
The amateur traffic warden was brusquely retired after his moment of stardom. the fire engine completed the ruin of the Sanderson wallpaper, the police erected a neat little fence, and the ambulancemen looked around for someone to put on their stretchers. No one volunteered.
The top cop had hair thick with Brylcreem, parted dead centre, in a style he must have carried from the Korean War. ‘Ok, who saw it? he shouted. His underlings had pushed us back across the road.
The woman wasted no time in getting in on the act.
‘Avis. Mrs Maud Avis, A-V-I-S.’ She gave a competent account. I was rather disappointed’ it left me with little to say. I tried a few sytlistic embellishments but the cop was unimpressed. Mrs Avis was anxious to stay with the action.
‘There was another young man’, she said, looking at me. Indeed there was, I thought. Where had he gone? The crowd had grown by then, and he was no-where to be seen. ‘With a beard, he was almost outside the house, but he walked on up towards the Park. He looked like a student.’ She said it in a tone that implied he had all but lit the fuse. ‘Jeans, brown donkey jacket, brown hair.’
‘About six foot. He dragged his left foot, I think.’
He looked at me. I appeared to be doomed to a walk on part. ‘I think that is all quite accurate.’ I said.
‘Can you give me your name and address sir?’
‘John Raven, 80, Highbury Hill.’
‘I see sir.’ Just what he saw I wasn’t sure, but his tone was faintly ominous.
He was outlined against the house. they had turned arc lights on, perhaps it was a television crew. A small guy with a beard and a camera slung on his shoulders was arguing with a sound man.
‘Any proof of identity sir?’ I was disturbed; he hadn’t asked Mrs Avis. ‘Any phone number?’
I gave him my number and my NUJ card. He seemed satisfied. ‘Thank you Mr Raven. We’ll be in touch tomorrow, or possibly tonight.’
There were plenty of others waiting to testify. I was dismissed from the audience. The park had lost it’s appeal. Who needs ducks after that? I walked back to Camden Town and the tube, wondering if Ferret was conscious. I wanted to star in my own production of the afternoon.
Ferret wasn’t on the phone. His real name is Jack Murray but he is always known as Ferret; a friend of the old mole, the revolution, he said. I reckoned it was because of his pointed nose and scuttling manner. He is thirty-four, small and dark. He had left Glasgow six years ago to continue a disasterous liasion with a woman who had come down to seek her fortune, and , I suspect, to escape from Ferret. It took her two years to lose Ferret and three to find the pot of gold in every TV researcher’s knapsack.
I’d met him at a party and we had got on. He took to me. I suspected, because he liked to have someone to flagellate politically. He was a walking anthology of the left, having tried Labour, the Communists, the Nats for two days, the Socialist Workers, a short-lived Maoist group, the International Marxists, and had finally settled own with a cosy little group of Trotskyists who were apparentlly based in Stockport and were attempting to Bolshevise the town. This had the double advantage of allowing him to spin romantic stories of the proletarian upsurge there, whilst ensuring that he and the mass base of the organisation were kept at a safe distance from each other. the group were called Worker for Revolutionary Change, or ‘those creeps the Wircs’. It was an unwieldy title, but this was common in such groups and represented a satisfactory permutation of the key syntax of red vocabulary. Ferret was effectively the London branch.
He lived in Stoke Newington. It took me an hour to get there. He blinked at me from behind his door.
‘Christ. Haven’t you had enough?’
His room was a house of reds of varying shades, who met to abuse one another on the stairway on their way to work, the duplicator and the pub. Ferret had made a marriage of convenience with that section of the radical lower middle classes questing timidly for the proletariat. Occasionally he would go and ham up his days in the Gorbals, particularly when drunk but otherwise would happily sneak off to the National Film Theatre. He was a sharp man, and a good organiser when he could be bothered.
I followed him upstairs, past an ancient ‘THE DAY AFTER YOU DON’T BOTHER TO VOTE WILL BE THE FIRST DAY OF A TORY GOVERNMENT’ poster. It was held in place by a flightless dart.
He paused on the landing to cough. I was vaguely nauseated to see that he was swallowing the phegm, but that was prefereable to spraying me with it I supposed.
‘Christ, I feel terrible,’ he observed. ‘I woke up this morning with all the lights on, and the fire on, and me sitting in the armchair like a corpse in an old people’s home.’
In his room a kettle was pumping steam on to a shirt draped over the gas stove. I sat on his sofa. It was decaying and propped up by a volume of Aleisteir Crowley. he collapsed on the carpet. ‘I’ve been corrupted,’ he moaned. ‘Fancy a drink?’
I didn’t. I told him what had happened. He had heard about it on the news. A great listener to the radio, is Ferret. ‘You told the cops who you were? You just went up to them and told them? You’re criminal, Raven!’
‘What d’you expect me to do? I’m not building a workers’ soviet in Stockport. I don’t have to pass my time on the other side of the street shuffling round in the privet hedges.’
Do you know whose house that was?’
‘Raphael Hales’s. You know who that is?
‘Some Tory MP,’ I mumbled.
‘Some Tory MP? That bastard makes Margaret Thatcher look like Rosa Luxemburg. hates blacks, hates paddies, hates workers, probably thinks his granny is a bloody bolshevik.’ He sat up and waved his finger at me. ‘You know what they are saying, those bastards on the news?’ he gave me no time to guess. ‘They are saying that it “may have been a bomb”.
You know what that means? Suppose some well-meaning idiot planted a bomb in his letter box, that means that the cops will be all over the place tonight, banging on doors, hauling punters in, and what you are doing? I’ll tell you what you are bloody doin’; your bloody helping them!’
‘It could have been anything. It could have been a gas explosion. What am I supposed to do?’
He stumbled to his feet and glared down at me. he walked to the window and drew a face in the condensation. The face scowled at me. Ferret scowled at me. ‘What was it they said on the radio? “Eye witnesses” saw a bearded young man whom police are anxious to interview. Eye witnesses? You are the fucking eye witness, you blind sod!’
‘Yeah, I was an eye witness…me and this woman. He was in front of me in Regents Park Road. He vanished after the explosion.’
He asked me what the man was like. He said the police don’t like people with beards very much, apart from members of the Special Branch and sailors, and they didn’t like them very much either. He wiped away the face he’d drawn and gazed out of the window. ‘Hales was on the radio. He said it was another example of the challenge to Convervative law and order encouraged by the Benns and Heffers of this world. I’d like to strangle whoever it was who planted that bloody thing. We’ve got enough problems already.’
‘You’ve just bee telling me what a fool I was to talk to the cops, now you want to strangle the bomber.’
‘Look Raven, you may be politically illiterate but you must have learned some of the script parrot fashion. You know the line. Shelf three, book seven, Trotsky on Marxism or Terrorism.’ He waved at the bookshelf. ””The emancipation of the working class is the art of the working class….”‘
He clapped. ‘Very good! Given ten years you might get round to the Future That Labour Offers You.’ He rested his behind on the window sill and scratched his crotch. ‘I wonder if the bearded guy was connected; they’ve been picketing Hales’s house recently.’
‘Some layabouts, squatters, I think.’
‘I love the way you reds stick together.’
He slid to the floor. ‘No, they were all right. they just seem to think that if they occupy enough rat-infested holes, ICI will go bust and Thatcher will come out with a while flag. Well, they’re wrong, but they had quite a good scheme. Hales had this place in south London and they squatted it. He was always going on about housing and parasites and he had this lovely little home and never went near it. So he sent some strong-arm boys in to send them on their way. They picketed it, and the Regents Park establshment to show what a flaming hypocrite he was.’ He paused. ‘Got a cigarette?’
I threw him a Silk Cut. ‘Bloody kids’ stuff,’ he muttered. ‘Every squatter in London will have PC Plod on his doorstep tonight. What did the cops say to you?’
‘They they’d be in touch. Tonight or tomorrow. I don’t want to be in touch. I want to get out of touch. I’m getting a terrible thirst. Coming down the Compasses?’
‘I haven’t eaten. I can’t exist on Guinness and scotch for the rest of my life.’
He buired his head in his hands and dragged on the cigarette. And I haven’t been to work today. Terrible…First day I’ve missed in three months. the site is really going well, we fixed it so the gaffers can’t move a brick without us having the safety regulations on them.’
‘You could have a pie in the Compasses.’
‘Aye, shit and kidney.’
I lit a cigarette. ‘Something else happened. Have a look at these.’ I handed him the folder. He thumbed through and found the 1938 Tribunes and began an argument with Victor Gollancz about the way forward after the Spanish Civil War. I pointed out that Gollancz and Franco were now discussing the issue in another place and that neither he nor the Wircs would be able to do anything about it. He agreed, but said it was symptomatic.
‘Where did you get this stuff?’
‘A little shop near Camden Town, just before Hales’s world collapsed around him.’
‘Lots of shots of our colonial kith and kin,’ he mused. ‘The New Weekly eh? Good stuff; what are you going to do with it?’
‘Its for the book. You know, the one on the 1930s.’
‘Oh aye. How someone with your political nous is capable of writing about the 1930s is as big a mystery to me as the demon bomber of Camden Town.’
‘Great to have you aboard, Ferret. Drink?’
He stood up, rolled on a pullover, added a donkey jacket and draped a frayed red scarf about his ears.
I pointed at the cuttings. ‘Can I leave the stuff here? I don’t want to wind up losing it at closing time.’
‘I don’t want to wind up losing myself at closing time. Yeah, leave it there.’
It was seven thirty, dark and misty. the Compasses was brightly lit, but cold and dank. It immediately depressed me. I felt like a traveller from nowhere in a land that should have been my own. It was vile, full of failure, of the drunk, the ill-dressed, the chronically poor, failing, coughing, smoking, dying, dancing, acting. It was my paranoia, I consoled myself. People were lurching into arguments and body contact out of fear and loneliness. Country music celebrated their impotence, music of defeat masquerading as the music of defiance, rebellion; movin’ on music for souls with nowhere to go.
It was warmer by closing time.