Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Simon Forman - the book, the art exhibition and the video game

Simon Foreman was a physician in the late 17th century who practiced despite not having all the official training and none of the official paperwork. He focused largely on astrological/humoral causes of illness and largely proscribed changes in lifestyle, diet and various concoctions of herbs (though sometimes it could become a little more peculiar, like burnt dog mess). He also slept with many of his patients, even after he had married. We know all this because he kept a diary and detailed case notes. 

 I’ve learnt about him in some peculiar ways. I think I first discovered him via twitter, where I follow a lot of accounts about the early modern period. Through this, I was led to a conceptual art exhibition in a basement, a computer game and finally, a book. I’m going to through these things.

Casebooks at the Ambika P3 (2017)


My first proper introduction to Simon Forman, and probably the strangest one.

I am not particularly adept and reading art and modern/conceptually type stuff is even further away from my comfort zone. So when I went into what looked like a carpark under a building on the Marylebone road, I was a little put out. The space was ugly and dark and grim, there were few people around and I had to duck through a rubber curtain to get to the main space. It felt forbidden.

In the middle of the room was a large mechanical arm, draped in greenery, in a pond and surrounded by pots. I still don’t understand what this had to do with Simon Forman, but the artist who makes it likes putting mechanical arms in things. Near that there was a large collection of pots and a big finger - a pointer towards the more alchemical side of Forman’s oeuvre, though I was still at a loss to really understand what it was trying to tell me.

I found the works more engaged with the subject matter to be more interesting. There was an AI, programmed with astrological information that told me I had Venus Envy and a large leather cow that repeated parts of the notes. I loved the cow, it was funny and informative and I was very interested to hear all the people’s complaints and illnesses, together with Forman’s treatments. I spent a while with the cow.

The other must interesting work was a video, shown on three large concave disks. It featured an actor telling parts of Forman’s life from his diaries but also mixing it in with the actor’s life. It was all about impossible affairs, guilt, pride at healing, hubris - and all other manners of feeling. I was left moved, touched by the human behind all the notes and star charts. 

To be honest, I left the whole exhibition convinced that there was something interesting there but not really sure of what it was. I needed a more obvious way to get into the Simon Forman story.. I kept my eye on Twitter.


Astrologaster (2019)


Although I hadn’t pursued anymore of Simon Forman’s story, I hadn’t forgotten about him and a postcard from one of the pages of a casebook sits in the notebook I write my Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle Notes. But a couple of months ago, my Twitter blew up with him again. This time it was about… a computer game.

Again, I am not particularly knowledgeable when it comes to computer games. I used to love a bit of ‘Monkey Island’, was a dab hand at ‘Worms’ and occasionally play ‘Civilization’ but the last console I bought was an Xbox, and that was mainly because it also played DVDs. Checking that I could get it on my computer, I downloaded ‘Astrologaster’ and played it straight through one night.

In the game you play Simon Forman, various querents come to you with problems and you read their stars. The game mechanic allows you to look at between two and four vague astrological pronouncements and you have to pick the one you’re going with. Your decision then either makes your patient happy or not - sometimes it may make them initially happy but angry in the long run or vice-versa. If you do really well with the women and love hearts will glow above your head and an affair can begin. Please as many patrons as possible and you can gain your very own medical license. 

For someone way out of computer games, it was a pretty simple idea and fun to do. Not only did you read the stars, but there were clues in the symptoms and actions of the querent when they first start talking to you. This means that you could give advice based on what you really thought might help the person, or based on what you think that person may want to hear. As such, you got to dabble between up-to-date 17th century thinking or go full quack.

Even more fun were the range of people, the characterisation and the introductory songs. Each time a person came to your door, they had a song about them. Some, like Dean Blague were religious catches that usually ended in insulting him. Others teased the beauty, the cunning or the stupidity of the querent, always with gorgeous harmonies. My favourite set of songs were for a man called Signor Ferrero, because they had more than a hint of ‘that’s amore’. 

I’ve played the game through twice now and it was managed to make me laugh out loud on multiple occasions. I also had fun at seeing how my different choices bent the game in different ways and I look forward to playing again and doing everything differently.

What’s more, the game has a lot of history in it. Many of the characters were actually people from Forman’s Casebooks and many of their problems were problems that Forman was asked about. The characters who were not historical (or like Lord Essex, were historical but didn’t meet Forman) brought real historical ideas to the game. There was fear of Catholics, of foreigners, of the plague as well as belief in witches and all sorts of marriage difficulties and considerations. Even the stars used are as they were on the dates given.

I felt like a learned a lot (and had great fun) playing the game and now I really needed something a bit more authoritative to tell me about the man and his life.


Dr Forman: A Most Notorious Physician (2002)


This book came out before the exhibition and computer game, it’s the most accessible way of discovering Simon Forman but the last I came across. It’s written by Judith Cook who wrote a book I very much enjoyed about the community of writers in the 17th century called ‘Roaring Boys’.

There are definite links between the worlds of players and Dr Forman. Both lived and worked south of the Thames, where they were safe from much of interference from the City of London. Not only that, but Forman had many theatrical people in his casebooks, from actors, managers and even the woman who (some, like Rowe) propose to be Shakespeare’s dark lady.

What the book succeeds in doing, is paint a picture of the world and something of the character of Forman himself.

Simon Forman is not portrayed simply as a cynical hack but an optimistic man with a fierce desire for knowledge. He fought for knowledge his whole life, being constantly turned away from it by life. Everything he learns, he does it by determined effort. That a lot of his knowledge seems silly to us now, lessons of astrology and humoral theory, is irrelevant, in an age where Queen Elizabeth would consult Dr Dee, he mastered what there was to know. Not only that, the extensive use of documenting, the many casebooks and the written additions he made in the books he read, means that he at least tried to systematise his knowledge and rely on what worked for him. We can pick out the funny cures but a lot of what he proscribed was common sense or at the very least not harmful in itself. 

Despite all this, Forman is not an angel. He is vain (as someone who wrote so much about himself has to be), he was fond of showing off, he could treat his closest relationships with an unusual coldness and he slept around.. a lot. The codeword he used for this was ‘halek’. There is a lot of haleking going on in this book, even after he was married. In some ways, he reminds me of Samuel Pepys who came about fifty years after. Both men had a drive to know, both had full social lives, both had irresponsible (and sometimes just cruel) sexual lives and both recorded themselves voraciously. Forman wrote that a man was beyond old age when he hit his 50s, with such a short lifespan, a lust for life seems a noble thing.

Although the book was concise, well written and full of interesting detail, there was a feeling that in relying on the diaries so much, it becomes a little monotonous. Even diaries by the best diarists are a bit of a slog as reading a life in that form feels like one thing after another, I’d have liked a little more shaping in the telling.


All that aside, this was a fantastic book and made a perfect ending (for now) in my lethargic meander into the life of Simon Forman. All there needs now is a mini-series and a self-help book and I think Forman has all his media bases covered. I recommend anyone to find out a little bit more about this fascinating individual in whatever way they can.


Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Trip to 'Writing: Making Your Mark' at the British Library

I find myself in the almost unknown position of writing about an exhibition three months before the things closes, I’m more used to going in the last week. This time, I went to the British Library to see ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’, which deals with the history (and future) of the written word.



I have to say that I’ve not been getting into exhibitions lately. a recent one at the Wellcome about what magic tricks teach about psychology was very interesting and well put together but I nipped through it in just over an hour - I just seem a bit too tetchy to share my exhibition experience with other people at the moment.

 During my time at ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’ I was in direct competition with that most irritating of museum attendees, The Leaner. This is a person who holds their arms out directly over a case, leans into it, breathes heavily on the glass and lingers for just a few moments too long. I held back, trying to get behind The Leaner but still as other people overtook him, I found myself behind him again. There was no glimpsing the item in the case, nor even the description next to it as The Leaner so positioned himself to take up the whole area, appearing to be lost in another world as his breath fogged up the glass beneath him. 

Apart from ruining the flow of an exhibition, it is a distinct annoyance to have to wipe the glass before each case you come to. Even when I overtook The Leaner, he then sped up and overtook me, leaning and obstructing and generally irritating me beyond measure. It became a slow, precise duel that played out between us, which I duly lost.

Maybe it’s because of my battles with The Leaner that I couldn’t really get involved in this exhibition but I also feel my lack of engagement may have been the reason I became so overwhelmed by him. 

‘Writing: Making Your Mark’ tells its story in five sections.

The first was on the origins of writing. This part included a huge stone with early pre-Incan writing, a prayer in Egyptian hieroglyphs that took headlines as the oldest object in the British Library’s collection, a nice lump of clay with some cuneiform and told of a possible writing system from Rotoroa but didn’t have an example to show. When I was allowed to see these objects, they were interesting enough but easily found in huge numbers just down the road at the British Museum.

The second part was about writing systems and styles. This was probably the most interesting section of itself as it explained how other systems like Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean writing systems work. Although I was a little muddled over the exact details, it was intriguing how different cultures had tackled the need to present sounds in meanings in different ways and got me thinking about how I take it for granted that I write my own language in the way I do.

 This was followed by a very interesting bit showing the evolution of an ox-headed figure into the letter ‘a’ through four artefacts. Then there was a bit about the development of ‘Roman’ fonts based on a simpler writing form over the more elaborate and difficult to produce school/black font form of writing.

The next section was about materials and technology, this had the best objects to show. There were some quite terrifying tattoo spikes, some 9th century Chinese paper that still looks fresh and stable, examples of writing in clay and wax and even a scrap of old clay that was used as a one day pass for a woman called Annabella to ply her trade in the city of Elephantine. There were examples of Chinese printing (and movable type) that preceded the Gutenburg press, and then a copy of Caxton’s printing of ‘The Canterbury Tales’, borrowed from the permanent exhibition next door and a reproduction of an eighteenth century printing press, borrowed from... just outside the toilet. 

Indeed, after the grandstanding Anglo-Saxon exhibition, this one feels a little on the cheap, I had seen many of the items before for free at the British Library. This section rounded off with a petulant telegram by John Osbourne, threatening to go to war with a critic, and a Chinese dual pigeon typewriter, which is both a simple solution to the problem of so many individual characters but is at the same time mindbogglingly complicated.



The next section on writing and people was a grab bag of anything else. There were handwriting guides and a very charming 2,000 year old bit of schoolwork. This is also the part where they crammed in the ‘famous people things, including; Joyce’s notes for Ulysses, Mozart’s notes, Florence Nightingale’s notes and Scott’s diary on the last, bleak page. These would have had the wow factor if I had not already seen them before at other British Library things. There was also some intriguing style guides for the BBC’s new ‘Reith’ font which they plan to roll out this year.

The last section was about the future of writing, which was a big screen with adults saying daft, outdated things about emojis and children imagining holographic ipads in the future…essentially, there was no content in this part.

The Leaner aside, I just didn’t feel that this exhibition told its story all that well, that most of the exhibits were things the British Library had hanging about and that the social, historical and political factors about how we write and how we may write in the future, were largely glossed over. I wouldn’t recommend this one, but the newspapers and other reviews loved it, so maybe I am just being a grump.






Wednesday, 29 May 2019

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle


‘The Expedition of Humphry Clinker’ was the last book written by Scottish doctor-turned-writer, Tobias Smollett and published in the last year of his life. It charts the journey of a Welsh family group wandering the spa towns of England, before a quick tour into Scotland and a return back towards Wales. The journey is meandering but peppered with incident and the book is pretty much the same.

The main interest of the text, as far as the group were concerned, were the opportunity for shedding light on interesting little details (which could be compared with our now extensive back-catalogue) and the treatment of the characters. The book is written in an epistolary manner and the events and places viewed through the different prisms of character brought everything to life.

The main writer is Mathew Bramble, an ageing, grumpy man in pursuit of health. He is scornful of most of the English spas; his description of Bath, with it’s waters with layers of pus and scabs, is truly stomach churning, while his description of London’s adulterated (and truly undrinkable) milk even found it’s way into ‘The Horrible Histories’ books. There are hints that Matthew isn’t as misanthropic as he first appears, however, with secret works of charity and he cheers up abundantly when they rich the clean, healthy towns of Scotland. Shortly before this work, Smollett had written a dyspeptic book about a European tour and had been ridiculed by Laurence Sterne as ‘Smelfungus’, Matthew Bramble seems to be playing up, and setting rest that image.

The next writer is Jeremy, Matthew’s nephew. He’s just finished university and is always on the look out for ‘originals’, oddballs that he can ridicule. He has a quick temper and almost fights several duals. Jeremy’s sister Lydia is another writer. She’s an optimistic dreamer who has recently fallen in love with a player (who might be something greater than he appears - hint, hint.)

The two other main writers are Tabitha, Matthews unmarried sister who is now so desperate to wed that she hopelessly throws herself at almost any single man they come across. She is fussy, cantankerous and not very kind to her servant Win. Win is the last main letter writer and she is not as stupid as she first appears. These two later writers create letters full of misspellings and malapropisms. 

Indeed, Smollett’s malapropisms are probably the most sustained and skilled that any in the group had ever read. The women talk about how they will ‘deify the Devil and his works’, fear people who are ‘devils in garnet’ and implore people to ‘employ your talons’. Nor does Smollett neglect the art of creative spelling, no references to accounts are left unmolested and sometimes the characters will ‘lay in damp shits’. We all wanted more of these letters, which sadly dipped in the middle. (Interestingly, a lot of these misspellings and such are linked to a representation of the women’s ‘Welshness’, with attention to detail into the accent.)

There was a big question of representation in this book, especially female representation. The three female characters had far fewer letters between them than the two male (a disparity still seen in modern fiction and tv) but more disappointingly, it seems to be the females we are encouraged to laugh at, rather than with. Add to that the adventure where Matthew finds an old school friend whose life has been ruined by his wife, a rant about evil wives, and shortly afterwards, when that wife dies, a joy about it. Matthew even stays on with his friend to encourage him to not miss her. There is clearly something amiss here.

But taken at that level, there is something amiss with much of Smollett’s presentation of people. Like Jeremy, he is searching for ‘originals’, odd little individualistic people to mock. The gang meet up with a Scottish veteran called Lismahago, he is a wizened, argumentative man whose head is all blotchy because he was once scalped. He is ugly and ridiculous, being mistaken for a ghost in one town - yet we warm to him. As we also warm to Tabitha and Win. It may be a weakness in this method of searching for ‘originals’ that it can turn over into nastiness at times.

Lismahago is a Scottish character, Smollett was a Scottish author and the Welsh family find themselves in Scotland towards the middle of the book. After Bath and London, it is an oasis of good behaviour, kind people and natural beauty. Glasgow is represented as the most beautiful town there has ever been - some contemporary reviews called foul and concluded that this was all secret Scottish propaganda. Indeed, modern fans of Scottish independence would probably enjoy looking at the chapters that talk about that topic, the arguments on both sides haven’t changed much in 250-odd years.

And what about Humphry Clinker? I have barely mentioned him for the good reason that he is barely in the book. Is he a symbol of deep-rooted nobility? A side-eye at Methodism? An important part of the plot that somehow got lost in rewrites? We really couldn’t decide.


This book was very popular an influential, it pops up in Middlemarch, has fingerprints all over Dickens and was highly praised by George Orwell. It’s puerile, with plenty of falling over, naked bottoms and laxative jokes and it’s also a thoughtful travelogue of the country. It may not get the pulse racing but it does get the mouth smiling and occasionally the brain thinking. We all agreed that it was worth reading and were glad we did.




Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Snacks at Leghorn Road

I’ve mentioned my pathetic artworks a number of times on this blog. I am very aware of my limitations in this field but I do like playing with a paintbrush, especially during longer holidays. 

About eight years ago I started a picture but was unable to finish it as I did not have the confidence to do faces. I finally overcome that feeling and put the faces on. They aren’t good - but they are done.

The picture is set in my old living room in my old shared house. It features the cloth and leather sofas. the wonky light, the custard coloured walls, the union flag cushions and the omnipresent mouse. It pictures me in the centre, handing crisps and beer to Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith. Outside, Samuel Pepys does just that.

Here is the picture.


I apologise.




Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Review: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling’ by Henry Fielding (Part Two)



Last week I looked at ‘The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling’ and why I love it for its tone and narration. This time, I shall look at how the characters help make it the wonderful novel it is.

Tom is not much of a character himself. He’s likeable, charming and good at heart – relatable but not exactly interesting. Certainly, when comparing him to the more extravagant members of the rest of the cast, he doesn’t exactly shine.

Sophia his beloved, on the other hand, is contradictory, determined, smart and takes things into her own hands. Fielding based her on his first wife, Charlotte Craddock. Sophia is fantastic, starting out as something of a weak damsel but quickly gets bored of that situation and takes charge herself, quitting her house and going to seek Tom down. By the end of the novel, the main obstacle between Tom and Sophia’s marriage is not class, wealth or imprisonment – but whether Tom can prove that he’s even worthy enough to marry her. As well as being an enjoyable character in herself, she makes a great double act with Mrs Honour, her maid.

Another great servant character is that of Benjamin Partridge, the man accused of being Tom’s father, he later becomes his manservant. He’s a good man but heavily put upon by the world – and not very bright. He confuses theatre for real life, quite an old joke at the time, but done well. His misunderstandings and loose lips cause constant problems for Tom, but his heart is in the right place, and that is the most important in this book.

Leading those whose hearts are not in the right place is Blifil. He is the nephew of Squire Allworthy (who is as kind but dull as his name suggests). Blifil is outwardly kind and gentle but really is an oily schemer, who does all he can to get in Tom’s way. He is supported by Thwackum and Square, the boys’ tutors. Thwackum is a rough brute of a man, who believes in the appearance of religion above anything else. He is is the model of pretty much every evil teacher ever since, down to Miss Trunchbull. Square is a little more nuanced, he uses sophistry to argue all his worst impulses but by the end of the book manages to have a moral turnaround and support Tom.

Another enjoyably unpleasant character is Miss Wilson described as ‘no welcome visitor’, who has never seen a man without his jacket on, she is uncharitable and cruel to anyone she perceives as below her. She’s the one who finds Tom in Squire Allworthy’s bed and initially wants to take him to the parish to look after. She even declares that the baby doesn’t ‘smell Christian’. When Allworthy immediately takes to the baby, her opinion changes and she declares that it might be a Christian after all, though she is secretly pleased to hear every bad thing she hears about Tom after that.

Probably the largest character in the book is one whose heart veers wildly between the good and bad. His is just too volcanic a character to keep in one place and explodes wildly in joy, anger, grief and probably a little more anger. He is Squire Western and as Sophia’s father is the ogre that imprisons the maiden and chases after her when she escapes. His chase is one of the funniest parts of the middle section of the book, gallivanting around, blustering through other plot threads and then getting distracted with hunting. If he wasn’t such an entertaining character, he’d probably be a monster, but he is so entertaining.

I said a little before about how Fielding’s broad characterisation help his story, with some of the clearest and most distinctive delineation of types of people until Dickens came along. There are plenty of characters to love, hate, root for and boo - that, along with the playful tone of the book, succeed in bringing it to what is (for me) the pinnacle of the early novel. I love it, and you should too.




Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Review: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling’ by Henry Fielding (Part One)


The first version of GrubStLodger was called c18th.com and I attempted to make a ‘proper’ website. Later I discovered that my skills at arranging it were not up to the task and I chose to go with the simpler blog format. The first post on that original site was a review of Henry Fielding’s ‘The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling’. I have lost that original review and felt I needed one, so here it is.

‘Tom Jones’ is not only my favourite eighteenth century novel but probably my favourite novel of all time. For such a doorstop of a book, I’ve read it four times and enjoy it more on each re-read. 

It’s the story of Tom Jones, found as a baby on Squire Allworthy’s bed and brought up by him as a son. As he grows, he becomes a good-hearted boy but impetuous and naive. Through the course of the narrative, he has to gain wisdom enough to be worthy of a happy and settled life, frequently being led into scrapes by his own foolhardy nature and the snares of the sneakier people that surround him.

From my first read, nearly ten years ago, the general experience has been the same. The first third, where Tom is grows up in Somerset, is as close to perfect as a book gets and I gallop through it with ease and pleasure. The second third, where Tom has adventures on the road, is an enjoyable romp but not as immersive as the first. The final third, set in London, is an almost interminable succession of misadventures and mistakes which I find such a slog that when I get to the end, my pleasure is as much relief as it is satisfaction. However, the first part is so very good (and the second pretty good) that I can still excuse the third and rate the book as high as I do.

The novel is separated into eighteen books, which contain different amounts of time. These books are then separated into short chapters. This is a boon to me, as I love a short chapter, they make me feel like I am making progress and if they are short then it’s always easy to read just one more. The chapters are given useful titles that give a clue to the contents, such as;

“Containing five pages of paper”
“In which the reader will be surprised”
“A little chapter in which is contained a little incident” - which is followed by;
“A very long chapter containing a very large incident”
&
“Containing such grave matter, that the reader cannot laugh once through the whole chapter, unless peradventure he should laugh at the author”

I love these chapter headings, I could probably quote them all, particularly the ones that run towards the end of the book, teasing the reader about the upcoming denouement. They also serve to introduce the particular strength of the book, Henry Fielding’s controlled use of tone. Whereas ‘Joseph Andrews’ is too silly, ‘Amelia’ too serious and ‘Jonathan Wilde’ too arch - ‘Tom Jones’ manages to balance all the flavours perfectly.

At the beginning of each book, Fielding directly addresses the reader in a sort of curtain-piece. In these he pretends to wax lyrical, joshes the reader, instructs them in how to read a novel such as his and also describes his own writing style. At one point he describes the kind of person who can write such a novel as his, claiming they need genius, learning, a good knowledge of the world and a feeling heart. He manages to style this list of job requirements as both a buffoonish boast and an honest description. He also describes how, as an author, he needs to be engaged with what he is writing, saying;
“I am convinced I never make my reader laugh heartily but where I have laughed before him.”

The first third of the novel oozes, drips and seethes irony from every pore and barely one thing is said that is not intended as its opposite. He talks about, “the good natured disposition of the mob” and some giving “good advice” by means of blood-curdling threats. It’s not the cynical irony of later Fielding works but playful and fun. 

He’s also fond of the mock-heroic, the most famous part being the ‘battle’ in the churchyard written as a scene from ‘The Iliad’ but repeated time and time again in his elevation of all the tiny parts of people’s lives. Even his book introductions are mock-heroic, with his frequent expostulations on his own genius. 

As the book goes on, the playfulness drops a little as the plot takes more hold, but the playfulness never disappears completely and the often laugh-out-loud funny narrator often comes in to explain or contextualise events. There are those who will hate Fielding for the intrusiveness of his narrator but I find it one of the particular charms of the book.

Another criticism of the book was given by Samuel Johnson, who said that Fielding only understood people the way a person looking at a clock-face understands it. Compared to Richardson, he found Fielding to be shallow in his understanding of people and their characters. While it is true that ‘Tom Jones’ rarely enters the heads of it’s characters, preferring instead to talk of muscles in the mouth and expressions on the face, I found this to be far superior to RIchardson’s endless examination of every character’s motivations. Dickens was another great novelist who dealt principally with what he saw on the surface and managed to create numerous vivid characters that way. In one of his curtain-pieces, Fielding compares what he is doing to that of Hogarth (a good friend) and says that while he is creating vivid characters he does not want to step into caricature. A deep, insightful look at the people in the novel would rob it of much of its fun and vitality. 

Finally, I did think it strange that an author who started out as a playwright but doesn’t portray whole conversations but reports most of them with the occasional piece of direct speech to give a flavour. Given the conversation we do get, were I be able to go back in time and ask for a little more dialogue.

‘Tom Jones’ is a book I could talk about for pages and pages but my fingers are wearing down and the time is getting late, so next week I will talk about the other main reason I love this novel - the characters.


Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Under the Glass Ten...Living in a Dropsical Head


“The Capital is become an overgrown monster; which like a dropsical head, will in time leave the body and extremities without nourishment and support.”
-Tobias Smollett ‘The Expedition of Humphry Clinker.”

Yesterday at work, a colleague burst into the break room with a furious face on, declaring that they’d had enough of this city. She’d tried to get some lunch at the supermarket but the chiller cabinets were all broken and there was no food there (this happens quite a lot), then she’d tried to get a hot sandwich from the coffee shop but the grill didn’t work there (also a regular occurrence), then a rude person had pushed her out the way (every day).

I can see it. My folks recently moved out of London to a small Midlands Town and they were pretty keen to get going. I stayed at their house for a fortnight and on two separate occasions had to duck police tape from fights outside to get to the front door. Then there was the time a man shouted at my uncle for killing Michael Jackson, the car that mounted the pavement so some people could threaten my sister and I, then of course there was the time a man tried to spit in the street and accidentally gobbed in my Mum’s face. 

In my time in London; I was mugged by some teenagers who gave me my phone back because it was too old, lived three months in a flat thinking that my flatmate was the landlord and had the shock of my life when the real landlady turned up and thought I hadn’t paid any rent. There was also the time a builder had got drunk, fallen off scaffolding and died in the house behind mine and when the police came through my house to investigate stopped to share weed with my housemates. That’s not forgetting the day I moved in to my current place, a man thought he found an unexploded bomb in the house next door. Oh, and I once say a man walking a dog and the dog had to stop so the man could pee in the street.

London living is not for everyone, I don’t think Matthew Bramble, the crowd-hating character from ‘Humphry Clinker’ would like it much. Earlier in the quoted passage, he makes the claim that one day, London will grow so large that the whole of Middlesex will be a sea of brick houses. He’s not wrong. If London is a dropsical head, Middlesex as a county is something of an appendix. 

Yet, dropsical head or not, I spent last weekend in a very interesting bookshop, saw an exhibition on the psychology of magic at the Wellcome Centre and even picked up some slightly hard to find refills for my lucky pen. Every morning on the way to work I walk through a park and watch the green parakeets, I even saw what I think might be turtledoves the other day (though they have been collared doves). Now spring is here, I wake up every morning to birdsong and I fall asleep of a night to the quiet rush of traffic and the rhythmic whine of tube-trains going into and out of the station. 


I pay much, live cramped and negotiate my way through all sorts of peculiar people and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be. Though I might change my mind if I get gobbed in the face.


Wednesday, 24 April 2019

All New: Death of a Dream-Pedlar

Some longer term readers may know that not only do I lodge in Grub Street as a fan of Eighteenth Century Writing but am myself something of an underachieving author myself.

A few years ago I tried to crowdfund a book of mine called 'Death of a Dreamonger' but unfortunately fell short (mainly because I got tired of internet haranguing people to pre-order it and had a holiday in France instead).

Since then I looked back at it with the help of a wonderful editor (as opposed to the very rude editors I tried first). At the end of last year I finished a whole new draft, very different to the book I had previously tried to crowdfund.

I am currently having it looked over by editors and publishers and wait to see what may come of it in the future.

For now though, I'd like to present the new first chapter of my book 'Death of a Dream-Pedlar' - using as an introductory quote this nugget from 'Death's Jest Book.'

If there were dreams to sell, what would you buy?

Here goes the chapter...


Chapter One

I need to vary my routine. When I started visiting the antiques market in Camden Passage, the stallholders greeted me with anonymous smiles. Those have deteriorated into scowls of recognition. I’m not a thief but I am a serial browser. 

My favourite stall is called ‘Jack’s Ephemera.’ Today the little trestle-table contains a whole host of ancient postcards, a dog-eared leaflet about the Millennium Bug, and knitting magazines from the big-haired eighties. I pick up a faded postcard featuring iconic London images; a red bus, Big Ben, Buck House and a Beefeater. Turning it over, I peer at the looping writing. It’s addressed ‘Liebe Sara’, signed ‘Diener Markus’ and has a stamp but no postmarks. Perhaps it was never posted, or perhaps it was and became lost in the delivery before being bought in bulk by Jack. Do the Royal Mail sell old postcards? Maybe it’s done on the sly and Jack is some sort of shady postcard black-marketeer. 
   “Ten cards for a fiver love,” Jack’s voice snarls, taking me out of my thoughts.
   “I’m good thanks,” I say, giving him my best grin. The snarl stays on his face so I hurriedly move on.
   “Thought not,” he mutters.

The other stallholders are just as welcoming so I head back - down Upper Street, onto the Holloway Road and to that happy home of mine above the ‘Standard Tandoori’. Such a name doesn’t do the place justice, it’s not only an Indian takeaway where drunk men are beached as they flow towards Archway, it’s a happy little community bound by the smell of curry.

Opening the door and stepping in, I savour the dark dustiness of the hallway after the over-bright chilliness outside. I take a deep breath and smile. I’ve heard people say it has a soapy taste that infects everything else, but to me, coriander smells of safety. 

I brush my feet through the interesting mixture of junk and bills carpeting the entrance, much of it addressed to people that don’t live here any more. Most never wanted to found and hurried out without forwarding their addresses. Wherever they are now, they are unaffected by the increasingly angry letters printed with increasingly red ink that join the adverts for cleaning services, kebab shops, Chinese takeaways and cheekily - other curry houses.

Why go to Jack’s Ephemera when I could start my own collection right here? I may even find my own ‘liebe Sara’. As I search through the pile, I spot my name on a neat little envelope. It’s plain and white, distinct from the colours of the other post that covers the floor. I pick it up and look hard. The envelope has a black border and my details are printed in some font disguising itself as fancy handwriting. Flipping it over, I see the return address. I’m going to need fortification to read this letter.

I put it in my coat pocket and huff up the three flights of stairs to the top of the house. Then I grab the pole from whichever corner I left it in last, hook the hatch open and let the ladder fall down. Climbing the ladder, I emerge into what had been described as a ‘cosy and contemporary studio’. 

Most of the room is taken up by a single bed. I think it might even be a toddler's bed because it has a pine safety rail and the only way to sleep in it is to curl up like a kidney bean. Under the bed are a few wicker baskets filled with all the odds and ends I’ve collected, as well as any clothes I can’t hang up. A rail on wheels manages the clothes I can. There are some hobs, a play fridge at the end of the room and a temperamental shower behind a permanent temporary partition built from finest cheap fibreboard.

In a room like this, the bed is more that just a bed. It's a sofa, a retreat and a desk and it's where I throw the letter before slipping into something more comfortable. I’ve gone for a pair of pantaloons with rainbow stripes and a loose flowing Chinesey gown in red that clashes with my hair. Many of my clothes come from when I first came to London and lived a few years on an actor-manager’s sofa. It was the perfect arrangement between a teenage runaway and a young artiste terrified of doing the dishes. He gave me a lot of old costumes to dress up in. I think this leisurewear has its origins in a production of Aladdin. Very cosy, but no pockets. I wonder where he kept his lamp?

I have a miniature bottle of gin that I saved for an occasion such as this. It’s somewhere in the cupboard under the hob, tucked behind a bag of pasta spirals and a tin of dog food left by a previous tenant. I twiddle the tiny top and throw the splash of gin down my throat. The little envelope sits menacingly on my bed. The walls pull in and I feel my heart beat. This ‘cosy and contemporary studio’ is not big enough for the both of us. The return address is from Copthorne, a nice little village in Sussex. The letter is from my Mum.

I creep up to the envelope and open quickly. Inside, is a smartly printed invitation with my name hurriedly scribbled in a gap at the top. It would appear Mum has cordially invited me to a special event at the crematorium followed by a memorial get together at her house. Typical of her to publicly commemorate the ten years since my Dad died. She does everything publicly. The anniversary is tomorrow, the card must have been under the other letters for a while. That would explain all her missed calls recently. I’m not going. I have my own plans to remember Dad. I’m going to take the Piccadilly line up to Cockfosters and go for a walk through the bluebells in Enfield Chase. That’s a far more fitting memorial than whatever shindig Mum has planned.

I stare at the tasteful black border and rub the expensive card, turning it over in my fingers. There’s a little note on the back, scrawled in her awkward handwriting. ‘Please’, it says, underlined. The whole thing will be torture, it will be trite and shallow and inappropriate. There will be dips and sparkling wine. People will ask me how I’m doing even though they will already have made up their minds. But I see the writing on the back of the invite and I can’t help but feel a flutter of shame.

I root through the little wicker baskets for my mobile. Not having much money and minimal social engagements mean that I’ve not really kept up with the latest in telecommunications. I pull out the little black cube and scroll through the phone to text Mum. The buttons are stiff and awkward so every word must be keyed in the old fashioned way. This phone is so old that I was mugged once and the mugger gave it back, that was a few years ago. Though to defend it, the reception is very good and I can leave it nearly a month without charging. 
   ‘See you tomorrow,’ my text reads. I send it. I’ve not even put it down and it vibrates with a text from Mum.
   ‘cant w8’, it says. I certainly can.
There’s a clattering from below as someone awkwardly falls against the ladder. 
    “Buggerit!” Hisses a voice. The steps clumsily shuffle up, pausing for a moment to rearrange something. Then a little head in a bowl haircut pops up. 
  “Eeeey,” the head says. It’s Manna. For some reason he thinks he’s the Fonze and expects a round of applause every time he enters a room. I try to oblige with my measly two hands. He climbs up the ladder, his small body perfectly complementing his small head. The only things big about him are his ears and teeth. His walk implies that something else is big as well but I think he just puts that on. He’s balancing four silver trays and a large padded envelope of naan bread in his right hand. 
   “I brought dinner.”
   “Brilliant. What’ve we got?’”
   “Saag aloo, saag paneer, lamb saag, pilau rice and two saag naan.”
   “That’s a lot of saag.”
   “Someone mucked up the spinach order, they got saag coming out their arses down there. Though after this, I suppose we’ll have it coming out of our arses up here as well.”
   “Charming.” I mutter, uncurling my legs to get off the bed.
   “You stay there, I’ll sort this lot out.” He drops the trays next to me. I envision the grease leaking out the lids and dripping on to my bedsheets. 
   “Where are the bowls?” he asks and I try to stop envisioning grease.
   “In the sink.”

He goes off behind the partition and comes out with two red bowls and two large spoons. 
   “Sorted,” he says. I can never tell Manna’s accent, sometimes he sounds proper London and sometimes he sounds like Dick Van Dyke. He brings the bowls and bread over and sits down on the edge of the bed. We start to dish out what we fancy and Manna tells me about his day which he has mostly spent shooting pixellated people on a Playstation.
    “Are you still free tomorrow?” I ask.
   “Yeah,” he says, spooning something green in his mouth. “No college, no work, no nothing. It’s great.”
   “Do you want to hang out?”
   “Didn’t you say you’ve got some private thing?”
   “Something came up. I wondered if you wanted to spend a day in the countryside, have a free lunch, meet my Mum.”
   “Meet your Mum? That is not hanging out.” He waves his naan all over the place, spilling bits of saag. It’s fine, I have a Mini-Dustbuster in the shape of a cow - it was cheaper than the cat one.
   “I won’t lie, it’s going to be a strain but I need a wingman.”

I see the emotions playing over his face and around his teeth. The first is outright rejection but the second is curiosity. I’ve met most of Manna’s family, they all find themselves doing odd-jobs for Standard Tandoori at some point but he’s not met any of mine. 
   “Okay,” he sighs, nosiness winning out. “You’ve got to deliver my leaflets this week as well as your own.” He points at me sternly. “No ditching them.”
  “That’s your trick not mine,” I see him try to give me a face of rebuttal. “I found the ones on Blackstock Road, remember?” He nods his acknowledgement. “You’re doing me a favour though, so I’ll deliver yours.”
That’s one of my days gone, roaming the streets of Highbury spreading the good word of the Standard Tandoori but it’s a fair price to pay.
   “Where is this thing, do I need to borrow the motorbike?” Manna asks with hope in his eyes.
  “God no. Mum would have conniptions. We’ll have to go the slow way. I’ll pay for your ticket.”
  “What with? I thought you were between jobs again.”
  “Mum’ll give me some. Besides, I found some cash this morning.”

I’m quite lucky that way, I often find money in the street, wedged in the strangest of places, often when I’m feeling hard up. If that doesn’t happen, I can always get some cash-in-hand waitressing or some shitty little job until we get tired of each other. I might not be rich but I always seem to get by. Sometimes I feel I have a Fairy Godmother.

I crank up my laptop to order the train tickets, tapping my fingernail on my teeth while it connects to the internet I’m piggybacking off the bookies next door.
   “Let’s get some music on,” I say, bored of waiting for the eternal computer and crawling on the floor amongst my cassette tapes. I’ve stolen most of the cassettes from skips so it's a music taste mainly dictated by what others throw out. Most of it is easy listening and middle of the road, old crooners and swing bands, Chris Rhea if I’m going modern.
  “Put one of mine on, can’t be doing with all that dead people shit.”

I search for one of Manna’s mixtapes and press play. The crunch-slurp of a Michael Jackson beat fills the room.
   “You know that he’s dead too, don’t you?”
   “The Prince of Pop? No, he’s just hidden away somewhere recording his greatest album.”
   “A double-header with Elvis I presume.”
   “Nah, he shat himself to death. Everybody knows that.”
   “Tomorrow, you’ve got to try not to swear and you’ve got to dress smart.”

Manna shrugs his thin shoulders and grins with his huge teeth. 
    “I was made for smart,” he says, “I’m a mod at heart.”

The rumble of dubstep comes from his mixtape and he jerks his head around making wiki-wiki noises before noticing he’s spilled some dinner. Watching Manna try and suck the curry from his sweatshirt, I’m not sure if he is really the right person to ask to a memorial but I’ve done it now. At the very least, he’ll be a distraction which can be infinitely valuable at times such as that. I get back on my bed and fight my computer to buy two train tickets for tomorrow.


(Any comments appreciated.)