A couple of years ago, I found myself on the last train out of London Bridge via Lewisham. As the carriage rocked along the railway tracks I struggled to sway in its motion. I needed one hand free to hold myself upright meaning the other fought the thick book I was trying to read. What this book was I can’t quite remember, but don’t worry it is ultimately immaterial to my anecdote. The very fact I can remember that it is heavy isn’t irrelevant either, it is but an incidental detail my memory has decided to hold onto. There will probably be a few like this, so for the sake of those who appreciate the blanks being filled in we shall say it was a copy of Jonathan Littell’s the Kindly Ones. Something weighty, but not too pretentious. It wasn’t James Joyce, for example, for Leo Tolstoy. It probably wasn’t Littell either, but then I was definitely reading it around the same time. How do I know this for certain? A novel packed with graphic representations of the holocaust shaped to mirror ancient Greek myths isn’t exactly something to pull out on a first date which I’d done a couple of weeks prior to this tale. Sorry, I’m getting distracted. Shall we continue?
It was a little after one in the morning, so obviously I’d been drinking as I made my way up Lewisham Way back towards my little flat on Harefield Road. As I walked my head was filled, as it often is wont to be after a couple of ales, with a sort of nostalgic lust for the evening just passed. As with all good nights out, you don’t really want them to end, but then the ones that don’t become good in a way that feels extremely bad at some point the next day. Anyway that hadn’t happened so I was enjoying feeling full of friendship and being mildly worried about having to get up early in the morning for work, seeing as I as somewhere on the cusp between Wednesday and Thursday, but also looking forward to the date I had lined up the following evening.
It would be date six, of which I can be certain because in the first flushes of romance every date remains clearly distinct from the others and consequently I can remember explaining what was about to happen on my walk home the next evening in a pub by the Thames in front of the Tate Modern, her arm lying across my shoulder.
My continuity is getting confused here, but just to recap the walking is in the past present, date one was in the past past and date six was in the past future. For sake of narrative we have what is happening, what has happened and what will happen even though now, in 2013, it all happened some time ago.
There I was happily ambling along, an occasional skip to my feet, up through the pretty old streets of Brockley. I turned into Breakspears Road, its wide avenue shadowed by three or four story townhouses. Many broken up into flats back in the sixties and seventies when zone two South East London were the badlands, the picturesque architecture of Brockley penned in by the more problematic New Cross, Peckham, Catford and Deptford. It still is, of course. It’s not as though someone has picked it up and moved the area, but as the last vestige of affordable central, more or less, London housing the South East has recently undergone something of a renaissance. The bad old days, as some mourn, are gone and instead pillocks with too much money have arrived from Clapham and the North West on the restored East London line looking for period housing to buy. It helps that the surrounding areas have also improved, with the big sink estates largely absent removed during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries’ booms. Almost surprisingly, since the financial implosion the wider area doesn’t seem to have cataclysmically withdrawn. A generation back, it was just as pretty, although probably more run down, and families who could afford enormous six or seven bedroomed houses, in the main, wanted to live elsewhere so the houses were ripped into flats. Those few who fancied a bargain now find themselves sitting on assets worth more than they had ever imagined.
I thought all this as I wandered through the streets and I also thought of my bed and of the evening to follow and wondered what it might bring. So lost in thought was I as I made my way down the dark of Cranfield Road, that I wasn’t really paying attention to what was around me.
That end of Cranfield Road can be a bit gloomy, especially as one of the street lights seems to be permanently out of action. Was the same one, I thought, that had put me off the basement flat down besides the church, when was it? All the way back in 2002, I think. Ah, a lifetime ago. So much has happened in between and, frankly, I’m minded to tell you all about it, but, you may be pleased to hear, our story’s pace doesn’t really allow for such a deviation.
So it was particularly dark and I was particularly pissed. It’s not as though this sort of thing happens all the time.
‘Excuse me,’ said a man on the other side of the road and he started to cross towards me. I glanced up and realised that I was perfectly positioned between the houses which fronted onto the road and being out of the sight of the rear windows from those on Wickham Road. The man looked sunburnt, which seemed a little odd. Despite the fact we’re getting to the point where something actually happens, I should clearly take this moment to explain that it was the middle of summer and whilst by no means was it a washout it wasn’t a scorcher either. I was wearing a leather jacket and jeans. He wore shell suit bottoms and a white, dirty, vest top, his shoulders providing some illumination, and presumably warmth, as their red throb headed towards me.
He carried a tatty old plastic bag balanced on an upturned palm, his other hand just inside it. What, I wondered, could be in the bag for him to hold it so strangely? It was like he was carrying a pizza, but it wasn’t square. It was a crumpled heap. And why was his other hand inside? Was he caring for something or poising himself for some other action?
His face looked both familiar and a touch menacing, yet his tone was friendly. ‘Excuse me’ is so unusually polite for late night London, so disarmingly inoffensive. He had crew cut blonde hair with small spike up the centre and a big square head to match his biceps, like every stereotype of an eighties football hooligan I’d ever seen. He reminded me of how I’d once imagined a boy at school would grow up. As the boy kicked me down the school stairs, I consoled myself, at the final bounce to the floor, that one day he would have the looks to match his thuggish behaviour. Whilst I, my teenage deflated self-confidence chastised me, would no doubt be alone, ugly and fat. I saw this boy, now a man, obviously, a couple of years ago at a cash point near where my parents live. He didn’t look like a thug, he just looked far too old for his thirty years, like an inversion of the Portrait of Dorian Grey, his younger, more beautiful self committed violent sins and his adult body withered in advance. I meanwhile, well, I’m far too modest to suggest how I might be looking these days.
‘Excuse me.’ What on earth could he want at such a late hour? Where was he going? Where was he coming from? Time conveniently slowed down to give me time to have all these long drawn out conversations with my inner monologue. I found it increasingly a convenient way to extrapolate a point – and meet a word count – but it wouldn’t last forever. At some point I was going to have to advance the plot. Something, God-damn it, was going to have to happen.
‘Huh,’ I glanced up in his direction and as he crossed the road, I stepped toward the pavement edge furthest from the wall, but he also hugged that side of the pavement as though trying to push me back into the dark. His hand moved deeper into the bag still balanced on his palm, not rummaging but as though gripping some unseen object tighter. He passed a parked car and glimpsed over his shoulder at it. ‘Never mind,’ he said and picked up his pace to march straight past me.
I continued onwards as well and in a step or two realised that the parked car was occupied. Amongst the dark, two burly men sat, snuggled down in their seats, the windows open the smallest crack and the faintest smell of smoke escape.
At home I sat in my solitary armchair and felt my heart race. I played out numerous scenarios, most of them vicious, but you don’t want to hear about those, do you? Nothing happened and yet, by being on the edge of something, perhaps everything that could have occurred did.
Last week, I went to see Geoff Dyer speak at Goldsmith’s College. Dyer’s a writer I remain undecided about. At once wryly amusing and irritating, too beholden to the sixties and his belief in “good vibes” and “bad vibes” to be taken seriously, he produces writing which is both graceful and pertinent and yet utterly meaningless. The day previously, I’d seen Jim Grace read from his new, and final, novel Harvest. After which he answered questions, which partly dealt with a different work he’d abandoned. He’d been writing a novel which, for the first time, tapped into an autobiographic vein, but had given it up, deciding it wasn’t the best way to address his Father’s death. Asked if he would return to the theme he replied ‘I know writers don’t always write about themselves for narcissistic reasons.’ It’s hard to believe that’s true of Dyer. There he is, again and again, wandering through his own writings and even when it isn’t him, such as Jeff in Venice, it is.
That evening, he read a piece which will shortly appear in the Observer travel section entitled White Sands* and which made me think of the above anecdote. He also talked about how publishers don’t quite know what to do with him, how to classify or pitch his work. Someone asked how much of it was true. ‘It’s all just writing,’ he said claiming not to draw a distinction between fiction and non-fiction.
That’s something I’ve been guilty of in the past, putting too much of myself into stuff that’s made up. The main characters have too frequently been a blurred version of me. The current novel, whatever it ends up being called, is different. It feels more about life, than about me. Which is good. I’m finding myself more interested in people I’m not than the person I am at the moment. Besides, here is the right place for the narcissistic self-promotion as some sort of flawed artist who can be found meandering around the streets of South East London late at night.
‘How much of the blog is true and how much do you invent?’ I could well have been asked on more than one occasion. ‘Surely all this stuff doesn’t just conveniently happen to you?’
I enjoyed Dyer’s reading at Goldsmith’s. I’m on the lookout for a second hand copy of his book about jazz. I might give him another chance, so if I may borrow his defence from Yoga for People who can’t be Bothered: “All of these things happened, but some of them only happened in my head.”
*Curiously, my memory was that Dyer said it had already been published by the Observer, but I couldn’t find it online to link to I changed the above the future tense; however a further search suggests that it was published in Granta and broadcast on Radio 4 in 2007 so maybe he’s just making it all up. Who knows other than Geoff?