Tag Archives: fiction

reading buildings like tea leaves

Magush reads the future in a vacant building opposite the charcoal yard where he lives. The six huge picture windows and the twelve little windows of the adjacent building are like cards for him. Magush never thought of associating windows and cards: that was my idea. His methods are mysterious and can be explained only in part. He tells me that during the day he has trouble drawing conclusions, because the light disturbs the images. The most propitious moment to carry out his task is at sunset, when certain slanting rays of light filter through the side windows of the building and are reflected onto the glass of the windows in front. That is why he always makes appointments with his clients for that hour of the day. I know, having learned from careful research, that the upper part of the building has to do with matters of the heart, the lower part with money and work, and the middle with problems of family and health.

— ‘Magush’ by Silvina Ocampo in Thus Were Their Faces, p 126

Margaret and GDH Cole, Crimewriters

Margaret and GDH Cole Death of a MillionaireNot being an English-raised Marxist, I didn’t really know who GDH Cole was, not until hearing Thee Faction’s hit single ‘(Don’t Call on Rock’n’Roll) Call on GDH Cole‘. So I knew the name, and that he was worth calling on. I trust those guys. Shortly thereafter Mark explained that he was Oliver Postgate’s uncle and the inspiration for Professor Yaffle in Bagpuss. Pretty damn swoony.

So I thought of him fondly, though still in great ignorance. Uncovering Death of a Millionaire in one of Mark’s many boxes of books, I pulled it out to read. And now that I am writing this, I thought perhaps I’d find out a little more…but life is a little busy, so I am just going to lazily quote from Thee Faction’s website. It starts out interesting with the description of GDH Cole as a ‘Bolshevik soul in a Fabian muzzle’.

They continue:

GDH Cole was born in 1889. Between then and his death in 1959, he effectively did all the things you’d expect a man of the British Left to do. He wrote for the Guardian, the Left Book Club and the New Statesman, he ran the Fabians, he was huge in the cooperative movement, he was a Professor at Oxford…

Why do they love GDH Cole apart from being the inspiration for Professor Yaffle? Not for the Fabian bit thank god. No, they’re all about Guild Socialism:

A million and one blueprints for socialism exist. Most lead unavoidably to Stalinism, because they hand everything over to the State. Guild Socialism doesn’t. That whole area of life that exists between the individual and the state is what needs to be democratised: Civil Society. So where Stalinism destroyed all the space between the individual and the State, ensuring that the State was everything, Guild Socialism offers a path to a socialism where the State is almost nothing.

That sounds interesting. I won’t quote any more at you, I will wait until I have read some GDH Cole for myself.

It is too late to take their advice and stay away from the detective fiction though…I did, however, really love the gossipy bit about Beatrice Webb thinking he had no sense of humour.

There were a handful of things I really liked about the novel — and it wasn’t absolutely terrible, especially as it helped me to sleep and I needed that. It wasn’t too didactic either, and I learned of the existence of hotels without signs for the right kind of people.

The driver was a small, wizened old man, looking somehow ridiculously out of place in his taxi-driver’s uniform. You realized why, when you heard him speak. Then you knew that he was an old horse-cab driver, driven to a change of occupation that the times should change. He glanced, with small, suspicious eyes, at the two police officers… (61)

I read that and suddenly a window opened up to me, the change from horses to cars, the cost to human beings. I like sentences that do that.

The next one actually made me snort:

“I began,” said Pasquett, “as you know, by getting myself into the confidence of the Bolshevik fellows down here. That was easy enough, I found, where I showed them letters from Lenin, and a few other things like that. (149)

And the grand finale, the moral of the tale?

The trouble about you, Arthur, is that you’ve been badly brought up. You think you’re a bit of an iconoclast; but away down in your mind you’ve a profound veneration for property, and law and order, and middle-class morality, and all the other things you criticise in those funny little books of yours. I had all of that knocked out of me quite early…It’s only that I’m not civilized, and you are. (287)

I can’t quite imagine Professor Yaffle saying that, but possibly just imagining what the world would be if he could…

Israel Zangwill’s Big Bow Street Mystery

big_bow_mysteryMrs. Drabdump, of 11 Glover Street, Bow, was one of the few persons in London whom fog did not depress. She went about her work quite as cheerlessly as usual.

She is quite a brilliant, gloomy character of a landlady, and the whole of this novel was immensely enjoyable. The actual locked-room mystery was perhaps a little heavy handed, but for a serial written in four weeks — that had the felicity of responding to some of its reader’s guesses within its pages — it is quite awesome. I loved the nod to Dickens in the names and the form of it, but it is far funnier and stripped of most of the Dickensian sentimentality.

There are a number of funny digs at hack writing in here, in the introduction as well as the story.

So much written about the East End was written to to uncover and to educate on poverty and working class misery on the one hand, or to titillate with crime and tales of the underworld. It occurred to me halfway through this how wonderful it was to read something without any of those aims. To read something set in the East End because the East End is what the author knew, to involve the whole panoply of East End characters, from landladies to Oxford and Toynbee House gentlemen to labour organisers with political pretensions to hack journalists scrounging their way and their ongoing debates with their friends the cobblers and the ex-detectives. Some theosophy thrown in along with the socialism. It is therefore mocking and irreverent, but compassionate too. Written from the inside as one of this great diverse throng, too often reduced to caricature.

That said, there is no doubt where his sympathies lie, which of course I also loved. This is a time of organising to change the world. Near the end he allows himself an aside:

A sudden consciousness of the futility of his existence pierced the little cobbler like an icy wind. He saw his own life, and a hundred million lives like his, swelling and breaking like bubbles on a dark ocean, unheeded, uncared for.

“The Cause of the People,” he murmured, brokenly, “I believe in the Cause of the People. There is nothing else.”

Israel_ZangwillIsrael Zangwill (1864-1926) born in London to immigrant parents, was long a champion of the oppressed. In reading about the suffragettes and East End struggles, his name appears time and time again. He had a complicated relationship to Zionism, wrote numerous books and plays, including a play about America as the ‘melting pot’ which earned him a letter from Roosevelt. Reading this, I thought to myself he is someone I would have really loved to know, so I shall investigate further at some point — or read more of his fiction.



The end of my holiday in the Peak District

Day 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 (morning) | 4 (afternoon) | 4 (night) | 7 | 11 | the end

I am so finished with those men and their delusions. When M. starting singing Kate Bush I knew we were done, I don’t know what Sprake did to those poor trees or what M. was seeing up there, or why he thought we were trapped and couldn’t get out because I got out easy enough, or just where Charteris and everyone else went or when the police cordon went up that I had to cross or if it’s rehab M. needs or if the old ones really have returned but honestly, life is too short to stay in a damp mouldy house with no food and someone channeling Maurice Denham. That’s just not okay in real life.

The real M. would never have done that to me…would he?

But I’m pretty sure it will all be just fine once Jeremy Corbyn is elected. Then M. will return safe and sound, happily babbling the old nonsense of before and not the new post-Charteris nonsense.

I’m not even scared of the old ones now…

My Holiday in the Peak District, day 11

Day 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 (morning) | 4 (afternoon) | 4 (night) | 7 | 11

My god we are still here, and this mist has come down and M. insists we can’t get out and Sprake has come back and he’s being disgusting — I mean properly disgusting. Did I ever at any point evince any kind of desire to see his penis? No. No woman (or man) wants to see that. He’s been wandering around in nothing but some kind of stupid cape and I just…I am so done. It’s over. Sprake has clearly escaped from the hospital and Dyson says he can’t find the farm and there is nothing to eat here and Dinah quit days ago because her food kept going rotten and because the men are all being weird assholes.

If only I’d come to the end of my tether a day or two earlier.

Let the mist rise and I will be out of here, I can feel the hysteria rising in the air, the strange mix of testosterone and fear and over-intellectualization of everydamnthing, and I don’t like it. I am going to hit M. over the head with the proverbial frying pan and drag him home if he gives me any fuss. With love of course.

If only I could un-see Sprake. If only I didn’t have the feeling I am living through a Lovecraft story without all of the repressed bits — and really wishing them repressed. If only I didn’t have the feeling that something is actually terribly wrong.

Not tentacles-out-of-the-mist wrong. But very wrong indeed.

Until the mist goes, I’m off to play with the cat.

The last day…

My Holiday in the Peak District, day 7

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 (morning) | Day 4 (afternoon) | Day 4 (night) | Day 7

I couldn’t convince M. to go.

Almost I left without him, but to abandon him here? It seemed an impossible decision.

Especially because after that terrible night where I began to feel all that he was experiencing creep over me, things have seemed to get better. I have tried to return to my walks in this beautiful country, my books.

The best thing is that the white cat followed me home from the ruins. I found it on the doorstep the morning after that terrible night spent huddled and starting at shadows. I gave it some milk and it twined around my ankles. It curls up purring on my lap now, purring. But only when M. — and all of the men for that matter — are away. It hates them, slinks into hidden corners before I even know they are approaching.

It is how I know they are approaching.

M. has stopped overthinking his translations of that old manuscript, seems much more cheerful and has stopped muttering to himself. He’s stopped scribbling in his journal as well — until today. I shall have to try and get him to share it with me, but he refused to say anything when I first asked him. Normally I would respect his need to keep some privacy in our relationship, I told him, of course I would.

But not when I fear something is terribly terribly wrong.

And it still is, I can feel it creeping up on us again.

He is spending his time in that cave, trying to translate the inscriptions on the steles though he has also brought scans of them home. He took me once when Charteris and the others were away, the one time they were all busy with some other task… sometimes I feel they watch him. M showed me the bare place in the rock where the face had been.

I don’t know what I think about that place, don’t like it, don’t like M. there. Or us continuing here. M. refuses to join me in my walking, even after I described the miraculous pies of Bakewell.

He has no time for pie? Impossible. Steak and Stilton, I said. Lamb and Leek. Real Bakewell tarts. He has refused to join me. And something new has happened this morning, but he just shakes his head when I ask him and says everything is fine.

I can see it is not. I found him shaking, muttering about squirrels again, and I am afraid.

Day 11

My Holiday in the Peak District, day 4 (night)

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 (morning) | Day 4 (afternoon)

I can’t sleep, can’t sleep at all. My mind beset with worries, all kinds of worries, but most of all that I too am infected. Poisoned. Hallucinating like the rest.

I too have started seeing things.

Flurried movements at the edge of my vision.

M. has been tossing and turning beside me, I know his sleep is restless as well.

I am determined tomorrow that we shall just go home.

Day 7

My Holiday in the Peak District, day 4 (afternoon)

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 (morning) | Day 4 (afternoon)

So it turns out there used to be a secret military establishment up in the ruined upper village. WWII shenanigans, all hush hush and top secret and so, Bob’s your uncle, whisperings of plot, murder, conspiracy and other dark imaginings.

I think Charteris just sits in this cottage and spins out conspiracies by the yard — he’d do better to take a turn down in the cotton mills just a little further along the lane.

M. finally opened up a little to me after we got home, after I’d taken my tea upstairs in disgust to read a bit more of Bateman’s fascinating Victorian studies of the local Iron-Age tumuli scattered about that have filled my heart with delight.

M. read me his latest journal entry in whispers — the bright white light that had engulfed the ruins, the cordoning off by the authorities — now that was interesting. I know the hills around here are full of lead, I wonder that there is not uranium as well? Or phosphorous perhaps? I wonder what they had stored up there, and just what they were doing in such a remote location during the war…

It is mysterious, I confess. Rather thrilling in fact. But far more wonderful was M.’s revelation that underneath the village there are a series of tunnels dug by the miners, connecting one public house with another, one church with another (connecting churches is more puzzling, I confess). He and Charteris actually went in one of them without me, and I tell you, I have never been so hurt and angry in my life.

M. knows how much I love tunnels and caves. He still has not forgiven me for the time I dragged him to Nottingham, ‘city of caves’, and a succession of tours led by characters in costume, a sublime sandstone made sadly shmaltz. It crossed my mind that perhaps this was all just one long, drawn-out attempt at revenge.

But he was shaken, I knew this wasn’t about me at all and tried to let go of my anger as he hoarsely whispered of the cold damp tunnels and the scabrous stones and the growing feeling of evil and then…he could barely speak as he told me of the throbbing. Of the face.

The face.

I can only think that Charteris has somehow been feeding him shrooms. ‘Mycological abominations’. ‘Vile mycelium’. Call them what you will.

At least, I hope he has. M., I fear, is beginning to believe in its reality though at least he is now becoming doubtful of Charteris’s intentions. I need to get into the tunnels and see what Charteris is really up to, and how he is drugging my dear M. It might just be the mouldy miasma that Charteris carries with him like a cloud, poisoning his blood and his brain.

Mothers, don’t let your sons grow up to be dirty bastards who don’t know how to wash their clothes.

So tunnels… I’d make every effort to get into those tunnels regardless. But Charteris and those two lackeys of his are certainly up to no good there…

Day 4 (night)

My Holiday in the Peak District, day 4 (morning)

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4

The men have continued to act as though we do not exist, and indeed, today it was as though I myself were alone with them as Dinah busied herself in the kitchen and left early. I see how she is invisible to them, though she is the only thing that prevents their collective descent into absolute filth and squalor.

They are increasingly strange but no longer all strangers, as I have finally learned the names of the other two — MacReady and Dyson.

Over breakfast M. kept staring into the orchard — a wonderfully ancient place full of twisted and wizened apple trees. He was seeing things, I know he was, but I saw nothing. I am more and more worried about him. About us. That might even extend as far as all of us. In fact, a man came to take Sprake away. A grumpy and jaundiced-looking ‘transcendentalist doctor’ — whatever the hell that means.

Alas poor Sprake, but that I hate thee deadly I would lament thy miserable state.

I have finally manged to catch a glimpse of M.’s journal, and at first it made me laugh — there is a whole section on his equable temperament, how his Protestant upbringing contributed to his work ethic, thrift and abstemiousness…worthy of a chuckle I thought. But a fond one. It felt like catching someone preening themselves in front of a mirror, I felt a twinge of guilt. Almost put the thing down. I’m glad I didn’t.

The rest is the stuff of nightmare.

Particularly the bit about Charteris interrupting him while he was in some kind of fit working over his translations, claiming he had been sputtering on in some strange language, insensible to the world… M. thinks it is a joke but I have seen him do something like it before. I don’t know what to do, don’t know where to turn. I feel as though Charteris is somehow encouraging it.

Then I heard M. returning and hurriedly hid all evidence of my spying, well-intentioned as it was.

Almost I turned down the offer of a walk around the ruined upper half of the village, but could not bear the thought of my poor M. alone with Charteris. I also love ruins. Love. Them. So we walked up the steep hill and boredom overcame my good intentions (and Charteris has shown no sign of strange behaviour) so I soon left them to explore for myself. They stopped in the first room we came to and stayed muttering to themselves. Even when I crept alongside of them on the other side of the wall I could not hear them or get a sense of the mystery they were concocting between themselves, so I had to put a stop to it.

Still, in those stolen moments of a holiday I could actually enjoy I found a cat! A white one. I resolved to ask Dinah why the upper village had been abandoned as it had, the beauty of the ruins only made me more sad.

When I finally and somewhat unwillingly returned to the two men, M. was white and shaking. I don’t know what that damn Charteris told him. M. won’t say anything. I’m going to have to get my hands on that journal again…

Day 4 (afternoon)

My Holiday in the Peak District, day 3

Day 1 | Day 2

Sprake’s told them all he got off with Susan, and he’s gone all ‘funny’ because of it. God, what a liar. M. came upstairs this morning with some kind of drivel about Sprake’s drivel — apparently rejection has sent him a bit round the bend. Which I am sorry for, of course. He sits in his room muttering now and no one can get a clear word out of him apparently, never a good sign at all.

M. went down to breakfast early, said he couldn’t get a word out of the others here, who were all soon off on their work, whatever that may be. It’s strange to find everything wrapped up in such secrecy, though I think M. rather enjoys it. He’s been daydreaming rather than working seriously on his translations, and muttering some rather strange things himself. I don’t like it. I keep trying to tell him we’re on holiday and he shouldn’t keep working.

He’s not so good at turning off. He can’t enjoy the moment. I worry about him.

Anyway, I got breakfast with the housekeeper, a dear older woman named Dinah who somehow manages to retain her sanity in this madhouse. We sat in a pool of sunshine in her lovely kitchen, and I bored her a bit with my worries about M., and then she talked about her growing up in these valleys and family working in the mills. She herself has always worked in the kitchen, and confessed something odd was happening in the house, with all of the food going off within twelve to twenty-four hours of being brought within its doors. She’s never seen anything like it, and been worrying herself for the past few days over whether she should call a health inspector.

Charteris, of course, refuses to admit there is any need to do anything of the kind. He’s just started sending out one of these ‘friends’ to bring in fresh food every day. Wasteful, that’s what it is. Bets do what you employer tells you, though, right? It’s not as though work is so easy to find. I know that feeling — even in London. I can’t imagine a place like this. She insists Charteris isn’t so bad, just very very odd.

I could tell she was curious about my own presence, but I didn’t know what to say. M. keeps insisting we’ve been sent for for a purpose, but Charteris has not yet said anything.

Anyway, we did finally get out for a lovely walk along the moors, all covered with purple heather and splashes of golden gorse with bees buzzing all around and fragrance filling our nostrils. I has happier than I have been in a long time, especially when we stumbled across the old tumuli and the standing stones. There is an immense sense of beauty and peace here, that I have rarely felt elsewhere.

I hardly wonder at our ancestors choosing to be buried up here above the world amongst the heather, to conduct ceremony in this wide open space with such loveliness filling the horizon. Their stones stand enigmatic and beautiful, reminding me there is so much we can never know. I like that feeling.

I was reluctant to head back to the cottage and its dense, damp, feverish atmosphere. For our walk, Charteris had given us a map from 1870 — his idea of a prank I suppose — but we managed just fine and I actually enjoyed seeing so visibly the contrast of all that was here once, with all that is here now. There had not, indeed, been all that much change.

M. murmured something quite interesting as we pored over the map, it reminded me of just what it was I saw in him all those years ago:

Remember, though, the map is never the territory, and sometimes the territory does not want to be known.

Ooh, right? I liked that, though I’m not entirely sure what it means.

Then back to the cottage, which was hardly welcoming despite Dinah having laid out tea. She had already gone, sadly. Dinah cleans and cooks but does not wash laundry — I have noticed Charteris seems incapable of doing it for himself. He is positively mouldy.

If only M. would be a little more normal and stop shrieking at the sight of squirrels I might still count myself happy after such a day. But something very odd is certainly going on with the men in this house, and neither I nor Dinah have a clue as to what it might be…

Day 4 (morning)