Unawed history may consider comment superfluous upon the ultimate destination point of these impertinent times, and in particular the current disposition and likely future fortunes of the city-state English capital—with its hardly less than reasonable position perhaps being that Olympian correspondents such as Messrs. T. S. Eliot, Raymond Williams and George Orwell have already more than distinguished themselves in this regard.
But putative assessors may well one day come upon this humble account of my own, one effectively commissioned by a very dear friend and neighbour. That is to say a certain Mrs Peter Hughie Carberry in the year 1971. When, upon learning that my ‘taking the boat across’ was imminent, prevailed upon me not to hesitate before ‘dropping her a wee line’, in the time-honoured tradition of so many of my countrymen. Most notably, as she reminded me, the Inspector of Drains from the County Leitrim, the water-colourist and popular songwriter known as Percy French, whose ‘Emigrant’s Letter’ tune remained so memorable and dear to her heart, she informed me, before clearing her throat and beginning, somewhat extravagantly, to pipe: Dear Danny I’m takin’ the pen in my hand / To tell you we’re just out of sight of the land…
Before I hastily made my goodbyes and clambered aboard the bus that was set to take me to Dublin and the North Wall, hence to Soho, and, hopefully, the wilful embrace of unethical hedonism and untamed bouts of heretofore unprecedented indulgence and dissolution.
What could possibly be in store for me, I kept wondering as we passed through those townlands which I never would see again—Drumhowan, Drung and the scarcely pronounceable Tullynahinera. Yes, as the hedgerows and ditches of County Monaghan sped past in the morning sun, I reflected, like the man with the wheelbarrow, it was all before me now.
‘Just make sure now and don’t forget!’ I remembered Mrs Peter admonishing, ‘Like Percy French! Your Emigrant’s Letter now, do you hear me, Wee Pat?’
Wee Pat certainly would not indeed, he said to himself. As he tapped his trusty notebook secreted deep in the confines of his inside pocket. That would be the very first task on my list. Mrs P. had spent the war years as a staff nurse in St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. And indeed had recalled those days fondly for me as we stood there chatting. ‘How could I ever have been such an eejit?’ she had snarled unexpectedly, as I gulped there beside her with my hands in my pockets, before stroking my chin as was my fashion in those faraway days, after the manner of some diminutive and excessively scholarly cleric.
‘All I can say is that I must have been on drugs to have ever considered leaving that delightful principality!’ she had continued acidly, ‘where I could have myself a nice cuppa tea and a penny bun in Lyons Corner House not to mention a nice mannerly soldier to compliment me on my dancing. It’s a pity Hitler didn’t come over here and blow this bloody place out of it! ’
Harsh words indeed, I reflected as the bus left the townland of Aghadrumaginshaheera far behind. I resumed my preoccupied psychological peregrinations, rapt in renewed considerations of the British Empire induced by my neighbour’s wistful reminiscence of those legendary tea rooms on The Strand.
How remote from my experience and yet how vivid, I was thinking—as I too shook my head, ponderously considering the somewhat unfortunate and deeply unpleasant nature of my recent departure from the town of my birth. Where, subsequent to my engagement with my genial gardening neighbour, I had found myself waylaid by a number of former ‘comrades’, one might say, who had stood between me and the bus, with their solid phalanx forming an ominous shadow.
‘Hippyhead McCabe! Stop right there when you’re tault!,’ barked Patsy Donohoe, what’s all this we’ve been hearing about you going to London?
‘I’ve got a job as a window cleaner!,’ I explained, ‘in Shoreditch!’
I shall never forget the response with which my hastily cobbled rationale was received. As Patsy, a youth of my own age but of immensely greater bulk, laced up a fierce-looking hobnailed boot with dark intent, before turning to face his associates, parting his hands in disconsolate imprecation.
Let the tragedy which ensued be swiftly redacted.
‘All that’s over there is protestants and darkies! So you needn’t be thinking of coming back here!’
It was a bitter lesson.
But as I sat down that evening to pen my letter to Mrs Peter regarding my experiences, the resentments it had incurred were already happily beginning to fade. Thanks not so much to one’s own interior discipline or commodious reserves of human empathy but, if the truth be told, to the ingestion of a number of stimulants concomitant with its composition which had just been provided by my host, ‘Big Tommy Mc Larnon’, custodian of the ‘squat’ in which I’d just arrived. ‘Ah Mrs Peter!’ I sighed as my eyes began melting, ‘How cool to be able to write to you, babesters!’
As I set to once more, clutching my broken biro, also provided by ‘mine host’.
13 Melrose Avenue
March 27 1971
Dear Danny I’m taking the pen in my hand! Yeah, I sure am, Mrs Peter! Just like I promised, Goddamnit! Already things are looking good. I’ll be starting cleaning windows tomorrow! …
What was the impulse that drove me so passionately towards that great city in those days?
Certain indications can be derived from what survives of that ragged document, my emigrant’s letter with its elaborate embroidery of Robert Crumb-style cartoon images. Along with numerous, somewhat primitive renderings of the of the world-famous Roundhouse, that magnificent structure at the edge of the Chalk Farm earthworks where even still, right to this very day, you can hear them yet. By which I mean the spectral ululations of hordes of men and horses, with masses of wood and metal everywhere—which was, it would appear, at least to some extent responsible for my ineradicable longing to get away and live in London. Because, you see, that little County Monaghan town had once been a major railway junction, and there had existed there an equally glorious circular engine shed, constructed in the architectural style so favoured by mid-Victorian bankers, possessed of a massive dignity and inspired confidence. With its boardrooms and white marble fireplaces, not to mention its Victorian fenders, coal scuttles and clocks wreathed in laurel. And where, as you stood on its steps between slender columns of cast iron filled with glass, staring out over the roofs of the old platform sheds, you might easily have been floating aloft with the starlings, wheeling in a smoky London sunset, as side-whiskered men in corduroy conversed animatedly with engine-drivers in stove-pipe hats. Day after day I would make it my business to gaze upon it, with its frozen music nonpareil—yes, almost identical to the London one, yes The Roundhouse, dating from 1847 and designed by Stephenson, originally a house for locomotives travelling north.
It was also the case that, in a manner not dissimilar to that of the ‘freaks’ who at that time had begun to haunt Chalk Farm and Camden Town, there had always been something proprietorial about my personal relationship with the Clones Roundhouse. And maybe that’s the reason that I began to perceive myself entitled to institute a series of what might be described as ‘apprentice nonconformist gatherings’ for some months prior to my eventual departure. A type of ‘psychedelic crusade’ was seen to ensue, which in no way had endeared me to Patsy Donohoe and Co.—who took exception to our communal perusal of International Times, as well as the periodicals Sounds and NME and Melody Maker too. ‘Dream on, mothers, you ain’t got a prayer!’ they might overhear us say whenever they happened to be sauntering past. As we flicked imaginary joints in their wake. Unfortunately, as a consequence, on a number of occasions being cruelly apprehended—and beaten up.
Yes, that was the type of thing that went on in those days, as we assembled nightly in our own private Roundhouse. Because that of course was the type of talk which you heard from the hippies over in London—when they weren’t passing around little pipes of ‘blow‘. And which hopefully explains the somewhat peculiar and idiosyncratic tone of the ‘epistle’ I dispatched the following morning to Mrs Peter—marked ‘The Emigrant’s Letter’ in gigantic bubble writing. And which included a great many phrases with which, likely as not, she would have been unfamiliar—including ‘too much’, ‘It’s a gas!’, ‘Way out’, and ‘Smashed’. Along with random, and at times quite inexplicable references to ‘Black Unity’, ‘Gay Liberation’, and ‘International Marxist Groupings’.
Yes, I thought as I posted my envelope (sans the actual letter, as it later transpired), how far away did my hometown already seem. Becoming wistful just like Percy French must have done, only in my case not for old wooden gates and soporific cows in uneventful summer meadows but for some of the imaginary concerts our Clones Collective had mounted. Particularly memorable, I remember recalling, had been the set Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd had played upon one otherwise quite unremarkable Saturday afternoon. But even that was surpassed by the appearance of The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown.
With the actual truth—yes, now it can can be told!—being that Arthur Brown and ‘The Floyd’ had never been anywhere Clones or its so-called Roundhouse. But that didn’t stop us organising further ‘iconoclastic engagements’, and along with them a variety of unrehearsed ‘anti-narrative’ dramas, as well as staged interviews with Tariq Ali and Abbie Hoffmann.
‘I’m heading down The King’s Road,’ I used to say, putting on an English accent—before sauntering off heedlessly, as if trying to throw ‘the Fuzz’ off the scent.
And which, as I say, perhaps goes some little way to explaining the wanton, counter-cultural tone of my haplessly undelivered letter to Mrs Peter.
With it only really dawning on me the following day, in the aftermath of some twelve or thirteen more joints of superior Pakistani Black that my ‘free jazz’ approach to letter-writing might not, in any case, have been greatly appreciated by Mrs Peter, however cosmopolitan and liberal her London experiences might have rendered her. To be honest it read like an Arts Lab performance poem more than a homage to the deceased Inspector of Drains.
How innocent it seems with the passing of the years!
Hey Mrs P! So then—what’s shakin’? How in the hell are Tommy McGurran’s hens?
The letter, if memory serves, had also included a description of a tube ride to Hackney. But mostly it consisted of a string of fingerprints and ink blots. I can still remember that East London visit, though—and that august borough,with its magnificent cathedral of variety The Hackney Empire, decorated in that curious compound of Renaissance motifs that can only be described as late Victorian, and which appear in office blocks, pubs and banks all over London. Ever since I read ‘The Blitz Kid’ in The Dandy, I would dream of wandering in the bombed-out interiors of those echoing amphitheatres, where mirrors reflected striped wallpaper and gas lights, gorging on the baroque in those empty plum-velvet plush seats.
Ciao babes! I’ll drop you another line next week! I signed off to Mrs Peter.
Before heading to the Scala in King’s Cross for its weekly all-niter. The Corpse- Grinders was showing in tandem with Ssssss.
That’s a movie about a man-snake.
‘Why are there no barrage balloons in this town?’ I used to ask my father at the age of four or five. ‘Or signs that say “frying tonight” outside the stupid chip shop?’
There weren’t even coppers who looked liked PC Plod.
‘It’s to do with De Valera,’ my father explained as best he could—before grinning like Korky as he sighed in his chair and said that Dev was the boy that put it up to them. ‘He soon softened Winston Churchill’s cough!’
Such pleasure as the London of The Dandy used to give me! No wonder I drew a picture of Korky the Cat for Mrs Peter! Yes, and also pleasures untold to be gleaned from those other repositories of wonder, those stark and grey cine-reels experienced in so many Odeons at that time. That is to say those Scales Of Justice movies made in Merton Park, depicting that liquorice-black world of Scotland Yard in the 1950s, all of them starring the sepulchral Edgar Lustgarten. In the city of ‘The Blitz Kid’, with no end of roasted chestnuts and cockney sparrers, and with the barrage balloons only recently taken down.
‘Have you ever murdered anyone?‘ whispers Edgar, tenting his fingers. ‘Or perhaps you’d rather not say?’
Well, certainly not, Edgar, to a detective who routinely—not to say brazenly—made things up.
But then—who doesn’t? For, as I’m sure you’ve already gathered, there isn’t, and wasn’t, and never will be any ‘emigrant’s letter’, to Mrs Peter, or anyone else.
And which is why my London is one which might be said to exist somewhere in the Twilight Zone of memory and reinvention, perhaps between a documentary shot in formal ashen shades and glistening blacks, at once stripped of colour, reimagined in form and line, in contrast and shadow—grey and wintry stark black and white but simultaneously shot through with acidic streaks of yellow and green. With the whole comprising a cine-poem with jerky and discontinuous editing rhythms, an impertinent fiction which exists solely to give me pleasure. And maybe with a bit of luck, a reader or two.
Yes, a fictive city in other words, whose soundtrack might have been scored by Les Reed and Barry Mason, and shot by Alain Resnais with a little assistance from Alain Robbe-Grillet, as memory’s wintry archive reel material and its reportage look assumes the melted crayon motley hue of literary deceit and blatant reinvention.
Along the same lines as Mrs Peter’s ‘emigrant letter’. And in which I cast myself as the star of so many Londons—cities as yet which had to be experienced, maybe never even would, seeing as largely they didn’t exist. Among them, even, a sad little seventeen-year-old window cleaner, singing his heart out as he wobbles along on an imaginary bicycle, serenading a panoply of ‘posh birds’, as all along The Strand, and outside Lyon’s Corner House, an impish fictional Margate-style band surge in a sympathetic swell of tumescence.
Yes, back in those days I could just as readily have become the star of the not-Fellini masterpiece Confessions Of A Window Cleaner—bleating defiantly, swerving and pedalling through a world that could only have ever been in a delicious commingling of the hometown of my imagination, and another favourite movie of the period, a musical dream-short without words entitled Les Bicyclettes De Belsize.
Which is how I will always chose to remember the city in those innocent days, bright and uplifting in spite of all the rain—with a soundtrack provided by what Bob Stanley has described as the seaside brass sound of sunset yellow, London’s own indigenous brand of bubblegum, carefree and indomitable.
And the memory of which prompted me, once and for all, to recommence my imaginary letter to Mrs Peter, now counted along with Jerry Garcia among the growing ranks of the, hopefully, ‘Grateful’ Dead. Except this time finishing it, as I sit here with my laptop (laptop!) in a corner of a pub in Belsize Road, ruminating upon Marx and the psychotropic properties of Pakistani Black, and anarchic philosophies about as remote now as gas jets and walrus moustaches.
And thinking of the opening of that movie and the impossibly beautiful morning it had photographed, with its starlings leaping as the camera tracked slowly along rooftop eaves before steadily fixing its lens on me, and the absurdly optimistic world of youth I’d once inhabited.
With my thoughts being played as though on minor chords on the barrel organ of memory and imagination, modulating into a great waltz that mimicked the trajectory of a dizzying Red Admiral which went sailing past the window before finally swerving towards the Kilburn High Road, where so often I’d defiantly fist-bumped the future, pledging allegiance to no end of improbable causes, from all of which I have long since been exiled.
But for one, that of art which remains obstinately enduring, and to which I pen this little missive in acknowledgement of both it and its handmaiden, memory—whose sustaining power, and curiously bashful relationship with creativity has proved inestimable, and oftentimes as beautiful and infinitesimal as the quiet of London’s suburban streets on a Sunday morning, or a snatch of florid strings from a semi-open window, soaring before fading, like a pertinacious coloured butterfly hanging high above Belsize.