I left home and moved to London in 1994 in order to begin a degree at a small not very reputable college in Roehampton. Despite having attained good grades in my three A-Level subjects I did not satisfy the precise requirements stipulated by Queen Mary of Westfield College, my first choice, and therefore suffered the indignity of having to ‘go through clearing’, which involved resentfully scouring the index of available university places published in the back pages of The Guardian and making last-minute calls to the various listed and lacklustre institutions with the galling optimism that some quivering milksop hadn’t beat me to the post. I was incensed that Queen Mary of Westfields refused me entry, since, in terms of points, my grades were equivalent to what they’d asked for. I pointed this out to the woman on the phone in the admissions office and to the man on the phone in the English department, added to which, I said—with much emphasis and incredulity when I at last had the attention of the faculty itself—I got an A in English and you only asked for a B, and English is the very subject I wish to study! They’d wanted Bs in all three subjects and this would have worked out just fine I often suppose had I not got into an enormous pickle with my Philosophy teacher which meant that from time to time attending class was quite impossible and as such I wound up scraping a C grade. ‘You ought to have done much better than that,’ he said, in the pub on results day, and I felt like shoving him with all my might into the people standing in a tight-knit mirthful group directly behind him. On the other hand, one of my English teachers was absolutely flabbergasted that I’d pulled off the top mark in that subject, and openly opined that I must have cheated.
I don’t quite see how it’s possible to cheat at English really, but perhaps it is. Occasionally you can blag your way through areas of specific ignorance, and this I often did, but, overall, you have to have the capacity to connect with the written word, and the wherewithal to understand and relate that involvement, whatever its nature might be. In other words, if literature has the force to shape you, not your beliefs necessarily, or even your outlook, but something far more intimate and formative, the sorts of men you are drawn to, for example, and the way you experience desire, then objective analysis seems trite and becomes rather irrelevant. The value of continuing to study this most perspicacious of disciplines at such a woefully mediocre institute, where the calibre of my fellow students was generally very poor and the standard of teaching excruciatingly patchy, was negligible, and I very quickly felt frustrated and horrified that I’d ended up there. In order to give vent to these huge, barging feelings I would either archly refuse to say a word during seminars or I would set forth close readings that were complex, persuasive and entirely erroneous. I’d had some rather fanciful ideas about what studying literature at university would entail, the sorts of mellow rooms I’d pass through, the views I’d come upon, the crepuscular light, the animated hush, the slinking patina and reoccurring ferronniere, the bicycles and small bridges, everything on the turn, and, most of all, the sharp and charming people I’d meet. In fact as it turned out a great many of them liked nothing more than to sit in the middle of their beds in the middle of the day, watching Australian soap operas cross-legged with the door wide open. ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ they would sometimes ask when occasionally I leant up against the door frame and scowled within. ‘No,’ would be the invariable reply, then I’d carry on down the corridor, possibly with the intention of having a very long hot bath in the bathroom right at the end. For the first year I lived out my unjust circumstances in the halls of residence, you see.
The first time I saw the Digby Stuart Halls of Residence was the day I arrived with my aunt and her boyfriend and moved into one of its titchy freshly-painted rooms. I’m not sure what images, prior to that, I might have seen of the building. Possibly something in a brochure—perhaps they’d sent a belated prospectus, I don’t remember. There was nothing unexpected about its appearance in any case—it was several storeys high, was compiled of red brick, and had many windows going across, left to right, from where I stood anyway. I don’t remember who greeted us or what the procedure was for being allocated and shown to a particular room but I recall there were two keys, one for the main door below and another for unlocking my room up on the second floor. I’m not sure what happened in the event of mislaying keys which is surprising because I’m sure I must have forgotten them fairly often. Probably it was very easy to access the dormitories, I remember going up into the dormitories in the opposite building with no great difficulty—one of the advantages of being at a small shambolic college was that although there were rules and so on they weren’t assiduously enforced and so everything was near to hand without too much rigmarole, including the College Hardship Fund.
The very first thing I did was to plug in my stereo system and put on a record, one of my mother’s, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’. My aunt and her boyfriend hadn’t hung about so I was blessedly free to get on unpacking without any upbeat interference. There was no one to tell me that one thing should go there and another thing ought to go here, and maybe where I elected to perch my kettle was precarious—I seem to remember that the shelf above it did begin to blister and peel after a while, but that might have been due to candles. Very soon after moving in it occurred to me that many things in the room would be much improved if they were completely gold so I bought a spray can of dark gold paint and set to work. I know quite a few objects received the Midas touch, but the only thing I can visually recall is a mug which now looked like a key prop from a gloomy Jacobean play about fealty and folly or whatever, added to which the tea didn’t taste at all right—I didn’t drink coffee then, but I’m sure if I did that also would have tasted plumbiferous and barbed. It wasn’t a very big room, none of them were, and it was mostly a very untidy room, probably because I grew up in various houses that were all scrupulously clean and neat as a new pin. My mother was forever painting the banister or varnishing the front step or sanding the floorboards or scratching gloss off the windowpane with a Wilkinson Sword razor blade. One day, just before I left, a duck appeared above the toilet cistern in the bathroom at home, it was pretty quirky, compared to everything else, and came all of a sudden all at once. I wonder what else my mother might have painted—beside the duck the only other thing I remember her depicting were some flowers on a pair of stout green boots I wore to death—she used lots and lots of oil paint so the effect was very artistic and not the least bit fey.
Amazingly it was permissible to smoke in the dorms and I often smoked in bed—I think everyone probably did because no one got up terribly early, and it was quite normal to skulk off back to bed for a while in the afternoon. Overall I had some pretty disgraceful habits, for instance I’d often shimmy up onto my sink and take a pee in it during the night. Each time I did I vowed it would be the last, mostly because I saw it would be quite the catastrophe if the sink fell off the wall. How would I explain that to the nuns, I wondered, as I wiggled my bottom further into the chilly incommodious basin. There were nuns, yes. There was a pair of dead nuns buried in a vault, which I never went down to see, and two nuns upstairs, and even though they moved about a bit I never saw them either. At one time Digby Stuart College had been a College of the Sacred Heart and many vestiges of its Catholic past remained disarmingly intact. Apparently Vivien Leigh had been a pupil here, and the reason I remember that is because at around the same time, maybe a year or two before, I’d read that Vivien Leigh had been a drunk and indiscriminate nymphomaniac, too wide-ranging for Lawrence Olivier to handle, and in later years, the book tells the reader, she lifted tramps from off the street and jostled them into hedgerows in order to have sex with them. It strikes me now that this was doubtlessly a lot of exaggerated nonsense—I don’t recall where exactly I read it, perhaps it was in one of those old mawkish MGM movie annuals my grandmother had so many of which aggrandise acquisitive men and demonise enterprising women. In all likelihood Vivien Leigh was very probably fairly bonkers, but why and how are not simple, sensational matters, and I was genuinely grateful for her unlikely association with this otherwise second-rate, vaguely papal, institute and its run-of-the-mill denizens.
The bathrooms were very basic and quite austere—not unlike what you might expect to find in an early-Victorian asylum or an even earlier Swiss convent. I thought it quite beautiful and it seemed natural to make prolonged visits almost every day. It was cold, sometimes very cold, the mirrors were frameless and thin, the tiles were white and the stark taps a devil to turn. The water that untwisted out of them however was clear and tapered, and soundless as fresh blown glass. There were showers of course but I almost never used them, I preferred to take a bath and I think there were two of them, though there may have been only one. Certainly there was one. In a small room with a sloping ceiling. And an off-kilter wooden chair beside it. It was a very deep, enamel bath, somewhat discoloured, and the water that billowed from the hot tap was scalding. I read somewhere that Sylvia Plath’s bathwater was just about as hot as she could possibly stand it, and I was the same—I drew baths that were so hot I got giddy right away and thought I’d pass out and perhaps drown. It was painful: indeed it was a time when I was finding out about all sorts of pain, some of it methodical and self-imposed. The bathtub was where I felt private and absolutely away from everything and perhaps I pretended some things while I was there. Perhaps I pretended I was in an asylum with nothing much to do, no expectations upon me, or perhaps I imagined I was a maid in a big house doing her ablutions on a dim Sunday evening before a rapid and somewhat violent assignation with Sir halfway up the furthermost stairwell. I think the thoughts I had then probably weren’t so very different from the kind of thoughts I have now: meandering, unconnected, purposeless—and slightly grubby.
There were periods, increasing in duration and tenacity, when living in halls was unbearable due to the proximity of other people. If no one saw you for a day or two, everyone would get very excited, and someone would thump on your door high up and intone your name rather heroically. I’m not sure what it was they were all worked up about—the dormitory walls were so slight you could hear your neighbour’s toaster pop and I nearly always had music on, so although unseen I would have been perfectly audible. It was impossible, anyway, to be alone in a building like that, so I spent more and more time at one of the two nearby pubs: The King’s Head and The Black Cat. Farther away was The Arab Boy, but I didn’t frequent that particular establishment with regularity until the following year. We seldom went to The Green Man—I’m not sure why not since it was in fact very close to Putney Heath, which is where I went to live, the following year.
I saw a man on a horse, once, on Putney Heath. He was dressed in silver red livery, had a weapon on his enormous sauntering back, and the hooves of his drizzling horse left no trace in the snow. It was a foggy afternoon.
There was a pail of vomit next to the back door. I don’t think it was there when I moved in, but once it was there it was difficult to remember a time when it hadn’t been. It froze right through in winter and returned to its original gruelly consistency in spring. Behind the row of houses was an ancient road which most people accessed through a gate in their garden fence. The set up at our house however was somewhat less orthodox; there was a vile shed out the back that was black with fire-damage and rot, and one flailed about in a diabolical amalgam of charred remains and slippery decay before staggering out onto the ancient road. Once or twice, when I was in a particularly triumphant mood, I gave the bucket of sick a swift jolly kick before charging into the kitchen through the back door, which no one ever bothered to lock.
I threw furniture and broke things, or they smashed. Someone I became acquainted with at the time and who I still know maintains I flicked a chest of drawers across a room with just two fingers. I drank a lot of Lapsang Souchong then and would often leave mugs of it unfinished here and there so that when the surface of a piece of furniture plunged vertical several mugs went right along with it, flinging these perfectly round, velvet tapestries of mould up ahead, until they flapped and landed, like creepy little dollies, all along the bookshelves. And I drew on the walls, nothing sinister, waves mostly, with a piece of blue cue chalk I slipped off a pool table into my pocket at The King’s Head one evening.
Wave after wave, each mightier than the last / Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep / And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged / Roaring, and all the wave was in a flame.
My friend from Nuremberg who lived a few doors down lent me a copy of The Female Malady and I took notes from it in the afternoon while I wrenched at pistachios and drank Ribena through a tiny straw. I collected tokens from the Ribena cartons which was very organised of me and eventually received a free Dino bubble watch for my efforts. I was very pleased with this until somehow, inexplicably, Dino turned over. His underneath was flat and pale blue and entirely featureless, and despite patiently flipping that watch over and over, ankles crossed and a cigarette sloped in my free hand, in a kind of relaxing dogged trance, Dino never came back round and was eventually buried beneath the bedside heap of sliding pistachio shale. The things I read in the book my German friend lent me shot right in beneath my skin, into that place between the nerves which is not me or even mine, that unseparate place where my grandmother and my great-grandmother are softly present, like supple shadows overlapping in an alcove. I was aware from a young age that both my grandmother and her mother had been taken into psychiatric units where they underwent brutal corrective treatment for behaviour that was considered irksome and abnormal.
In his introduction to Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’, Charles Moore reminds us that, ‘One of the basic human requirements is the need to dwell, and one of the central human acts is the act of inhabiting, of connecting ourselves, however temporarily, with a place on the planet which belongs to us and to which we belong.’ In the third year of my time in London the importance of academic achievement began to wane—discovering how to live, how to inhabit the world was a more urgent and engrossing assignment. I became very inquisitive about the contents of other people’s kitchen cupboards and bathroom cabinets: an interest that endures, though less avidly, even now. But home is not simply a concrete carapace where we cook and clean and it doesn’t matter how accomplished we become in those areas, they will not, on their own, engender a sense of belonging or ease.
In the third and final year I rented a large bedsit on Wandsworth Common. I had a place of my own at last, and rarely left it. I would sit for a long time, looking up at the pipes that slipped through the walls into the room, moved along the wall and disappeared out of it, onwards, to somewhere else I did not see and could not get to. These pipes, these slender interlopers, threatened and beguiled me. What a wonderful, elegant thing is a pipe, shifting in and out, up and down, throughout the building—not ending here, not beginning here, showing only a little of its passage. They seemed so important sometimes, and so graceful, the most graceful, resolute entity in here, and they were so high up and opaque that sometimes their indifference was sort of unbearable, and I wished, in a way, that I was a spider so I could see the ghostly dust on their back and perhaps make something of my own up there.
Often the home is thought of and assessed in terms of its domestic capacity, but there are other ways of interpreting and experiencing our corner of the world, and Tanizaki’s beautiful book is an invitation to reimagine the purpose and feel of our intimate surroundings.
I suppose I shall sound terribly defensive if I say that Westerners attempt to expose every speck of grime and eradicate it, while we Orientals carefully preserve and even idealise it. Yet for better or for worse we do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colours and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them.
Tanizaki’s sensitive, idiosyncratic appraisal contrasts the Western predilection for light-filled rooms, sparkling appliances, and spotless surfaces with the Japanese tradition which favours darkness, patina, lacquer, and frailty—what Tanizaki refers to as ‘the glow of grime’. Rather than fear shadows and banish them, as we do in the West, the Japanese, Tanizaki tells us, discovered how to ‘guide shadows towards beauty’s end’. These cultural preferences are not simply a matter of style but are indicative of attitudes to light and dark on a deeper level—it demonstrates a willingness to live cheek by jowl with phantoms, mysteries, the ancient and the chimerical. The home then is not so much a boundaried, static, place that is closed off and impervious to external influence—according to Tanizaki’s wonderfully evocative descriptions, Japanese rooms are permeable and transmogrifying; infinitely capable of ‘luring one into a state of reverie’.
When everything is illuminated and the shadows have been sanitised, where goes the creature inside and what happens to her daydreams? As the home becomes more domesticated, and increasingly familial, when convenience replaces ritual, and spotlights replace shades, some cosmic link is surely arrested, and the house is no longer a threshold to other worlds. The house then is nothing, just an isolated distorted edifice, tethered to its functions and possessions, and whomever lives inside there is bewildered to feel such a deep abiding estrangement in a place where she is supposed to feel protected, inspired and at ease. Perhaps she takes to her bed, perhaps she throws furniture, perhaps she draws on the walls, perhaps there is suddenly a duck, perhaps one day she simply leaves. Ungrateful creature that she is. In the exam halls, at the end of that final year, my performance was generally less than enthusiastic, and that was fine, this was a time for fantasy and nightmares, for immersion and flight—in my own rooms I had begun to understand how to live with darkness.
The blackness within you is stilled, is transfixed perhaps, when it has in its gaze the blackness without, what Tanizaki describes as a ‘visible darkness’. That mesmerising preternatural and granular place, ‘where always something seemed to be flickering and shimmering… This was the darkness in which ghosts and monsters were active, and indeed was not the woman who lived in it, behind layer after layer of screens and doors—was she not of a kind with them?’ To be sure, merging with the dark, in all its primitive and transformative potency, is somewhat destabilising. Even so, it is surely possible, as Tanizaki says, ‘to guide shadows to beauty’s end’, and it seems to me entirely indefensible that anyone ever thought it good and necessary to send an electric current blazing through the furrows of someone else’s mind in order to dazzle the essential blackness into rapid extinction.