Books: Falling Towards England — The Man in the Brown Paper Bag |
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Falling Towards England — The Man in the Brown Paper Bag


In Trevor’s living-room, my suitcase against the wall served as a headboard. Folded clothes made a pillow. Beyond, into the centre of the room, stretched the brown paper bag, forming my bed. Wriggling into it took some time, but once inserted I could settle down in comparative warmth for a long night of turning from one side to the other. It was the hardness of the floor which compelled frequent movement. A lot of this I could do in my sleep, because my body, albeit much abused, was still young and supple, and I have always had Napoleon’s gift of falling asleep at will, although unfortunately it has not always been accompanied by his gift of waking up again. The problem resided not in how the hardness of the floor affected my sleep, but in how the noise the paper bag made affected Trevor.

As he lay there in the darkness on his enviably luxurious convertible divan, it was as if, somewhere nearby, a giant packet of crisps was being eaten by one of those cinema patrons who think that they are being unobtrusive if they take only a few crisps at a time and chew them very slowly. When Trevor could bear no more he would switch on his modernistic tubular bedside light, wake me up and tell me to be quiet. Invariably I would discover, upon waking, that my bladder, which was already showing signs of being weakened by the steady inundation of cider, demanded emptying. So I had to get out of the paper bag, go away, pee, come back and get back in, thus creating a double uproar. When Trevor switched his light off again I would lie there trying not to move. Only a dead man or a yoga adept can keep that up for more than twenty minutes. Judging that Trevor was asleep again, I would essay a surreptitious turn to one side, making no more noise than a shy prospective bride unwrapping a lace-trimmed silk nightgown from its tissues. This movement completed, for a long time I would lie there, inhaling and exhaling as shallowly as possible and waiting until the sound of Trevor’s steady breathing deepened into the second level of sleep. Only then would I make the necessary full turn on to the other side. A man tearing up a thin telephone directory while wading through dead leaves would have been hard put to be so silent. But if, after these manoeuvres, I dropped off to sleep, it was inevitable that an involuntary shift of weight would sooner or later produce the full effect of a large, empty cardboard box being attacked by a flock of woodpeckers. I can be sure of this because sometimes the noise woke me as well.

Even after the student-codifying catastrophe and the subsequent agonising reappraisal, my powers of self-deception were still in healthy shape, but it was not easy to convince myself that mere lack of sleep lowered my performance at the library. I preferred to think that it was the frustration caused by not sleeping with Lilith. Having convinced myself of this, I did my best to make her see reason. In no sense of the phrase was she having any. Probably she had already guessed that I was an irredeemable incompetent. Certainly Mr Volumes had rumbled me early on. The evidence was hard to miss. I always arrived late. Oliver Goldsmith, accused of the same thing, pointed out that he always left early. Lacking his self-confidence, I merely looked sheepish. ‘YOU MUST KEEP TIME, YOU KNOW,’ Mr Volumes told me and the rest of the borough. Lilith had been transferred to another branch so there was nothing exciting to look at except the tramps who came in to get out of the cold. They would sit at the big leather-topped table pretending to read Country Life but it was obvious that the blood-bag eyes couldn’t focus on anything except a bottle of methylated spirits or a tin of boot polish. You could make bets with yourself about which disease they would succumb to first, cirrhosis or gangrene. Once a month they were rounded up and hospitalised so that their socks could be removed surgically. Skin ingrained with dirt has the anomalous effect, in the right light, of looking expensively tanned, as if by the Riviera sun: an observation which, once I had made it, depressed me deeply. But the real killer was boredom. Stamping the cards of borrowers, I ran out of answers for the little old ladies who wanted to know if they had already read the book they were thinking about taking out. The smart ones used a personalised coding system. One of them would put a small inked cross on page 81 of every book before bringing it back, so that later on in the library she could turn to that page and, if she saw her mark, be reminded not to take the book out again. Another would draw a circle in red pencil around the last word on page 64. There were hundreds of them at it all the time. If you picked up a book by Dorothy L. Sayers or Margery Allingham and flicked through it, you would see a kaleidoscope of dots, crosses, blobs, circles, swastikas, etc. It was interesting but not interesting enough. When I met Lilith in the evening, I complained about having trouble concentrating. She advanced the theory that for someone whose destiny was to read and write books there could be no profit in being obliged all day to do nothing except pick them up and put them down. I took some comfort from this advice, although the historic evidence should have suggested that it was fallacious. Jorge Luis Borges and Archibald MacLeish had each pursued a successful literary career while working as a librarian. Philip Larkin was currently doing the same, although I didn’t know that. Admittedly Proust had been a disaster as a librarian but that was mainly because, instead of turning up late, he never turned up at all. When Mr Volumes began hinting, in his subtle way, that I might think of pursuing a similar course, I did my long perfected number of resigning one step ahead of the boot.

Jobless in winter in a paper bag. My discomfiture had a Miltonic ring to it. But now that I was merely working through a sentence towards the day of release, defeat was easier to shrug off, or even to cherish as a token of my rebellious nature. There is also the possibility that I was clinically certifiable at the time. Sex starvation was in its downhill phase and something had gone seriously wrong with my teeth. The half-dozen of them that I had already lost didn’t hurt, but those remaining in my head rarely did less than give a sharp twinge when I sucked anything — air, for example. Under Lilith’s influence I was now attempting to vary my egg, bacon and sausage diet with the occasional helping of steamed greens, but the treatment was a holding operation at best. The connection between the teeth and the brain is intimate and potentially devastating: that much I knew. But you wouldn’t catch me going to a dentist. I was too smart for that.

Breathing carefully through the nose — never an easy trick for a chronic sinus sufferer — I auditioned for a new job at a light metal-work factory off the Holloway Road. The supervisor wore a grey lab coat, had a short back and sides haircut polished with a buffing wheel, and favoured blunt speech. ‘I’ll speak bluntly,’ he rapped. ‘Don’t like your general appearance. Don’t like the beard. Don’t like the fingernails. Should have worn a suit, not that jacket. Shouldn’t wear a jacket like that unless you’re in the army. If you have to wear a jacket like that, should wear it tomorrow, not to your interview. Interview, you should be standing up straight, not slouching like that. Shouldn’t be smoking. I’m not smoking. Why are you? Hope we won’t be seeing those shoes again ...’ The roar, clank, thump and chong chong of the stamping machines out on the factory floor drowned some of this out but not enough. I listened stunned, which was obviously the desired reaction, because I was taken on, as a general workman, at nine pounds a week before stoppages. Young British-born readers with qualifications but no job will doubtless wince to read of an immigrant with a job but no qualifications. All I can say is that things were different then. The economy was already collapsing but everybody thought the noise was bustle.

With proof of my employed status I found new digs around the corner from Trevor’s, in Tufnell Park Road proper. Since it was by now clear that Tufnell Park was my Berlin and my Paris, it was only fitting that I should become resident in its Kurfürstendamm or Champs-Elysées. From the awe-inspiring single-storey edifice of Tufnell Park tube station, Tufnell Park Road swept down majestically for half a mile until it met Holloway Road in a carrefour blazing with the glamorous white light of the launderette. At No. 114 I was exactly half-way down the road, and thus equidistant from the only two points of interest. My room was in the basement, with a window opening not so much on the back garden as under it, so that I looked out into a cross section of the earth. But the rent was a more than reasonable thirty shillings a week. In fact it was a snip. Mrs Bennett had not kept up with the times. She was eighty plus and walked with a stoop, which meant, since she was not very tall in the first place, that I often didn’t see her before falling over her.

Not seeing her was made easier by the darkness. Her connections with the outside world had been broken on the day when her fiancé sailed away to the Middle East on the same ship as Rupert Brooke. Out there he had suffered the same fate, but without writing any poems. Understandably the modern world had ceased to interest her from that moment, and she had declined to keep up with its inventions, including any light-bulb more powerful than forty watts. The chintz furniture was well dusted but so faded that it was virtually monochrome. No doubt it was all still a riot of colour to her eyes. In the corridors and on the staircase it would have been easier to find one’s way by the weak light of the frosted bulbs if only the wallpaper had been a brighter colour. But it was all brown: brown on brown with dark brown wooden trimmings. Sometimes through the layers of varnish you could see the ghost of a William Morris print, like jungle under a flooded river full of mud. Once, while she was waiting, it must have been a bright little house he would have been glad to come home to. Then she went on waiting without an object and it all turned dark. I could sympathise, but things got very tricky on the stairs, which I had to spend a certain amount of time groping up and down because the toilet was on the floor above. If you ran into her in the dark, no matter how slowly you were going, it usually meant a tumble. For her a fall would probably have entailed multiple fractures, but she was so low down that she acted as a fulcrum. It was always the rest of us — everyone in the house at some time or other — who took the dive. This wasn’t so bad if you were going upstairs at the time, but if you were heading in the opposite direction it could involve a sudden plunge into the brown void, with a good chance of cracking your head against a skirting-board the colour and consistency of petrified gravy.

With its narrow bed, single-bar radiator and burnt umber decor, my little room was an unlikely setting for happiness, yet Lilith took one look at me in my new context and immediately granted the favours so long withheld. Perhaps she had been touched by the spirit of Christmas. The snow began early that year and a good deal of it had already occupied the top half of the vista through my window, above the half filled with dark earth. She had come a long way by bus to cook me my weekly lifesaving meal of liver and greens. I was knackered from a hard day in the factory. Also, chary of the effect that the cold air had on my bared teeth, I wasn’t doing much talking. This was probably the key factor. Eloquence might get you started with a woman but it is often taciturnity which seals the bargain. Shakespeare has a line about it — in Henry IV, Part 1, I think. Those who can rhyme their way into a lady’s favour do always reason themselves out again. Not being able to say anything, I couldn’t say the wrong thing, which left Lilith, undistracted by importunities, free to decide that in such a depth of winter there was no further point in leaving her beautiful body lonely. There is also a slim chance that I was an irresistible object of pathos, but experience suggests that even the warmest and most generous woman can be moved to tears of compassion without feeling impelled to take off her clothes.

The only real explanation, however, is that I got lucky, not only then but for the rest of my life. Right through that epic of a winter she came to me several times a week. The first love affair I had had which lasted long enough for me to get used to it, it did wonders for my confidence. It probably did wonders for my arrogance, too: her queenly bearing could not, as I recall, prevent my taking her for granted unless she issued the occasional verbal reproof. Innate tolerance — plus, no doubt, vivid memories of Emu Coogan’s impecuniosity — made her slow to remonstrate, so I got away with what seemed a lot even at the time, and strikes me in retrospect as something close to white slavery. When I packed her off home on the last bus it was only common sense to give her the poems I was sending out, each batch of them accompanied by a folded self-addressed envelope and placed inside another envelope addressed to an editor. To expect her not only to post the letters but to buy the stamps for each envelope was possibly a bit much. She did it without complaining. Hearing no protest, I took everything and gave nothing.

Some stupidities only time can cure. What could be gained by experience I gained then; or the essentials of it anyway, and the deep self-doubt that inhibits and cripples was obviated at an early stage. Which is not to say that I was permanently immunised against all anxiety. In future liaisons, that particularly humiliating version of impotence known as first night failure was always to be a hazard. But when it struck, it did so in perspective, as an embarrassment rather than an affliction. All it means, if you wilt that way with a lady, is that you haven’t yet really met her. You’re not trying to make love to a woman, you’re trying not to miss an opportunity. I have heard men say that such a thing has never happened to them. The claim, I think, speaks as much against their imaginations as for their virility, but no doubt they are telling the truth. The truth might even redound to their credit: never to be unmanned could be a sign of manhood. Those of us who can’t plausibly make the same boast have at least some comfort. We find out the hard way, if that’s the appropriate phrase, whether the lady has a forgiving soul. Since no other kind of woman is worth getting mixed up with, the man who crumples at the first sign of impatience should be glad to consider himself forewarned, if not forearmed.

In this case the question became academic after the first evening, and for a long winter that should have been a disaster I put on satisfaction like a weightlifter putting on muscle. Without Lilith I might have been not just unhappy, but dead. The winter deepened into the worst since 1947, then the worst since the year after the Great Fire, then the worst since the last Ice Age. The cleared snow formed long ridges at the sides of the roads. These ice ridges turned dark with dirt: burial mounds for long ships, they were pitted like breeze blocks. With thousands of tons of water lying around in frozen form, the anomalous consequence was a water shortage. So many pipes burst that the system just packed up. You had to draw your household water from a stand-pipe in the street. The residents of 114 Tufnell Park Road took turns to do this on behalf of Mrs Bennett, whose only recorded journey outside the front gate was instantly defeated by the frozen snow-ridge at the road’s edge. It was taller than she was. After gazing for a while into that threatening escarpment of refrigerated lucent suet, she turned back bewildered.

Bewildered and coughing. Many old people died younger than they should have, that winter. If they were poor they died of hypothermia. If they were well enough off to keep their radiators going full-time, it was the acid fogs that got them. The fogs, the last great fogs that London was ever to see, were Dickensian epics through which I groped home from work each evening, lucky to be young and mobile. The bus that brought Lilith to me would arrive an hour late, its headlights diffused by the fog into opalescent radiance. Mrs Bennett was always glad to see Lilith and usually arranged to be on the stairs so that we could both fall over her. But soon her cough confined her to her room. For a while I was mildly afraid that she had withdrawn because of the shock induced by my poems, which she had asked to see — or had at any rate agreed to be shown — yet had obviously found to be not quite the sort of thing she had grown used to at the time when dear Rupert was into cleanness leaping. Eventually her cough became audible even through the ceiling and thus disabused me of my typically solipsistic notion. You had to be above a certain age to cough like that but anyone who qualified could be sure that there would be nothing temporary about the affliction. Once it started there was only one way of stopping it. Each droplet of fog had a molecule of sulphuric acid attached. The fog looked romantic if your beautiful girl-friend had stepped off a bus and was materialising out of it towards you with the dark outline of her duffle-coat taking shape against the nacreous cloud. To the old people it was breath-taking in a different way. Mrs Bennett was only one of the many who tried to hide from it in the bedroom. But the mist with the sharp taste got in through the old warped door jambs and the place where the window sash would no longer sit square.

Even had she been in sight she would probably still have been out of mind. Her star lodger was too busy being the horny-handed proletarian and tireless young lover. Actually the demands of the first component of this dual role often threatened to inhibit my achievements in the second. After a night spent shivering — if Lilith had been there, my room seemed colder than ever after she was gone — I arrived already tired at the machine shop, where the warm air that would otherwise have been welcome was offset by the continual uproar. The machines were devoted to taking 6' × 4' sheets of metal and punching or drilling various patterns of holes in them. Punches went CHUNK CHUNK and drills went YERK YERK. An acre of machines doing both these things produced a clamour which one’s ringing ears might have analysed as CHUNK YERK CHUNK YERK if one’s body had not been vibrating. Physically walking on air from the interminably reiterated percussion, I heard the sound as CHU-CHU-CHUNK (CHERK YUNK!) YER-YER-YERK (UNK UNK!) ERK ERK, or sounds to that effect. The machine operators, who had been doing the same sort of work since the Second World War or even earlier, watched the flow of cutting oil and the glittering spillage of metal waste with understandable indifference. Once upon a time the perforated plates had been going into Lancaster bombers and there was point to the work. A team from Picture Post had come to take photographs of them cheerfully doing their bit. Now the perforated plates were going into the backs of slot machines that sold Kit-Kats and packets of Smiths Crisps. Alienation, as defined by the young Marx but better described by the older William Morris, was a palpable presence. Where Marx and Morris had both been wrong, however, was in the assumption that men alienated from their labour must necessarily be denatured. The machine-operators all drove second-hand but immaculately kept Rovers or Riley Pathfinders and had enough spare cigarettes to ‘lend’ me about a packet a day between them. I was the alienated one and opium was my religion.

My job was to help a man called Fred load as-yet-unperforated metal plates of specified gauge on to a trolley, wheel them to the machines, unload them in sequence, load the finished plates and wheel them back to the racks in which they were stored vertically until shipment. At the beginning and end of this chain of events there was a mildly thrilling moment when Fred picked up and put down the heavier plates by means of a Ferris hoist which ran on a rail in the roof. It was controlled electrically from a hand-set. Fred pressed the buttons on the hand-set and I steadied the plates so that they didn’t swing around and swipe anybody. You couldn’t call Fred’s job skilled labour, so as his assistant I scarcely rated as a dogsbody. This situation was made no easier by Fred’s personality. A dedicated racist, he lurked outside the machine-shop door at lunchtime so that he could shout ‘ANY COCONUTS?’ to the West Indian girls in transit between the steam laundry and the greasy spoon. Even worse, from my angle, he liked to shout racist jokes to me while we were working. He had a theory that all Australians were descended from Aborigines, and that any Australian immigrant into Britain was therefore part of the universal black conspiracy to deprive the British working class of employment. Compounded by the Wagnerian banging and jangling, his sentiments had the same effect on me as the iron band tightening around Cavaradossi’s head. Fred’s first word was always ‘EAR!’, by which he meant ‘Here!’ He kept yelling that until I paid attention. ‘EAR! (CHU-CHU-CHUNK) THIS JEW (CHERK YUNK!) ANNA NIG-NOG (YUNK CHERK!) SO EASE ALL BLACK FROM A BOO POLISH (YER-YER-YERK) ...’ Fred didn’t put me off the cockney accent, which had already influenced my own, no doubt with ludicrous results. But he would have gone a fair way towards putting me off the proletariat if I had really believed that it existed. In fact my belief in such things was only theoretical, and even the theory was a fag-end. It had always been transparently obvious to me that there could be no such thing as the masses. There were only people. Even Fred was unique. That was the awful thing about him.

Thus the little factory chuntered on, with Fred and me pushing and pulling our trolley endlessly around its inner perimeter. Meanwhile the rest of the country was gradually coming to a standstill. For some reason which nobody has ever been able to figure out, the British consider themselves to be living in a tropical climate into which any intrusion of snow, no matter how brief, is always regarded as Freak Weather Conditions. The railways, for example, are invariably brought to a halt by any snowfall heavy enough to make the rails show white instead of silver. The drivers in their Hawaiian shirts and dark glasses climb down from their cabins and quit. The trains are not allowed to move again until the commuters have had a day’s rest and the tabloid newspapers — even more cretinous than the Australian equivalents — have had a chance to run headlines about the Freak Weather Conditions. (BRR! SAYS BR: IT’S SNOW-GO!) It will be understood, then, that in the winter under discussion the trains vanished for weeks on end. So did most of the livestock. The sheep were so far down that the army was using echo-sounders to find them. Then somebody had to look for the army. It would have been a good story if it had ended at the proper time. But it all went on and on. History, however, has to be truly disastrous before it impinges on your personal odyssey. For me, with my new assurance, the snow was just a backdrop. Secure within, I was looking outwards for the first time.

The owner of the business arrived in a Bentley to tour the shop-floor, his blazered school-age son in attendance. They paraded like royalty, with their hands behind their backs. Only the blunt-spoken supervisor got his hand shaken. It was because his hand was clean. In Australia the air would have been thick with first names. I really was in another country, an observer as flabbergasted by exotic ritual as those first Portuguese in China whose astonished narrative stands out even in Hakluyt’s vast codex of the strange. Fascinated, I neglected to steady a batch of steel plates which Fred had just picked up with the hoist. The swinging load knocked him backwards off his feet and on to the trolley, where he lay pondering the implications while the plates shook themselves out of the grip of the hoist, crashed to the concrete on their edges a few inches from his head, and, considerately tilting away from him — instead of, as they might equally well have done, towards — accumulated thunderously on the floor like playing cards in Valhalla. At this point, but for an entirely unconnected reason, the supervisor cut the power in the machines. The owner wished to address his work-force. The clangour stopped with a reverse shock, an inburst of sound, a downroar. Fred, never quick at adjusting to circumstances, was still yelling. ‘... UCKING NIG-NOG GIT, YOU’RE AFTER MY JOB!’ The owner and his son left hurriedly, even as the blunt-spoken supervisor headed towards me, his eyes narrowed with purpose.