In the summer of 2011 I moved into a working people’s hostel in central London. My loft in north east London had been re-possessed and I was struggling – and eventually succeeded – to get it back. The hostel was a five storey warren of rooms and corridors reputed—maybe an idea spread by the credulous wondering why it drove them mad—to have been a Victorian asylum. It elicited haunting memories in me, being both an institution—a money-grabbing registered charity, badly in need of repair—and housing three hundred or so young foreigners and a few older, often strange, British people.
One man, not British but a tall, broad-shouldered and slim Russian—late-forties, soft leather hovercraft shoes, silver-whiskered, and a vegetarian cook of elaborate dishes and a computer and physics expert—alarmed or bemused his various room mates by assuring them he was on the CIA’s watchlist and that, with characteristic hauteur, by no stretch of the imagination did democracy exist in this country. But which ravings, after questions surrounding the American election and Putin’s designs on Europe, now almost have an ominous truthiness to them.
There was a lithe and bright Kenyan in the building, ten years or so younger than me in her late thirties.
We met and hung out.
With a degree in chemistry from London, and maybe an MBA but I’m not sure, she now worked—she said—as a film producer. A poised, entrepreneurial woman, she had lost her house trying to finance a film but was apparently unfazed.
We got excited about each other and stayed up late talking – about the film industry generally, our earlier lives and experiences, and I volunteered some intimate details of my family and emotional life.
It was exciting and unusual to find someone with things in common in a place like that. I otherwise spent a lot of the time babbling bad Spanish, bad French or simplified English at a river of twenty-something East and West Europeans, Indians, Americans, Japanese and South Africans and South Americans. In all the time I was there I must have seen at least twenty guests pass through our triple-bedded room – from periods of a few nights to several months.
Many months after meeting the Kenyan, a young South London gentleman arrived one Friday in our room—recommended to management by a guest, a well-spoken Pakistani law graduate who liked the pub and who intimidated me with his appreciation of Modernism in the Arts—and the newcomer soon announced apropos of nothing—to Antoine and I who’d been there maybe eight months—that “things were going to change around here”, now he was there.
He muttered darkly, later on that night, about what we did not know about “my family”.
He was evicted on the following Monday at six in the morning after being sick down the front of a girl volunteer worker trying to corral him, lighting up a spliff and dousing the room in stout, and transforming me and my French, twenty five year old, hotel worker room-mate into white-hot and self-righteous half-witnesses in a set-to that lasted almost all night and at every moment threatened to morph into a brawl – and had the the fourth floor and third below banging on walls and doors in protest.
He thought our room was a mock-up of the cell in Wormwood Scrubs he had left not long ago. He saw himself poised to take charge of us banged-up lags—or ornamental, slow-moving fish—and show us a move or two. The godfather was also all set to mentor me individually and he looked softly into the distance through the single dormer over the west London rooftops, bathed in a late afternoon golden glow, to cool my over-hasty hostility – with a touching unease as he adjusted an invisible dog collar.
On learning I had been a violinist and singer in folk and rock bands for years, the pity in his voice as he admonished “I could help you”—and while he pored over a website forum about the punk band he’d formerly played bass in—added to the torment of my namby pamby, disappointed Self.
A self that apparently looked to him like it was searching in the godfather for a link to its higher one.
The strong man I’d be, looked up to, who was going to cause pain, shake everybody up, make mischief, who’d cut out noncey efforts at thought, moral concern and two-way communication – but in the end do right by his team or “friends” in a dark world that looked up to him too.
Possibly the only reason he went quietly was because he was on parole and not because I was braced for a stabbing or worse – and not because of my acquiescence—irresistibly drawn by his magnetism and cherubic authority—to the wise, ancient culture of Streetistan.
The oracle whose wisdom I might spinelessly submit to and then make a stab at fracturing the pretentious skinhead’s arm or biting his THC- and creamy Royal Extra Stout-pickled ear or nose off, in search of a cure – family or no family.
Mercifully, the management—whose rules provided no means to end our nightmare there and then on that Friday night—then tightened up the invitation and vetting procedures.
The gimlet-eyed law graduate did later signal some kind of acknowledgement about the behaviour of his friend. He assured me he was only an acquaintance and that he had had no idea this would happen.
This had seemed at odds with the Sainsbury’s supermarket trolleys, broken Guinness bottles, abandoned crowbars, strollers, used Durexes and slicks of boat engine oil and bilge effluent in the inky undertow beneath the slow-moving, garish canal barge of the law-man and the godfatherhoodie’s slow and cackling banter in the fourth floor kitchen, a few days before being moved in on.
This slow-moving fish’s first encounter that—despite my spine raising and my neck prickling and arching involuntarily as I cooked in a confined space, instead focussing on the music of the squeal and scrape of the greasy extractor fan in the tiny windowless kitchen—I’d tried to ignore.
I was exhausted already by engaging with as many of the diverse, international guests as possible – well, not so much by them, not by artists, translators, MFA students, musicians, screenwriters, theatre academics and architects, but by other more difficult people bearding and dragging me downwards.
The sense of connection with the Kenyan was strengthened by the fact that she had been to the girls’ section of Sherborne, the public school my crossly-dressed father also went to. (I was sent to a liberal, fairly high-achieving mixed boarding grammar.)
A Murdoch booster (when the phone-hacking scandal was hitting its parliamentary and Leveson peak), an ardent Monarchist and motormouth, slash Hollywood executive wannabe, and a student of “When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead” (and I nearly died wondering if/when this would happen), she had worked for the Royal Family.
After my initial curiosity about her fascinating, real life, first-hand knowledge and experience in Buckingham Palace and elsewhere, she then bored me to tears denigrating Diana and her camp (who cares?) as we sat in an Italian restaurant that was apparently one of the hunted princess’s favourite haunts.
After some weeks my sense of humour—or sense of my own wisdom—was in threads – the condescending cynicism, the pall of social entitlement, and the brittle grandiosity put the teeth on edge.
She embarrassed herself too – by texting me about there being several different romantic types which we project onto potential partners.
So said some pop-psychology book – and she seemed to be telling me as if this was an insightful, insider idea she was hosting—an idea with regard to me and my projections, presumably—and, in all seriousness, what did I think?
I texted back, praying she’d have a sense of humour about her self-seriousness. In answer to the question about which type I thought I projected I asked her whether the comprehensive, clinical textbook of psychology included a tarot card reader in its taxonomy of types.
I met someone else, hung out with them and tried to dump much further thought about her.
The Kenyan was scandalised at being left in the lurch and no longer a right, royal object of esteem – and maybe mystified that I wasn’t as stupid—or impressed—as she’d thought.
How dare I!? She then refused to even speak to me, pretending I wasn’t in the room despite the presence of shared acquaintances.
And—as five to ten of us odd bods sat in a line against the wall one night with pincered spines in the dark fug of the basement television room on excruciatingly objective, low, foam-cushioned, square, steel and chipboard chairs, gazing with cricked necks up at the widescreen—she made ominous asides about sociopaths.
It made me think of TV movies with psychiatrists explaining the motivations of lurid villains—in melodramatic, TV movie psychologese—to credulous audiences watching intently inside and outside the world of the film.
Or rapidly losing the will to live.
I couldn’t believe it – how someone so smart could be so stupid and think they were sounding so smart. She’d driven me away by being aloof, rude, eye-wateringly hard work, like pulling teeth conversationally – and now Houston thought she was observing my drift in her orbit.
The Thatcherite to-the-right-wing-populist-manor-born was livid that I’d had the common, dirty wherewithal to use my eyes, ears and initiative to be interested in and make conversation with someone new.
She was a tiny, red-bloused Chinese rocket, with a recent MA in Career Counselling from Strathclyde—after a degree in Electrical Engineering from Xi’an—which had helped her come up with the idea of transplanting The Apprentice to China, in an internet format, as part of a school for young entrepreneurs that she was very hard at work trying to set up. Excited for her, I sweated gratis over a supply of copy for her new website that led to a bottomless pit of demand.
I slept with neither of them. (Don’t know, don’t care – if anybody wonders.)
Before she finally stopped talking to me, the Kenyan lost patience and made a final attempt to bring her satellite to earth – a schoolmistress dressing down a pupil about exactly what she knew or had heard he had been up to with his new playmate and the details of where and how; and really sorting them out.
I was staggered both by how crass she appeared and at my own involuntary pity at the gap between performance and reality.
Not unlike the feelings watching the arch, uber-apprentice and Leader of the Free World himself who staggers people with Hollywood fantasy blockbuster hero speeches – people too exhausted to remember that this is a transaction with his constituency, the fodder he dupes who confuse the facial tics and hissing, twittering and howler monkey hooting with a heroic gumption and astuteness.
(Or an everyman’s Oscar Wilde – a camp master of media manipulation. And method acting so much better than the over-rated Meryl Streep’s.)
To this vanquisher, or stubborn bastard, having battled and escaped a repossession and downward spiral with legal help, the sense of having travelled back in time, trapped in a boarding house with an insufferable bore, was both crushing and made me incandescent with anger.
She’d told me enough about war-torn Kenya, her harsh mother parking her in public school here from an early age, and about the behaviour of an extended family of African relatives, for me to excuse the Kenyan or regard her with equanimity and some respect.
Excuse an opportunist with a self-regard the size of Kensington Palace, little visible empathy, and on the lookout for any weakness and niceness? A fatal mistake.
Excuse her? For pegging me as having designs on her and her film industry life? For second-guessing and gainsaying me in ways way off the mark? Like going to a church service with her at Christmas supposedly as a chance to schmooze with a wealthy congregation? Said imaginary friends – like the presence beyond who gave her soul a raison d’être – offering me a rung to step through and break a leg? Or some self-forgetting for my social climbing soul?
The last time I had been in the oak pew and alembic laboratory of a congregation was when I was twelve – and where was the experimental harm in fancying a laugh, some holiday joy and send up, a singsong with friends in the flesh? Even if it meant being yanked back into The Little Town of Bethlehem, keening like a beagle?
What can one do but laugh at the way the superstitious, promoting showbiz for intellectually and emotionally ugly people, spread memes that sociopathically insinuate their way into the lives of others?
She didn’t think how endless hours in church and evensong, watching diaphanous surplices billowing around pale, moist skin, had sickened and brought colour to the wet cheeks of a small, homesick child with half a brain for Arts and Sciences – the ether and ectoplasm drained out of me by the perverse behaviour of adult masters and mistresses who spouted platitudes, apparently believed in the supernatural (or their own charms), and, worse, wanted children in their care—or “community”—to subsist atop these rotting, woodwormed floorboards and crumbling foundations, condemned as unsafe a hundred and fifty years ago.
If I’d been able to trust the ordinary care of people like Jim Bowler, an exuberant English master, who swore if he had got there before my old age of twelve that “you’d’ve been on the stage, my lad – if I’d had anything to do with it – and no excuses” then I might not have been so harsh about the theatre, performance and ritual of religious belief.
But as a bright, successful child I took what we were told, and the formalities of boarding school, a bit literally – and woe betide authority if they contradicted themselves or were ordinarily flawed.
The picture of my cravenness and social climbing felt like it was straight out of one of the history books—or ancient bestiaries—about kings and queens she was so fond of, of a piece with her airs and graces about power in Shakespeare’s Richard III – allusions she no doubt thought advertised her as a Machiavellian princess, as an unknown quantity; one however sharing herself and her asides all too openly with another audience beyond some other unseen fourth wall.
Waiting on Amazon, I once had a book delivered and ripped the packet open, not looking at the addressee, only to find a biography of Madame Chiang Kia-Shek. I went to the front desk straightaway, explaining the mistake, and that evening, in the company of her and another friend of mine, endured a silent browbeating without asides in the TV room as the Kenyan tried to work out if I was spying on her and/or to make me feel guilty for doing so.
Not a word spoken. I’d done nothing wrong – and if she wanted to read the biographies of Great Men and Women—or hagiographies of tyrants and crooked clowns, like Hitler whose genocidal antics in yet another BBC or History Channel documentary had her chuckling wisely in admiration—that was her business; or childish, arse-picking secret.
The fact that I was not interested in the ways in which she wished to stand out must have made it worse – and her silence seem all the more egregious.
It cannot have helped that when we first met I’d tried to engage her in conversation about John le Carré. My father had known him and he too was an alumnus of Sherborne.
The patrician-voiced le Carré – or David Cornwell – has written about how his father, a con man, had deeply impressed on him a sense of intrigue, instability and fear, as le Carré straddled social worlds and hid the nightmare of his father’s financial dealings and lowly origins – all of which seemed to mirror both my teacher father’s emotional bankruptcy, crookedness, and absence as regards me, and le Carré’s elusive identity and unavailability as regards my father (Le Carré with his social and literary adeptness and popularity which my father would’ve seethed at) and with whom he lost touch.
My mother often talked about le Carré / Cornwell and having known him. I loved my mother but even when very young I had a hollow, frightening feeling that she put on hollow airs and graces too because she both was impressed and wanted to impress. This made her—and me, as her anguished, torn charge—vulnerable – not least to my father’s peevish scorn.
Years ago, there was obviously a lot of speculation about the extent of Cornwell’s involvement in the security services and whether he should come clean, which he later did – making it obvious why he had been obliged by official secrecy to leave it open to interpretation.
My interest—originally sparked by an article about Cornwell in the New Yorker that I’d read whilst staying in the apartment of a girlfriend’s grandmother on the Upper East Side, with a kitchen like a Fifties time capsule—whilst staying in New York in March of 1999 to play in a band on a television show—and an article which I used to engage my father in conversation as a way of getting closer to him, shortly after my mother’s death—was to do with lost, assaulted, divided up childhood.
Not name-dropping, spying, intrigue or lies or blundering attempts to impress – except in terms of how those things in themselves might be sources of unease, pain, social dislocation or disappointment.
I had made a mistake in thinking the elegant, well-spoken Kenyan heroically battling in the film industry and corporate marketplace was perceptive enough about people to see my prosaic motivation.
She maintained this image with me knowing little else, I guessed. Her tone-deafness and unempirical attitude towards people in general just made it all very painful.
She had, late one night when we first were getting to know each other, touched me by admitting some details of her own heart ache with her ex – apparently a venture capitalist.
Two intensely competitive, remote control freaks mirroring each other.
(An admission that to me, so excited to know her, wasn’t time-wasting at all and seemed genuine – until it all turned to curds and whey.)
But all the while managing to make it sound like her inadequacy was the stuff of royal household drama.
A Hero’s Journey, a transaction, to make us all go to sleep and be very unreasonable.