Losing one’s app-etite

Living life via apps is not ideal, even if you’re young and trendy which I am definitely not. But I do think of myself as technically adroit, having made a reasonable living writing about technology for the last thirty years or so. So when I get confused and stressed because I cannot work out how to pay for parking or log onto an online bank account or buy concert tickets on my phone I get quite dejected. When I can’t find ferry tickets, order books, check in for a flight, join a Zoom call or whatever, I am increasingly inclined to put it down to age. Clearly I am too old for the appilytic life.

But then I see young people also getting frustrated, also swearing and huffing and puffing and having minor hissy fits. “Let’s just leave it.” “Oh, this app is crap” “I can’t be bothered to take care of this now,” and such like is not just a common response amongst old people. Young people get pissed of with apps too!

And this started me wondering why it is that old people accept that because they are old they can no longer learn new stuff. This suggests that it is ok to stop thinking for oneself, to stop learning. Yes thinking is harder when your brain is loaded to the gills with a lifetime’s experience and knowledge. All those people, books, places, movies and songs. All those memories of amazing conversations, lovers, food and drinks. Having overstuffed brains may be why old people tend to go with the cliché, because the excuse of age for losing the plot is convenient even if it isn’t always true. If you are in good health, do not accept that as every part of you decays with age, your imagination and curiosity inevitably go with it. Yes it is much easier just to believe what newspapers, television and websites say is true. After all, questioning the party line is just so tiresome. No! This is not the way to go. Informed critical thinking never has to stop and nor does your imagination.

It cannot be true that getting older means not having any more wild ideas. It cannot be true that the challenge of thinking for oneself is no longer worth  it. For most of us, getting older means that one can more or less make a choice and trust that it won’t matter if it is the wrong one. Someone else can sort out the consequences. Such arrogance. Laziness, tiredness, ill-health, complacency, fear, are all good reasons not to be bold with your thinking. But surely if none of the above apply, it has to be better to keep a young head, especially as everything else slides slowly into decrepitude.

There is an uglier side to this. Lots of old people look back on their lives, taking a certain smug satisfaction that they are still here, that they’ve made it to the final stretch. They are pleased to be old, because being old is some sort of a license to stop taking responsibility for thinking, doing, creating. But imagination mustn’t be allowed to run dry. Exciting ideas are not the preserve of youth, although the energy to implement them might be.

Young or old if you are feeling overwhelmed by an appilytic life, get out of your dusty corner and recapture yourself, starting with your imagination. Think three wild things a day and tell some bright young spark to turn them into apps. Step away from the grey shadows and face the light to reclaim the you you were in your prime. (Maybe have a little nap first to prepare yourself.) If your prime is now, make sure you do all you can to keep challenging the clichés as you age. Banish the mean and pinching clutches of decline and stretch towards the open and ever-expanding dimensions of your imagination. If that seems a push or you’re not sure how, don’t worry there’s probably an app for it. 

Garden of England

Eventually they arrived in their tired Mitsubishi, waving and smiling as their hosts gingerly lowered the Ukrainian flag. But they still held it upright with freezing fingers, their arms throbbing. A bitter wind was blowing, vicious in search of victims. They had to wait just a little longer to finally greet their visitors. They moved stiffly to the side of the road and with frozen faces tried their best to smile.

For the last couple of hours Peter and Claire had been standing by the road less than a mile from Dover’s port, waiting, flag in hand and often aloft. They were to host a refugee family of five until the war was over and Mr Putin had been put back in his box. Olga had been very keen to take up the offer, posted on Facebook. She had been drawn to pictures of the large rooms, of which there were many, and to the niaivity of the questions Peter and Claire had asked about their situation in Ukraine. For two hours the Ukrainian flag had bounced and swayed for every silver car that approached Peter and Claire along the three lane carriageway. Occasionally drivers would honk their horns in support, not necessarily appreciating what they were looking at. Overhead seagulls swirled in lazy arcs, coasting the wind as it tore at the landscape. The scrubby hedges at the foot of the cliffs surged forwards and back, forwards and back, tracking the wind and the urgent traffic.

In a silver car with Ukrainian plates, heading away from Claire and Peter, a new argument was getting underway. Ivan was struggling to focus on driving on the wrong side of the road and keeping up with the rest of the traffic. It was not easy and his small pale body was shaking, terrified. He clutched at the steering wheel in hunched concentration and did his best to ignore the urgent artillery his wife fired with such intensity. “Where can they be? Are you sure you turned the right way out of customs and immigration?” This last a slightly confusing demand. Ivan had listened to his wife at each step of the way, he had followed Olga’s waving arm as she relayed instructions coming in from Peter via a messaging app. His only certainty was that he had followed her instruction. Ivan’s body quivered and his brain was locking up, tangled with stress, exhaustion and fear. Ivan was responding only the movements of the road and of his bossy wife. He followed as she pointed at the way she wanted to go. He was a colourless automaton. He saw only grey tarmac and her flailing hand.

But they were going the wrong way and after driving for over an hour Ivan took a bold decision. He finally ignored his nagging wife and stopped the car at a petrol station. With immense patience and tones of normality he told the children that no, we aren’t there yet. “We are in England,” he said “but we must find the friends, the English people, before we can say we are there”. So small and yet so huge. Ivan sighed and looked down, and reached to take the phone from his wife. He scrolled up and carefully read through the many messages. “But it says here we should have turned left and headed west, not east?” Olga nodded in agreement, “but you don’t know. You don’t listen. I was pointing. I was showing you the way. You are a fool.” And she folded her arms and started muttering justifications to herself, harumphing and pushing herself deeper into the carseat. She was nursing something pinched and small that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. In the back, the little girl was starting to whimper again calling for another bag of crisps, another fizzy drink. She was ignored, eventually gave up and went back to the Youtube cartoons on her phone. The teenage boys momentarily roused turned away and went back to sleep. As quietly as possible Ivan and Olga continued to hiss and spit until Ivan turned the car around and set off back towards the port. The arrogant greens on the early leaves of the roadside bushes were screaming at him too. But Ivan fancied their spring song was blotting out the sound of Olga’s ranting and his daughter’s whines. He took comfort in the grubby browns and taupes, in the incipient growth, the life. Full of new possibilities the colours on the fragile shoots shifted with the light. Perhaps he was moving with them forwards, ever forwards and away from the fear. Or perhaps the fear was moving with him.  

As Ivan moved forwards and Olga continued to bludgeon him with words, Claire and Peter were immobile with cold. “We can’t just wait and wait? Where could they possibly be?” Claire nudged at her husband’s shoulder as he struggled to check his phone once again and to keep the flag upright. “Stop nagging. They’ll be here. There isn’t anywhere else for them to be, if they followed the instructions.” His irritation barely hidden, he thrust the flag into his wife’s chilled hand, and dragged numb fingers across his dripping nose. “I’ll try another message.” The two of them stood irritated and disagreeable, resenting the two hours of waiting plus the two more hours driving to Dover. And back again. They generally managed to avoid spending so much time in each other’s company and this day was turning into a trial. Sullen sighs and sporadic unintended huddling against the cold punctuated the tedium. Exasperation and ill-concealed annoyance: “He’s gone the wrong way. Turned right instead of left and he was heading for Ramsgate. How hard is it to choose between left and right? How hard to follow signs to Hastings?”

Claire smiled, fully aware that left and right are often interchangeable, particularly in times of stress and anxiety. “They don’t speak English, so you can’t expect them to be able to tell between what says Ramsgate and what says Hastings,” she said with an ill-concealed sneer. Another hour passed but then “Look, surely that has to be them?” Claire, now quite ashen with the cold was pointing a crooked finger at a slow moving grey car. It was hugging the side of the road, leaving the weeds and grasses undisturbed and upright, their shadows intact as he passed. The driver was hunched over and the woman passenger was staring away from him at the traffic hurtling by. She was wearing a headband of large blue and yellow silk flowers and when she finally noticed Claire and Peter she pasted on a dazzling smile and started waving frantically. The children came slowly awake and waved as well, wide eyed dead faces, sallow skin, vacant eyes.

A couple of hours later they were seated around the kitchen table, the room warm and the air scented with Green Ash logs burning gently in the fire. Daffodils and forget-me-nots unseen in the darkened flowerbeds and loud in vases on the window sills. Floral flags for their guests. Peter looked at the scene with a self-satisfaction bordering on the smug. They were finally here, finally safe. “What a journey you’ve had,” he said with a pompous, almost prideful tone. Claire sipping her homemade elderflower cordial nodding, equally pleased. As if they had even the slightest idea of what these people had been through. No one spoke. The family looked from one to the other, waiting for someone to Google translate what had been said. They were each somewhere elsewhere still, isolated and alone, rerunning snapshots in their heads of each of the 66 days they had been on the road. Endless images of tarmac and traffic, of anonymous fields taking them further and further from home. Lost pictures marking time and running through their brains without pause.

In front of them was an inedible meal of English food, food which Claire had thought would be comforting and tasty. But they could only barely eat the sausages and some of the potato. The sausages tasted strangely aromatic and had a fat, coarse texture. Sausages should have just a hint of pork flavour and be smooth and soft. They should be a dusky orange, not blackened and red, and in need of dogged chewing. And they should not be contaminated with some sort of thick brown liquid as these were, along with much of the fluffy mashed potato and what might once have been onions. The onions were translucent and brown at the edges, instead of being crisp and fresh and sharp. The peas, an excess of green on bright white plates, they all pushed aside.

Finally Google translate might have expressed their hosts’ attempt at polite and welcoming conversation. They nodded and smiled small shy smiles. Aliens in another strange land. Claire moved the large vase of expensive lilies and early roses to one side, regretting with a certain smallness of spirit that these additional flowers were so little appreciated. She had seen this evening, this arrival, as a celebration. She wanted the flowers to signal her own personal welcome, in addition to the yellow and blue. Something wasn’t quite right though.

“Do you like flowers?” she ventured and, after an age in which a couple more bites of sausage were reluctantly choked down, Olga nodded vigorously. But she had been unimpressed with the chaos of the Kent countryside, its constant shifts, the madness of all those different plants and trees. She did not want this desolation of bellowing vegetation, jeering at them and which they could not comprehend as they passed through the unknown landscape. She wanted to see boundless fields of wheat and potatoes, sunflowers, a landscape uniform, steady and reliable. Safe. But that was gone.  “Tomorrow we can show you the garden, when it’s light, when you’ve all recovered from your journey.” “Yes” Peter chipped in as Google took over and the five lost Ukrainians focused on yet another impenetrable tomorrow. That they would have recovered from their journey was unlikely.

Claire was sure a garden could cast a healing spell. Despite the fact that these people had virtually no English she was looking forward to involving them in the garden and to enjoying its nurturing power on their behalf. The family had travelled a slow and circuitous route from Chernihiv in north eastern Ukraine. The City of Legends on the Desna River, encircled by hostile Russians hungry for destruction. The family had travelled via Poland, Germany and France. They had been on the road for over two months and Ivan had had some idea that they should treat the trip as a sort of holiday, not flight from war. Every day his country was shattered and smashed anew and every day took them further from their lives. But he was convinced they were moving closer to even worse terrors he could not name. The shades and shadows of the unknown held him tight.

For the first two weeks none of the visitors left their bedrooms. They stayed draped on their beds watching their phones, searching for news, sharing with their friends, sleeping. Claire and Peter had chosen to leave them to settle in their own way and in their own time, but that they would choose to remain indoors had not occurred to them. After a couple of weeks the boys ventured out into the garden, kicking a ball they had brought from home, disconsolate and lazily. After a few minutes they went back indoors, away from the energy and growth, away from the greens and the yellows and the blues. Away from the serendipity and grace of new life, thrusting into the light.

Ivan and Peter worked together on the paperwork for registering the family with the local doctor and getting National Insurance numbers for the adults. It was slow work and Ivan’s enthusiasm to start a new life in England feeble at best. His eyes turned away from the work, looking out of the window for echoes of the soothing views that had been his comfort in Chernihiv. There he would look out from his desk in their flat, staring at the swaying treetops of a distant park. Black in winter, green in spring and summer and golden in the autumn, their movement was endlessly restful to him. But it wasn’t the same here. There was too much chaos in the shapes and miscellany of the view and he could not stare away the grey space that filled his head. Dreary acknowledgements and the bureacracy of a situation wherein he had no control were engulfing Ivan and there was no distant swaying parkland to soothe him. “It’s so very green, it hurts my eyes,” he mumbled as he turned away. 

His mind was in darkness. In the darkness he was always driving late at night sipping Red Bull and eating crisps as his family slept safe in the back seats. All around him was black and the empty landscape left only the road for him. He had only to make the decisions to brake or accelerate, to change lane, to speed up or slow down, to windscreen wipe or not windscreen wipe. In the emptiness these decisions were the limits of his new world and when the light showed changing contours Ivan was soon lost in dread. His decisions and choices, the awfulness of change was carved into the landscape as he passed ever further from his home and all that he had known. 

At the dining room table Ivan’s soft sandy hair, too long and in need of washing, clung tight to his high brow which was creased with anxiety. His sparse red beard camoflaged grey pasty skin peppered with small wounds and burgeoning spots. Chewed fingernails and a watchful gaze, he waited in vain for the garden and this new landscape to give him some meagre solace. Anxious that Olga stays close by, Ivan is restless without her. He loves his wife to distraction but unbidden suspicions that he could not fully trust her, shame him. And the endless nagging was exhausting. She was sitting with them at the table, Google translate at the ready as Peter went through the endless forms. Olga, big boned and with the same porkfat pasty complexion as her husband, was bored with the formfilling, wondering only when they could go to London and when the promised money would arrive from the local council. She knew it was promised. Peter had said so. She looked forward to spending it on a trip to London and some new clothes. Conniving and charming, she smiled rosy smiles in answer to every question and reminded Peter that she wanted to have Universal Credit although she wasn’t entirely certain what it was.

Outside the rain drizzled the garden, amplifying the yellows and blues and greens, the flowers and plants beginning to call back a little louder to meet Ivan’s yearning gaze. Olga was blind to the tidy flower beds, the multitude of spring colours. It was too early, too bright for these shades. They were too different. They mocked her, left her feeling more alone, more distant and foreign. She turned away. She wanted to shop and drink and to replicate what they had lost in their own space. She was bored with her hosts and their careful, methodical organisation. Distain and impatience; the surety that this country they had come to was inferior in all respects, from the awful food to the weather and the untidy landscapes. Peter was droning on again. “So now we need to submit these forms and we can start working on the school applications for the children.” Olga nodded enthusiastically, “yes, school, yes.” The children wouldn’t be such an annoyance, if they were in school all day. Someone else would entertain and feed them. Someone else, anyone else. “And then you will be able to look for work, get your lives on track. Maybe by then the war will be over.” The translation produced vigourous nodding from Ivan and a small scowl from Olga, but Peter saw only the nodding and beamed back with equal enthusiasm.

Claire was out in the rain picking herbs for lunch and Olga watched through the rain glittered windows, a condescending smirk on her face. Claire came in with potatoes from the shed which she was offering with some pride. “From the garden last summer”. Olga called the children so that they could see these miserable English potatoes. The boys of 13 and 15 and the pallid little girl of seven came into the kitchen hovering behind their mother to stare at the potatoes in the basket. There was no meaning, no relevance, no connection. None understood why they needed to look at potatoes. They understood their mother’s distain for the meagre selection as she muttered and gestured at the vegetable patch. Claire took this as a question,  laughing back that “yes, we grow our own potatoes”. The older boy translated immediately for his mother. But this was surely nothing to be proud of. Olga pasted on a patronising smile and nodded. 

She left the room and reappeared with a packet of seeds, using Google to explain to Claire that as there are no beetroots in England, Claire might like to grow some. Holding the packet in her hand, Claire smiled broadly and gestured to a basket on the windowsill, full of seed packets some open and some still closed waiting for their season. Claire tucked the Ukrainian seeds into the batch for April and showed Olga a packet of English beetroot seeds. Olga stared at the picture of beetroots on the packet. It was almost the same image as the one on her Ukrainian beetroot seed packet. But not quite. It was an imposter, a fake. They have no beetroots in England. She knows this. And Claire was surprised to see slow tears welling in Olga’s hard grey eyes. They stood at the kitchen door as the rain fell slowly reaching deep and nurturing into the soil and all that dwelled there. They watched a robin hop from the wheelbarrow onto the greenhouse gutter. They watched as the robin cast tiny shadows in the early spring sunshine. They watched as shadows disappeared and reappeared with each urgent movement.

Traitor King by Andrew Lownie – a review

Much has been written about the dreadful antics of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. So much so that according to Andrew Lownie, the author of Traitor King, it was difficult to get reviewers to read and review his latest book. This might be because they believe, wrongly, that there is nothing new to add to the well trodden territory that has seen some fifty titles about the notorious couple. Or it might be that literary editors and reviewers are too lazy to want to learn more about them. But learning more is what Traitor King is all about: it’s new territory presented in eensy weensy detail.

The book covers the years following King Edward VIII’s abdication, his marriage to Wallis Simpson and their dubious career as celebrity royals. Much as seems to be happening with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex today, the Windsors went to immense effort to earn a very juicy living by exploiting their non-roles. No longer part of the monarchy, they continued to live the lifestyle that Edward had enjoyed prior to his new life with Wallis, except that he wasn’t king anymore. They married in 1937 as soon as her divorce from her second husband was finalised and spent the rest of their lives as glamourous nomads, mostly in Europe and often at the expense of others.

They did a stint in the Bahamas, then a British Crown Colony, where Edward was put out of harm’s way during World War II. At least that was Winston Churchill’s intention. But corruption, scandal and murder attended the Windsors’ time in the sun. Edward’s deficit of grey matter was a serious impediment when it came to making sensible choices, no matter how obvious they were. Mrs Windsor did at least make an effort in the Bahamas and got involved in good works to the benefit of the islanders. But the local murder of Harry Oakes, a British gold miner, tax exile and close friend of the Duke of Windsor, was never solved and the Duke was directly involved in the haphazard investigation into the death. In Traitor King Lownie presents compelling evidence that Windsor was implicated in Harry Oakes’ demise.

Churchill had sent the pair away for several reasons, but mainly to keep them out of range of the throne. This sounds outlandish but the close connections between the Windsors and the Nazis was more than a mere sharing of ideologies. It was easy to flatter Wallis and Edward with promises of wealth and power, as neither was politically astute. It was even easier to appeal to their shared vanity with a promise to reinstate Edward as the King of England, with Wallis as his queen once Germany had vanquished Great Britain.

Edward and Wallis were obvious security risks although much of the evidence for the gravity of the risk has only recently come to light. Sitting at the heart of the diplomatic circles in various European capitals, Edward was well-placed to keep up to date with developments as the war progressed. Unfortunately he was keen to brag over dinner about what he heard, regardless of its sensitivity and security implications. He professed he wanted to help and he craved position for most of his life. During the war, got only a token position as a military liaison official where he could do the least harm.

Wallis was known to have had Nazi sympathies and it turns out that before the war she had had an affair with Joachim von Ribbentrop. From 1938 to 1945 he was the Nazi’s Minister for Foreign Affairs. Does that title scream spymaster or what? As far as Wallis was concerned he lived up to his title. She had become of interest to intelligence services in the USA and elsewhere and a recently disclosed FBI report states that “because of her high official position, the duchess is obtaining a variety of information concerning the British and French activities that she is passing on to the Germans.”Once married to Edward the pair were targets for the British and French intelligence services as well. The 1937 tour of Germany and meeting Hitler and his odious crew didn’t help matters and nor did Edward’s close family connections in Germany. 

In 1940 the Germans set up Operation Willi, a pretty half-hearted effort to kidnap the couple. This was another reason to get the Windsors out of Europe. In the Bahamas they continued to be annoying, hobnobbing with known Nazi sympathisers and getting involved in what appears to be money laundering and currency gambles. Money was very important to the Windsors although they appear to have been takers more than givers.

Andrew Lownie documents all this and much more in granular detail. At times his book reads as if it were an elaborated list of every interaction the Windsors had with a vast miscellany of people as documented in security reports, sales catalogues, travel documents, letters and diaries. Lownie has scoured the planet for any references to the Windsors in the biographies, letters and diaries of their friends, colleagues, servants, guests, business partners and hangers on. This data overwhelm creates a tension with the book’s narrative flow and the drumbeat of meticulously documented facts too often drowns out the author’s voice. Bolder opinions on the facts presented would have made for a more compelling storyline and an easier read.

Traitor King doesn’t really hit its stride until the final quarter. By this time its 1953 and the couple is settling down in Paris where they continue to entertain on a grand scale and Edward is still trying to get his family to be nice to Wallis. That never happens and after his death in May 1972 Wallis lives on for another 14 years, still exiled, depressed and unloved. In her final days parasites posing as aides sell off her belongings and she is confined to her bedroom waiting to die. 

It’s all very sad, but although love was the reason for Edward’s abdication, love seems not to have been at the heart of the Windsors’ relationship. That is even sadder. He worshipped his idealised version of her and she treated him with condescension and distain. Ambition, greed, vanity, platforming, ostentatiousness, all ooze from these two people even at such a distance. They are odious individuals, selfish, mean and competitive narcissists of limited intelligence and perception. Beyond the romance that persistently overshadows the human reality Andrew Lownie’s book, with all its details, shows us the pair for who they really were.

Opportunities for authors and their ilk

The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) recently published details of research into authors’ earnings. The study was conducted by the CREATe Centre at the University of Glasgow which found that the future of writing as a profession is under threat. But authoring isn’t under threat any more today than it ever was. People will always want to read and writers, whose imagination is their trade, are very good at reinvention. The ALCS figures, particularly the reduction in fulltime authors’ median earnings from £12,330 in 2006 to £7,000 in 2022, are alarming. But they do not tell a complete story.

Rapidly evolving digital technology has provided an environment for new commercial models within publishing. Technology has spawned a world of new opportunities throughout authors’ supply chains, primarily in online services and tools to support writers. Unfortunately this has helped to drive down average earnings.

The online publishing eco-system is a dynamic adjunct to the traditional publishing industry. It is one that publishers readily exploit without much investment. Hordes of online service providers from authors and copy writers to reviewers, filter and sift new talent at their own risk and to the benefit of publishers. These new players offer fee-based publishing opportunities and fee-based prizes in every imaginable category. New writers can today self-publish without much difficulty, because the technology and the people are there to grease the wheels. These business models did not exist in the same abundance in 2006.

There is a mutual dependency between the digital environment and those who inhabit it. And this is where publishers feed, either directly or via the agent community. That they can exploit the vanity of potential authors is a given. We are all keen for the attention of a commercial publishing contract that might take our careers in a new direction. And today there are so many more of us offering raw material: supply outstrips demand.

The online eco-system hosts all manner of writerly services from software and online courses, to review sites, editorial services, printing and publishing services, marketing, blog tours and publicity. The enormity of this opportunistic system, enhanced and amplified with a host of social media channels, means that anyone who fancies their chances as an author can present themselves as such. Authors are the raw material, rather than their work. Those who are good at the online gig (and patient enough to get good at it) are rewarded by traditional publishing in the end. Top selling titles based on blogging and websites with huge followings are massive successes. Publishers put money into these writers, knowing that their risk is mitigated.

The fall in authors’ average earnings between 2006 and 2022 reflects the brutal facts of supply and demand. Today’s economic landscape is much less favourable, as the ALCS data shows. There are so many more active authors and agents in our industry now and most will work for much less money than was likely in 2006. Back then there were far fewer writers actively pursuing success, and publishers were far hungrier.

Mainstream publishers today can and do focus on what are likely to be successful products, usually from credentialled writers. Mostly publishers are very good at doing this, as the astonishing turnover and profit figures confirm. The writer’s profession is about opportunity and yes luck. But luck has nothing to do with the inclination of mainstream publishers to turn away from reduced risk investments. That is never going to happen. Luck plays a part at all points in the publishing supply chain, from the writing and commercial attractions of a work, through to whether or not the paper costs for printing it on is within budget. The reliability or not of ‘luck’ is precisely what makes it luck. And there is nothing lucky in the success of top selling titles. They succeed because publishers put the money behind them to make sure that they succeed. As with celebrity tomes, the publishers of work that started life as a high profile blog already have a defined market.

Earning a living as an author has never been easy. Oscar Wilde wrote in a letter to one Mr Morgan that ‘the best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend upon it for their daily bread’. That was in 1885 and today’s publishing economics keep it that way.

The relationship between authors and publishers is changed. Publishers no longer want to recognise that support for authors is their responsibility. And why should it be when raw materials for new products are so readily available, the risk so much less and the profits so much more? The traditional contract between authors and publishers is broken. Authors need a new more compelling and sustainable model, one that authors themselves should dictate. This ought to mean opportunities for ambitious publishers keen to disrupt and reinvent their industry. Let’s hope it does.

The Disease

It began with a letter. The letter was a notification. The letter said there was to be a party. The letter said everyone in the hamlet was invited. The letter said there would be traffic on the long drive to the farm. The letter said there would be traffic on the lane. There would be traffic management, security, health and safety personnel. All were invited to join the party. All were invited to the family music festival and to contribute money for the Teenage Cancer Trust.

It was just getting dark as he slurped through his mushy breakfast of miso and steamed rice. Daylight was fading and the high walls of his pristine pink granite slabbed kitchen were in shadow. He watched the last birds moving across his view. Or were they bats, bats would be better. The miso and rice congealing in his bowl drew his attention back. Somewhere in his head he thought he heard a tune, a new tune. The rice was getting stickier and colder. He tried to hear the tune again, the new tune. But as he swallowed down the last of his food, he realised that it was an old tune. Like the time before. Always an old tune echoing in his head and pretending to be something new, a new invention. Even those old tunes weren’t really his invention he had to admit. But whose to know. Those early days, racing around the country in a small van, his mates singing stuff in the back. The stuff ended up in songs he claimed as his own and they were too high to argue and then it became the truth.

He got up and moved away from the wreckage of breakfast: miso and rice drying and slowly glazing the counter; green tea and orange juice spills; pills. He caught a glimpse of himself as he passed the uncurtained window. In his long black kurta he reminded himself of Uncle Fester, but knew that if he was Fester incarnate it would be without his charm or kindness. Charm is for fools who have no more clever ways to lie. His favoured black kurtas he believed created a favourable impression of heft and authority, a music industry legend like Daltry or McCartney. Or at least like them if they too had turned to fat. 

This would be a night for music. An album, something for the next tour, tickets already on sale so better get on with it. The studio was booked and getting dressed for rehearsals wouldn’t take so long. He just needed a couple of ideas. Nothing fancy or complicated but poppy and cool sounding. He sighed as he made his heavy way up the curved marble staircase to his bedroom. There he would begin his process of incarnation.

His bed was already made, a lifelong habit to keep his mum and dad happy. That need for opprobrium. When he wakes it’s almost a reflex to remind himself to make his bed. At his dressing table he would ring his eyes with his favourite Rimmel 51 Musee Red round and round right down to where his cheekbones used to be so gaunt and so prominent. He’d keeping ringing right up to the eyebrows, feeling sad. His still soulful eyes now looked out from puffy bags that filled his eyesockets with limp ashen flesh. His lips he marks out with an excess of black eyeliner, smeared to look like coal dust, as if he’s been eating Brazier Smokeless coke. It worked in the eighties and now here forty years on, for him it still works. Sort of. He would start on his hair. Washed before breakfast it was now drooping around his puffy face in thin, stringy black strands interspersed with grey. A felt tip liner for those. The backbrushing ritual is key to transformation from what he knew and understood deep down to be a musical run-of-the-mill, to superstardom. Superstardom. That shocking look with hair held high, eyes and mouth gaping wide. A handful of catchy tunes, and that relentless on stage stamina. He was there. But luck and novelty and a record company’s willingness to put in the money, counted for more than the look, the catchy tunes or the stamina.

He’d had a presence on stage for sure. Back then, tall and with high. narrow shoulders and those soulful eyes, his adolescent self had a yearning vulnerable quality that resonated with his fans. He was unattainable temptation, embellished in black and red. It had worked well. A whining adolescent singing of existential despair, of angst and acne, and the tedium of an uncurious mind. 

But now in his sixties the look was just rather silly. He had grown stooped and his shoulders shrank into his body, giving the impression of too much thick neck, rather like a pigeon hunched up against the cold. The once frail ribsy torso had filled out, unstoppable. He wasn’t so much fat as cylindrical. The flubbiness had grown slowly out from his ribs and back, reaching gradually down to meet his heavy hips and thighs. What was once a wild tangle of glossy dark hair was now a thinning mess of wispy old hair. There’s something that happens to hair as a person ages. It’s rarely the right balance of soft and dry, but instead becomes dull and flat and floppy. Occasionally it behaves as it once did and these moments are, for an old person, a depressing reminder of what has been lost.

When he looks at his hair in the mirror or tries unsuccessfully to run his fingers through it, he often wonders if it wouldn’t be best to shave his head. But that’s a diminution too far. When the stage lights shine on his hair it creates a rendition of the galaxy in monochrome or sometimes, depending on the colour of the lights, of the aurora borealis. This appeals to his sense of self-importance so shaving his head is not an option, despite the inconvenient but relentless loss of of his aging strands. When creating, rehearsing or performing, the hair is enhanced with all manner of gels and treatments. They shore up his genius. But with each passing year the hairs are fewer in number and their capacity to absorb gels and treatments ever more tenuous.

“Sir I have letters” he heard a small excited voice call from behind. He turned halfway up the stairs to see Sakura, slight and eager. She came scampering up, her  hand outstretched and bearing a selection of the day’s post. He marvelled at her energy and with envy at the bounce of her long dark hair as she skipped from step to step. How did she do that without appearing to watch where she was going? And how is Sakura so slender and agile? What had the years taken from him and given to her? As she reached him Sakura lowered her eyes and proffered her cargo. He took it and stared after her as she hurried back down to the kitchen which he knew would be immaculate before he’d even puffed his way to the top.

“Trace, are you up yet?” He continued slowly towards his own bedroom, wondering what this envelope without a stamp could be. But his wife had been up for many hours, not much bothered when her man would finish his snorty sleep and resurface into the remnants of the day. Unlike him, or perhaps because of him, Tracey Jones relishes the daylight, though she rarely leaves the house. Tracey spends hours looking out of her bedroom window, watching the trees sway, the occasional traffic on the lane in the distance. She didn’t answer but from a narrow gap in two neatly aligned doors watched her husband’s encounter on the stairs. She briefly saw his heavy tread as he ambled along the hallway leafing through the envelopes. She resubmerged up to her eyes in her bath, and focused on YouTube. She marvelled at the way it chose just what worked with brandy-laced screwdrivers. She knew he would be in to check on her after a while to ask her how the rowing and biking had gone. He would be regaled in his rehearsal finery and wouldn’t really want to know about her forty minute ordeal, made possible only with the promise of the bath and the Martell/Stoly magic. But he’d ask and she’d say fine and perhaps raise a dripping leg from the bubbles to show off a toned calf he had long since lost interest in. She knew she would comment to him on how the rehearsal look differed from his performance one only in degree and density. Tracey sank underwater to blow bubbles and avoid him for as long as possible. As she resurfaced for air she could hear him bellowing. Shouting the name of the nice young lawyer that was now handling some of their affairs.

“No. No, no, no, no no” Tracey heard, taking another swill before sinking back down into silence. He continued to bellow, surprised at the sensation of his heartbeat. Its thumping was loud and hard and his quivering flesh provoked curious sensations as his belly moved with the pounding. The letter vibrated delicately in his fingers. He wiped a hand across his face. “Stop it now. I want it stopped.” He closed his eyes to wait for some reply. At the other end of the ’phone Joshua fiddled with his golden bracelets. He looked out the window at the traffic passing languidly along Great Easter Street towards Spitalfields. In gentle slightly hushed tones he took the risk to disagree. “I understand the problem, but don’t you think it a little harsh? After all it’s a family event. Youngsters will be on stage, playing music for their friends.” Disagreeing had become a bit of a habit lately with this egomaniacal client whose considerable wealth Joshua’s firm was keen to enjoy via regular and hefty monthly billings.

Joshua had already been warned once, but despite his über cautious nature deep within there lurked a small demonThe demon was hitting an adolescent stride and whispered in his ear: “remind him that he got a start in the music business playing small gigs like this”. Joshua smiled a little. “No, I mean, my understanding is that the idea is for kids to play, local bands and the like. It’s over a couple of days, but the schedule’s only in the daytime from what you’ve read to me. Where’s the harm?” This last calculated to slightly annoy Joshua’s client, but slightly wasn’t an option. The explosion of sound and spit at the other end was of an intensity that made it impossible for Joshua to keep his phone to his ear. He grimaced at the image and could not resist the urge to wipe his ear. “What are the options to get this stopped? What do we have to do? It cannot go ahead. I don’t want hundreds of people coming down here. I don’t want any hassles.”

Joshua stood up and paced slowly behind his desk, seeing the traffic now crawling in the slow dribble of early spring rain. He was bored with this ego in black and his delusions, with the complicated arrangements needed for face to face meetings, the reminders of just how important he was. Such a cliché “mate, you do know who I am, right?” The trouble he was talking about was thirty years ago at the height of his band’s fame and when youngsters considered The Disease the voice of their generation. Or at least a limited and spotty adolescent cohort of that generation did. “We can get an injunction, if you’re really sure you want to go down that route.” “Get it.” More spit and venom.

How did he get to hate so much? Joshua pondered this as he replied with a short list of what it would require, the process, the cost in compensation, since this was a charity event. At this last his client said: “find out what they expected to raise and offer that”. “Do you want me to double it, to sweeten the pill?” “No I bloody don’t. Why would I do that? Who gives a shit about sweetening the fucking pill. Just do it.” And with that the now very sweaty man in black with the shiney face and the limp hair threw his phone across the room. It bounced impotent on the carpet, so he followed it and kicked it hard against the wall. Joshua heard the bangs and ended his side of the call. This could be one for someone else to follow up on. In Joshua’s head he ran through the likely wording. The nonsense that he concocted would go into a letter with a threat and a cheque and that might be enough to get the event stopped. He would point out the considerable costs involved in a challenge to an injunction and blah blah blah. In the end it wasn’t that hard to do. He could come up with the words. He could be confident that the threat and the generous cheque would be enough to persuade the farmers not to go ahead. More blah blah. More weasel words.

He’d start with a ’phone call, and some kind explanations, gentle agreement that it was very sad. Gentle agreement that it was unavoidable. Gentle agreement and let’s pretend there’s no anger, no loss, no disbelief, no alternative reality. Of course they understood that Mr Jones meant it, that his vanity knew no limits. That supporting and encouraging young musicians was not part of his playlist. They understood the weasel words.

So the plans for the little festival on the farm were stopped. As it started so it ended: with a letter. The letter said there was to be no party. The letter said everyone in the hamlet was no longer invited. The letter said there would not be traffic on the long drive to the farm. The letter said there would not be traffic on the lane. The letter said there would be no traffic management, no security, no health and safety personnel. None were invited to join the party. None were invited to play and none to contribute money for the Teenage Cancer Trust.

The randomness of book publishing

This is a quick summary of how my first book got published in 1997. It’s a story of great success and it’s a story of why I cannot get anywhere today.

It began in 1996 at a time when I believed unwaveringly in my life, my marriage and my ability to achieve just about anything. Red ribbons all round. My then husband had gone up to town for a meeting about websites or some such. He came home with the information that some guy would be sending me a letter about a book. “He asked us to write it as well as doing the website. We said you might be a better choice, because you write about technology.” “Oh” says I, “thanks” says I, adding that “I can’t do anything at the moment because I’ve got too much on.” Over supper then-husband said the Icon Books guys were interesting and that he enjoyed dealing with bright people. He said that they were pleased to hear that I was a journalist.

Two days later an envelope came in the post. It contained a compliment slip that said “further to our chat with Todd …”. There was also a cheque for £1500 and a contract for a book tentatively called The Internet for Beginners. The text was to be delivered in six months time. I think it was six months. There was a lot of words in the contract and stuff about royalties and translation rights and territories and so on. I read it carefully and it seemed reasonable enough. It really had no special meaning for me, it was just another commission. My biggest concern was delivering however many thousands of words they wanted within their deadline. It would mean real research, lots more reading than I usually bothered with and much time devoted to a single project. That was far from my usual habit of writing short articles following a loose brief and to a deadline. This internet project had serious potential to get very dull.

Deadlines are the only way that stuff gets done, so needless to say I didn’t start writing Introducing the Internet until about a month before the text was due, and that was only because I had nothing else to write that was more distracting. The book’s editor was Richard Appignanesi and the illustrator was Zoran Jevtic. Fortunately all the reading paid off and the manuscript was delivered on time. 10,000 copies were printed and immediately another 10,000 flew off the press. Impressive I thought, that so many people wanted to know about the internet and the Worldwide Web. Embroiled in the miseries of the end of what had once been such happiness, I gave the book no further thought. But then royalty statements and cheques started coming it. Translation rights and sales, all that. Still, wallowing in cold sorrow and an uncertain reality, none of it meant much to me. I did press interviews acknowledged reviews, spoke on the BBC, all in a dark sad haze distinguished only by its depth and persistence.

It is only in the last couple of years that I have come to appreciate just how unique my experience with Icon was. They did offer to publish whatever else I fancied but the person making the offer was such a serious sleazeball I didn’t bother. The book spent time in the Sunday Times nonfiction chart and was translated into various languages, so it was undoubtedly a success. I forgot about the book altogether until recently. Looking at it again, given how old it is, it surprisingly still works. 

More recently, after slogging away with the odious crowdfunding process, Unbound published my first novel in 2019. Thank you Unbound for that and all the fish. Unbound’s marketing and author engagement can best be described as derisory, so it is unsurprising that The Draftsman has sunk without a trace. What a contrast to the internet book. Now I look back in amazement at my experience with Icon and their …for Beginners series and wonder how it happened. But I know how: as a jobbing writer at a time when publishers sought out authors, I was lucky. And so were Icon. That is how these things work. Today the world of authoring is a much more crowded one and the serendipity that brought together Icon Books and Laurel Brunner is infinitely more random. Maybe that’s why life as a writer has these days become so weird. But weird is good. It’s how we spot the normal, at least what might be.

Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting by Penelope Mortimer – A review

This book was originally published in 1958, but it’s a story we should all revisit. Not that Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is peerless prose or a wild tale of derring-do. It is neither. Rather, this book is a glimpse of a place in time where men and women were on the edge of massive, generational change.

The approaching transition was from the cosy but fragile reality of the traditional, nuclear family to something much edgier. In this new something people divorced without stigma, lived together without being married and sat on each other’s laps in public. Women were on the verge of all the freedoms that sheer tights, short skirts and the contraceptive pill conferred. They were ready to turn away from conventional social constrictions and personal repression, towards something much more dangerous and risky. 

But in 1958 that was all yet to come. Postwar 1950s Britain was still a seriously limited world, a world where rationing hadn’t finished until 1954 and where Hitler’s ghost still cast a long and menacing shadow. People were subdued and passive, locked in the same class cage as before the war. With Naziism defeated the only war they faced was the Cold War, something too abstractly horrific to truly get their heads around. In this fifties world people clung to traditional roles, to old and dessicated habits because anything different or new was too terrifying. The thought of any kind of upheaval or change was direct trauma.

For most people, ideas that there could be alternatives to pre-war expectations, to new freedoms and roles, had an irrational power to instill fear. It was just too much to think about. Read the novels of Kingsley Amis and the poetry of Philip Larkin and amidst the brilliance you read a celebration of the ordinary and the pre-war status quo. Popular stories, novels and plays were about the quotidien, the unquestionable joys of the steady and reliable British routine. And we had a burgeoning of fantasies and escapism like The Borrowers and the Lord of the Rings presenting alternative safe presentations of struggle and triumph, to replace the horrors of war that had been on the doorstep.

Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting does none of this, but it does challenge the cosiness of the ordinary lives people were encouraged to live and any escapist fantasies they might have had. The decade was marked by economic growth and technological advance. Economic growth made the life of a housewife more exciting because she could shop at will for household appliances and stuff for herself and her family. Technology made life more convenient; television added scope for idle entertainment. But such advances also encouraged people, especially women, to question shifting individual expectations. They wanted to better understand what it means to have a fulfilled life and how to go about having one.

Penelope Mortimer’s Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is clearly drawn from her own life’s experience as a wife, mother and housewife, and of her own frustrated intellect. In sparse and economical prose she presents a middle-class, white family living in what would once have been described as the stockbroker belt. Ruth and Max  Whiting have three children, two pre-teen boys who go to boarding school and an older daughter in her first year at Oxford. An unplanned but approaching birth is the reason for the daughter’s parent’s marriage in the first place, although Angela doesn’t know this. Angela thinks she’s in love and then she too falls pregnant. The young man in question is a carbon copy of her father at about the same age and situation in life.

Abortion wasn’t an option for Ruth and Max, but it has become unquestionably possible for Angela and Tony, even though it’s still illegal. This odious young man has contrived a personna of male authority, hiding his selfish and sleazy character without even a smidge of awareness that he is doing so. He has no moral compass, no sympathy for his girlfriend, no question of any response other than minimising his culpability. All this is carefully hidden behind a mimicry of traditional expectations of male behaviour, bluster and the puerile affectations of youth. That he wants to live up to the responsibility for getting himself and Angela out of a dreadful situation is fine in theory. But as he acts out the part, he lacks the moral courage or even the slenderest shred of nerve to face the horror of the proposed solution. Or its cost. In this regard perhaps not much has changed since the fifties.

But Ruth has been there before and can understand what needs doing, although how to do it is a harder problem. Her daughter’s child, although it will be aborted, becomes fictionalised in Ruth’s imagination. These imaginings are proxies for Ruth’s own future, although she wants to believe that the child will never be born. Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting takes its name from the nursery rhyme which plays on a tiny music box, Ruth has bought for a neighbour’s little girl. She decides to keep it and it becomes a talisman, a reference throughout the novel for Ruth’s need for something reliable and consistent. A bit like how women are these days with their mobile ’phones, the music box gives her something tangible, a reference point. It’s a reminder to keep her feet on the planet. Solving the pregnancy problem for Angela and imagining her unborn child’s fictitious life, together jolt Ruth forwards so she appears to slowly move away from her own nervous collapse. 

Nervous collapse was hidden too in the fifties, just like abortion, poverty, failure, affairs. Many of these are still hidden along with anything else that could be considered embarrassing or in need of response. But people today have far higher trust that their frailties might be accepted, their expectations realised. They have far more routes and support for resolutions and towards achieving their goals. Opportunities to express oneself through words, images, sound and any other form of narrative one might think of abound. The internet fuels a perennial explosion of ideas, expressions and opinions, reverberating endlessly, every moment of every day. Central to this inexhaustible supply of content is an obsession with self and individual identity, with the desperate need to express a unique persona and universal validity. Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is a reminder that such luxuries are relatively new for most ordinary people and especially that they have been very, very hard won. We, men, women and other, have travelled a massive journey and Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting shows us a tiny bend in a very long road. That’s why we should read this book again.

Chapter 6 A visit from social services and a missing person’s report – Part 5

The doorbell rang, breaking the already fractured image of this grand funeral slowly coalescing in Brenda’s mind. It was Mimis with the bill for his boiler work and as Brenda wrenched open Audrey’s front door he smiled and said: “That door wants planing.” Brenda watched as Mimis hovered on the doorstep without saying anything further. She wasn’t quite sure what he was waiting for, until she noticed the bill in his outstretched hand. Reaching for the envelop she said “thank you. I am sorry Audrey isn’t back yet”, and stayed still watching the man and out of nowhere wondering about the poetry thing. So she asked him. “Do you really write poems?” Mimis had never felt so excited in his life, but he was also gripped by an urgent panic. “Yes. No one else knows. At least, I mean you are the only one who knows. I don’t really talk about it.” Clearing his throat and shifting backwards down the step he smiled eyes wide and headed for his van suddenly energised that someone might actually consider him a poet instead of a boiler man. “Maybe I’ll bring you something to read”, he called over his shoulder. ”We could go to the park and I can explain them.” Explain them? Brenda waved half-heartedly and called a careful “yes, that would be nice” and wondering what’s to explain in a poem. And Mimis got into his van and drove off, a waving hand flung out of the window in careless farewell. Brenda, yet another bill in hand slammed the front door hard, left the bill in the kitchen and took herself slowly down the stairs to the basement. Lying in the dark she ran through the bills once again until she fell into a half-sleep, where Mimis’ bill grew into the size of a bedsheet. The details it showed in giant letters were fuzzy and feint, and the space at the bottom of the invoice was empty.

Mimis is indeed more than a boiler man, but being a boiler man has given his adult life structure and stability, quiet, a living. Being more than that might have carried some incipient risk. Ever since he came to London as a small child his life had been dramatic, and for Mimis drama was a normal part of his childhood. His English mother had died shortly after they moved to the UK from Thessaloniki. Hippies with their little boy and an adoring Yiayia and Papou in tow, his parents and grandparents had come to London in search not of drama but of calm. The loving couple willingly left behind the chaos and violence that had been their Greek reality for the chaos and confusion of London, with a foreign language and a little boy to raise thrown in for good measure. An English bride wasn’t really what Yiayia and Papou had wanted for their son, but life over death on a protest line was definitely preferable for all of them. And without her who knows where their lives in Athens would have taken them. Nowhere safe for sure. Their love for little Dimitrios was boundless. They cared for him through all the school plays and gatherings, and through their son’s working life driving a cab whilst framing ideas for ousting the generals in charge in Greece. He would share his ideas every evening over dinner, smoking, eating, and rattling conversations in noisy Greek. Mimis had tried to follow his father’s rants but his little boy Greek could not keep up. And the shouting made him anxious so he instead would put his head in Yiayia’s lap and wait for it to stop. When Papou died and his wife swathed herself in endless black and tears, Mimis feared she would soon follow. With only his dad and grandma, it was hard for Mimis to keep any connection to Englishness despite his successful disguise. He spoke flawless English but confused, vulnerable and excessively popular with the girls at his school Mimis’ spirit was Grecian. His schoolfellows gawped at those soft shining brown curls and his matchless eyes, the perfect complexion, olives and cream, those endlessly long eyelashes, his grace and muscularity. Excessively popular, excessively sensitive, uncertain and gullible. A broken heart at 17 was enough to leave him emotionally traumatised and wary, reluctant to interact with his schoolmates. Despite his grades, uni was out and instead he trained as a fixer of boilers, became superbly skilled at superficial chat and took no interest in any sort of commitment to any strangers. Mimis cared for his ailing father, looked after their house and after Yiayia died Mimis cooked pasticio and koulourakia for his dad. He followed Yiayia’s recipes from a broken book with pages marked and stained, persistent reminders of festivals and celebrations long since forgotten. The book was his connection to a life long gone but still vibrant and he always remembered that Greek Easter, like many other magics comes in its own time.

Picture this

It was hot. The air shimmered with noise, sweat, heat, and cigarette smoke hung languid in the air. Summer Saturday. 1962. Protest march. Protest celebration. Camping. They were talking just a metre or two away, laughing, looking in the direction of the television camera, but not into it. Oozing youth, novel, fresh. The sound guy’s got his hand up high and the furry microphone is swaying just above their heads. They don’t stop their chat. They don’t bother. Music chat matters more.

It was humid. The air dripped wet and warm and all around the people were pressing in and trying to get closer to the two men. Two men who had just been on the bandstand inside the tent. The two men who might be famous. The taller of the pair was smoking and smirking, scanning the crowd. The other was just smiling guileless and happy, pleased to be playing with this great man. Young. He wasn’t tired or hot or scanning the crowd. He was just excited to be there. Excited to be playing, to be heard. Excited to be with the others supporting the movement. The movement. It was movement everywhere. Swarms of people there for the politics, there for the music. Television crews there to fill their channels. Disarmament. Ban the bomb. Peace. And there were those who came only to be entertained, to dance, to get legless, to have a tale to tell on Monday at the office. The long day and evening and night stretched ahead, sliding along an open road. Time was moving too.

It was anxious. An atmosphere crackling with energies, bouncing and absorbing sound and light. Unseen, unrecognised, unacknowledged desire simmered. Watching the two musicians a young woman with a gap in her front teeth and a mass of swept back dark hair. She was struggling trying to work out how to talk to them. She wanted to tell them how much she liked their music. Truly. She wanted to say how much she admired their trumpeting and drumming. Truly. She wanted just to say. Truly. But each time she started coming forward, trying to frame the words with her worried lips and dry tongue, she somehow got stuck. No sound came out. Truly.

It was temptation. Her hand raised to her mouth, fingers pulling softly on her lower lip, and still they two stood chatting and oblivious. At least one was oblivious. She could hear them going on about one of the numbers, a solo here, a rim shot there and what the rest of the set should look like. Who should go first. When. The signal. And no words for her even though she was so close. But a sly glance as a cigarette is puffed. She didn’t see it through the smoke and the short cough that followed. She felt her wedding ring heavy on her hand as her fingers worked some more at her lip. The shimmer of someone else’s gold mingling with the warm air’s golden shimmer and the light that shone on the two men in front of her.

It was noisy. From the tent behind her she could hear musicians tuning up again, running through random bits of scales, strumming and plinky plonking on an ancient upright. They were getting ready for the next set and the two men lifted their chins ever so slightly, aware of their own absences. She must do it now, must move forward, must take control of her nerves and somehow tell them how much she loves what they do, how much she wants to be part of it. Truly. And how much it matters that they share so much of themselves. And how her love and adulation is crushing her. Truly.

It was beginning. “What’s this bird doing? Hovering, what? Do you think she’s after a fag?” talking over her, to her, at her. And as the taller one turns to offer her a lighted cigarette she’s turning, head down, faced flushed and gone. As she hurries anxious fingers shift the gold band around and around. As she twists and twists she finds the golden band sliding off into her open palm and as sudden she turns back to the two men. She slips the ring into her handbag, reaching in one smooth movement for the cigarette. “Don’t mind if I do. Maureen.” “Tony.” And as his young colleague’s eyes grow wider, Tony takes Maureen by the arm and heads towards the tent where the sound of the music is getting more insistent. “Come on. We’re on. Let me get you a drink before we start.” He looks back over his shoulder with a leer and a wink and he drops an arm over her shoulder, a shadow in the sunshine. She stares up wide-eyed, blushing, her fingers once again on her lip. Her intentions shifting. As Tony and Maureen move away and disappear, the producer approaches the camera and the sound man lowers his boom. “That’s a wrap. I’ll show it to her later. That’ll be an interesting one eh?” he jokes. The smiling drummer looks at his shoes and wonders what the two others are talking about. He hears the scales getting louder and the banging of drums, his drums, call him back. Alarmed for his music he hurries away. He gives the woman no thought and is already immersed. But on the bandstand he sees her sip her cider and watch a trumpet player who’s mind he can hear is elsewhere.

Constance Wilde’s Autograph Book edited by Devon Cox

Constance Wilde, born in 1858, was the wife of Oscar and the mother of his two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. Two years after her marriage to Oscar Wilde in 1884, Constance started an autograph book for which she continued to collect entries until 1896. There are 62 in all, mostly provided by invited contributors during Constance’s At Home events. But by 1896, her husband was in prison having been convicted of ‘gross indecency’ and Constance was in exile in Italy. After Constance died in 1898, two years before Oscar, the whereabouts of the autograph book were unknown. 

It resurfaced at auction in 1987 and Mary Hyde bequeathed it to the British Museum in 2003. The British Museum kindly gave the Oscar Wilde Society permission to produce a facsimilie reproduction of the book. Joan Winchell, a longstanding member of the society, donated funds to make possible the book’s production. Devon Cox managed the project.

Constance’s autograph book is an unparalleled window into manners, behaviour, expectations and the nature of celebrity in late nineteenth century London. Constance was very considered in her invitations to contribute to her autograph book, so it has entries from a diverse group of men and women, from Prime Ministers and actors to musicians and spiritualists. And it has some interesting omissions, such as Oscar’s soon to be growing group of male friends.

The entries range from the profound to the peculiar. G. F. Watts painter and sculptor put “our greatest happiness should be found in the happiness of others” and “you did not promise to be her mother-in-law” is playwright Elizabeth Merivale’s rather odd contribution. And although her husband’s renown was obviously helpful in gaining signatures, the autograph book clearly reflects Constance’s independent values, spirit and aspirations. Oscar’s entry, the second in the book following that of Oliver Wendell Holmes, is unsurprisingly the most intimate of all. It reads: “from a poet to a poem” and although Oscar has used this line elsewhere in his work, it is no less touching an expression of his respect and admiration for his wife. At least at the time, when she was still the love of his life.

So why should we care about the autograph book of a woman long dead and buried, who died tragically young and whose life was so overshadowed by her glamorous husband? Isn’t this little autograph book just an elaborate form of name-dropping, of literary showing off? Yes, it is an exercise in name dropping, but these names are not just collected, Constance Wilde has deliberately curated them and this is part of the fascination of the book. The names so assiduously gathered, reflect some sliver of Constance’s spirit and values. Artists and poets feature heavily, as do actors including Henry IrvingEllen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt.

In the beginning of their marriage Oscar’s fame and notoriety dominated Constance’s life, and then shame and notoriety were ascendant. They forced Constance to leave the country and change her and her children’s names. First glamour and then misery. But somewhere in that glorious and successful phase of Oscar’ life, first as a heterosexual man, then as a bisexual one and then homosexual, Constance was in love and happy. Oscar too was in love and happy. The autograph book was mostly created during this period of their lives, when Constance was emerging as a socially and politically independent woman. A woman sufficiently confident and bold to hold her own in Oscar’s orbit, albeit fleetingly.

Constance was his soul mate and lover, intellectually for a little while and briefly physically. But Oscar was a serial explorer both intellectually and sexually, so it never was going to last long. Apart from their two boys, there are very few expressions of Constance in Wilde’s life. Her autograph book gives us a small shred of insight into the woman and her life with one of the world’s greatest authors. With contributions from artists such as James Whistler and William Morris, from politicians such as Gladstone, through to authors including Mark Twain and George Meredith, the book reflects Constance Wilde’s life and times but also her eclecticism. It’s a wonderful thing indeed. 

Devon Cox has overseen the production of the project and even if you don’t fancy reading all the musings in the book, his introduction alone is worth the purchase. You can buy it here: https://oscarwildesociety.co.uk/autograph-book/

PS Is it just me or is there a striking similarity in looks between Constance and Bosie?