After five years of gradual revisions and accretions to my immensely long seventeenth and eighteenth posts, I come to write a nineteenth one. This number is magical for me because, when I was a baby, as I have said many times here, I lived with my mother and father in one room in an old London house kept by Neapolitan Italians, 19 Hornsey Rise, London N19.
And so often I have returned to where the house stood, as if by just standing on the small hillock which might mark our room, I could become whole again. The house is gone, my parents are gone, and my efforts to make contact with the remaining members of the Maccariello family, who kept the house, have come to nothing. Twice, on the phone, I have been abused and threatened by a member of that family, who would not give his name, for having had the temerity to try and contact them.
Yet I have a photo of myself as a baby, sitting on my mother's lap, surrounded by the laughing and merrymaking Italians in a dark but convivial room of their house. Why, when so many years later, I tried to know them, did they not want to know me? Why did they view me with contempt?
But I am uneasy now with the number nineteen. It is almost twenty, but not quite. It falls short. When I lived so gloomily in the Portuguese resort of Altura, I always tried to keep the bill at the restaurants (including the tip) to nineteen Euros. If I got one Euro change from a twenty Euro note, I was happy. If they presented me with a bill for twenty-one, I became angry and refused to go to that restaurant again. But why did I become upset, just like that half-Pole half-Italian on the phone?
Twenty-one could be a better number really. I was born on 21st August 1955. Near my twenty-first birthday, on a warm night in Oxford, I had my first sexual experience for almost two years. And the book that means most to me is the Gospel of John, and that has twenty-one chapters, and the chapter I love most is the twenty-first, where the risen Christ is cooking breakfast for his disciples on the shore when they are out fishing at night, and they glimpse him as he stands over the brazier in the light of dawn, a scene so unearthly and yet so down-to-earth. It is a glimpse of what earthly harmony and heavenly peace might be like. But John's book, with its vision of love, is eternally marred by his hatred of the Jews. He can never escape the hate that mixes with the love he wants to show.
Life is essentially tragic. It will always go wrong.
And so I come to begin my nineteenth post on 19th November 2021, but surely, in order to reach some sort of conclusion to the disordered and often hateful record in the eighteen misshapen and sometimes absurdly long posts - speculating endlessly on matters that must perhaps always remain unknown - I should bring the number to twenty-one. That will be in another year whose number I do not yet know. In that way perhaps an account of a radiant encounter such as John had as he stood in the boat and said to Peter, "It is the Lord," can bring my blog to an satisfying conclusion.
And as the number on the screen recording how many minutes I have left of my session at the library has reached twenty-one, I will tell what the subject of my nineteenth post will be. No, now the number of minutes left is twenty. I will wait until it hits nineteen. Now it has. And I remember that other electronic device so many years ago which seemed to tell me that my grandfather was Joseph Goebbels. Can anything so fantastic possibly be true? Yes. it can.
In this post, with the clock now at eighteen, and safely past the magic numbers, I will begin to detail the process by which I came to the knowledge I have mentioned.
Seventeen now. Well, it was the late December of 2005. I had gone to Altura. Twice in the darkness I walked past the silent and mysterious house, the house that was mine, the house I could not enter. I spoke to the ambiguous people who inhabited the place, who might be my friends, might be my enemies. I became very upset and "disturbed", as the psychiatrists say. I was a mental health case as it happens, although I had arranged to be classified as mentally ill in order to escape the regular dole, which required me to sign on every two weeks and hampered my plans for world travel.
I left Altura and went back to Faro, where I was to catch the plane back to England. It was the morning of 24th December, 2005, Christmas Eve. I was to catch the plane that late lunchtime. I was sitting in a small cafe in the downtown of Faro. It was called the Snack-Bar da Baixa. And, suddenly one of the multiple blocks that then affected my memories of my childhood were pulled open. I remembered.
The memories horrified me. They were of my mother and the man who brought me up engaged in international smuggling. I believed them both to be my parents then and for many years afterwards. I was a child alone with them in the car and then on the Channel ferry. And I remembered the terrible anxiety as we approached England. I remembered my mother saying, again and again, "Now remember, son, whatever you do don't look at the customers!" (That was her way of referring to the customs officials.)
And I remembered the three of us walking through the Nothing to Declare corridor, and how I held my mother's hand, and prayed that she could protect me from the terrible danger that threatened us if we were caught by the men who stood so silently on either side.
And then, even worse, I remembered once that, when we were approaching the channel port in northern France, they received some sort of message, and they decided that it would be better to enter by another post. And I remembered that they drove all night far across the coast of France until we reached what was probably St Malo. And I remembered I could not sleep because of the anxiety I felt, for myself and for them.
One of the many people who have been doubtful about my claims once suggested to me that my memories of the international smuggling might be false memory. I know this is not so and for the following reason. Very late in her long life, I raised the question with the last-surviving of my mother's sisters and she admitted that my mother and the man who brought me up had indulged in smuggling and said it was always a case of port which was disguised as crockery. This aunt (she was a half-aunt really, except that there is no such thing as a half-aunt, someone is either your aunt or she is not) was the only one who habitually told comic stories. Now she pictured my mother sniffing at the crate that contained the concealed wine and saying ecstatically, "Que rica loica!", "What magnificent crockery!"
My aunt went on to say that the port was purely for private consumption, and was not sold on, but I remembered my mother and the man who brought me up being notably abstemious in their consumption of alcohol, and I think that in this part of her statement my aunt was lying. She may well also have been lying when she said the smuggled goods were always only port wine.
Now I sat transfixed in the snack bar, coffee long finished, as an important part of my childhood came back to me for the first time. I was fifty years old, and up to that time, for many years, had been almost entirely unable to remember anything about my childhood. My memories began at the age of eighteen when I went to Oxford. Almost everything before that was blocked out.
And in the years that were to come, more and more was to come back to me, and I was to discover more and more of my strange background. My mother and the man who brought me up were both dead by the time I sat in the snack-bar. They had died in 2002 and 2004. I was in a state of terrible mental distress because my mother, whom I loved, had left her house to someone I believed then to be a stranger. My father was still alive at that time, but I did not know this, did not even know he existed.
But I already knew that everything was not as it seemed to be. I was by now fully aware that my mother had spoken Neapolitan Italian better than Portuguese, even though she was supposed to be entirely a Portuguese. And I had been told by three old women that my mother had told them at about the time of my birth that the father of my father had been a Pole or perhaps a German, even though he was supposed to be entirely from Kent.
Now, as I moved towards the plane, and towards England, more memories began flooding on me thick and fast, and more and more strange ideas about these mysterious ancestors, all dead, as I thought, began to develop as my state of agitation became more intense. It was about our holiday in Italy when I was then, which had followed one in Germany and Austria when I was nine (usually we went to Portugal). We had entered Switzerland and we stopped in a small town and they went to visit a bank and locked me in the car. They were gone a long time and I began to panic alone in the car.
It was the third of the three old women who had suggested to me that my grandfather might have been German rather than Polish, while the first two had not mentioned this possibility. I cannot remember exactly when she made the suggestion, but it was around the time of which I now speak. I immediately believed the German origin to be more likely, because both myself and my mother were strongly interested in and attached to things German and had no interest in Poland. I think it is possible that, around the time I was almost eighteen, she had planted the idea in my mind that I was partly German without my knowing this had happened. She could be very subtle in that way.
When I had only the evidence of the first two old women, and not that of the third, I had become totally desperate during a long walk around outer West London to know who my ostensibly Polish grandfather had been and had written for the second time since losing touch with him about twenty years before to the man I still believed to be my father, asking him whether his father had been a Pole and, if so, what was his name. The first time I had written to him, he had sent back a letter so cruelly insulting that it had deeply shocked a friend to whom I showed it. It had shaken me as well and I had left the old man alone a long time. This second letter was somewhat briefer and a little less grim, and said, "If you have no descendants, you do not need roots. You are a full stop."
The brief note, written shortly before the death of Arthur Ernest Hills, finished off by saying that the idea that his father had been a Pole was "nonsense."
Now, as I came to approach the airport, and while I was there, I became convinced that I must come from a family of Nazis, and that when the pair I believed to be both my parents had gone into the bank in Switzerland, they had been depositing Nazi gold on my behalf which they had collected in Italy, having fixed up the whole thing in Germany or Austria the year before. But how was I to get the gold? I had no idea what the town was, what the bank was.
I thought about my mother and the fact that she was so fluent in Neapolitan Italian. Could she have arrived in Portugal from Italy during the war and been adopted by a Portuguese family as their own? There were a few strange Italian connections and names in the remote rural region that she was ostensibly from. Could a colony of Italians have arrived there and passed themselves off as Portuguese? But she had been very attached to the man who appeared to be her father, who had seemed the very image of a Portuguese peasant, and she could tell childhood stories about the five women who were ostensibly her sisters.
And then I thought about the man whom I still believed to be my father, and about the man, whom I had known, who had seemed to be his father, and whom the first of the three old women had insisted was my real grandfather, even though he was apparently of Polish origin and not English as I had always supposed How come the background of these two men seemed to be so firmly rooted in England and Scotland (the man's mother had ostensibly been an Edinburgh woman). But the family had been broken up by the poor law when my ostensible father had been about seven and he had said in some tapes he had made for me before I stopped seeing him that he could remember nothing about his first seven years. Could those first seven years have been spent in Germany? And how had he been inserted into the English and Scottish family? He had told stories about an uncle Fred who drove a van and who had given him a toy parrot which was the last souvenir he had of his childhood until his own son destroyed it. And I had met an aunt Connie in Gillingham who was Fred's sister during my own childhood.
I spent the whole plane journey in a state of almost frantic anxiety, puzzlement and grief, and when I reached Heathrow decided to get a hugely expensive taxi to my flat in Clapham through the dark afternoon, so that I could reach the comfort of my home as soon as possible.
Regular readers of my blog will remember that I once had four men in my life whom I thought were close friends. My mentions of them in this blog go back to the very first post I wrote, and indeed these days they move like jagged ghosts through my mind, except for Bill Hicks, with whom I am still friendly. The first of these to come into the present story is the most ambiguous, the most impressive, and the most evil of the four, Mark Casserley. He was the one on whom I depended the most.
Mark had come to me one dark night. It was towards the Christmas of 1989. He attended a writers' group of which I had long been a member, made up mainly of elderly people whom I had thought were my friends, but from whose company I was eventually to be thrown out, with him conniving. He seemed most sympathetic and civilised at this first meeting. His mother had recently died, he had had to move out of his father's house, he was living as a lodger in the house of an unsympathetic man in Putney, and he had come to us for Christmas comfort. Or so it seemed.
After the meeting, and with the old people dispersing to their homes, I invited Mark to come with me to a nearby pub. As we sat there, he seemed to share so many cultural interests with me and to understand so much of my own personal life that I had the strange sensation that I had always known him, that he had not just entered my life on that dark night.
I hastened to become his close friend. And, with his great practicality, and his intellectual gifts, he began to take over my whole life. But the sensation that I had always known him never once returned. Instead I was confronted with the endless mystery of this character which on that first occasion had seemed so readily to open itself. He did everything for me, with no payment and very little unwillingness, but never seemed to show me the slightest affection. And as the years went on this began increasingly to disturb me. And as my dependence on him became more and more, and his contempt for my helplessness more readily apparent, eventually my attitude towards him crystallised into hatred.
But the years were long when Mark was my friend. Sometimes I would be lying luxuriously in or on my bed, and Mark would be in the sitting-room, hoovering, or in the kitchen, performing some other task. My bedroom door would be firmly shut against him. I did not wish to see him at his work, or learn how to use the hoover. It was enough for me that he was taking care of everything, as my mother had once done.
One day in particular comes back to me. It was a Christmas Day. This was probably at some date in the mid-1990s, my diaries are gone for those years, so I shall never know the exact year. In those days I dreaded being alone on Christmas Day, and of course there is no transport in London. At that time Mark was sharing a small terraced house in Morden with some friends, they had gone back to their families for the season, and, although it was a very long way to walk there, I offered to do this so that I should not be alone.
In the late morning I set out, and the way was long along the long straight road that leads past the Northern Line tube stations - Clapham South, Balham, Tooting Broadway, Tooting Bec, Colliers Wood - but quite a lot of people were about and many of the foreign shops were open, so I trudged on and stayed cheerful. At last I arrived at Morden, he gave me lunch, and then, in sheer exhaustion I fell asleep on his sofa while he played Sibelius Symphonies Two and Three on his CD, or it might have been Three and Four (he told me the exact numbers of the symphonies when I woke up but I cannot be certain of them now). This haunting music, offering direct access to the subconscious, wove most memorably through my dreams.
Finally I awoke, it was already dark, he was there, and he gave me the simple and filling type of supper at which he excelled. And quite soon after that it was time to start on the long journey once again, and he offered to come with me part of the way, and in the end he walked with me as far as Clapham South. From there it was quite an easy stretch to my flat, so I didn't suffer. How grateful I was to him for what seemed that most selfless gesture!
I have begun to hate people very suddenly many times in my life. I do not usually tell them my feelings have changed. This is how it happened with him, and to tell it I need to go back to near the start of our relationship.
Mark is passionately interested in classical music and also understands electronics to a considerable degree, both theoretically and practically. Very early on in our relationship he was responsible for helping me buy a system of separates (turntable, tuner, radio, tape player, CD player), and this cemented our friendship. He set up the system for me, and any little problems that developed with it he would always come round immediately to sort out. I still remember those days and the feeling of being cared for, without having to rely on my mother, with a sense of ecstasy.
A while after getting the separates, Mark helped me buy a word processor and trained me thoroughly in its use. The result was that I began to love this new compositional tool, which was really only a glorified typewriter, and my writing, which I composed late at night to music and while sipping a glass of Moscato, began to progress wonderfully. The years 1990 and 1991 were in many ways the happiest of my life. I had work, mostly during the evening, in a strange and fascinating second-hand bookshop in central London. I did not lack for friends and acquaintances, and soon Mark was helping me with money. At lunchtime, I would often go to Jackets in Clapham High Street, where I usually ate the egg and cheese baked potato which, as the company's own publicity said, was much nicer than it sounded, and accompanied this meal with a most refreshing Sarsaparilla. I would have got up pretty late and sometimes breakfasted to a sweet, gentle record of Janet Baker in old age singing Mendelssohn songs. All this brought me bliss. I began writing a first novel, to chronicle my agreeable existence, and felt sure my work would be published. I read it to Mark page by page, endlessly stressing to him how brilliant this soulful and elegiac composition was.
In the summer of 1990 I went to see my mother in Portugal, left her in order to travel to Morocco, got stuck in Tangier for three days because I missed the ferry, and went to visit Paul Bowles, who in those days was a celebrity author. On an idle autumn day in London, I told someone about the experience and that person suggested I write my visit to Bowles up. I did this immediately, got the usual editorial say-so from Mark at one of our Saturday lunchtime meetings. and sent the piece to The Guardian on a Monday. On the Wednesday, Mark was with me at my flat and we decided not to go to the meeting of PEN which was taking place that evening. Then the Guardian phoned. They had accepted the piece. I was later to discover that only about one in a thousand articles sent to them on spec was accepted.I said at the beginning of this post that things inevitably go wrong. This certainly seems to have been true of what triumphs I have had in my life. The Paul Bowles piece was published by The Guardian on 1st January 1991. This should have been a wonderful omen, to get my first piece printed by a national newspaper on the first day of the decade. But I was alone when the triumph came. My mother was staying with me for a while, having come over from Portugal, but she had gone to see a female friend from East London to whom I had taken a dislike. Mark and everyone else were engaged elsewhere. And I had failed to insist to The Guardian that my writing name was C.A.R. Hills and they had printed the piece under the name of Charles Hills. I was to get two other pieces published by the Guardian, had trouble with the second of them, and have never again written for that paper. There were also three pieces in the Telegraph, then never again. Never has my relationship with any outlet proved permanent.