Saturday, 13 September 2014

Do I want to come back to London?

In what seemed likely to be my last summer in Portugal, I went to England. I stayed in London for three months, and the weather was muggy and changeable, like the climate of my heart. On 4th September 2014 I flew home.

A problem always awaits me when I arrive back in the Algarve, and this time, when I tried to withdraw money from the machine at Faro Airport, my card was blocked. I had almost no ready cash, but my favourite taxi driver Yuriy, whom I had phoned before leaving England, accepted my promise to pay him when I could, and drove me to my house anyway.

And I lived there for the next five days on dried cornflakes, cloves of raw garlic, and the last of my summer fruits, and marched around the village, alternately threatening and cajoling the local population.

Eventually, having borrowed ten Euros from my friends Josefa and António, I got through to my bank manager, who unblocked the card and informed me that very little now remained of the £200,000 for which I had sold my flat in London five years before.

I had been aware of this during the long months in England. I had tried every means of saving money, while simultaneously spending huge amounts of it on such projects as entertaining one of my friends to the opera in order to reciprocate her previous hospitality, giving my fifty-ninth birthday party in a hired room in a pub, and moving from one wildly expensive hotel room to the next. The knowledge of what trouble I was storing up for myself had fuelled my growing hatred for my friends.

But in the five days since the unblocking of my card, I have resumed normal life, am well relaxed in the sunshine, and beginning to lay my plans. The obvious solution now is to sell my Portuguese house, the last of the three properties I have owned. Well, never mind. There are seven trees in my back garden (with a eighth, dead one), and the jacaranda has never fully bloomed for me. But the lemon tree has spiced my drinks in winter, the oleanders have bloomed pink and white, and the red rose spread most wildly. And one of my trees is something like a peach tree, and if I am very careful and do not travel much more (although I plan a further, brief trip to England), I might still be here when the delicate pink buds begin to appear in February.

Today is 13th September 2014, and is the twelfth anniversary of my mother's death, a landmark I sometimes forget but which today I remember. It is an overcast afternoon, and I have come on the bus to Tavira, a beautiful town with a broad river and not a single distinguished building, and the people here are as stony-faced as ever, and I feel quite depressed. But I am sitting in the town library computer area writing this post now, and the place is quiet and lavish, and the bus will run home on time.

I was in my London flat for three decades, and then I sold it to escape my enormous debts, but I consider I have been frugal in making the money last for five years of intermittent travel through nineteen countries. It has been a good time, although empty, because (with the exception of an elderly English couple whom I see seldom) I did not make a single new friend.

But I have strangely enjoyed the fact that my view of life has had to become darker. Almost every day I took at least one meal in a restaurant, usually just one course, just one glass of wine, a jug of water and a small coffee. But going round Italy, at the sunny lunchtime, it was nice to enjoy the ten-Euro "pranzo di lavoro" - three courses, water, wine, coffee and sometimes even a small liqueur - and there was always a book to read, to increase the knowledge I have been gathering all my life and which is turning me into an almost total encyclopaedia now I am fifty-nine.

The Romans called such a self-contained period of five years a "lustrum", and they marked its beginning and end with rites of purification. I suppose the purgation that preceded this time of travelling was my prison term. That was the period at which I finally came to Christian faith. And during these years in Portugal, entirely solitary in my sunny garden, and reading the Gospels at my stone table with what books of commentary I have, it has been easy to maintain my faith with no voices of the world to break in on me.

But how should I mark the end of my long association with Portugal - which began before I was two, in 1957, when I came with my parents, my aunt Eva and at least one other person by ship to Lisbon - for this association surely must end soon?

Well, I have one ambition in mind that seems appropriate to me. It is to see the body of my aunt Conceição brought to rest in the family grave, a project to which I have contributed three hundred Euros, and the one resting place that this only childless aunt of mine so much desired. Well, dear aunt, you shall have your wish if it is anything to do with me.

The people I was always taught to believe were my maternal grandparents already lie in the "campa familiar"; their eldest daughter, her husband, and two of this couple's children, who died young, are with them; my own mother also lies there; my aunt Augusta, who passed away in 2007, is in a grave nearby, like Tia Conceição, but has her widower, Adolfo Barata, to make her arrangements; my youngest and most beautiful aunt Rosária was the first of all the sisters to die, in Lourenço Marques, now Maputo, in Mozambique, in 1968, and is buried there; and my one surviving aunt Eva does not wish to go to the family grave. So all will be complete when Aunt Conceição is where she wanted to be - Portuguese bureaucracy demands that a period of  ten years pass before a body can be reburied, and Tia Conceição died in early 2005 - and, if I could be present to see it happen, then I can leave this complex and exasperating country in peace.

So the question now is England. Do I want to return there? Well, I may have no choice. The sale of the house will raise a reasonable amount, but it will soon be gone. Only in Britain, for what it is worth, am I a citizen. Only there do I have any chance of getting the goods and services I need and want without having to pay for them.

But say something unexpected happens and I do have a choice. Would I go back to England then? Well, I don't intend to go back there immediately, not at least with the intention of staying. It would be too humiliating to creep back with my tail between my legs after five vaguely unsatisfactory years spent abroad.

And, anyway, the country is in the grip of monstrous costs and insane competition for key goods and services, particularly accommodation. No, I shall blue the money on what will probably be a year and a half of further travel around the world, and once again I can try to save as much as possible by including as many cheap locations as might be reasonably interesting.

But I shall not stint myself. I hope to see the three great waterfalls of the world and to get fucked for the third time, and shall round off my travels in Ireland, because I have never been there, and it surely behooves me to know the fine eighteenth-century capital of Dublin in the way I do its counterparts, London and Edinburgh. Then, like many another hopeful, I shall cross the Irish Sea.

God help me. Is there no alternative? Well, as I said, I am mainly going for the English goods and services. But surely this must depend on what goods and services I want. What are my tastes? Well, I am keen on music, literature and walking;  I love to be comfortable; enjoy stimulating conversation and undemanding social life; take pleasure in following a calm if empty routine; am fascinated by the strange history of my family; and have spent my life in studying the world as if it were an alien place.

But in my heart of hearts I only want to be some man's slave. Say I visit Russia. Say I meet there a younger and gayer version of Vladimir Putin. He wants to drive me to his luxurious dacha in dark forests near Moscow. I am mad enough to with him.

But if I am not to be spending my days transfixed to a post with nails as my handsome host takes the carefullest of aims from his crossbow at the bull's-eye on my naked flesh, I must face the more mundane slings and arrows of Employment and Support Allowance (if I can get back on it, that is).

During the long years that I signed on the dole in Clapham Road, I came to stare with a sort of breathless joy at the rows and rows of my florid, akward signatures that I could glimpse through the gap in the glass of the dole officer's window. What a kind and foolish state, I always thought, to give one so much money for nothing.

In the thirty or so years that I signed on they only ever found me one possible job, and that was right near the start of my career, long ago, in Crawley, where I grew up, to be a printer's apprentice. How could I have explained to them that I would only succeed in getting the ink all over myself, that I was a writer, not a printer? But I didn't have to bother even to meet them, because a day or two after their letter an unexpected grant was also announced through the post, and I was on my way to Oxford, where I never compiled even a single footnote of my risible thesis, and I could throw the pot of printer's ink back in their faces.

Oh, the Golden Age of British Indolence, through which I lived so long, is no more! I shall be over sixty when I return to London, and you used to be able effectively to retire at that age on Pension Credit, and accommodation of your choice would be provided without question, but no more.

At the age of sixty you used to enter a brave new world of a million free lunch clubs and health checks, but no more!

 All you get now is the Boris Bus Pass, and that's just so that you can stand jammed-packed with a mass of multiracial others between office block and supermarket and home. And if you're not happy with the bus, then get on the Boris Bike. And if you don't like the bike, relocate to North Shields.

And the National Health Service is going exactly the same way. I will narrate just one incident from the three months I spent in London. I had come to England to try and get treatment for the persistent pain I was experiencing in my left knee. But getting an appointment for that knee took forever, and then I woke up one night with terrible pain in the right one. I was staying at that time at the Aber Hotel on Crouch Hill, an expensive and slightly chaotic place, but with pleasant Polish staff. After breakfast they quickly fixed me a taxi to the Whittington Hospital, where I was born, and where a fancy tells me I should also die.

I waited quite a long time in Accident and Emergency, and then I was ushered in to see, not a doctor, who would very likely have been an Indian, but a female black nurse. She examined and discussed both my knees with every appearance of knowledge and then sent me to X-ray. It was only when I arrived there that I discovered she had ordered an examination of my right ankle. Nobody seemed in the least shocked or surprised by what they officially considered a mistake. I was simply sent back to the cow so that she could order the correct test. I felt like asking her whether she would have treated a handsome young heterosexual black man like that. But of course I didn't dare. I would only have been had up for racism and all treatment would have been refused. Well, perhaps I am a racist, but I don't want this woman at my deathbed.

However, the most difficult aspect of all in returning to London would surely be accommodation. We lived when I was a baby near the Whittington Hospital, in Hornsey Rise, and something in me longs to go back to that area, the area around Archway Road, St John's Way and Hornsey Rise, the postal district of N19.

Even now I get a tug of the heart when I am travelling northward on the 91 bus, and we cross the bridge on Hornsey Road that runs over the railway line between Upper Holloway and Crouch Hill, then there is the bend in the street by the ragged shops, and we surge upward towards Hornsey Rise.

And where the home of my earliest childhood was,  Elthorne Park now hosts the walled Philip Noel-Baker Peace Garden, the alkies in their dazed groups, the brutalist African-style statue, the black, brown and white young footballers beyond the fences, the ghostly children's playground, the abusive mixed-race woman with her dogs, and the strange, enclosed mound overgrown with weeds, going towards Archway.

But this is a mysterious and deeply wooded place at night, as I have often seen it, and here the row of fine Victorian houses once stood, between Hazellville Road and Duncombe Road (I am talking about those days, now the park is between Hazellville Road and Beaumont Rise, Duncombe Road no longer goes so far). The odd numbers started at 1, then the tightly-packed addresses went up to No 13, and then there were the three large houses, No 15, No 17, and, the one where we lived - No 19. Oh, how my heart goes back to it!

This area is in the very northern part of the London Borough of Islington, hard by the Haringey border. These days half the population of Islington are social workers and the other half are their clients. I was eventually able to speak to one of the former, by phone. After some verbal swordplay, I got out of her the monthly sum that the authorities at 222 Upper Street are willing to pay for a single person to live in the borough. It was £255.50.

"Christ!" I exploded. "But you can hardly get a single room for that."

"Quite."

"But what am I going to do? I'm an old man. I might need to get to the toilet really quickly."

"You could try Havering. Or Barking."

"I'll have to try Totteridge and Whetstone if I'm not careful. Sorry, of course I didn't mean that."

"I have to remind you, Mr Hills, that we are not responsible for finding anyone accommodation. Our role is simply to give advice. And, Mr Hills, you really do need to equip yourself with a mobile. It's those who are quickest off the mark who get what little accommodation there is."

"Oh, well, thank you. Good bye."

Well, who else might be able to help me? Do I have good friends in London? I certainly have none anywhere else. But do I have any there?

I do know three elderly aristocratic ladies who sometimes invite me to lunch, tea or dinner, and they would be good for a few fake references, and that would have been enough in the old days, but would it now? Someone said the dole go through you with a fine toothcomb these days. Oh, God, they might even read this blog!

Anyway, the three old ladies, or my "drei Damen" as I sometimes call them, and their elderly male counterpart, a slimy aspirant writer who gives endless parties - all of whom I met in the days when I was a member of the writers' organisation English PEN and edited their newsletter - all knew Francis King, and I did as well, so we have an endless topic of conversation.

And three out of these four fine gentlefolk rolled up to the fifty-ninth birthday party that I gave for £300 at a cheerful old Cockney pub near London Bridge, and there was an overall turnout of more than twenty, and a good time was had by all. But one of my guests I didn't even recognise!

This ancient malevolent ex-Rhodesian settler woman advanced uncertainly across the floor and the sweetest of the Damen had to quickly prompt me with who she was. About ten days later, another of the three - a much less pleasant person than the one who had pointed out the Rhodesian - gave a dinner party where she and the settler took turns to buffet me away from the buffet table whenever I plucked up the courage to approach it. I seethed with annoyance but dared say mothing.

And the third and snobbiest of the Damen, who had not attended my party on some transparent excuse, but can remember hearing Gigli sing at the opera in Rome soon after the end of the Second World War, looked on with the faintest of smiles on her strangely pursed up lips.

The other main contingent at the party was my London literary friends, and they were all most cheerful with their boyfriends and girlfriends and American acquaintances. And one other fine night of the summer I met two of the men, plus one boyfriend, at a pub near King's Cross.

It was warm enough to sit outside, and I was staying at that point in a student room in nearby Camden Road, so I got deliriously drunk, and starting shouting that another literary acquaintance should be murdered, and after we had left the pub and just before we were all about to part at the statio,n kept playfully running into my companions from behind.

Then I staggered up the road that leads between St Pancras and King's Cross, which quickly turned into a mysterious little country lane, and it was an exquisite thrill to go through the verdant night and then finally reach  the tall brown-brick houses of North London again. And I felt like a young student as I fell into bed, just as I had been a loutish boy when I was near the station, and a reincarnation of my old murderous self at the pub. But such pleasant evenings with literary friends only seem to happen once every ten years. Perhaps there will only be two more of them.

Also at the party was another friend of mine, neither literary nor aristocratic, a half-Greek half-Welsh ex-ballet dancer Catholic schizophrenic woman, and she came to the party with a boyfriend, or friend who was once a boy, both of them charmingly mad people, and afterwards they were both going southward to where they lived - she in a small flat, he in a dilapidated house without water - in the same road in Streatham, and I was going back to the friend's flat where I was staying in Belgravia.

So we walked to a bus stop that would do for us all at Borough, and they were the last to remain with me of all the people who had been at the party. And I couldn't have asked for any better people to stand with at a cold and lonely bus stop late at night, and the first bus that came was mine, and I shall remember for ever their sweet faces as I was borne away.

Well, who else? Do I know a handsome, much younger man who would be willing to give a leg up to an older writer of talent? No.

And do I have a family on whom I could in the last instance rely? By far the greater part of my family is in Portugal, and so they are in a sense irrelevant to the subject of this post, but, just briefly, there remains my formidable aunt Eva, to whom, in a strange way, I am quite close, and when I was younger I was often happy with my cousin Aninhas, and I also quite like three sisters who live with their husbands and children in three houses around a crossroads at a rural place called Mangancha and whom I sometimes refer to as "the Mangancha girls". But the parents, husbands and children of the girls do not like me, so I am not welcome to stay for a night at any of their houses, nor at Aunt Eva's, nor at any house belonging to a member of my family in Portugal.

In England, as far as I know, there are few family members. There is a pair of twins called Christopher and Rosemary Hills, who are the children of the man who brought me up (he who was perhaps my uncle), but I am not close to them. Then there are Brian and Maria Streeter, whom I have mentioned in previous posts.

On the evening of 21st July 2006, when I had tried to commit suicide at my London flat by taking a hundred paracetamols, it was Maria who instinctively knew that she must give me one of her rare phone calls from their house in Crawley. She found me confused and vomiting and the conversation ended quickly. But it was then Brian who rang the emergency services and shouted desperately down the phone at them that they must get help to me as quickly as possible. These services came quickly and I threw up all the pills and suffered no harm. I therefore owe this couple my life itself and my regard and affection for them is more than I can say. But they are elderly, not in the best of health, and very attached to each other, and I would not dream of imposing on them at their home.

So, the final question, do I have at least one very close friend? Yes, there is one, Bill Hicks, whom I have known for more than thirty years, who has done an enormous amount for me in spite of coping with a very busy life, who has always responded with generosity and warmth to my work as a writer, and who is a deeply honourable, understanding and intelligent person.

Once again, when I speak of the people who are closest to me, I do not want to say too much. But Bill is a family man and his primary loyalty must always be to his partner, his daughter and his son. I couldn't ask or wish for it to be any different, but like everyone else I am looking for a relationship in which I come first.

And I suppose the upshot of all this is that in a way I have many links to London and England and in another way I have none at all. Really, I am a person with the fewest ties imaginable, any possible commitment I might make still lies in the future, and there is a deep, cold excitement in the unpredictability of what I could offer, suffer or inflict.

The limitation, then, is money. Without that, I must return to London, and with any luck it will all be reasonably comfortable, and there will be a word of encouragement from a big black care assistant here, a devastating snub from some camp Anglican vicar there, until finally a kindly Filipino nurse fills me full of morphine and they leave me to get on with it.

But what if my suspicions and theories turn out to be correct, and I am the grandson of some top Nazi on my father's side and of mixed dodgy Jewish and Gypsy descent on my mother's, wouldn't I be rich and famous and able to go anywhere? My old pipe-dream used to be to live in Italy. Say some marvellously rich fixer, some Danny Deever of the New York fashion world, decides to offer me a magnificent villa overlooking the sea between Rome and Naples and there is a train station nearby and by that time there are futuristic drones that can take you anywhere and Danny throws in a hunky toy boy from the nation I prefer (the English) into the bargain? Well, so far, so marvellous, but there is something about Italy that makes me feel inadequate and alienated. It is as if the richness, beauty and joy of that country contrasts too strongly with the poverty of the life I have lived.

No, I can't stand Italy, Germany, France, Holland, Belgium or Spain, and definitely not Portugal; I feel strangely at home in Athens, but could never speak Greek well enough for life there to be satisfactory; Latin America is a dull and crazy culture, the USA is alien, India anti-gay, the Far East totally robotic, Africa simply impossible and Australian men are sexy but there is something frightening about all those great big empty spaces. So does it have to be England after all, and London, which in the end is my own city just as England is my own country?

But there might be a problem with England if the theory about my Nazi ancestry turns out to be correct. The British, among all peoples, are the hottest on moral responsibility, deep compassion, pious shock-horror, self-righteous repentance, and I can't offer any of that. They care much more about what you say than what you do, and what might come out of my mouth, despite my best efforts to control myself, could well lead to the mother of all Twitch-hunts.

Could I really be happy in some swanky residence in Highgate, waking up to the endless gush on Radio 3, and then travelling down each morning to the silent stares at the London Library, later breaking for some wildly overpriced lunch before going slowly back to the bookstacks and, and if I meet someone I know, suffering the English politeness which is designed to make a suspect person feel small and dirty? How many times did I ask those polite and smiling people out for a coffee from the said library and never did one of them accept. Or, if questioned about my ancestry on BBC Breakfast, might I be finished off by Naga Munchetty with one of her male consorts putting in the final oar? Then I would be vociferously condemned in the newspaper-columns and at the dinner-parties  Wouldn't it be better to just let the Italians serve me another cappuccino?

It's really only the landscape of England that I love. That has enveloped me since I was born, and the books of information that I read when I was young still spoke of England's great past, and I became enthused with the heritage of the English and the invulnerability that I perceived in them. But something was telling me all the time that I was a stranger, a European stranger, a changeling in England's midst.

I love my country, but the people of England are not mine. In my worst moods I rail against what they have done to their own country and culture, particularly the horrific transformation of London into a foreign city, and I utterly despise their tame acceptance of the vast number of non-European foreigners they have let in, and their every word fills me with the protest and disgust that I must desperately try to keep quiet..

It seems to me that they have sold their birthright in order to win two or three more generations of ease, and that of course was their right, but people who would do this are essentially contemptible and among such a people I do not wish to live. Soon it wouldn't be them I would be living among, anyway. Even now it isn't. I was thinking all this summer that I simply couldn't stand those heavily multiracial streets a moment longer. But isn't the inevitable consequence of all this that I must leave England, returning to North London only to die?

And the double-decker buses, the terraced houses, the parks and woods, and the dark-green cemeteries, I shall miss more than I can say.

There is a short story by W. Somerset Maugham, a writer I loved in my teenage years and whose influence I could never lose, called "Mirage". It is about a man Maugham knew in his youth, when they were both medical students in the London of the 1890s, and whom he met again many years later. The other man got sent to prison and then he lived for twenty years in China. And the longing came to him, now that he had made his pile, to return home.

He came back to London, but he felt a stranger there. The girls, the glamorous restaurants, the cheerful friends he had known were all gone. He stuck it for about six months, I do not have the story in front of me and do not remember the exact details. Then he decided he must go back to China. He went through the long journey by sea. Then he reached the last stop before his goal, Haiphong in Vietnam.

It is there that the story takes place. The man calls on Maugham at his hotel and takes him to the ruinous house on a canal where he has lived for many years. He went there on arrival and met a woman who gave him opium to smoke. Now he is still smoking opium, still with the woman, and they have a child.

I of course will never have a child, or a woman, and I don't intend to smoke opium. But maybe I will be in an unexpected place, I will be in trouble, a man will approach me, or he might move off, but then he will return.

 And will that be me settled? Maugham says of his hero at the end of the story that for the first time he holds the present in the hollow of his hand. But the master storyteller couldn't have summed up my own fate so neatly.

For that ex-con left England when he was young. And I walked so many London fields. But if I could ever find someone to love, my need for my own country would go. And if I can never find the man I want, I will be stuck with it till I die.


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