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 travelled 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 London flat five years before.

I had been aware of the likelihood of running out of money during the long months in England. I tried every means of saving it, while simultaneously spending huge amounts 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 raucous pub, and moving from one wildly expensive hotel room to the next. The knowledge of what trouble I was storing up for myself 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 am beginning to lay my plans. The obvious solution now is to sell my Portuguese house, the last of the three properties I have owned. A pity perhaps, but do I really care? There are seven trees in my back garden (and 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 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 appear in February.

Today is 13th September 2014, the twelfth anniversary of my mother's death, an anniversary 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 fine river and not a single distinguished building, and the people here are as stony-faced as ever, and I feel depressed. But I am sitting in the 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 have been frugal in making the money last for five years of intermittent travel through nineteen countries, interspersed with stays at my Portuguese house. It has been a good time, although empty, because I did not make a single new friend. But I have enjoyed the fact that my view of life has had to become darker.

Almost every day during this period 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 "pranzo di lavoro", at an amazing ten Euros for three courses, water, wine, coffee and sometimes a small liqueur. And there was always a book to read, to increase the knowledge I have been gathering all my life, 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 purge that preceded this time  was my prison term. That was the period at which I finally came to Christian faith, something which I could never entirely lose, whatever doubts might develop or remain, because I have given my heart to Christ and cannot take it back. And during these years in Portugal, entirely solitary in my sunny garden, and reading the Gospels at my table with what books of exegesis I had, it was easy to maintain my faith.

But Portugal, - my long association with it 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, - surely I will leave it soon. How should I mark the end of this long and unhappy relationship? Well, I have one ambition 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, lying in your grave alone near the family tomb you yourself paid for, 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, the woman as well as the man, have long lain in the "campa familiar"; their eldest daughter, her husband, and one of this latter 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, as far as my own responsibility goes, 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 even after ten years they may not allow it.  But if I could be present to see it happen, then I could 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 certainly don't intend to return immediately, not at least with the intention of staying. Even apart from all the other disadvantages, it would be too humiliating to creep in with my tail between my legs after five vaguely unsatisfactory years spent abroad. And England, and particularly London, 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 interest me. But I shall not stint myself. I hope to see the three great waterfalls of the world and hopefully get fucked for the third time, and I 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 to England for the English goods and services. But surely my destination must depend on what goods and services I want. What are my tastes and interests? Well, I am keen on music, literature and walking; am very dependent on the comfort of food; love to rest, relax and lie down; hate to work; enjoy stimulating conversation and undemanding social activities; take pleasure in a calm, seamless, slightly malevolent apprehension of life; and want to go on studying the world as if it were an alien place.

Clearly all those could be satisfied in England. But in the realm of my deepest longings I only want to be some handsome 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. In my heart of hearts I am a reckless, irrational, incalculable person. I might go with him.

But if I am not to be spending my days transfixed to a post with nails as my gorgeous host takes the carefulest 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 incredulous joy at the rows and rows of my florid, awkward 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 doing 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 only a day or two after their letter arrived an unexpected grant was also announced through the post, and I was on my way to Oxford, where I never wrote a single word of my risible thesis during the entirely eight idle months I spent there. I could throw the pot of printer's ink back in the dole people's faces, be rude and get angry with whomever I wanted in Oxford, finally desert my supervisor without saying goodbye.

Oh, dear, 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 endless health checks and the smiling love of everyone, but no more!  All you get now is the 60-plus Oyster Card, 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 or tube, then it's on yer bike, Boris. 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 partly 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 that particular day at the Aber Hotel on Crouch Hill, an expensive and slightly chaotic place, but with pleasant Polish staff. After breakfast the kindly young Pole I particularly liked 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 simply a mistake. I was laboriously 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, or anyone like her, at my deathbed. Which means not dying at the Whittington, or anywhere else in London, if the logic of the matter be truly considered.

But the most difficult aspect of all in returning to my native city would be accommodation. We lived when I was a baby near the Whittington, in Hornsey Rise, and something in me believes it would be right to go back to that area, the streets around Highgate Hill, St John's Way and Hornsey Rise, the northern part of the Holloway Road on both sides and the area a little farther up, the postal district of N19.

We used to drive through our old neighbourhood often when I was a child on our way to visit friends in Wood Green from our home in Crawley, and even now I get a tug of the heart when I am travelling northward on the 91 bus, and a bit before the bridge on Hornsey Road that runs over the railway line between Upper Holloway and Crouch Hill (the bus stops just over the line), I see the curve in the road with the ragged shops and the three-storey brick houses, and we surge upward towards Hornsey Rise.

But when I make the journey nowadays the house of my earliest childhood is long gone, and where it stood Elthorne Park now hosts the 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 I know, because I have researched the matter, that the row of fine Victorian houses beginning with the tower once stood on the left-hand side as you went up, between Hazellville Road and what was then Duncombe Road (that section is now just a cycleway through the park, just before Beaumont Rise). The odd numbers started at No 1, which was the tower-house, then the tightly-packed addresses went up to No 13, and then there were the three large houses, No 15, No 17, and the final house, where we lived - No 19.

This area is in the very northern part of the London Borough of Islington. 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 might 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. Christ, they might even read this blog!

Anyway, the three old ladies - or my "drei Damen" as I sometimes call them - and their ancient male crony, an oily, upper-class aspirant writer who gives endless parties to try and win fame, all knew Francis King, and I did as well, so we have an unfailing 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 people, and a good time was had by all. But one of my guests I didn't even recognise!

This 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 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 nothing. And the third and snobbiest of the Damen, who had not attended my party, but can well 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 fine night of the summer I met two of the men, plus one boyfriend, at a pub in the vicinity of 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 started demanding loudly that another long-time literary acquaintance should be murdered, and after we had left the pub and just before we were all about to part at the station kept playfully running into my companions from behind in drunken glee.

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. Well,  I had been like a loutish boy when I was near the station, and a reincarnation of my old murderous self at the pub. How beautiful it is to recover the past. But such lovely 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 racist Catholic ex-ballet dancer schizophrenic woman, who came to the party with a boyfriend, or friend who was once a boy. Both of them are charmingly mad people, and afterwards they were going southward to where they lived in the same road in Streatham - she in a one-bedroom flat, he in a dilapidated house without water - and I was going back to the friend's place where I was then staying in Belgravia. There was a bus stop that would do for us all at Borough, so we walked there, 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 and ancient 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 was perhaps my uncle). I am not close to them. Then there are Brian and Maria Streeter, whom I have mentioned often 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. Those 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, he is not in the best of health, and they are very attached to each other and their own family. In many ways I have nothing in common with this pair. I would not dream of imposing on them at their home, nor would I be welcome there.

So, the final question, do I have at least one 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. Also, our relationship has now hit tensions.  He would not now welcome me to stay at his flat. Really, our relationship is finished.

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 none at all. Really, I am a person with the fewest ties imaginable, any possible commitment I might still make 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 kind Filipino nurse will fill me full of morphine and they will thankfully 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 jewelry 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 futuristic drones can take you anywhere and Danny throws in a hunky guy from the nation I prefer (the English) into the bargain? Well, so far, so wonderful, 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 are inappropriate to 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 robotic, Africa and the Middle East simply impossible and Australian men are sexy but I am scared of all those great big empty spaces. So does it have to be England after all, and London, which in the last analysis 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 English, among all peoples, are the keenest on moral responsibility, remorse and compassion, pious shock-horror, lifelong atonement, and unobtrusive cheerful volunteering. Well, I can't offer any of that. These hypocrites care much more about what you say than what you do, and what might come out of my mouth, despite my best efforts to make myself acceptable, could well lead to the mother of all Twitch-hunts.

And will I be happy in some swanky residence in Highgate, waking up to the gush on Radio 3, and then travelling down in the morning to the silent stares at the London Library, breaking for some wildly overpriced lunch, before going slowly back to the book-stacks and and suffering the chilly English politeness which is designed to make a suspect person feel small and dirty? How many times in the said library did I ask various of those smiling and affable members - these D.J. Taylors and Peter Parkers - out for a coffee and never once did one of them accept. God, how I loathe them.

And, if questioned about my ancestry on BBC Breakfast, might I not be finished off by Naga Munchetty, with one of her male consorts putting in the final oar? Then I would be condemned in the newspaper-columns and at the dinner-parties. The stares at the London Library would become hostile rather than just silent. Jason Cowley would get on his high horse about my lack of conscience. Perhaps I might even finally be arrested! Wouldn't it be easier to just let the Italians serve me another cappuccino?

It is 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 a deeply bookish child still spoke of England's great past, and I became enthused with the heritage of the English and the seeming invulnerability that I perceived in the people of the land where birth had set me down. But something was telling me all the time that I was a stranger, a European stranger, a changeling in England's midst.

I love England, but the people of England are not mine. I hate what they have done to their own country, particularly the unbearable 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. 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. I was thinking all this summer as I walked around London that I simply couldn't stand all those heavily multiracial streets a moment longer. Surely that will only get worse and worse. But isn't the inevitable consequence of my absolute refusal to accept my own country that I must leave England, returning to North London, perhaps, only to die?

And the terraced houses, the double-decker buses, the 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. 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 had gone 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, and I will be in trouble, and a man will approach me, or he might move off, but then he will return, and might for some reason stay with me.

And will that be me settled? As Maugham says of his hero at the end of the story, for the first time he holds the present in the hollow of his hand. But the master writer couldn't have summed up my own life 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 a man to be with me, my need for my own country would go. And if I can never find such a man, I shall be stuck with England and London till I die.


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