Nick Hornby's 1960s Blackpool 

Raymond Chandler's desk drawer 

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Zadie Smith's Willesden

Two women have an unexpected encounter in this extract from Zadie Smith's NW

1

The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lamp posts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line – write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.
   Four gardens along, in the estate, a grim girl on the third floor screams Anglo-Saxon at nobody. Juliet balcony, projecting for miles. It ain’t like that. Nah it ain’t like that. Don’t you start. Fag in hand. Fleshy, lobster-red.
   I am the sole
   I am the sole author
   Pencil leaves no mark on magazine pages. Somewhere she has read that the gloss gives you cancer. Everyone knows it shouldn’t be this hot. Shrivelled blossom and bitter little apples. Birds singing the wrong tunes in the wrong trees too early in the year. Don’t you bloody start! Look up: the girl’s burnt paunch rests on the railing. Here’s what Michel likes to say: not everyone can be invited to the party. Not this century. Cruel opinion – she doesn’t share it. In marriage not everything is shared. Yellow sun high in the sky. Blue cross on a white stick, clear, definitive.
   What to do? Michel is at work. He is still at work.
   I am the
   the sole
   Ash drifts into the garden below, then comes the butt, then the box. Louder than the birds and the trains and the traffic. Sole sign of sanity: a tiny device tucked in her ear. I told im stop takin liberties. Where’s my cheque? And she’s in my face chattin breeze. Fuckin liberty.
   I am the sole. The sole. The sole
   She unfurls her fist, lets the pencil roll. Takes her liberty. Nothing else to listen to but this bloody girl. At least with eyes closed there is something else to see. Viscous black specks. Darting water boatmen, zigzagging. Zig. Zag. Red river? Molten lake in hell? The hammock tips. The papers flop to the ground. World events and property and film and music lie in the grass. Also sport and the short descriptions of the dead.

2

   Doorbell! She stumbles through the grass barefoot, sun-huddled, drowsy. The back door leads to a poky kitchen, tiled brightly in the taste of a previous tenant. The bell is not being rung. It is being held down.
   In the textured glass, a body, blurred. Wrong collection of pixels to be Michel. Between her body and the door, the hallway floorboards, golden in reflected sun. This hallway can only lead to good things. Yet a woman is screaming PLEASE and crying. A woman thumps the front door with her fist. Pulling the lock aside, she finds it stops halfway, the chain pulls tight, and a little hand flies through the gap.
   – PLEASE – oh my God help me – please Miss, I live here – I live just here, please God – check, please –
   Dirty nails. Waving a gas bill? Phone bill? Pushed through the opening, past the chain, so close she must draw back to focus on what she is being shown. 37 Ridley Avenue – a street on the corner of her own. This is all she reads. She has a quick vision of Michel as he would be if he were here, examining the envelope’s plastic window, checking on credentials. Michel is at work. She releases the chain.
   The stranger’s knees go, she falls forward, crumpling. Girl or woman? They’re the same age: thirties, midway, or thereabouts. Tears shake the stranger’s little body. She pulls at her clothes and wails. Woman begging the public for witnesses. Woman in a war zone standing in the rubble of her home.
   – You’re hurt?
   Her hands are in her hair. Her head collides with the door frame.
   – Nah, not me, my mum – I need some help. I’ve been to every fuckin door – please. Shar – my name is Shar. I’m local. I live here. Check!
   – Come in. Please. I’m Leah.
   Leah is as faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families, or their countries. She knows the way people speak around here, that fuckin, around here, is only a rhythm in a sentence. She arranges her face to signify compassion. Shar closes her eyes, nods. She makes quick movements with her mouth, inaudible, speaking to herself. To Leah she says
   – You’re so good.
   Shar’s diaphragm rises and falls, slower now. The shuddering tears wind down.
   – Thank you, yeah? You’re so good.
   Shar’s small hands grip the hands that support her. Shar is tiny. Her skin looks papery and dry, with patches of psoriasis on the forehead and on the jaw. The face is familiar. Leah has seen this face many times in these streets. A peculiarity of London villages: faces without names. The eyes are memorable, around the deep brown clear white is visible, above and below. An air of avidity, of consuming what she sees. Long lashes. Babies look like this. Leah smiles. The smile offered back is blank, without recognition. Sweetly crooked. Leah is only the good stranger who opened the door and did not close it again. Shar repeats: you are so good, you are so good – until the thread of pleasure that runs through that phrase (of course for Leah there is a little pleasure) is broken. Leah shakes her head.    No, no, no, no.
   Leah directs Shar to the kitchen. Big hands on the girl’s narrow shoulders. She watches Shar’s buttocks rise up and against her rolled-down jogging pants, the little downy dip in her back, pronounced, sweaty in the heat. The tiny waist opening out into curves. Leah is hipless, gangly like a boy. Perhaps Shar needs money. Her clothes are not clean. In the back of her right knee there is a wide tear in the nasty fabric. Dirty heels rise up out of disintegrating flip-flops. She smells.
   – Heart attack! I was asking them is she dyin? Is she dyin? Is she dyin? She goes in the ambulance    – don’t get no answer do I! I got three kids that is home alone innit – I have to get hospital – what they talking about car for? I ain’t got no car! I’m saying help me – no one did a fuckin thing to help me.
Leah grips Shar’s wrist, sets her down in a chair at the kitchen table and passes over a roll of tissue. She puts her hands once more on Shar’s shoulders. Their foreheads are inches from each other.
   – I understand, it’s OK. Which hospital?
   – It’s like . . . I ain’t written it . . . In Middlesex or – Far, though. Don’t know eggzak’ly.
   Leah squeezes Shar’s hands.
   – Look, I don’t drive – but –
   checks her watch. Ten to five.
   – If you wait, maybe twenty minutes? If I call him now, he can – or maybe a taxi . . .
   Shar eases her hands from Leah’s. She presses her knuckles into her eyes, breathing out fully: The panic is over.
   – Need to be there . . . no numbers – nothing – no money . . .
   Shar tears some skin from her right thumb with her teeth. A spot of blood rises and contains itself.       Leah takes Shar again by the wrist. Draws her fingers from her mouth.
   – Maybe the Middlesex? Name of the hospital, not the place. Down Acton way, isn’t it?
   The girl’s face is dreamy, slow. Touched, the Irish say. Possible that she’s touched.
   – Yeah . . . could be . . . yeah, no, yeah that’s it. The Middlesex. That’s it.
   Leah straightens up, takes a phone from her back pocket and dials.
   – I’LL COME BY TOMORROW.
   Leah nods and Shar continues, making no concession for the phone call.
   – PAY YOU BACK. GET MY CHEQUE TOMORROW,
   YEAH?
   Leah keeps her phone to her ear, smiles and nods, gives her address.
   She mimes a cup of tea. But Shar is looking at the apple blossom. She wipes tears from her face with the fabric of her grubby T-shirt. Her belly button is a tight knot flush with her stomach, a button sewn in a divan. Leah recites her own phone number.
   – Done.
   She turns to the sideboard, picks up the kettle with her free hand, fumbling it because she expected it to be empty. A little water spills. She replaces the kettle on its stand, and remains where she is, her back to her guest. There is no natural place to sit or stand. In front of her, on the long windowsill that stretches the room, some of the things of her life – photos, knick-knacks, some of her father’s ashes, vases, plants, herbs. In the window’s reflection Shar is bringing her little feet up to the seat of her chair, holding her ankles. The emergency was less awkward, more natural than this. This is not the country for making a stranger tea. They smile at each other in the glass. There is goodwill. There is nothing to say.
   – I’ll get cups.
   Leah is naming all her actions. She opens the cupboard. It is full of cups; cups on cups on cups.
   – Nice place.
   Leah turns too quickly, makes irrelevant motions with her hands.
   – Not ours – we rent – ours is just this – there’s two flats upstairs. Shared garden. It’s council, so . . .
   Leah pours out the tea as Shar looks around. Bottom lip out, head nodding gently. Appreciative, like an estate agent. Now she comes to Leah. What’s to see? Wrinkled checked flannel shirt, raggedy jean shorts, freckled legs, bare feet – someone absurd, maybe, a slacker, a lady of leisure. Leah crosses her arms across her abdomen.
   – Nice for council. Lot of bedrooms and that?
   The lip stays low. It slurs her speech a little. Something is wrong with Shar’s face, Leah notices, and is embarrassed by noticing, and looks away.
   – Two. The second’s a box. We sort of use it as . . .
   Shar meanwhile burrows for something else entirely; she’s slower than Leah, but she’s there now, they’re in the same place. She points her finger in Leah’s face.
   – Wait – you went Brayton?
   She bounces on her chair. Elated? But this must be wrong.
   – I swear when you was on the phone I was thinking: I know you. You went Brayton!
   Leah perches her backside on the counter and gives her dates. Shar is impatient with chronology. She wants to know if Leah remembers when the science wing flooded, the time Jake Fowler had his head placed in a vice. In relation to these coordinates, like moon landings and the death of presidents, they position their own times.
   – Two years below you, innit. What’s your name again?
   Leah struggles with the stiff lid of a biscuit tin.
   – Leah. Hanwell.
   – Leah. You went Brayton. Still see anyone?
   Leah lists her names, with their potted biographies. Shar beats a rhythm on the tabletop with her fingers.
   – Have you been married long?
   – Too long.
   – Do you want me to call someone? Your husband?
   – Nah . . . nah . . . he’s over there. Ain’t seen him in two years. Abusive. Violent. Had issues. Had a lot of problems, in his head and that. Broke my arm, broke my collarbone, broke my knee, broke my fuckin face. Tell you the truth –
   The next is said in a light aside, with a little hiccuping laugh, and is
incomprehensible.
   – Used to rape me and everything . . . it was crazy. Oh well.
   Shar slides off her chair and walks towards the back door. Looks out on the garden, the parched yellow lawn.
   – I’m so sorry.
   – Ain’t your fault! Is what it is.
   The feeling of feeling absurd. Leah puts her hands in her pockets. The kettle clicks.
    – Truthfully, Layer, I’d be lying if I said it’s been easy. It’s been hard. But. Got away, you know? I’m alive. Three kids! Youngest is seven. So, some good came, you get me?
   Leah nods at the kettle.
   – Got kids?
   – No. A dog, Olive. She’s at my mate Nat’s house right now. Natalie Blake? Actually in school she was Keisha. Natalie De Angelis now. In my year. Used to have a big Afro puff like –
Leah mimes an atomic mushroom behind her own head. Shar frowns.
   – Yeah. Up herself. Coconut. Thought she was all that.
   A look of blank contempt passes over Shar’s face. Leah talks into it.
   – She’s got kids. Lives just over there, in the posh bit, on the park. She’s a lawyer now. Barrister. What’s the difference? Maybe there isn’t one. They’ve two kids. The kids love Olive, the dog’s called Olive. She is just saying sentences, one after the other, they don’t stop.
   – I’m pregnant, actually.
   Shar leans against the glass of the door. Closes one eye, focusing on Leah’s stomach.
   – Oh it’s early. Very. Actually I found out this morning.
   Actually actually actually. Shar takes the revelation in her stride.
   – Boy?
   – No, I mean – I haven’t got that far.
   Leah blushes, not having intended to speak of this delicate, unfinished thing.
   – Does your mans know?
   – I took the test this morning. Then you came.
   – Pray for a girl. Boys are hell.
   Shar has a dark look. She grins satanically. Around each tooth the gum is black. She walks back to Leah and presses her hands flat against Leah’s stomach.
   – Let me feel. I can tell things. Don’t matter how early. Come here. Not gonna hurt you. It’s like a gift. My mum was the same way. Come here.
   She reaches for Leah and pulls her forward. Leah lets her. Shar places her hands back where they were.
   – Gonna be a girl, definite. Scorpio, too, proper trouble. A runner.
   Leah laughs. She feels a heat rising between the girl’s sweaty hands and her own clammy stomach.
   – Like an athlete?
   – Nah . . . the kind who runs away. You’ll need one eye on her, all the time.
   Shar’s hands drop, her face glazes over once more with boredom. She starts talking of things. All things are equal. Leah or tea or rape or bedroom or heart attack or school or who had a baby.
   – That school . . . it was rubbish but them people who went there . . . quite a few people did all right, didn’t they? Like, Calvin – remember Calvin?
   Leah pours out the tea, nodding fiercely. She does not remember Calvin.
   – He’s got a gym on the Finchley Road.
   Leah spins her spoon in her tea, a drink she never takes, especially in this weather. She has pressed the bag too hard. The leaves break their borders and swarm.
   – Not running it – owns it. I go past there sometimes. Never thought little Calvin would get his shit together – he was always with Jermaine and Louie and Michael. Them lot was trouble . . . I don’t see none of them. Don’t need the drama. Still see Nathan Bogle. Used to see Tommy and James Haven but I ain’t seen them recent. Not for time.
   Shar keeps talking. The kitchen slants and Leah steadies herself with a hand to the sideboard.
   – Sorry, what?
   Shar frowns, she speaks round the lit fag in her mouth.
   – I said, can I have that tea?
   Together they look like old friends on a winter’s night, holding their mugs with both hands. The door is open, every window is open. No air moves. Leah takes her shirt in hand and shakes it free of her skin. A vent opens, air scoots through. The sweat pooled beneath each breast leaves its shameful trace on the cotton.
   – I used to know . . . I mean . . .
   Leah presses on with this phoney hesitation and looks deep into her mug, but Shar isn’t interested, she’s knocking on the glass of the door, speaking over her.
   – Yeah you looked different in school, definitely. You’re better now, innit. You was all ginger and bony. All long.
   Leah is still all of these things. The change must be in other people, or in the times themselves.
   – Done well, though. How come you ain’t at work? What d’you do again?
   Shar is already nodding as Leah begins to speak.
   – Phoned in sick. I wasn’t feeling good. It’s sort of general admin, basically. For a good cause. We hand out money. From the lottery, to charities, non-profits – small local organizations in the community that need . . .
   They are not listening to their own conversation. The girl from the estate is still out on her balcony, screaming. Shar shakes her head and whistles. She gives Leah a look of neighbourly sympathy.
   – Silly fat bitch.
   Leah traces a knight’s move from the girl with her finger. Two floors up, one window across.
   – I was born just there.
   From there to here, a journey longer than it looks. For a second, this local detail holds Shar’s interest. Then she looks away, ashing her cigarette on the kitchen floor, though the door is open and the grass only a foot away. She is slow, maybe, and possibly clumsy; or she is traumatized, or distracted.
   – Done well. Living right. Probably got a lot of friends, out on a Friday, clubbing, all that.
   – Not really.
   Shar blows a short burst of smoke out of her mouth and makes a rueful sort of sound, nodding her head over and over.
   – Proper snobby, this street. You the only one let me in. Rest of them wouldn’t piss on you if you was on fire.
   – I’ve got to go upstairs. Get some money for this cab.
   Leah has money in her pocket. Upstairs she walks into the nearest room, the toilet, closes the door, sits on the floor and cries. With her foot she reaches over and knocks the toilet paper off its perch. She is rolling it towards her when the doorbell goes.
   – DOOR! DOOR! WILL I?
   Leah stands, tries to wash away the redness in the tiny sink. She finds Shar in the hallway, in front of a shelf filled with books from college, drawing her finger along the spines.
   – You read all these?
   – No, not really. No time nowadays.
   Leah takes the key from where it sits on the middle shelf and opens the front door. Nothing makes sense. The driver who stands by the gate makes a gesture she doesn’t understand, points to the other end of the street and starts walking. Shar follows. Leah follows. Leah is growing into a new meekness.
   – How much do you need?
   There is a shade of pity in Shar’s face.
   – Twenty? Thirty . . . is safe.
   She smokes without hands, squeezing the vapour out of a corner of her mouth.
The manic froth of cherry blossom. Through a corridor of pink, Michel appears, walking up the street, on the other side. Too hot – his face is soaked. The little towel he keeps for days like this pokes from his bag. Leah raises a finger up in the air, a request for him to stay where he is. She points to Shar, though Shar is hidden by the car. Michel is shortsighted; he squints in their direction, stops, smiles tensely, takes his jacket off, throws it over his arm. Leah can see him plucking at his T-shirt, trying to shed the remnants of his day: many tiny hairs, clippings from strangers, some blonde, some brown.
   – Who that?
   – Michel, my husband.
   – Girl’s name?
   – French.
   – Nice-looking, innit – nice-looking babies!
   Shar winks: a grotesque compression of one side of her face.
   Shar drops her cigarette and gets in the car, leaving the door open. The money remains in Leah’s hand.
   – He local? Seen him about.
   – He works in the hairdressers, by the station? From Marseilles – he’s French. Been here forever.
   – African, though.
   – Originally. Look – do you want me to come with you?
   Shar says nothing for a moment. Then she steps out of the car and reaches up to Leah’s face with both hands.
   – You’re a really good person. I was meant to come to your door. Seriously! You’re a spiritual person.    There ’s something spiritual
   inside you.
   Leah grips Shar’s little hand tight and submits to a kiss. Shar’s mouth is slightly open on Leah’s cheek for thank and now closes with you. In reply, Leah says something she has never said in her life: God bless you. They part – Shar backs away awkwardly, and turns towards the car, almost gone. Leah presses the money into Shar’s hand with defiance. But already the grandeur of experience threatens to flatten into the conventional, into anecdote: only thirty pounds, only an ill mother, neither a murder, nor a rape. Nothing survives its telling.
   – Mental weather.
   Shar uses her scarf to blot the sweat on her face, and will not look at Leah.
   – Come by tomorrow. Pay you back. Swear to God, yeah? Thanks, seriously. You saved me today.
Leah shrugs.
   – Nah, don’t be like that, I swear – I’ll be there, serious.
   – I just hope she’s OK. Your mum.
   – Tomorrow, yeah? Thank you!
   The door closes. The car pulls off.

 

Nick Hornby's 1960s Blackpool

An extract from Nick Hornby’s latest novel FUNNY GIRL.

She didn’t want to be a beauty queen, but as luck would have it, she was about to become one.
   There were a few aimless minutes between the parade and the announcement, so friends and family gathered round the girls to offer congratulations and crossed fingers. The little groups that formed reminded Barbara of liquorice Catherine wheels: a girl in a sugary bright pink or blue bathing suit at the centre, a swirl of dark brown or black raincoats around the outside. It was a cold, wet July day at the South Shore Baths, and the contestants had mottled, bumpy arms and legs. They looked like turkeys hanging in a butcher’s window. Only in Blackpool, Barbara thought, could you win a beauty competition looking like this.
   Barbara hadn’t invited any friends, and her father was refusing to come over and join her, so she was stuck on her own. He was just sat there in a deckchair, pretending to read the Daily Express. The two of them would have made a tatty, half-eaten Catherine wheel, but even so, she would have appreciated the company. In the end, she went over to him. Leaving the rest of the girls behind made her feel half-naked and awkward, rather than glamorous and poised, and she had to walk past a lot of wolf-whistling spectators. When she reached her father’s spot at the shallow end, she was probably fiercer than she wanted to be.
   ‘What are you doing, Dad?’ she hissed.
   The people sitting near him, bored, mostly elderly holidaymakers, suddenly went rigid with excitement. One of the girls! Right in front of them! Telling her father off!
   ‘Oh, hello, love.’
   ‘Why wouldn’t you come and see me?’
   He stared at her as if she’d asked him to name the mayor of Timbuktu.
   ‘Didn’t you see what everyone else was doing?’
   ‘I did. But it didn’t seem right. Not for me.’
   ‘What makes you so different?’
   ‘A single man, running . . . amok in the middle of a lot of pretty girls wearing not very much. I’d get locked up.’
   George Parker was forty-seven, fat, and old before he had any right to be. He had been single for over ten years, ever since Barbara’s mother had left him for her manager at the tax office, and she could see that if he went anywhere near the other girls he’d feel all of these states acutely.
   ‘Well, would you have to run amok?’ Barbara asked. ‘Couldn’t you just stand there, talking to your daughter?’
   ‘You’re going to win, aren’t you?’ he said.
   She tried not to blush, and failed. The holidaymakers within earshot had given up all pretence of knitting and reading the papers now. They were just gawping at her.
   ‘Oh, I don’t know. I shouldn’t think so,’ she said.
   The truth was that she did know. The mayor had come over to her, whispered ‘Well done’ in her ear, and patted her discreetly on the bottom.
   ‘Come off it. You’re miles prettier than all the others. Tons.’
   For some reason, and even though this was a beauty contest, her superior beauty seemed to irritate him. He never liked her showing off, even when she was making her friends and family laugh with some kind of routine in which she portrayed herself as dim or dizzy or clumsy. It was still showing off. Today, though, when showing off was everything, the whole point, she’d have thought he might forgive her, but no such luck. If you had to go and enter a beauty pageant, he seemed to be saying, you might at least have the good manners to look uglier than everyone else.
   She pretended to hear parental pride, so as not to confuse her audience.
   ‘It’s a wonderful thing, a blind dad,’ she said to the gawpers. ‘Every girl should have one.’
   It wasn’t the best line, but she’d delivered it with a completely straight face, and she got a bigger laugh than she deserved. Sometimes surprise worked and sometimes people laughed because they were expecting to. She understood both kinds, she thought, but it was probably confusing to people who didn’t take laughter seriously.
   ‘I’m not blind,’ said George flatly. ‘Look.’
   He turned around and widened his eyes at anyone showing any interest.
   ‘Dad, you’ve got to stop doing that,’ said Barbara. ‘It frightens people, a blind man goggling away.’
   ‘You . . .’ Her father pointed rudely at a woman wearing a green mac. ‘You’ve got a green mac on.’
   The old lady in the next deckchair along began to clap, uncertainly, as if George had just that second been cured of a lifelong affliction, or was performing some kind of clever magic trick.
   ‘How would I know that, if I was blind?’
   Barbara could see that he was beginning to enjoy himself. Very occasionally he could be persuaded to play the straight man in a double act, and he might have gone on describing what he could see for ever, if the mayor hadn’t stepped up to the microphone and cleared his throat.

It was Auntie Marie, her father’s sister, who suggested that she should go in for Miss Blackpool. Marie came round for tea one Saturday afternoon, because she happened to be passing, and casually dropped the competition into the conversation, and – a sudden thought – asked her why she’d never had a go, while her dad sat there nodding his head and pretending to be thunderstruck by the brilliance of the idea. Barbara was puzzled for the first minute or two, before she realized that the two of them had cooked up a plan. The plan, as far as she could work out, was this: Barbara entered the pageant, won it and then forgot all about moving to London, because there’d be no need. She’d be famous in her own hometown, and who could want for more? And then she could have a go at Miss UK, and if that didn’t work out she could just think about getting married, when there would be another coronation, of sorts. (And that was a part of the beauty pageant plan too, Barbara was sure. Marie was quite sniffy about Aidan, thought she could do much better, or much richer, anyway, and beauty queens could take their pick. Dotty Harrison had married a man who owned seven carpet shops, and she’d only come third.)
   Barbara knew she didn’t want to be queen for a day, or even for a year. She didn’t want to be a queen at all. She just wanted to go on television and make people laugh. Queens were never funny, not the ones in Blackpool anyway, or the ones in Buckingham Palace either. She’d gone along with Auntie Marie’s scheme, though, because Dorothy Lamour had been Miss New Orleans and Sophia Loren had been a Miss Italy runner-up. (Barbara had always wanted to see a photograph of the girl who had beaten Sophia Loren.) And she’d gone along with it because she was bursting to get on with her life, and she needed something, anything, to happen. She knew she was going to break her father’s heart, but first she wanted to show him that she’d at least tried to be happy in the place she’d lived all her life. She’d done what she could. She’d auditioned for school plays, and had been given tiny parts, and watched from the wings while the talentless girls that the teachers loved forgot their lines and turned the ones they remembered into nonsense. She’d been in the chorus line at the Winter Gardens, and she’d gone to talk to a man at the local amateur dramatic society who’d told her that their next production was THE CHERRY ORCHARD, which ‘probably wouldn’t be her cup of tea’. He asked whether she’d like to start off selling tickets and making posters. None of it was what she wanted. She wanted to be given a funny script so that she could make it funnier.
   She wished that she could be happy, of course she did; she wished she wasn’t different. Her school friends and her colleagues in the cosmetics department at R.H.O. Hills didn’t seem to want to claw, dig, wriggle and kick their way out of the town like she did, and sometimes she ached to be the same as them. And wasn’t there something a bit childish about wanting to go on television? Wasn’t she just shouting, ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ like a two-year-old? All right, yes, some people, men of all ages, did look at her, but not in the way that she wanted them to look. They looked at her blonde hair and her bust and her legs, but they never saw anything else. So she’d enter the competition, and she’d win it, and she was dreading the look in her father’s eyes when he saw that it wasn’t going to make any difference to anything.

The mayor didn’t get around to it straight away, because he wasn’t that sort of man. He thanked everyone for coming, and he made a pointless joke about Preston losing the Cup Final, and a cruel joke about his wife not entering this year because of her bunions. He said that the bevy of beauties in front of him – and he was just the sort of man who’d use the expression ‘bevy of beauties’ – made him even prouder of the town than he already was. Everyone knew that most of the girls were holidaymakers from Leeds and Manchester and Oldham, but he got an enthusiastic round of applause at that point anyway. He went on for so long that she began to try and estimate the size of the crowd by counting the heads in one row of deckchairs and then multiplying by the number of rows, but she never finished because she got lost in the face of an old woman with a rain hat and no teeth, grinding a piece of sandwich over and over again. That was another ambition Barbara wanted to add to the already teetering heap: she wanted to keep her teeth, unlike just about every one of her relatives over the age of fifty. She woke up just in time to hear her name, and to see the other girls pretending to smile at her.
   She didn’t feel anything. Or rather, she noted her absence of feeling and then felt a little sick. It would have been nice to think that she’d been wrong, that she didn’t need to leave her father and her town, that this was a dream come true and she could live inside it for the rest of her life. She didn’t dare dwell on her numbness in case she came to the conclusion that she was a hard and hateful bitch. She beamed when the mayor’s wife came over to put the sash on her, and she even managed a smile when the mayor kissed her on the lips, but when her father came over and hugged her she burst into tears, which was her way of telling him that she was as good as gone, that winning Miss Blackpool didn’t even come close to scratching the itch that plagued her like chickenpox.
   She’d never cried in a bathing suit before, not as a grown woman anyway. Bathing suits weren’t for crying in, what with the sun and the sand and the shrieking and the boys with their eyes out on stalks. The feeling of wind-chilled tears running down her neck and into her cleavage was peculiar. The mayor’s wife put her arms around her.
   ‘I’m all right,’ said Barbara. ‘Really. I’m just being silly.’
   ‘Believe it or believe it not, I know how you’re feeling,’ said the mayor’s wife. ‘This is how we met. Before the war. He were only a councillor then.’
   ‘You were Miss Blackpool?’ said Barbara.
   She tried to say it in a way that didn’t suggest amazement, but she wasn’t sure she’d managed. The mayor and his wife were both large, but his size seemed intentional somehow, an indication of his importance, whereas hers seemed like a terrible mistake. Perhaps it was just that he didn’t care and she did.
   ‘Believe it or believe it not.’
   The two women looked at each other. These things happened. There was no need to say anything else, but then the mayor came over to them and said something else anyway.
   ‘You wouldn’t think so to look at her,’ said the mayor, who was not a man to let the unspoken stay that way.
   His wife rolled her eyes at him.
   ‘I’ve already said “believe it or believe it not” twice. I’ve already admitted that I’m no Miss Blackpool any more. But you have to come clomping in anyway.’
   ‘I didn’t hear you say “believe it or believe it not”.’
   ‘Well I did. Twice. Didn’t I, love?’
   Barbara nodded. She didn’t really want to be drawn in, but she thought she could offer the poor woman that much at least.
   ‘Kiddies and cream buns, kiddies and cream buns,’ said the mayor.
   ‘Well, you’re no oil painting,’ his wife said.
   ‘No, but you didn’t marry me because I was an oil painting.’
   His wife thought about this and conceded the point with silence.
   ‘Whereas that was the whole point of you,’ said the mayor. ‘You were an oil painting. Anyways,’ he said to Barbara. 'You know this is the biggest open-air baths in the world, don’t you? And this is one of the biggest days here, so you’ve every right to feel overcome.’
   Barbara nodded and snuffled and smiled. She wouldn’t have known how to begin to tell him that the problem was exactly the opposite of the one he’d just described: it was an even smaller day than she feared it would be.
  ‘That bloody Lucy woman,’ her father said. ‘She’s got a lot to answer for.’
  The mayor and his wife looked confused, but Barbara knew who he was talking about. She felt understood, and that made it worse.

Barbara had loved Lucille Ball ever since she saw I LOVE LUCY for the first time: everything she felt or did came from that. The world seemed to stand still for half an hour every Sunday, and her father knew better than to try and talk to her or even to rustle the paper while the programme was on, in case she missed something. There were lots of other funny people she loved: Tony Hancock, Sergeant Bilko, Morecambe and Wise. But she couldn’t be them even if she’d wanted to. They were all men. Tony, Ernie, Eric, Ernie . . . There was nobody called Lucy or Barbara in that lot. There were no funny girls.
   ‘It’s just a programme,’ her father would say, before or after but never during. ‘An American programme. It’s not what I call British humour.’
   ‘And British humour . . . That’s your special phrase for humour from Britain, is it?’
   ‘The BBC and so forth.’
   ‘I’m with you.’
   She only ever stopped teasing him because she got bored, never because he cottoned on and robbed the teasing of its point. If she had to stay in Blackpool, then one of her plans was to keep a conversation like this going for the rest of his life.
   ‘She’s not funny, for a start,’ he said.
   ‘She’s the funniest woman who’s ever been on television,’ said Barbara.
   ‘But you don’t laugh at her,’ said her father.
   It was true that she didn’t laugh, but that was because she’d usually seen the shows before. Now she was too busy trying to slow it all down so she could remember it. If there was a way of watching Lucy every single day of the week, then she would, but there wasn’t, so she just had to concentrate harder than she’d ever concentrated on anything, and hope that some of it sank in.
  ‘Anyway, you make me shut up when they’re reading out the football results on the wireless,’ she said.
   ‘Yes, because of the pools,’ he said. ‘One of those football results might change our life.’
   What she couldn’t explain without sounding batty was that I LOVE LUCY was exactly the same as the pools. One day, one of Lucy’s expressions or lines was going to change her life, and maybe even his too. Lucy had already changed her life, although not in a good way: the show had separated her from everyone else – friends, family, the other girls at work. It was, she sometimes felt, a bit like being religious. She was so serious about watching comedy on the television that people thought she was a bit odd, so she’d stopped talking about it.

The photographer from the EVENING GAZETTE introduced himself and ushered Barbara towards the diving boards.
   ‘You’re Len Phillips?’ her father said. ‘You’re not pulling my leg?’
   He recognized Len Phillips’s name from the paper, so he was star-struck. Dear God, Barbara thought. And he wonders why I want to get out of here.
   ‘Can you believe that, Barbara? Mr Phillips has come to the baths personally.’
   ‘Call me Len.’
   ‘Really? Thank you very much.’ George looked a little uncomfortable, though, as if the honour had not yet been earned.
   ‘Yes, well, he probably hasn’t got a staff of thousands,’ said Barbara.
   ‘It’s just me, and a lad sometimes,’ said Len. ‘And today’s a big day for Blackpool. I’d be daft to let the lad do it.’
   He gestured at Barbara to move back a little.
   ‘Say cheese,’ her father said. ‘Or is it only amateurs who do that?’
   ‘No, we do it too. Although sometimes I shout “Knickers!” just for a change.’
   George laughed and shook his head in wonder. He was having the time of his life, Barbara could tell.
   ‘No boyfriend?’ Len asked.
   ‘He couldn’t get the day off, Len,’ George said. He paused for a moment, clearly wondering whether he’d got too familiar, too soon. ‘They’re short-staffed, apparently, because of the holidays. Her Auntie Marie couldn’t come either, because she’s gone to the Isle of Man for a fortnight. Her first holiday for seven years. Only a caravan, but, you know. A change is as good as a rest.’
   ‘You should be writing all this down, Len,’ said Barbara. ‘Caravan. Isle of Man. A change is as good as a rest. Is it just her and Uncle Jack, Dad? Or have the boys gone too?’
   ‘He doesn’t want to know all that,’ said her father.
   ‘Where does she work?’ Len asked, nodding his head towards Barbara.
   ‘I don’t know. We could ask her,’ said Barbara.
   ‘She’s in the cosmetics department at R. H. O. Hills,’ her father said. ‘And Aidan’s in Menswear. That's how they met.’
   ‘Well, she won’t be there much now, will she?’ said the photographer.
   ‘Won’t she?’ said George.
   ‘I’m always taking photographs of Miss Blackpool. Hospitals, shows, charity galas . . . She’s got a lot of responsibilities. It’ll be a busy year. We’ll be seeing each other a lot, Barbara, so you’ll have to get used to my ugly mug.’
   ‘Oh, Lord,’ said her father. ‘Did you hear that, Barbara?’ Hospitals? Charity galas? An entire year? What had she been thinking? Auntie Marie had told her about the shop openings and the Christmas lights, but she hadn’t thought about how she’d be letting people down if she just disappeared, and she hadn’t thought about how she’d still be Miss Blackpool in three hundred and sixty four days’ time. She knew then that she didn’t want to be Miss Blackpool in an hour’s time.
   ‘Where’s she going?’ said Len.
   ‘Where are you going?’ said her father.
   Fifteen minutes later, the runner-up, Sheila Jenkinson, a tall, dopey redhead from Skelmersdale, was wearing the tiara, and Barbara and her father were in a taxi on their way back home. She left for London the following week.

Raymond Chandler's desk drawer

What Was It Like? I’ll Tell You

Similes, including comparisons, from a page in Raymond Chandler’s notebooks.

1. As cold as Finnegan’s feet

2. As cute as a washtub

3. As much sex appeal as a turtle

4. As cold as a nun’s breeches

5. As French as a doughnut (i.e. not French at all)

6. As clean as an angel’s neck

7. As shiny as a clubwoman’s nose

8. High enough to have snow on him

9. So tight his head squeaks when he takes his hat off

10. Lower than a badger’s balls

11. Longer than a round trip to Siam

12. Smart as a hole through nothing

13. A face like a collapsed lung

14. A mouth like a wilted lettuce

15. A nose like a straphanger’s elbow

16. His face was long enough to wrap twice around his neck

17. He sipped like a hummingbird drinking dew from a curled leaf

The cornershop of confusion

In this extract from ELIZABETH IS MISSING an absent-minded Maud is struggling to remember something important about her friend Elizabeth.

‘You know there was an old woman mugged around here?’ Carla says, letting her long black ponytail snake over one shoulder. ‘Well, actually, it was Weymouth, but it could have been here. So you see, you can’t be too careful. They found her with half her face smashed in.’
   This last bit is said in a hushed voice, but hearing isn’t one of my problems. I wish Carla wouldn’t tell me these things; they leave me with an uneasy feeling long after I’ve forgotten the stories themselves. I shudder and look out of the window. I can’t think which direction Weymouth is in. A bird flies by.
   ‘Have I got enough eggs?’
   ‘Plenty, so you don’t have to go out today.’
   She picks up the carers’ folder, nodding at me, keeping eye contact until I nod back. I feel like I’m at school. There was something in my head a moment ago, a story, but I’ve lost the thread of it now. Once upon a time, is that how it started? Once upon a time in a deep, dark forest, there lived an old, old woman named Maud. I can’t think what the next bit should be. Something about waiting for her daughter to come and visit, perhaps. It’s a shame I don’t live in a nice little cottage in a dark forest, I could just fancy that. And my granddaughter might bring me food in a basket.
   A bang, somewhere in the house, makes my eyes skitter across the sitting room, there’s an animal, an animal for wearing out­side, lying over the arm of the settee. It’s Carla’s. She never hangs it up, worried she’ll forget it, I expect. I can’t help staring at it, sure it will move, scurry away to a corner, or eat me up and take my place. And Katy will have to remark on its big eyes, its big teeth.
   ‘All these tins of peaches!’ Carla shouts from the kitchen. Carla the carer. ‘Carers’ is what they call them. ‘You must stop buying food,’ she calls again. I can hear the scrape of tins against my Formica worktop. ‘You have enough for an army.’
   Enough food. You can never have enough. Most of it seems to go missing anyway, and can’t be found even after I’ve bought it. I don’t know who’s eating it all. My daughter’s the same. ‘No more cans, Mum,’ she says, going through my cupboards at every opportunity. I think she must be feeding someone. Half the stuff disappears home with her, and then she wonders why I need to go shopping again. Anyway, it’s not like I have many treats left in life.
   ‘It’s not like I have many treats left,’ I say, pushing myself higher in my seat to make my voice carry to the kitchen. Twists of shiny chocolate wrappers are wedged down the sides of the chair; they squirm against the cushions and I flick them away. My husband, Patrick, used to tell me off for eating sweets. I ate them a lot at home. It was nice to be able to have a sherbet lemon or a caramel cup when I wanted, as we weren’t allowed them at the exchange – no one wants to speak to a telephonist who’s got her mouth full. But he said they’d ruin my teeth. I always suspected he was more worried about my figure. Polo mints were our com­promise, and I still like them, but now there’s no one to stop me eating a whole box of toffees if I want them. I can even start first thing in the morning. It’s morning now. I know because the sun is on the bird table. It shines on the bird table in the morning and the pine tree in the evening. I have a whole day to get through before the light hits that tree.
   Carla comes, half crouching, into the sitting room, picking up wrappers from around my feet. ‘I didn’t know you were here, dear,’ I say.
   ‘I’ve done your lunch.’ She snaps off plastic gloves. ‘It’s in the fridge, and I’ve put a note on it. It’s nine forty now, try not to eat it till twelve, right?’
   She talks as if I always gobble everything up as soon as she leaves. ‘Have I got enough eggs?’ I ask, feeling suddenly hungry.
   ‘Plenty,’ Carla says, dropping the carers’ folder on to the table. ‘I’m going now. Helen’ll be here later, all right? Bye.’
   The front door clicks shut and I hear Carla locking it after her. Locking me in. I watch her through the window as she crunches across my path. She wears a coat with a fur-edged hood over her uniform. A carer in wolf’s clothing.
   When I was a girl I’d have been glad to have the house to myself, to eat things out of the larder and wear my best clothes, to play the gramophone and lie on the floor. Now I’d rather have the company. The light’s been left on and the kitchen seems like an empty stage set when I go in to rearrange my cupboards and check what Carla has left me for lunch. I half expect someone to come in, my mother with her shopping or Dad with arms full of fish and chips, and say something dramatic, like in one of those plays at the Pier Theatre. Dad would say: ‘Your sister is gone,’ and there’d be a drum or a trumpet or something, and Ma would say: ‘Never to return,’ and we’d all stare at each other for the benefit of the audience. I pull a plate from the fridge, wondering what my line would be. The plate has a note attached: Lunch for Maud to eat after 12 p.m. I take the cling film off. It’s a cheese and tomato sandwich.
   When I’ve finished eating I wander back to the sitting room. It’s so quiet in here; even my clock doesn’t tick out loud. It shows the time, though, and I watch the hands slowly moving round on top of the gas fire. I have hours of the day to fill and at some point I have to switch on the TV. There’s one of those sofa programmes on. Two people on one sofa lean towards another person on the opposite sofa. They smile and shake their heads and, eventually, the one on her own starts to cry. I can’t work out what it’s all about. Afterwards there’s a programme where people run through various houses looking for things to sell. The sort of ugly things that are surprisingly valuable.
   A few years ago I would have been appalled at myself – watch­ing TV in the day! But what else is there to do? I occasionally read, but the plots of novels don’t make sense any more and I can never remember where I’ve left off. So I can boil an egg. I can eat an egg. And I can watch TV. After that, I’m just waiting: for Carla, for Helen, for Elizabeth.
   Elizabeth is the only friend I have left; the others are in homes or graves. She’s a fan of these running-about-selling-things pro­grammes, and has a hope of one day finding a disregarded treasure. She buys all sorts of hideous plates and vases from char­ity shops, her fingers crossed for a fortune. Sometimes I buy her things too, bits of garish china mostly, it’s a sort of game – who can find the ugliest piece of pottery at Oxfam. Rather childish, but I’ve begun to find that being with Elizabeth, laughing with her, is the only time I feel like myself.
   I have an idea there was something I had to remember about Elizabeth. Perhaps she wanted me to get her something. A boiled egg, or some chocolate. That son of hers keeps her on starvation rations. He won’t even spend money on new razors for himself. Elizabeth says his skin is raw from shaving and she’s worried he’ll cut his own throat. Sometimes I wish he would. The miser. If I didn’t pop round with the odd extra, she’d waste away. I’ve got a note here telling me not to go out, but I don’t see why. It can’t hurt to nip down to the shop.
   I write a list before I put on my coat, find my hat and keys, check I have the keys in the right pocket and then check again at the front door. There are white stains along the pavement where snails have been flattened in the night. This street always collects hundreds of casualties after a rainy evening. But what makes those marks, I wonder, what part of the snail makes the stain turn white like that?
  ‘Turn not pale, beloved snail,’ I say, bending over as far as I dare to get a better look. I can’t think where the phrase is from, but it’s possible it is about this very thing. I must try and remember to look it up when I get home.
   The shop isn’t far, but I’m tired by the time I get there, and for some reason I keep taking the wrong turning, which means I’ve got to walk back around the block again. I feel like I did at the end of the war. I often got lost on my way into town, what with houses bombed to rubble, and sudden open spaces, and roads blocked by bricks and masonry and broken furniture.
   It’s a small place, Carrow’s, crammed with things I don’t want. I wish they’d move the rows and rows of beer cans to make space for something useful. It’s always been here, though, ever since I was a child. They only changed the sign a few years ago. It’s got Coca-Cola written on it now and Carrow’s is squashed in under­neath like an afterthought. I read it out to myself as I go in and then I read my shopping list aloud, standing by a shelf of boxes. Ricicles and Shreddies, whatever they are.
   ‘Eggs. Milk – question mark – Chocolate.’ I turn my bit of paper about to catch the light. There’s a cosy cardboardy smell in the shop and it’s like being in the larder at home. ‘Eggs, milk, chocolate. Eggs, milk, chocolate.’ I say the words, but I can’t quite think what the things look like. Could they be in any of the boxes in front of me? I carry on muttering the list under my breath as I shuffle about the shop, but the words begin to lose meaning and are like a chant. I’ve got ‘marrows’ written down here too, but I don’t think they sell them here.
   ‘Can I help, Mrs Horsham?’
   Reg leans over the counter, and his grey cardigan bags out, sweeping across the penny sweets in their plastic tub and leaving bits of fluff on them. He watches me walk round. Nosy beggar. I don’t know what he’s guarding. So I walked out with some­thing once. So what? It was only a bag of soft lettuce. Or was it a jar of raspberry jam? I forget. Anyway, he got it back, didn’t he? Helen took it back, and that was that. And it’s not as if he doesn’t make mistakes – I’ve often been short on change over the years. He’s been running this shop for decades, and it’s time he retired. But his mother didn’t give up working here till she was ninety, so he’ll probably hang on a bit longer. I was glad when the old woman finally gave up. She used to tease me whenever I came in because I’d asked her to receive a letter for me when I was a girl. I’d written to a murderer and I hadn’t wanted the reply to go to my house, and I’d used a film star’s name instead of my own. The reply never arrived, but Reg’s mother thought I’d been wait­ing for a love letter and used to laugh about it long after I was married.
   What was it I came for? The loaded shelves frown down at me as I circle them, and the blue and white linoleum stares up, dirty and cracked. My basket is empty, but I think I’ve been here for a while; Reg is watching me. I reach for something: it’s heavier than I was expecting and my arm is pulled down suddenly with the weight. It’s a tin of peach slices. That’ll do. I put a few more tins in my basket, tucking its handles into the crook of my arm. The thin metal bars grind against my hip on the way to the counter.
   ‘Are you sure this is what you’re after?’ Reg asks. ‘Only you bought a lot of peach slices when you came in yesterday.’
   I look down into the basket. Is that true? Did I really buy the same things yesterday? He coughs and I see a glint of amusement in his eyes.
   ‘Quite sure, thank you,’ I say, my voice firm. ‘If I want to buy peach slices, I can buy them.’
   He raises his eyebrows and begins typing prices into his till. I keep my head high, watching the cans being put into the plastic carrying thing, for carrying, but my cheeks are hot. What was it I came for? I feel in my pocket and find a piece of blue paper with my writing on it: Eggs. Milk? Chocolate. I pick up a bar of Dairy Milk and slip it into the basket, so at least I will have something from the list. But I can’t put the peaches back now, Reg would laugh at me. I pay for my bag of cans and clank back down the road with them. It’s slow going, because the bag is heavy, and my shoulder and the back of my knee are hurting. I remember when the houses used to whiz by as I walked – nearly running – to and from home. Ma would ask me afterwards about what I’d seen, whether certain neighbours were out, what I thought about someone’s new garden wall. I’d never noticed; it had all gone past in a flash. Now I have plenty of time to look at everything and no one to tell what I’ve seen.
   Sometimes, when I’m having a sort-through or a clear-out, I find photos from my youth, and it’s a shock to see everything in black and white. I think my granddaughter believes we were actually grey-skinned, with dull hair, always posing in a shad­owed landscape. But I remember the town as being almost too bright to look at when I was a girl. I remember the deep blue of the sky and the dark green of the pines cutting through it, the bright red of the local brick houses and the orange carpet of pine needles under our feet. Nowadays – though I’m sure the sky is still occasionally blue and most of the houses are still there, and the trees still drop their needles – nowadays, the colours seem faded, as if I live in an old photograph.
   When I get home there’s an alarm clock ringing. I set it some­times to remind myself of appointments. I drop my bag inside the front door and turn off the alarm. I can’t think what it’s for this time; I can’t see anything to tell me. Perhaps someone is coming.

 

Stephen Fry's recurring dream

Stephen Fry offers a vision of autobiographical hell from his latest memoir MORE FOOL ME.

There is nothing very appealing about showbusiness memoirs. A linear chronology of successes, failures and blind ventures into new fields is dull enough. And then there is the problem of how to approach descriptions of collaborators and contemporaries:
   ‘She was adorable to work with, incredibly funny and always intensely cheerful and considerate. To know her was to worship her.’
   ‘I was captivated by his talent, how marvellously he shone in everything he did. There was a luminosity, a kind of transcendence.’
   ‘She always had time for her fans, no matter how persistent they were.’
   ‘What a perfect marriage they had, and what ideal parents they were. A golden couple.’
   I could be describing actors, TV show presenters or producers with total accuracy, leaving out only their serial polygamies, chronic domestic abuse, violent orgiastic fetishes and breathtaking assaults on the bottle, the powders and the pills.
   Is it right of me to be searingly, bruisingly honest about the lives of others? I am quite prepared to be searingly, bruisingly honest about my own, but I just don’t have it in me to reveal to the world that, for example, producer Ariadne Bristowe is an aggressively vile, treacherous bitch who regularly fires innocent assistants just for looking at her the wrong way; or that Mike G. Wilbraham has to give a blow­job to the boom operator while finger-banging the assistant cameraman before he is prepared so much as to think about preparing for a scene. All these things are true, of course, but fortunately Ariadne Bristowe doesn’t exist and neither does Mike G. Wilbraham. OR DO THEY?
  The actor Rupert Everett in his autobiographical writings manages to be caustic in what you might call a Two Species manner: bitchy and catty. The results are hilarious, but I am far too afraid of how people view me to be able to write like that. Very happy to recommend both his volumes of autobiography/memoir to you, however: RED CARPETS AND OTHER BANANA SKINS and THE VANISHED YEARS. Ideal holiday or Christmas reading.
   So I now must consider how to present to you this third edition of my life. It must be confessed that this book is an act as vain and narcissistic as can be imagined: the third volume of my life story? There are plenty of wholly serviceable single­-volume lives of Napoleon, Socrates, Jesus Christ, Churchill and even Katie Price. So by what panty­-dribbling right do I present a weary public with yet another stream of anecdote, autobiography and confessional? The first I wrote was a memoir of childhood, the second a chronicle of university and the lucky concatenation of circumstances that led to my being able to pursue a career in performing, writing and broadcasting. Between the end of that second book and this very minute, the minute now that I am using to type this sentence, lies over a quarter of a century of my milling about on television, in films, on radio, writing here and there, getting myself into trouble one way or another, becoming a representative of madness, Twitter, homosexuality, atheism, annoying ubiquity and whatever other kinds of activity you might choose to associate with me.
   I am making the assumption that in picking up this book you know more or less who I am. I am keenly aware – how could I not be? – that if one is in the public eye then people will have some sort of view. There are those who thoroughly loathe me. Even though I don’t read newspapers or receive violent abuse in the street, I know well enough that there are many members of the British public, and I daresay the publics of other countries, who think me smug, attention­-seeking, false, complacent, self-regarding, pseudo-­intellectual and unbearably irritating: diabolical. I can quite see why they would. There are others who embarrass me charmingly by their wild enthusiasm; they shower me with praise and attribute qualities to me that seem almost to verge on the divine.
   I don’t want this book to be riddled with too much self­-consciousness. There is a lot to say about the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, and you may find the way I go about it to be meandering. I hope a chronology of sorts will emerge as I bounce from theme to theme. There will inevitably be anecdotes of one kind or another, but it is not my business to tell you about the private lives of others, only of my own. I consider myself incompetent when it comes to the business of living life. Maybe that is why I am committing the inexcusable hubris of offering the world a third written autobiography. Maybe here is where I will find my life, in this thicket of words, in a way that I never seem to be able to do outside the bubble I am in now as I write. Me, a keyboard, a mouse, a screen and nothing else. Just loo breaks, black coffees and an occasional glance at my Twitter and email accounts. I can do this for hours all on my own. So on my own that if I have to use the phone my voice is often hoarse and croaky because days will have passed without me speaking to a single soul.
   So where do we go from here?
   Let’s find out.

Catch-­up

I have a recurring dream. The doorbell sounds at three in the morning. I struggle out of bed and press the entryphone button.
   ‘Police, sir. May we come in?’ ‘Of course, of course.’
   I buzz them in. A series of charges that I cannot quite make out are chanted at me like psalms. I am arrested and cuffed. It is all very hurried and sudden but entirely good-­natured. One of the policemen asks for a photograph with me.
   We cut, as dreams so cinematically do, to a courtroom, where a much less sympathetic judge sentences me to six months’ imprisonment with hard labour. He is disgusted that someone who should know so much better could have committed so foolish a crime and present so ignoble an example to the young, impressionable people who might errantly look up to him. The judge wishes the sentence could be longer but he must abide by the guidelines laid down by statute.
   To the sound of mingled cheers and jeers I am conducted down to the police cells and into the back of a van, which is delightfully decorated and exquisitely supplied with crystal, ice buckets and an amazing array of alcoholic drinks.
   ‘Might as well get lashed, Stephen. Last drinks you’re going to have for some while.’
   I’m at the prison. All the convicts have turned out to greet me. Their welcome is deafening and not in the least threatening.
   A vast dining hall. I sit to eat in a huge wide shot like Cody Jarrett as played by James Cagney in WHITE HEAT. And then we see me in mid­shot, as cool and unruffled as Tim Robbins’s ageless Andy Dufresne, taking my tray to the table.
   It is clear that I am not in the joint for some appalling sexual or financial misdemeanour that will cause me to be beaten and tormented by my fellow convicts. I have done something that is wrong, that is disapproved of by ‘society’ yet which is tolerated with amusement by criminals and even police officers.
   Nobody lets me see the newspapers. They will only upset me, I am told. It is all very strange.
   Friends visit me. Always staying the other side of the bars. Hugh and Jo Laurie. Kim Harris, my first lover. My literary agent Anthony and my theatrical agent Christian. My sister and PA Jo. There is something they are not telling me, but I am comfortable in prison and feel sorry for them, having to leave and return to the world of bustle and business.
   I am in the corridor cleaning the floor with an electric polisher. It has two rotating discs with gently abrasive pads press-­studded to the base, and I enjoy holding it like a pneumatic drill, feeling its power under me, how I have to keep it from flying free of my grip as it pulls like an eager dog at the leash. The floor comes up in a glossy shine. This is the life.
   An old lag walks up to me, coughing on his tightly rolled-­up cigarette, which wags up and down as he speaks. He has seen a letter in the governor’s office, which he Pledges and tidies daily. My sentence is to be extended. I will never leave.
   I take the news well. Very well.
   I wake up, or the dream peters out or merges into something strange and silly and different.
   It is easy to attempt a little oneiromancy here. My real life is a prison, so a real prison would be an escape. That would be the one-­line pitch, as they say in Hollywood. I am one who, like so many Britons of a certain class and era, was born to institutions. School houses merge into Oxbridge colleges which merge into Inns of Court or the BBC as it was or into regiments or ships of the line or into one of the two Houses of Parliament or into the Royal Palaces or into Albany or the clubs of Pall Mall and St James’s. All very male, all very Anglo-­Saxon (a few Jews allowed from time to time – it is vulgar to be racially obsessed), all very cosy, absurd and out of date. If you really want to have a look at this world in its last hurrah just before I was born then you should read the first eight or nine chapters of Moonraker, a Bond novel, but with an opening that is simultaneously hilarious, fantastically observed, drool­worthily aspirational and skin-­pricklingly suspenseful.
   I observed of myself in my second book of memoirs, THE FRY CHRONICLES, and earlier in my first, MOAB IS MY WASHPOT, that I seem always to be obsessed with belonging. Half of me, I wrote in Moab, yearns to be part of the tribe; the other half yearns to be apart from the tribe. All the clubs I belong to – six so-­called gentleman’s clubs and goodness knows how many more Soho-­style media watering-­holes – are vivid testament to a soul searching for his place in British society. Maybe prison is the ultimate club for people like me.
   ‘That’s institootionalized,’ as Morgan Freeman’s Red puts it in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, the world’s favourite film.
   I am wary of interpretations. I refuse to interpret my life and its motives because I am not qualified. You may choose to do so. You may find me and my history repugnant, fascinating, indicative of an age now long gone, typical of a breed whose time is up. There are all kinds of ways of looking at me and my story.
   If you want to bore someone, tell them your dreams. I seem to have got off on the wrong foot. I plead forgiveness for, while I would not claim that there is anything experimental about this memoir, I would ask you to be ready for a flitting backwards and forwards in time. The experience of writing about this period in my life has had some of the qualities of a dream: unexpected, freakish, disgusting, frightening, incredible and at one and the same time crystal clear and maddeningly occluded. It is my job, I suppose in this far from divine comedy, to be Virgil to your Dante, guiding you as straightforwardly and tenderly as I can through the circles of my particular hell, purgatory and heaven. In the following pages I will try to be as truthful as I can; I will leave interpretation and, generally speaking, motivation, to you.
 

The Back Story

We’re declaring this the Summer of Penguin!

Throughout August we’ll be sharing brilliant stories and interludes to celebrate our 80th birthday.

Every morning you’ll have the choice of two new bite-size reading morsels, perfect to enjoy on your commute.

Stroll around Covent Garden with Ali Smith, take a trip into the deepest recesses of Stephen Fry’s mind, jump into Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and wreak havoc with a teenage Mary Portas.

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