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Robert Harris' Ancient Rome

Cicero in exile: an intimate portrait of a brilliant, yet flawed, man. An extract from Robert Harris' novel DICTATOR.

 

EXILE
58 B.C. – 47 B.C.

Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur?

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?

   - Cicero, Orator, 46 B.C.

I remember the cries of Caesar’s war-horns chasing us over the darkened fields of Latium – their yearning, keening howls, like animals on heat – and how when they stopped there was only the slither of our shoes on the icy road and the urgent panting of our breath.
   It was not enough for the immortal gods that Cicero should be spat at and reviled by his fellow-citizens; not enough that in the middle of the night he be driven from the hearths and altars of his family and ancestors; not enough even that as we fled Rome on foot he should look back and see his house in flames. To all these torments they deemed it necessary to add one further refinement: that he should be forced to hear his enemy’s army striking camp on the Field of Mars.
   Even though he was the oldest of our party Cicero kept up the same fast pace as the rest of us. Not long ago he had held Caesar’s life in the palm of his hand. He could have crushed it as easily as an egg. Now their fortunes led in opposite directions. While Cicero hurried south to escape his enemies, the architect of his destruction marched north to take command of both provinces of Gaul.
   Such bitter regrets must have coursed through his mind, and yet he said nothing. Only at dawn, when we rendezvoused with our horses at Bovillae and were about to embark on the second stage of our escape, did he pause with his foot in the doorway of his carriage and say suddenly, ‘Do you think we should turn back?’
   The question caught me by surprise. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I hadn’t considered it.’
   ‘Well, consider it now. Do you imagine Caesar’s departure for Gaul at that exact hour was a coincidence? Of course not! He waited until his informers told him I’d left the city before ordering his army to move. So what scheme does he have in mind that requires him to be absolutely certain I have gone before he leaves too?’
   I should have grasped the logic of what he was saying. I should have urged him to turn back. But I was too exhausted to reason clearly. And if I am honest there was more to it than that. I was too afraid of what Clodius’s thugs might do to us if they caught us re-entering the city.
   So instead I said, ‘It’s a good question, and I can’t pretend I have the answer. But wouldn’t it look indecisive, after bidding goodbye to everyone, to suddenly reappear? In any case, Clodius has burned your house down now – where would we return to? Who would take us in? I think you’d be wiser to stick to your original plan and get as far away from Rome as you can.’
   He rested his head against the side of the carriage and closed his eyes. ‘I don’t know. Perhaps you’re right. It’s so long since I slept I’m too tired to think any more.’
   And so, more through indecision than decision, we continued to press southwards for the remainder of that day and for the twelve days that followed, putting what we thought was a safe distance between ourselves and danger. We travelled with a minimal entourage to avoid attracting attention – just the carriage driver and three armed slaves on horseback, one in front and two behind – and with a small chest of gold and silver coins that Atticus had provided to pay for our journey hidden under our seat. We stayed only in the houses of friends, no more than a night in each, and steered clear of those places where Cicero might have been expected to stop – for example at his seaside villa at Formiae, the first place any pursuers would look for him, and along the Bay of Naples, already filling with the annual exodus from Rome in search of winter sun and warm springs. Instead we headed as fast as we could towards the toe of Italy.
   Cicero’s plan, conceived on the move, was to make for Sicily and stay there until the political agitation against him in Rome subsided. He was confident of a friendly reception, if only because of his successful prosecution of the island’s tyrannical governor, Verres – even though that brilliant victory was now twelve years in the past and Clodius had more recently been a magistrate in the province. I sent letters ahead giving notice of his intention to seek sanctuary there, and when we reached the harbour at Regium we hired a little six-oared boat to row us across the straits to Messina.
   As we left the harbour the sea and the sky were searing blues, one light, one dark; the line dividing them sharp as a blade; the distance to Messina a mere three miles. It took us less than an hour. We drew so close we could see Cicero’s supporters lined up on the rocks to welcome him ashore. But stationed between us and the entrance to the port was a warship flying the red and green colours of the governor of Sicily, Gaius Vergilius, and as we approached the lighthouse it slipped its anchor and moved slowly forwards to intercept our passage. Vergilius appeared at the rail surrounded by his lictors and shouted down a greeting, to which Cicero replied in friendly terms. They had known one another in the senate for many years.
   Vergilius asked him his intentions.
   Cicero called back that naturally he intended to come ashore.
   ‘That’s what I’d heard,’ replied Vergilius. ‘Unhappily I can’t allow it.’
   ‘Why not?’
   ‘Because of Clodius’s new law.’
   ‘And what new law would that be? There are so many, one loses count!’
   Vergilius beckoned to a member of his staff who produced a document and leaned down to pass it to me – it was quite a distance: I had to stretch up on tip-toe – and I then gave it to Cicero. To this day I can remember how it fluttered in his hands in the slight breeze as if it were a living thing; it was the only sound in the silence. He took his time and when he had finished reading it he handed it to me without comment.
   Lex Clodia in Ciceronem
   Whereas M. T. Cicero has put Roman citizens to death unheard and uncondemned; and to that end forged the authority and decree of the senate; it is hereby ordained that he be interdicted from fire and water to a distance of four hundred miles from Rome; that nobody should presume to harbour or receive him, on pain of death; that all his property and possessions be forfeit; that his house in Rome be demolished and a shrine to Liberty consecrated in its place; and that whoever shall move, speak, vote or take any step towards recalling him shall be treated as a public enemy, unless those whom Cicero unlawfully put to death should first spring back to life.

It must have been the most terrible blow. But he found the composure to dismiss it with a flick of his hand. ‘When,’ he inquired, ‘was this nonsense published?’
   ‘I’m told it was posted in Rome eight days ago. It came into my hands yesterday.’
   ‘Then it’s not law yet, and can’t be law until it’s been read a third time. My secretary will confirm it. Tiro,’ he said, turning to me, ‘tell the governor the earliest date it can be passed.’
   I tried to calculate. Before a bill could be put to a vote it had to be read aloud in the Forum on three successive market days. But my reasoning was so shaken by what I had just read I couldn’t remember what day of the week it was now, let alone when the market days fell. ‘Twenty days from now,’ I hazarded, ‘perhaps twenty-five?’
   ‘You see?’ cried Cicero. ‘I have three weeks’ grace even if it passes, which I’m sure it won’t.’ He stood up in the prow of the boat, bracing his legs against the rocking of the hull, and spread his arms wide in appeal. He had put on a toga dyed black as a sign of mourning. His hair and beard had been left uncut for months. Although he was in the forty-ninth year of his life he looked much older – like some ancient, mendicant holy man. ‘Please, my dear Vergilius, for the sake of our past friendship, now that I have come so far, at least allow me to land and spend a night or two with my supporters!’
   ‘No, as I say, I’m sorry, but I cannot take the risk. I’ve consulted my experts. They say even if you travelled to the very western tip of the island, to Lilybaeum, you’d still be within three hundred and fifty miles of Rome, and then Clodius would come after me.’
   At that, Cicero ceased to be so friendly. He said in a menacing tone, ‘You have no right under the law to impede the journey of a Roman citizen.’
   ‘I have every right to safeguard the tranquillity of my province. And here, as you know, my word is the law…’
He was apologetic. I dare say he was even embarrassed. But he was immovable, and after a few more angry exchanges there was nothing for it but to turn round and row back to Regium. Our departure provoked a great cry of dismay from the shoreline and I could see that Cicero for the first time was seriously worried. Vergilius was a friend of his. If this was how a friend reacted then soon the whole of Italy would be closed against him. Returning to Rome to oppose the law was too fraught with risk to contemplate. He had left it too late. Apart from the physical danger such a journey would entail, the bill would almost certainly pass, and then we would be stranded four hundred miles from the legal limit it prescribed. To comply safely with the terms of his exile he would have to flee abroad immediately. Obviously Gaul was out of the question because of Caesar. So it would have to be somewhere in the East – Greece perhaps, or Asia. But unfortunately we were on the wrong side of the peninsula to make our escape in the treacherous winter seas. We needed to get over to the opposite coast, to Brundisium on the Adriatic, and find a big ship capable of making a lengthy voyage. Our predicament was exquisitely vile – as no doubt Caesar, the original sponsor and creator of Clodius, had intended.
   It took us two weeks of arduous travel to cross the mountains, often in heavy rain and mostly along bad roads. Every mile seemed fraught with the hazard of ambush, although the primitive little towns we passed through were welcoming enough. At night we slept in smoky, freezing inns and dined on hard bread and fatty meat made scarcely more palatable by sour wine. Cicero’s mood veered between fury and despair. He saw clearly now that he had made a terrible mistake by leaving Rome. It had been madness for him to quit the field and leave Clodius free to spread the calumny that he had put citizens to death ‘unheard and uncondemned’ when in fact each prisoner had been allowed to speak in his own defence and the punishment had been sanctioned by the entire senate. His flight was tantamount to an admission of guilt. He should have obeyed his instinct and turned back when he heard Caesar’s departing trumpets and first began to realise his error. He wept at the disaster his folly and timidity had brought upon his wife and children.
   And when he had finished lashing himself he turned his scourge on Hortensius ‘and the rest of the aristocratic gang’ who had never forgiven him for rising from his humble origins to the consulship and saving the republic: they had deliberately urged him to flee in order to ruin him. He should have heeded the example of Socrates, who said that death was preferable to exile. Yes, he should have killed himself! He snatched up a knife from the dining table. He would kill himself! I said nothing. I didn’t take the threat seriously. He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood let alone his own. All his life he had tried to avoid military expeditions, the games, public executions, funerals – anything that might remind him of mortality. If pain frightened him, death terrified him – which, although I would never have been impertinent enough to point it out, was the principal reason we had fled Rome in the first place.
   When finally we came within sight of the fortified walls of Brundisium he decided not to venture inside. The port was so large and busy, so full of strangers, and so predictably his destination, that he was convinced it was the obvious spot for his assassination. Instead we sought sanctuary a little way up the coast, in the residence of his old friend, Marcus Laenius Flaccus. That night we slept in decent beds for the first time in three weeks and the next morning we went down to the beach. The waves were much rougher than on the Sicilian side. The Adriatic was grey and heaving. A strong wind was hurling the white-caps relentlessly against the rocks and shingle. Cicero loathed sea-voyages at the best of times; this one promised to be especially treacherous. Yet it was our only means of escape. One hundred and twenty miles beyond the horizon lay the shore of Illyria.
   Flaccus, noticing his expression, said, ‘Fortify your spirits, Cicero – perhaps the bill won’t pass, or one of the other tribunes will veto it. There must be someone left in Rome willing to stand up for you – Pompey, surely?’
   But Cicero, his gaze still fixed out to sea, made no reply, and a few days later we heard that the bill had indeed become law and that Flaccus was therefore guilty of a capital offence simply by having a convicted exile on his premises. Even so he tried to persuade us to stay. He insisted that Clodius didn’t frighten him. But Cicero wouldn’t hear of it: ‘Your loyalty moves me, old friend, but that monster will have dispatched a team of his hired fighters to hunt me down the moment his law passed. There is no time to lose.’
   I had found a merchant ship in the harbour at Brundisium whose hard-pressed master was willing to risk a winter voyage across the Adriatic in return for a huge fee, and the next morning at first light, when no one was around, we went on board. She was a sturdy, broad-beamed vessel, with a crew of about twenty, used to ply the trade route between Italy and Dyrrachium. I was no judge of these things but she looked safe enough to me. The master estimated the crossing would require a day and a half – but we needed to leave quickly, he said, and take advantage of the favourable wind. So while the sailors made her ready and Flaccus waited on the quayside Cicero quickly dictated a final message to his wife and children: ‘It has been a fine life, a great career – the good in me, nothing bad, has brought me down. My dear Terentia, loyalest and best of wives, my darling daughter, Tullia, and Marcus, our one remaining hope – goodbye!’ I copied it out and passed it up to Flaccus. He raised his hand in farewell. Then the sail was unfurled, the cables cast off, the oarsmen shoved us away from the harbour wall, and we set off into the pale grey light.


*


   At first we made good speed. Cicero stood high above the deck on the steersmen’s platform, leaning on the stern rail, watching the great lighthouse of Brundisium recede behind us. Apart from his visits to Sicily it was the first time he had left Italy since his youth, when he went to Rhodes to learn oratory from Molon. Of all the men I ever knew, Cicero was the least equipped by temperament for exile. To thrive he needed the appurtenances of civilized society – friends, news, gossip, conversation, politics, dinners, plays, baths, books, fine buildings; to watch all these dwindle away must have been an agony for him.
   Nevertheless in little more than an hour they had gone, swallowed up in the void. The wind drove us forwards strongly, and as we cut through the whitecaps I thought of Homer’s ‘dark blue wave/foaming at the bow’. But then around the middle of the morning the ship seemed gradually to lose propulsion. The great brown sail became slack-bellied and the two steersmen standing at their levers on either side of us began exchanging anxious looks. Soon dense black clouds started to mass on the horizon and within an hour they had closed over our heads like a trapdoor. The light became shadowy; the temperature dropped. The sea grew much rougher as the wind got up again but this time the gusts were in our faces, flicking the cold spray off the surface of the waves. Hailstones raked the heaving deck.
   Cicero shuddered, leaned forwards and vomited. His face was as grey as a corpse. I put my arm around his shoulders and indicated that we should descend to the lower deck and seek shelter in the cabin. We were halfway down the ladder when a flash of lightning split the gloom, followed an instant later by a deafening, sickening crack, like a bone snapping or a tree splintering, and I was sure we must have lost the mast for suddenly we seemed to be tumbling over and over while all around us great, glistening black mountains of jet towered and toppled in the lightning flashes. The shriek of the wind made it impossible to speak or hear. In the end I simply pushed Cicero into the cabin, fell in after him and closed the door.
   We tried to stand, but the ship was listing. The deck was ankle-deep in water. Our feet slid from under us. The floor tilted first one way and then the other way. We clutched at the walls as we were pitched back and forth in the darkness amid loose tools and jars of wine and sacks of barley, like dumb beasts in a crate on our way to slaughter. Eventually we wedged ourselves in a corner and lay there soaked and shivering as the boat shook and plunged. I was sure that we were doomed and closed my eyes and prayed to Neptune and all the gods for deliverance.
A long time passed. How long I cannot say – certainly it was the remainder of that day, and the whole of the night, and part of the day that followed. Cicero seemed quite unconscious; on several occasions I touched his cold cheek to reassure myself he was still alive. Each time his eyes opened briefly and then closed again. Afterwards he said that he had fully resigned himself to drowning but such was the misery of his seasickness he felt no fear: rather he saw how Nature in her mercy spares those in extremis from the terrors of oblivion and makes death seem a welcome release. Almost the greatest surprise of his life, he said, was when he awoke on the second day and realised the storm was over and his existence would continue after all: ‘Unfortunately my situation is so wretched, I almost regret it.’
   Once we were sure that the storm had blown itself out we went back on deck. The sailors were just at that moment tipping over the side the corpse of some poor wretch whose head had been smashed by a swinging boom. The Adriatic was oily-smooth and still, of the same grey shade as the sky, and the body slid into it with scarcely a splash. There was a smell on the cold wind I didn’t recognise, of something rotten or decaying. About a mile away I noticed a wall of sheer black rock rising above the surf. I assumed we had been blown back home again and that it must be the coast of Italy. But the captain laughed at my ignorance and said it was Illyria, and that those were the famous cliffs that guard the approaches to the ancient city of Dyrrachium.

*


   Cicero had at first intended to make for Epirus, the mountainous country to the south, where Atticus owned a great estate that included a fortified village. It was a most desolate region, having never recovered from the terrible fate decreed it by the senate a century earlier, when, as a punishment for siding against Rome, all seventy of its towns had been razed to the ground simultaneously and its entire population of one hundred and fifty thousand sold into slavery. Nevertheless Cicero claimed he wouldn’t have minded the solitude of such a haunted spot. But just before we left Italy Atticus had warned him – ‘with regret’ – that he could only stay for a month lest word of his presence
become known: if it did, under clause two of Clodius’s bill, Atticus himself would be liable to the death penalty for harbouring the exile.
   Even as we stepped ashore at Dyrrachium Cicero remained in two minds about which direction to take – south to Epirus, temporary refuge though it would be, or east to Macedonia, where the governor, Apuleius Saturninus, was an old friend of his, and from Macedonia on to Greece and Athens. In the event, the decision was made for him. A messenger was waiting on the quayside – a young man, very anxious. Glancing around to make sure he was not observed, he drew us quickly into a deserted warehouse and produced a letter. It was from Saturninus, the governor. I do not have it in my archives because Cicero seized it and tore it to pieces the moment I had read it out to him. But I can still remember the gist of what it said: that ‘with regret’ (that phrase again!) despite their years of friendship, Saturninus would not be able to receive Cicero in his household as it would be ‘incompatible with the dignity of a Roman governor to offer succour to a convicted exile’.
   Hungry, damp and exhausted from our crossing, having thrown the fragments of the letter to the ground, Cicero sank down on to a bale of cloth with his head in his hands. That was when the messenger said nervously, ‘Your Excellency, there is another letter…’
   It was from one of the governor’s junior magistrates, the quaestor, Gnaeus Plancius. His family were old neighbours of the Ciceros from their ancestral lands around Arpinum. Plancius said that he was writing secretly and sending his letter via the same courier, who was to be trusted; that he disagreed with his superior’s decision; that it would be an honour for him to take the Father of the Nation under his protection; that secrecy was vital; that he had already set out on the road to meet him at the Macedonian border; and that in the meantime he had arranged for a carriage to transport Cicero out of Dyrrachium ‘immediately, in the interests of your personal safety; I plead with you not to delay by so much as an hour; I shall explain more when I see you.’
   ‘Do you trust him?’ I asked.
   Cicero stared at the floor and in a low voice replied, ‘What choice do I have?’
   With the messenger’s help I arranged for our luggage to be transferred from the boat to the quaestor’s carriage – a gloomy contraption, little better than a cell on wheels, with no suspension and with metal grilles nailed over the windows so that its fugitive occupant could look out but no one could see him. We clattered up from the harbour into the city and joined the traffic on the Via Egnatia, the great highway that runs all the way to Byzantium. It started to sleet. There had been an earthquake a few days earlier and the place was wretched in the downpour, with corpses of the native tribespeople unburied by the roadside and here and there little groups of survivors, sheltering in makeshift tents among the ruins, huddled over smoking fires. It was this odour of destruction and despair that I had smelt out at sea.
   We travelled across the plain towards the snow-covered mountains and spent the night in a small village hemmed in by the encroaching peaks. The inn was squalid, with goats and chickens in the downstairs rooms. Cicero ate little and said nothing. In this strange and barren land, with its savage-looking people, he had at last fallen into the full depths of despair, and it was only with difficulty that I roused him from his bed the next morning and persuaded him to continue our journey.
   For two days the road climbed into the mountains, until we came to the edge of a great lake, fringed with ice. On the far side was a town, Lychnidos, that marked the border with Macedonia, and it was here, in its Forum, that Plancius awaited us. He was in his early thirties, strongly built, wearing military uniform, with half a dozen legionaries at his back, and there was a moment when they all began to stride towards us that I experienced a rush of panic and feared we had blundered into a trap. But the warmth with which Plancius embraced Cicero, and the tears in his eyes, convinced me immediately that he was genuine.
   He could not disguise his shock at Cicero’s appearance. ‘You need to recover your strength,’ he said, ‘but unfortunately, we must leave here straightaway.’ And then he told us what he had not dared put into his letter: that he had received reliable intelligence that three of the traitors Cicero had sent into exile for their parts in Catilina’s conspiracy – Autronius Paetas, Cassius Longinus and Marcus Laeca – were all out looking for him, and had sworn to kill him.
   Cicero said, ‘Then there is nowhere in the world where I am safe. How are we to live?’
   ‘Under my protection, as I said. Come back with me to Thessalonica, and stay under my roof. I was military tribune until last year and I’m still on active service, so there will be soldiers to guard you as long as you are within the frontiers of Macedonia. My house is no palace, but it’s secure and it’s yours for as long as you need it.’
Cicero stared at him. Apart from the hospitality of Flaccus it was the first real offer of help he had received for weeks – for months, in fact – and that it should have come from a young man he barely knew, when old allies such as Pompey had turned their backs on him, moved him deeply. He tried to speak but the words choked in his throat and he had to look away.

*

   The Via Egnatia runs for one hundred and fifty miles across the mountains of Macedonia before descending to the plain of Amphaxis where it enters the port of Thessalonica, and this was where our journey ended, two months after leaving Rome, in a secluded villa off a busy thoroughfare in the northern part of the town.
   Five years earlier Cicero had been the undisputed ruler of Rome, second only to Pompey the Great in the affections of the people. Now he had lost everything – reputation, position, family, possessions, country; even at times the balance of his mind. For reasons of security he was confined to the villa during the hours of daylight. His presence was kept secret. A guard was posted at the entrance. Plancius told his staff that his anonymous guest was an old friend suffering from acute grief and melancholia. Like all the best lies it had the merit of being true. Cicero barely ate, or spoke, or left his room; sometimes his fits of weeping could be heard from one end of the house to the other. He would not receive visitors, not even his brother, Quintus, who was passing nearby on his way back to Rome after completing his term as governor of Asia: ‘You would not have seen your brother the man you knew, not a trace or semblance of him but only the likeness of a breathing corpse.’ I tried my best to console him, without success, for how could I, a slave, understand his sense of loss, having never possessed anything worth losing in the first place? Looking back, I can see that my attempts to offer solace through philosophy must only have added to his aggravation. Indeed on one occasion, when I tried to advance the Stoic argument that possessions and rank are unnecessary, given that virtue alone is sufficient for happiness, he threw a stool at my head.
   We had arrived in Thessalonica at the beginning of spring and I took it upon myself to send letters to Cicero’s friends and family letting them know, in confidence, where he was hiding, and asking them to write in response using Plancius as a poste restante. It took three weeks for these messages to reach Rome, and a further three weeks before we started to receive replies, and the news they brought was anything but encouraging. Terentia described how the charred walls of the family house on the Palatine hill had been demolished so that Clodius’s shrine to Liberty – the irony! – could be erected on the site. The villa at Formiae had been pillaged, the country estate in Tusculum also invaded, and even some of the trees in the garden carted off by the neighbours. Homeless, at first she had taken refuge with her sister in the House of the Vestal Virgins.

   But that impious wretch Clodius, in defiance of all the sacred laws, broke into the temple, and dragged me to the Basilica Porcia, where in front of the mob he had the impertinence to question me about my own property! Of course I refused to answer. He then demanded that I hand over our little son as a hostage to my good behaviour. In answer I pointed to the painting that shows Valerius defeating the Carthaginians and reminded him that my ancestors fought in that very battle and that as my family had never feared Hannibal we most certainly would not be intimidated by him.

   It was the plight of his son that most upset Cicero: ‘The first duty of any man is to protect his children, and I am helpless to fulfil it.’ Marcus and Terentia were now sheltering in the home of Cicero’s brother, while his adored daughter, Tullia, was sharing a roof with her in-laws. But although Tullia, like her mother, tried to make light of her troubles, it was easy enough to read between the lines and recognise the truth: that she was nursing her sick husband, the gentle Frugi – whose health, never robust, seemed to have collapsed under the strain. ‘Ah, my beloved, my heart’s longing!’ Cicero wrote to his wife. ‘To think that you, dearest Terentia once everybody’s refuge in trouble, should now be so tormented! You are before my eyes night and day. Goodbye my absent loves, goodbye.’
   The political outlook was equally bleak. Clodius and his supporters were continuing their occcupation of the Temple of Castor in the southern corner of the Forum. Using this fortress as their headquarters they could intimidate the voting assemblies and pass or block whatever bills they chose. One new law we heard about, for example, demanded the annexation of Cyprus and the taxation of its wealth ‘for the good of the Roman people’ – that is, to pay for the free dole of corn Clodius had instituted for every citizen – and charged Marcus Porcius Cato with accomplishing this piece of theft. Needless to say it passed, for what group of voters ever refused to levy a tax on someone else, especially if it benefited themselves? At first Cato refused to go. But Clodius threatened him with prosecution if he refused to obey the law. As Cato held the constitution to be sacred above all things, he felt he had no choice but to comply. He sailed off for Cyprus, along with his young nephew, Marcus Junius Brutus, and with his departure Cicero lost his most vocal supporter in Rome.
   Against Clodius’s intimidation the senate was powerless. Even Pompey the Great (‘the Pharaoh’ as Cicero and Atticus privately called him) was now becoming frightened of the over-mighty tribune he had helped Caesar create. He was rumoured to spend most of his time making love to his young wife, Julia, the daughter of Caesar, while all the time his public standing declined. Atticus wrote gossipy letters about him to cheer up Cicero, one of which survives:

   You remember that when the Pharaoh restored the King of Armenia to his throne a few years back, he brought his son to Rome as a hostage to ensure the old man behaved himself? Well, just after your departure, bored of having the young fellow under his own roof, he lodged him with Lucius Flavius, the new praetor. Naturally, our Little Miss Beauty [Cicero’s nickname for Clodius] soon got to hear of it, whereupon he invited himself round to Flavius’s for dinner, asked to see the prince, and then took him away with him at the end of the meal, as if he were a napkin! “Why?” I hear you ask. Because Clodius has decided to put the prince on the throne of Armenia in place of his father, and take all the revenues of Armenia away from Pompey and have them for himself! Unbelievable – bbut it gets better: the prince is duly sent back to Armenia on a ship. There is a storm. The ship returns to harbour. Pompey tells Flavius to get himself down to Antium straightaway and recapture his prize hostage. But Clodius’s men are waiting. There is a fight on the Via Appia. Many are killed – among them Pompey’s dear friend, Marcus Papirius.
   Since then, things have gone from bad to worse for the Pharaoh. The other day, when he was in the Forum attending the trial of one of his supporters (Clodius is prosecuting them left, right and centre), Clodius called together a gang of his criminals and started a chant. “What’s the name of the lecherous imperator? What’s the name of the man who is trying to find a man? Who is it who scratches his head with one finger?” After each question he made a sign by shaking the folds of his toga – in that way the Pharaoh does – and the mob, like a circus chorus, all roared out the answer: “Pompey!”
   No one in the senate lifts a finger to help him, as they all think his harassment is eminently deserved for the way he abandoned you…

   But if Atticus thought such news would bring comfort to Cicero, he was wrong. On the contrary, it served only to make him feel more isolated and helpless. With Cato gone, Pompey cowed, the senate impotent, the voters bribed and Clodius’s mob in control of all law-making, Cicero despaired of ever having his exile rescinded. He chafed against the conditions in which we were obliged to exist. Thessalonica may be nice enough for a short stay in the spring time. But as the months passed summer came – and Thessalonica in the summer becomes a hell of humidity and mosquitoes. No breath of a breeze stirs the brittle vegetation. The air is suffocating. And because the walls of the town retain the heat, the nights can be even more sweltering than the days. I slept in the room next to Cicero’s – or rather I tried to sleep. Lying in my tiny cubicle I felt as if I were a roasting-pig in a brick oven and that the sweat pooling beneath my back was my melted flesh. Often after midnight I would hear Cicero stumbling around in the dark, his door opening, his bare feet slapping across the mosaic tiles. Then I would slip out after him and watch from a distance to make sure he was all right. He would sit in the courtyard on the edge of the dried-up pool with its dust-clogged fountain, and stare up at the brilliant stars, as if he could read in their alignment some clue as to why his good fortune had so spectacularly deserted him.
   The next morning he would often summon me to his room. ‘Tiro,’ he would whisper, his fingers gripping my arm tightly, ‘I’ve got to get out of this shithole. I’m losing all sense of myself.’ But where could we go? He dreamed of Athens, or possibly Rhodes. But Plancius would not hear of it: the danger of assassination, he insisted, was, if anything, even greater than before, as rumours of Cicero’s presence in the region spread. After a while I began to suspect that he quite enjoyed having such a famous figure in his power and was reluctant to let us leave. I voiced my suspicions to Cicero, who said: ‘He’s young and ambitious. Perhaps he’s calculating that the situation in Rome will change and he might eventually get some political credit for shielding me. If so he deludes himself.’
   And then late one afternoon when the ferocity of the day’s heat had subsided a little I happened to go into town with a packet of letters for dispatch to Rome. It was hard to persuade Cicero even to raise the energy to reply to his correspondence, and when he did so it was mostly a list of complaints. ‘I am still stuck here with no one to talk to and nothing to think about. There could be no less suitable spot in which to bear calamity in such a state of grief as I am in.’ But write he did, and to supplement the occasional trusted traveller who would carry our letters, I had arranged to hire couriers provided by a local Macedonian merchant named Epiphanes, who ran an import/export business with Rome.
   He was an inveterate lazy crook, of course, as are most people in that part of the world. But I reckoned the bribes I paid him ought to have been enough to buy his discretion. He had a warehouse up the slope from the harbour, on the higher ground close to the Egnatian Gate, where a haze of red-grey dust hung permanently over the clustered roofs, thrown up by the traffic from Rome to Byzantium. To reach his office one had to cross a yard where his wagons were loaded and unloaded. And there, that afternoon – with its shafts resting on blocks and its horses unhitched and drinking noisily from a water trough – was a chariot. It was so unlike the usual ox-carts that the sight of it brought me up short and I went over to give it a closer look. Obviously it had been ridden hard: it was so filthy from the road it was impossible to tell its original colour. But it was fast and strong and built for fighting – a war chariot – and when I found Epiphanes upstairs I asked him whose it was.
   He gave me a crafty look. ‘The driver did not say his name. He just asked me to look after it.’
   ‘A Roman?’
   ‘Undoubtedly.’
   ‘Alone?’
   ‘No, he had a companion – a gladiator, perhaps: both young men, strong.’
   ‘When did they arrive?’
   ‘An hour ago.’
   ‘And where are they now?’
   ‘Who can say?’ He shrugged and bared his yellow teeth.
   A terrible realisation gripped me. ‘Have you been opening my letters? Have you had me followed?’
   ‘Sir, I am shocked – really – ’ He spread his hands to show his innocence and glanced around as if in silent appeal to some invisible jury. ‘How could such a thing even be suggested?’
   Epiphanes! For a man who made his living by lying, he was remarkably bad at it. I turned and ran out of that room and down those steps and didn’t stop until I was within sight of our villa, where a pair of rough-looking villains was loitering in the street. My footsteps slowed as the two strangers turned to look at me. I knew in my bones they had been sent to kill Cicero. One had a puckered scar that split the side of his face from his eyebrow to his jaw (Epiphanes was right: he was a fighter straight from the gladiator barracks) while the other could have been a blacksmith – given his swagger he could have been Vulcan himself – with bulging sunburnt calves and forearms and a face as black as a Negro’s. He called out to me, ‘We’re looking for the house where Cicero is living!’ And when I started to plead ignorance, he cut me off and added, ‘Tell him Titus Annius Milo has come to pay his compliments, all the way from Rome.’

*

   Cicero’s room was dark, his candle expiring for want of air. He lay on his side, facing the wall.
   ‘Milo?’ he repeated in a monotone. ‘What sort of a name is that? Is he Greek, or what?’ But then he rolled over on to his back and raised himself up on his elbows. ‘Wait – hasn’t a candidate of that name just been elected tribune?’
   ‘It’s the same man. He’s here.’
   ‘But if he’s a tribune-elect why isn’t he in Rome? His term of office begins in three months.’
   ‘He says he wants to talk to you.’
   ‘It’s a long way to come just for a chat. What do we know of him?’
   ‘Nothing.’
   ‘Maybe he’s come to kill me?’
   ‘Maybe – he has a gladiator with him.’
   ‘That does not inspire confidence.’ Cicero lay back down and thought it over. ‘Well, what does it matter?’ he muttered. ‘I might as well be dead in any case.’
   He had skulked in his room so long that when I opened the door the daylight blinded him and he had to put up his hand to protect his eyes. Stiff-limbed and waxen, half-starved, with straggling grey hair and beard, he looked like a corpse freshly-risen from its tomb. It was scarcely surprising that when he first came into the room, supported on my arm, Milo failed to recognise him. It was only when he heard that familiar voice bidding him good day that our visitor gasped, pressed his hand to his heart, bowed his head and declared this to be the greatest day and the greatest honour of his life, that he had heard Cicero speak countless times in the law courts and from the rostra but had never thought to meet him, the Father of the Nation, in person, let alone to be in a position (he dared to hope) to render him some service…
   There was a lot more in this vein, and eventually it elicited from Cicero something I had not seen from him in months: laughter. ‘Yes, very well, young man, it’s enough. I understand: you’re pleased to see me! Come.’ And with that he stepped forward, arms open, and the two men embraced.
   In later years, Cicero was to be much criticised for his friendship with Milo. And it is true that the young tribune-elect was headstrong, violent and reckless, but there are times when these traits are more to be prized than prudence, calmness and caution – and these were such times. Besides, Cicero was touched that Milo should have come so far to see him; it made him feel he was not entirely finished. He invited him to stay for dinner and to save whatever he had to say until then. He even tidied himself up a little for the occasion, combing his hair and changing into less funereal garb.
   Plancius was away up country in Tauriana, judging the local assizes, so therefore only the three of us gathered to eat. (Milo’s gladiator, a murmillo named Birria, took his meal in the kitchen: even a man as easy going as Cicero, who had been known occasionally to tolerate the presence of an actor at his dinner table, drew the line at a gladiator.) We lay out in the garden in a kind of fine-mesh tent designed to keep out the mosquitoes, and over the next few hours we learned something of Milo, and why he had made such an arduous journey of seven hundred miles. He came, he said, of a noble but hard-up family. He had been adopted by his maternal grandfather. Even so there was little money and he had been obliged to earn a living as the owner of a gladiator school in Campania, supplying fighters for funeral games in Rome. (‘No wonder we’ve never heard of him,’ Cicero remarked to me afterwards.) His work brought him often to the city. He had been appalled, he claimed, by the violence and intimidation unleashed by Clodius. He had wept to see Cicero harried and pilloried and eventually driven from Rome. Given his occupation, he fancied himself to be in a unique position to help restore order and through intermediaries he had approached Pompey with an offer.
   ‘What I am about to disclose is in the strictest confidence,’ he said, with a sideways glance at me. ‘No word of it must go beyond us three.’
   ‘Who am I to tell,’ retorted Cicero, ‘the slave who empties my chamber-pot? The cook who prepares my meals? I assure you I see no one else.’
   ‘Very well,’ said Milo, and then he told us what he had offered Pompey: to place at his disposal one hundred pairs of highly-trained fighting men to recapture the centre of Rome and end Clodius’s control of the legislative assembly. In return he had asked for a certain sum to cover expenses, and also Pompey’s support in the elections for tribune: ‘I couldn’t just do this as a private citizen, you understand – I’d be prosecuted. I told him I needed the inviolability of the office.’
   Cicero was studying him closely. He had barely touched his food. ‘And what did Pompey say to that?’
   ‘At first he brushed me off. He said he’d think about it. But then came the business with the Prince of Armenia, when Papirius was killed by Clodius’s men. Did you hear about that?’
   ‘We heard something of it.’
   ‘Well, the killing of his friend seemed to make Pompey do that bit of extra thinking, because the day after Papirius was put on the pyre, he called me to his house. “That idea of your becoming tribune – you’ve got yourself a deal.”’
   ‘And how has Clodius reacted to your election? He must know what you have in mind.’
   ‘Well that’s why I’m here. And this you won’t have heard about, because I left Rome straight after it happened, and no messenger could have got here quicker than I.’ He stopped and held out his cup for more wine. He had come a long way to tell his story; he was obviously a raconteur; he meant to do it in his own time. ‘It was about two weeks ago, not long after the elections. Pompey was doing a little business in the Forum when he ran into a gang of Clodius’s men. There was some pushing and shoving, and one of them dropped a dagger. A lot of people saw it, and a great shout went up that they were going to murder Pompey. His attendants hustled him out of there fast, and back to his house, and barricaded him in – and that’s where he is still, as far as I know, with only the Lady Julia for company.’
   Cicero said in astonishment, ‘Pompey the Great is barricaded in his own house?’
   ‘I don’t blame you if you find it funny. Who wouldn’t? There’s rough justice in it, and Pompey knows it. In fact he said to me that the greatest mistake of his life was letting Clodius drive you out of the city.’
   ‘Pompey said that?’
   ‘That’s why I’ve raced across three countries, barely stopping to eat or sleep – to give you the news he’s going to do everything he can to get your exile overturned. His blood is up. He wants you back in Rome, you and me and him, fighting side by side, to save the republic from Clodius and his gang! What do you say to that?’
   He was like a dog that has just laid a kill at its master’s feet; if he’d had a tail it would have been thumping against the fabric of the couch. But if Milo had expected either delight or gratitude he was to be disappointed. Depressed in spirit and ragged in appearance though he might be, Cicero had nevertheless seen straight through to the heart of the matter. He swilled his wine around in his cup, frowning before he spoke.
   ‘And does Caesar agree to this?’
   ‘Ah now,’ said Milo, shifting slightly on his couch, ‘that’s for you to settle with him. Pompey will play his part, but you must play yours. It would be hard for him to campaign to bring you back if Caesar were to object very strongly.’
   ‘So he wants me to reconcile with him?’
   ‘His word was to reassure him.’
   It had grown dark while we were talking. The household slaves had lit lamps around the perimeter of the garden; their gleams were clouded with moths. But no light was on the table, so I couldn’t properly make out Cicero’s expression. He was silent for a long while. It was terrifically hot as usual, and I was conscious of the night-sounds of Macedonia – the cicadas and the mosquitoes, the occasional dog-bark, the voices of local people in the street, speaking in their strange, harsh foreign tongue. I wondered if Cicero was thinking the same as I was – that another year in such a place as this would kill him. Perhaps he was, because eventually he let out a sigh of resignation and said, ‘And in what terms am I supposed to “reassure” him?’
   ‘That’s up to you. If any man can find the right words, it’s you. But Caesar’s made it clear to Pompey he needs something in writing before he’ll even think of reconsidering his position.’
   ‘Am I supposed to give you a document to take back to Rome?’
   ‘No, this part of the arrangement has to be between you and Caesar. Pompey thinks it would be best if you sent your own private emissary to Gaul – someone you trust, who could deliver some form of written undertaking into Caesar’s hands personally.’
   Caesar – everything seemed to come back to him eventually. I thought again of the sounds of his trumpets leaving the Field of Mars, and in the stifling gloom I sensed rather than saw that both men had turned to look at me.
 

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.

Simply go to the homepage, select a destination and prepare to be transported.

If today’s selection isn’t grabbing your attention, scroll down through the archive or check back in tomorrow for something new.

Have a nice trip!

Change here for Penguin services

Penguin books was an idea first conceived by founder Allen Lane whilst he waited on a train platform with nothing to read – sound familiar? With the first Penguin paperbacks arriving in the summer of 1935 and costing no more than sixpence, the way that the public thought about books changed forever. The Penguin revolution had begun.

Connect Me

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Simply connect to the Virgin Media WiFi service when you’re on the Tube. Like to know more? Visit the TfL website: tfl.gov.uk/station-wifi for more information and help to get started.