Sunday, 7 November 2010

Angels and Demons of the City

I recently read William Heaney’s Memoirs of a Master Forger and David Almond’s Skellig one after the other. They proved, by chance rather than design, to be a perfect pairing, the literary equivalent of a cinematic double bill. Both feature angels and demons in an urban setting; and both invoke William Blake as a tutelary spirit. Almond’s short novel has become something a modern children’s classic since its publication in 1998. It is a story about a young boy called Michael, who has moved with his parents into a dilapidated house which still carries the imprint of the run down life of its previous occupant, a solitary old man. Michael uncovers a seedy, decrepit creature half-buried amongst the hoarded junk in the tumbledown garage at the back of the house’s weed-choked garden. This mysterious, unfriendly yet strangely unthreatening figure is covered in flies and dust and barely alive. It seems to aspire to the condition of a statue, an ossification of mind and body. Or it might be that it just wishes moulder away along with the old man’s accumulated strata of useless detritus. It is a supernatural being that has become a part of the world of decaying matter. It might even be a fallen angel. Michael nurtures his reluctant and moodily taciturn patient back to life with the congealed remains of numbers 27 and 53 from the local Chinese, washed down with brown ale (‘nectar’, as the creature declares it with undisguised relish). If it is an angel, it is one with particularly uncelestial tastes. At the same time that he is preoccupied with this cranky creature, who seems to have inherited the spirit and physical condition of the old man who used to live in the house, his baby sister struggles to hold on to the fragile thread of its newborn life. It is a time of intense uncertainty, which puts a strain on Michael and his parents. This, together with his discovery of the creature in the garage, leads him to confront the fundamental reality of death and life, a keen awareness of presence in the world which generally goes unexamined beneath the surface pleasures and routines of the daily round.

William Blake - The Schoolboy
Michael meets and becomes friendly with Mina, a precocious young girl who lives a few doors away from his new house with her artistic mother, who educates her at home. They are fond of quoting William Blake, and occasionally sing some of his Songs of Innocence and Experience as the poet himself used to. Blake, for them, is an exemplar and champion of imaginative freedom. Mina introduces him to Michael, with a few broad biographical strokes, as a man who ‘painted pictures and wrote poems. Much of the time he wore no clothes. He saw angels in the garden’. She is disparaging about Michael’s more conventional schooling, and to some extent his outlook on life in general. Indeed, when he first meets her, she is literally looking down on him, since she is sitting in a tree. She quotes from Blake’s poem The Schoolboy, which was originally intended to be part of Songs of Innocence, but was eventually moved over to the Songs of Experience. ‘How can a bird that is born for joy,/ Sit in a cage and sing?’ she asks, rhetorically, and later states that ‘to go to school in a summer morn/ O! it drives all joy away’. Blake’s illuminated plate for his poem is framed on the right by a sturdy, intertwining helix of vines up which children climb. Atop its branches is a child reading a book, just as Mina is in her tree when Michael first encounters her. Mina further mocks Michael’s school education and the standardised stages of learning through which he is expected to progress via set tests. When he talks of fitting into a particular reading stream, she quotes Blake’s Tyger, and asks ‘does that need a good reading age’. It is a good analogy for the novel itself, which has become a very popular school reading book. Like Blake’s poems in the Songs of Innocence and Experience, it has a surface simplicity which disguises great and profound depths.

Mina assumes the mantle of Blake’s experience, and exhibits a preciousness about her knowledge which borders on arrogance, and leads her to an assumption of superiority over Michael at times. When she meets Michael’s schoolfriends, there is a mutual lack of understanding, and a failure to connect on any level. Mina is arty and Michael’s friends sporty. They stand on either side of the mind/body divide which Blake sought to disavow. Where Mina expresses herself through Blake’s words, Michael’s friends express themselves through football. When they want to display their friendship, they do so by commenting on a great tackle or a good header. Michael is caught between the two worlds, as he is between his widely divergent friends. He is both embarrassed by his mates’ larking about and teasing over Mina, and annoyed at her lofty dismissal of them. He sees that she thinks herself above their games, and through his association with them, him as well. ‘You might know about William Blake’, he admonishes her, ‘but you know nothing about what ordinary people do’. She doesn’t know Blake as well as she might, otherwise she would be aware that he saw the mind (or soul) and body as being indivisible, the one expressed through the other. As he clearly puts it in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (speaking through ‘the voice of the devil’): ‘Man has no Body distinct from the Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age’. As the similarity in their names suggests, Michael and Mina are in some ways the embodiment of the ‘contrary states of the human soul’ which Blake aims to display in the Songs of Innocence and Experience, and indeed in his work as a whole. Both bring their own particular mix of innocence and experience, although they have yet to fall prey to the negative associations with which Blake imbues the latter state. Together they balance one another and create a complementary whole.

William Blake - The Angel
Michael shares his discovery of the sick angel in the garage with Mina, whose acquaintance with Blake makes her the perfect person to understand its nature. It reveals its name to be Skellig, an act of implicit trust in both of them. When the garage is due to be demolished, they move him to an empty and derelict house in nearby Crow Road. This is a real piece of back alley gothic, a detached ruin set in an overgrown wilderness of garden. Owls roost beneath the roof, whose eaves are partly open to the sky. The Crow Road, in Iain Banks’ novel of the same name, is the path to the other side, the world beyond death. Away from the decaying clutter of a life which had become worn and weary, the angel comes back to life. He is fed by the owls, with which he has an evident affinity. His revivification occurs in tandem with Michael’s imaginative awakening, for which it also acts as a metaphor. Mrs Mckee, his art teacher at school, comments on his picture of Skellig that it is ‘the kind of thing William Blake saw. He said we were surrounded by angels and spirits. We must just open our eyes a little wider, look a little harder’. The childrens’ active imaginations allow them to soar. Michael’s mum tells him ‘they say that shoulder blades are where your wings were, when you were an angel’. Beneath the holed roof of the house on Crow Road, Skellig manifests Michael and Mina’s wings once more. They hover in a circle dance which spins them into a brief instant of weightless flight. It is a moment of pure joy. They talk about their experience later, and Mina says that Blake sometimes felt his soul leave his body. She says that he believed ‘it was possible to be overwhelmed by the presence of so much beauty in the world’. It was such a moment of transcendent connection with the essential beauty of the world which Skellig helped them to experience. When they next go to the house, he is gone. They must now learn to fly on their own. Mina sings lines from The Angel, Blake’s poem from Songs of Experience: ‘I dreamt a Dream! What can it mean?/ And that I was a maiden Queen,/ Guarded by and Angel mild:/ Witless woe was ne’er beguil’d!’ The poem goes on to tell how the dreamer ‘hid from him my heart’s delight’ and armed himself against the angel’s return, so that when ‘my Angel came again:/ I was arm’d, he came in vain’. The children have yet to reach such a state of experience, in which they reject the wonder of the world in favour of a strictly delimited set of perceptions and preconceptions. Their state of innocence remains intact. Incidentally, there is a beautiful musical setting of The Angel on The North Sea Radio Orchestra’s LP Birds.

William Blake - Songs of Experience frontspiece
Michael’s baby sister has her crisis night of life or death struggle after a heart operation. His mother has a dream in which a dishevelled angel comes to her and picks up the baby, lifting it above his shoulders where it grows its own tiny pair of wings. It’s a dream image which echoes Blake’s frontspiece for the Songs of Experience, on which a shepherd carries his own infant angel over his head. The baby survives and grows stronger after this dream visitation. Michael joins Mina in singing lines from Blake’s Night, from Songs of Innocence, in what amounts to a prayer of thanksgiving: ‘The sun descending in the west,/ The evening star does shine;/ The birds are silent in their nest,/ And I must seek for mine’. The poem continues, beyond the lines which they sing: ‘the moon like a flower/ In heaven’s high bower,/ With silent delight/ Sits and smiles on the night. / Farewell, green fields and happy groves,/ Where flocks have took delight./ Where lambs have nibbled, silent moves/ the feet of angels bright; / Unseen they pour blessing/ And joy without ceasing,/ On each bud and blossom,/ And each sleeping bosom’. In Blake’s illumination of the poem, angelic figures to the left of the text soar upwards, making for the branches of the tree which sinuously frames the poem from the right before curving above its opening verse. Some are already resting in its branches. It’s a picture which resembles the children climbing the vines in The Schoolboy, and reminds us once more of Mina sitting in her tree. After their shared experience with Skellig, Michael will be able to join her in his awakened state. When it comes to naming the baby which now joins them in their new home, Michael and his parents cannot agree on anything which seems fitting. Whether consciously or not, they draw on Blake again, this time taking from his brief poem Infant Joy, one of the Songs of Innocence. They simply call her Joy.

William Heaney’s Memoirs of a Master Forger is also haunted by the presence of Blake. The protagonist and putative author is a man who claims to be able to see demons. He feels a natural affinity with Blake, with whom he shares a Christian name. As he puts it, ‘I liked William Blake because he saw angels and demons everywhere too’. Although William Heaney tends just to see the demons. His insight into the hidden (or occult) nature of the world is, as it was with Blake, both blessing and curse. It stems from a night in the teacher training college he attended in Derby. He had tried to clear up the mess made by his hallmate and semi-friend Fraser, who had involved himself in amateur occult studies. His blundering attempts at putting these to practical application appears to have a terrifying effect on William’s life and that of his college girlfriends, whose images the seedy and solitary Fraser has used in his invocations. William feels compelled to repeat Fraser’s ritual and make an irrevocable personal sacrifice, making a deal with the demon whom he seems to summon in order (as he perceives it) to save the life of Mandy, the girl with whom he is deeply in love at the time. We learn the details of this personal history in a series of retrospective episodes which intercut the main narrative. In the present, William sees demons everywhere, hovering and waiting for people to attach themselves to. It is apparent that William still carries the demon which he invited in on that night in Derby, and which has affected his outlook on life ever since. He is very clear that the demons he sees are distinct from the biblical variety, and is precise in his taxonomical categorization and enumeration of their manifold nature (there are exactly 1,567 types). He has been a book dealer in the past, and portrays the trade in much the same grubby, fly-by-night light as Iain Sinclair does (drawing on personal experience) in novels such as White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings and Landor’s Tower. William observes that ‘demons do tend to cluster around the yellowing pages and cracked spines of second hand books’. He makes a considerable amount from selling forged books, made with the help of his brilliant but unstable artistic friend Ian. Ian’s reliability ebbs and flows in accordance with the state of his grand romantic passion for a woman who is not prepared to put up with his manifest demons.

William Blake - The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The money they make goes to the homeless shelter of GoPoint, presumably a variant of the shelter which used to be housed in Centre Point, the modernist monument which towers above the intersection of Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street, and which straddles the hellish entrance to the underworld which is Tottenham Court Road tube station. William’s friend Antonia runs the shelter with unswerving dedication. She is always quoting ‘Billy Blake’ at him. When we first encounter her, she greets him with the line ‘he whose face gives no light shall never become a star’. This is one of the Proverbs of Hell, part of Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, his own piece of provocative demonology. In Blake’s personal mythology, demonic figures such as his semi-divine characters Los and Orc are embodiments of the fire of creativity and the unfettered imagination, which by its nature is not bound by rules or restrictions. These creative energies arise from the body, which is not distinct from the soul in Blake’s view, and ‘energy is Eternal Delight’. In a section of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell entitled The Voice of the Devil, Blake puts forward his contrary view. He outlines the ‘Errors’ of ‘all Bibles or sacred codes’, in particular ‘that Man has two real existing principles: Viz: a Body and a Soul’, and that the one is good (the soul) and the other evil (the body). Blake’s demons are morally neutral and are not imbued with the taint of inherent evil with which they have been infected over the ages by the more Manichean aspects of Christianity. Blake, still in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, notes of Milton, in relation to Paradise Lost, that ‘the reason (he) wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it’. William’s demons are also emanations of human energies. As he says of Blake’s angels and demons, ‘some of them were the same ones I was seeing’. His demons of the modern age attach themselves to energies which have turned in on themselves or are misdirected. Thus they are associated with addictions and obsessions, manias and insatiable appetites.

William Heaney’s personal demonology, which has been largely framed by his experiences as a young man at college, casts love as form of possession. An infestation by a particularly virulent and hardy demon which is devilishly difficult to dislodge. He finds himself avoiding it as a result. But there is no doubt that he has a deep love for Antonia. He describes her thus: ‘she stared at me with the eyes of William Blake looking at a seven year old chimney sweep. She is on fire with love. Sometimes I can’t even stand to look at her’. The chimney sweep refers to the two Blake poems called The Chimney Sweeper which appear in contrast to one another in The Songs of Innocence and Experience. In the first, Tom, a benighted child labourer, has a vision of thousands like him who are ‘lock’d up in coffins of black’. He is then visited by ‘an Angel who had a bright key,/ And he open’d the coffins and set them all free’. Antonia is, for William, an angel, a shining beacon of purity and burning integrity in an otherwise grubby world. That he supports her integrity through forgery and deceit is his own skewed way of expiating the evils of the world, along with his own perceived sins. It is an alchemical transformation of sorts. The true demons, in a biblical rather than Blakean sense, are those of greed and power, and the lies and wars which feed them. In a story within the story, we hear the tale of Seamus, a homeless Gulf War veteran who encounters a Middle Eastern dervish in the desert. A local demon. He makes a deal with it to save himself from being blown up by the mine which he has stepped on, and which will kill him if he raises his foot. The demon is permanently with him as a result, and he can never rid himself of its presence. It can manifest itself at any time through any person. He ends up chaining himself to the railings of Buckingham Palace with a home-made bomb, demanding to see the Queen, in whose name he has served his country. All he wants is to make sense of his experience, to be allowed to take his foot off the mine at last; to rid himself of his demon once and for all.

'Los howled in a dismal stupor' - plate 6 of the Book of Urizen
Seamus’ story is part of the strong current of political anger which courses through the novel. At one point, William unleashes a fierce Jeremiad against the corruption and gross inequality of the modern world. He rails against the moral vacuum he sees all around him, the venal behaviour and self-serving ideology of leaders (both temporal and spiritual), media figures, athletes and artists in a passage which burns with disgusted contempt. Government ministers, captains of commerce, religions, football heroes, movie stars and poets are all found woefully wanting. He continues with what reads like a passionate speech, couched in the high rhetorical style of Blake’s prophetic books (such as Milton and Jerusalem), which themselves drew on the language of the Bible. This passage, punctuated with the exclamation of a pulpit thumping preacher, amounts to William’s own Blakean declaration of beliefs. ‘I rage!’ he declares. ‘I do! I rage when I see the lives of ordinary people squandered. The lives of young men and women, weak like me, going under the tidal sludge of drugs spilling across the sink-estates of the nation; the homeless drifting like wraiths; people eating themselves to oblivion and doping themselves with bad television; brave boy soldiers sacrificed in deserts for the ambitions of the insanely rich. I do rage! I weep! To see life held so cheap! And all I have as antidote as I stand lost in the middle of these leaders who are not leaders, these demons hidden in the souls of men and women, are my humanity and my rage’. William eventually discovers that his belief in the veracity of Fraser’s invocation of a demonic force and its terrible effect on those close to him was completely unfounded. He has effectively been living a false existence based on someone else’s story. Similarly, Seamus has been living in a story fabricated by his nation’s governing powers, and simply wishes for it to reach its end. Blake’s exhortation to let loose the creative imagination would have us create our own stories, as well as allowing us to see through those forged by others and sold to us as the truth.

William can’t evade the demon of love forever. It stalks him down in the form of a beautiful young woman who calls herself Yasmin. Antonia has known all along that his view of the world and its demons is a partial one, coloured by his own experience. If the demons which he sees everywhere are aspects of the tormented human soul, then they have their counterparts; angels who perceive that torment and endeavour to alleviate it as best they can. Yasmin had been a resident at the GoPoint shelter, where she had been told of William’s benefactions. Antonia described him to her as their angel. When he had arrived one day, she had said to him ‘you don’t look much like an angel’. Nevertheless, and despite (or perhaps as an unexpected result of) his constant self-excoriation, this is what he is for Antonia, and then for Yasmin too. Blake would probably make no essential distinction between angels and demons. They are emanations of the contrary states of the human soul, and could easily shade from into the other. William has believed himself possessed of a powerful demon, but has acted like an angel (albeit a wayward one who uses demonic means). Antonia had told Yasmin that William ‘sees other people’s suffering. And his own. He sees it as demons. Real demons’. For all her frequent quotations of Blake, she doesn’t share this vision. Perhaps William is mad. If so, it may be a useful madness, an illusory way of seeing the world which nevertheless drives him to do good (some of the milder-mannered atheists might make an analogous apologia for the more beneficent forms of religion).

William Blake - Ancient of Days
Antonia herself is a weary angel, worn down by her tireless work. She becomes very ill, and as she approaches death, she tells Will that she loves him ‘because for you life has never stopped taking your breath away. Because you are generous to all its creatures. You give them a home. But sometimes they don’t want one’. He has never lost the basic state of innocence celebrated by Blake in his Songs. He retains an imaginative openness to the beauty inherent in life, which also serves to power his bitter rage at the forces which would fence it off or pave it over, or poison it with the pretty persuasions of wealth and power. They are the forces which Blake embodies in the form of Urizen, the false demi-god of iron rules which divide and subdivide the unity of creation. He is the Gnostic demiurge, who imprisons us in a deformed subworld forged in his own image. Blake depicts him with the full sweep of Old Testament beard, most famously in the plate Ancient of Days, the frontspiece of his book Europe: A Prophecy. Here, he divides the heavens with his compass, imposing his own rules on this corner of the universe.

William sees demons as parasitical, hovering in wait for a suitable host. Antonia offers a reversed perspective, suggesting that they are actually longing to be allowed to leave the troubled souls who have drawn them in. Angels such as Antonia will help to administer such an exorcism. Yasmin is inspired by William to rebuild her life after she has met him at the shelter. She renames herself to mark her slow rebirth. The near eastern origins of the name she chooses gives a hint of a notional link with the djinn which Seamus had met in the desert. For a while she leads a phantom life, as if watching herself from the outside, acting out another person’s story. She is a ghost of the living, a refutation of Will’s speculation that ‘ghosts are the spirits of the dead…demons, on the other hand, are the spirits of the living’. Yasmin finds meaning and purpose when she meets up with William again. She won’t let him go, no matter how hard he tries to evade her (which is often not all that hard). As she says, ‘you were my angel. Now I’m yours’. And she is a persistent and tenacious angel. Unlike the angel of Blake’s eponymous poem, she is not put of by the ‘ten thousand shields and spears’ with which William ‘arm’d (his) fears’. She keeps returning until finally he lays them to one side and lets her in. Yasmin takes over Antonia’s position at the shelter, with William on hand to support her, financially and emotionally. On Christmas Eve, he sits with the disparate ‘family’ which he has gathered around him and watches the ‘ascent of demons’, a communal letting go which fills the sky with a joyful spiritual firework display which can easily be imagined as a Blake print. Indeed, we can perhaps also imagine a musical accompaniment of the alternative national anthem, which suggests a different vision of national unity than the obeisance to inherited wealth and power and celebration of the established order offered by the official version. Blake’s Jerusalem, from his originally intended introduction to his epic prophetic poem Milton, set to Parry’s stirring music, pledges a personal oath to ceaselessly strive to create an earthly paradise, an utopia which is planned with the boundless energy of the imagination and whose spirit is seeded in the human heart. It is a revolutionary rallying cry for a better world. ‘I will not cease from Mental Fight,/ Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand/ Till we have built Jerusalem/ In England’s green and pleasant land’.

The Windsor Castle
One of the incidental pleasures of the novel is the trawl of its protagonist around some of the more characterful alehouses of the capital. This offers the opportunity for a literary London pub crawl, with each stop having its own accumulation of stories, tall or true. William’s criterion for a good pub is that it should have ‘a shadow’, a sense of a lived past, told through a backlog of tales which layer the locality. Marina Warner wrote an article a while back about the way that inn names used to be markers of hidden local history (you can find it in Iain Sinclair’s anthology London: City of Disappearances). These have been eradicated by the trend towards chain branding, which impose irritating and meaningless quirk of the slug and lettuce variety over the old names which were the key to the genuinely strange and peculiar particularity of place. Michael Moorcock’s Mother London marks the decades of the city through pub name chapter headings. The first pub we follow William into is the Museum Tavern in Bloomsbury. This was apparently frequented by Karl Marx, presumably after a hard day’s work spent craning over books in the British Library which was over the road. We are told that he smashed a mirror on one particularly wild night. The Pineapple in Kentish Town, where William and his fellow losers in love form their ‘Candlelight Club’, ‘attracts an odd mix of trade’, according to the author. It is in fact a grade II listed building, and the Good Beer Guide notes that ‘eccentrics, children and dogs (are) welcome, if kept on a lead’. William doesn’t tell any tales of the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden, which is strange since, according to the Good Pub Guide, it has a particularly colourful store of them. It was known in Regency times as the Bucket of Blood, on account of the bare knuckle fights which took place inside, and the blood and teeth flew outside too, since it is said (and as a plaque now attests) that Dryden was nearly beaten to death in 1679 by thugs hired by the Earl of Rochester as he walked down the alleyway leading to the pub. The Plumber’s Arms in Lower Belgrave Street, Victoria is supposed to have played host to Lord Lucan just before he vanished from the face of the earth. The Viaduct Tavern is ‘an original gin palace’ of the sort which Hogarth, who depicted beer as the patriotic drink of the Englishman, would have regarded as a palace of sin. William says it was ‘built on the site of the old Newgate hanging prison’ with ‘the cellars…former prison cells for the cut-throats and scum of Victorian London’. The French House in Dean Street, Soho comes with a scabrous story involving Dylan Thomas and a pet monkey, whose dubious provenance stands in for the endemic spread of apocryphal mythmaking associated with the bohemian life of this quarter. The Windsor Castle, in the quiet back roads linking Notting Hill and Kensington High Streets, is said to house the bones of Tom Paine, buried in the cellar. The Good Pub Guide adds that they were sold to the landlord by Paine’s son to pay off drinking debts. An ignoble end for a towering figure in the history of English radicalism. I can vouch for the place’s charm. It’s shadowy interior, oak dividing walls with inserted doors which you have to duck to pass through, and high-backed benches facing one another to provide closed off nooks make for a cosy and secret place, shut off from the world outside, in which to enjoy a beer or two. I had a tasty pint of Timothy Taylor Landlord accompanying a delicious plate of sausages and mash topped with leek and onion gravy.

The Cittie of York
The Crown, near 7 Dials in Monmouth Street was formerly known as The Clock House, a criminal haunt of the 1820s when the area was a notorious rookery. William tells us it was home to ‘the worst kinds of pimps and murderers. Here the king of the pickpockets held court and they divided the spoils of any lunatic stupid enough to enter the district after dusk’. The Dove is a 17th century riverside pub which William notes was frequented by Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway. The Good Pub Guide confirms Greene’s fondness for the place, and adds that it is supposedly where Rule Britannia was composed. It was also a favourite haunt of Turner, who painted a view of the Thames from its terrace. Members of the Arts and Crafts movement met there in the Victorian era, too, since William Morris’ house was just a short stroll away. William begins to tell the stories attached to the Cittie of York in High Holborn (just opposite Chancery Lane tube station) but cuts himself short, wearying of his pub guide spiel. He does note that it is ‘one of London’s oldest inn sites’, and describes the ‘gloom of the great hall bar and …the back where there are intimate drinking booths’. It’s been here since 1430, although it became a coffee house in 1695 and was reconstructed by the Victorians using 17th century materials. The Coal Hole in the Strand, near Waterloo Bridge, is said to have been the ‘19th century meeting place of the Wolf Club, an actor’s den of drunks, orgies and loose women’. William also claims that Blake used to live in rooms above. This would presumably be the lodgings in Fountain Court, above what used to be the Fountain Tavern, where he and his wife Catherine moved in 1820. Blake liked to take a pot of porter from one of the neighbouring pubs. After Yasmin has revealed herself to be his redeeming angel, she and William go to the Jugged Hare on Victoria Bridge Road. He describes it thus: ‘We sat under one grand painting depicting old-timers slouched in that very alehouse 100 years ago. The pub was in every sense a fine old historical London ale house. Except that it wasn’t; it was a fake old pub, like so many of them. It was a bank that had recently been converted into a pub. The old timers loafing in the pictures were fakers’. It’s a revelation which reflects on the inauthenticity of so much of modern life, which exists alongside a yearning for that very sense of authentic belonging, of being part of an ongoing story in which you are an active participant.

Gordon's Wine Bar
After such a long time living in an inauthentic hell of which he is the author, William has now been offered, and accepted release. In a book full of fakes and fabrications, who knows how many of the above stories are tall and how many true. William has frequented alehouses throughout the story, but only ever drinks wine. Finally, he ends up in a place which is far more suited to his true character: Gordon’s Wine Bar, where the ‘only serve wine’. Here, ‘the light from the candles doesn’t even penetrate to the dark corners and everyone in the place seems to be engaged in either a tryst or a conspiracy. Samuel Pepys lived in the building in the 17th century; Rudyard Kipling wrote The Light That Never Failed in the parlour above the bar’. One should never mix the hop and grape, but it’s seems like a good place to end a London pub crawl, particularly with Charing Cross station or the Embankment tube but a brief stagger away. It’s appropriate that it takes its place as the last drinking establishment in the book, too. It is run by a family with the surname Gordon, but they are entirely unrelated to the Arthur Gordon who set the bar up in 1890. It is one more piece of forgery and misdirection (although not on the owners’ part, I hasten to add). Of course, the greatest fakery contained in the book is the fact that it is not written by William Heaney at all. It’s author is Graham Joyce (who wrote the wonderful novels The Limits of Enchantment and Facts of Life under his own name) hiding behind the persona of the character which he has created. So William is living in someone else’s story after all. But it is a good story, written by someone who understands him, who is able to inhabit his soul. An alter ego, perhaps. Thanks to Neil for recommending both of these fabulous books, and for providing me with a copy of Memoirs of a Master Forger (a nice new one too!) from his bookshop.

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