The Opposite Of Darkness
I love early mornings because they offer the possibility of adventure.
We are told that there are no adventures to be had right now, and that we live in testing times. Are we really? We live longer and better than anyone before us. This weekend I walked through Abney Park Cemetery, the maze-like burial ground that lies right in the middle of Stoke Newington Church Street, the main road of that North London neighbourhood.
Atmospheric rather than picturesque, the cemetery has always to my knowledge been muddied, battered and tumbledown, with many of the tombs lying exposed. It’s appropriate that Stoke Newington’s most famous pupil should have been Edgar Allan Poe; where else do bakeries and pubs face ivy-covered Victorian angels?
The first thing I always notice is that the average Victorian lifespan rarely passes beyond 70, and many are in their 40s when they ‘fall asleep in the arms of the Lord’. To be here you were presumably fairly well-off, so one can only imagine how the mortality rate rose among the working class.
When I hear people compare the UK lockdown to the Second World War I get depressed. For many in the metropolis the biggest hardship has been taking Zoom meetings and watching Netflix. My parents had the entirety of their teenaged years excised by the war; they were 12 and 13 when hostilities broke out. They were force-grown into adulthood, their educations curtailed, their years of wage-slavery begun.
My mother, intelligent and frustrated, joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, but never overcame the feeling that she had been passed by in life. My father was a living portrait of disappointment. Although they were natural laughers, there was a central darkness in both of them.
It’s odd that I should be quite so alive to the possibilities of humour in fiction. I’ve always taken my comedy very seriously. Many of my books have a jet-black streak of darkness within them that I barely manage to tamp down. Mostly they explore worst-case scenarios as a way of defusing my own fears. I wrote ‘Soho Black’ as therapy after a doctor (upon whom I wish eternal ill health) told me to ‘go home and prepare for death’. I was 38. Now I am in my 60s and have been told the same thing, couched in gentler terms. At least it provides me with a chance to reflect. My 38th year was spent in bed. This year, like everyone else, I am trapped by circumstances.
I have the chance to be dark again. A few years ago my agent told me; ‘I think you’re ready to tackle a literary novel’. I had certainly been planning to before being hit with my diagnosis. The question now is how best to utilise my energies.
Few authors tackle physical illness; Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, Bulgakov – the neurasthenic novelist is keen on exploring mental states but who wants to be reminded of the reductive grind that gradually removes our energies? Milton put cat ointment in his eyes to cure blindness, most likely a detached retina (I’ve ticked that off in my Top Trumps list of catastrophes, both eyes, thank you). Joyce went blind after a dose of clap. Any list of consumptive, sickly writers would have to include John Keats, Charlotte Brontë, Robert Walser, Thomas De Quincey (his own fault, frankly), Katherine Mansfield and poor coughing George Orwell.
Or there’s another course; to swing back into humour, which critics are never happy about because light-hearted material is written off as inconsequential fluff. Yet for many humour is a natural response to fear. Nervous laughter covers our discomfort. Keith Waterhouse’s ‘Billy Liar’ remains a touchstone novel for me because it is a humorous novel about a catastrophic failure of nerve. Later, Waterhouse wrote ‘Maggie Muggins’, a darker take on ‘Mrs Dalloway’ in which the titular character realises she is ‘solely built to survive’.
I’ve been open about my condition but am learning to respect others and tone down my open-mic confessionals. I’ve never been good at following the rules of convention. Which brings me to where I want to go next. I’ve been keeping a darkly comic diary of the last year but who would wish that on their worst enemy? With so many half-finished projects on my desktop it’s an embarrassment of riches.
But for now it’s morning, a rare sun shines, and in the words of the poet Octavio Perez, ‘there remains, clear like an adventure, the day.’