The Opposite Of Darkness

Great Britain

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.’

23 comments on “The Opposite Of Darkness”

  1. K Ravenscroft says:

    Hi Chris:
    I sure hope you’ll be with us for some time to come. After a hiatus of some 10 years of not reading your work after your seemingly abandonment of dark fiction I’ve recently stumbled into the world of Bryant and May and am currently reading the 6th instalment. By gum, I’m addicted. I hope I’ll be around long enough to complete the series. Brilliant storytelling. Greetings from Holland.

  2. Liz Thompson says:

    May you enjoy today’s adventure Chris.

  3. davem says:

    “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

    J.R.R. Tolkien

  4. davem says:

    Or perhaps, more appropriately:

    “I do not want to get to the end of my life and find that I just lived the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.”

    Diane Ackerman

  5. brooke says:

    Enjoy today, tomorrow and all the days ahead.
    I vote for the diary as a book–darkly comic and otherwise.

  6. Oskar from Sweden says:

    In a way it is strange that humour should be scorned by critics as being superficial. To experience humour is, I believe, to have a sudden insight into the truth of things, big or small. That could just as well be considered something profound.

    Also, I would love to read your darkly comic diary, Christopher.

  7. Jan says:

    Hiya Chris

    I have sent you some photos just now had to send lots of separate e – mail’s am sorry.

    Did send a proper e mail the other day dunno if I made it through your filters (or patience!)

    Write something funny 0ver 50% of comedy arises from fear + terror I reckon. You’ve got a fearsome face on you there. Knew the mini mohican look would suit. X

  8. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Write whatever will give you most pleasure.
    It will be worth reading, whatever it is.

  9. MaryR says:

    “… diary of the last year but who would wish on their worst enemy?” Probably quite a few of us wouldn’t mind being your enemy for this purpose – I wouldn’t. My experience of going through cancer treatment is that absurdities happen often. Not everything that’s absurd is funny, of course, but some of it’s heading that way.

    It’s worthwhile writing about absurdity itself because this still gets overlooked.
    Cornelia above is right- it’ll be worth reading, whatever it is.

    The hospital visits in your novels are hilarious and touching.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Removing nano bodies from llamas and turning them into covid test material is about as weirdly funny as anything I’ve hard lately. Whatever you find satisfying is what you should do and we will appreciate whatever it turns out to be.
    Make time for your husband and your close friends because they are the best medicine for the soul.

  11. Ed DesCamp says:

    What Helen said. As for adventure, just mind the gap and go. We’re right behind you.

  12. Jo W says:

    Looking good Chris,as that photo shows,but not too sure of the haircut. Is your husband now your barber?
    As I spent yesterday on another major re-jig of bookshelves,I unexpectedly found that if I followed a suggestion I read on here then I have lots of room for more books. Please help to fill the gaps,Chris. Best wishes to you both.x

  13. Roger says:

    Good luck, Chris!
    The great advantage of having a beard is you never know where the beard stops and the hair starts so you can just run over the lot with a beard-trimmer, JoW. The great disadvantage is you don’t look at yourself and forget what you look like. I keep catching glimpses in mirrors of a nasty-looking but familiar chap, and then realising that it’s me. One of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories involves men who see themselves in a mirror without knowing it’s a mirror and give embarassingly accurate descriptions of themselves.

  14. peter says:

    Granville to Arkwright in open all hours do you think you’ll live forever reply no but i’m going to have a damn good try
    am up tp Byrant and May book 17 can’t wait to read them all again many thanks for hours of enjoyable reading

  15. Helen Martin says:

    Roger, that Father Brown is one of my favourites. The whole idea of a full length mirror that pulled out of the room into the passageway outside has me scratching my head, though. Chesterton would probably say the reader should pay attention to the point being made and not to the mechanics.

  16. John Howard says:

    Just as a piece of, I hope, helpful advice for when you are on your early morning ramblings:

    “Always watch where you are going. Otherwise, you may step on a pice of the forest that was left out by mistake” Winnie the Pooh – Via A.A.Milne.

  17. Rich says:

    Write whatever brings you the most pleasure

  18. Helen Martin says:

    John Howard – from Proverbs (I need a gold and silver quote for an exhibition piece) – Timely Advice is as beautiful as golden apples in a silver basket.

  19. Helen Martin says:

    I have always said that if there is anything bothering your mind or snapping at your heels just mention it on the internet and resources will be provided. Thank you, Mike. There are several better pieces in that set than the good advice one. The green tree one has the added advantage of sound ecology.

  20. John Howard says:

    Helen – Love that gold and silver quote. Oh yes, you and your hubby stay safe.

  21. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you, John.
    I was reminded of the nursery rhyme about the little nut tree. I remembered it as bearing a golden apple and a silver pear but it seems it is a silver nutmeg and a golden pear. Memory plays tricks all the time.

  22. Ian Luck says:

    In an episode of ‘Open All Hours’, Arkwright has to show Grsnville his birth certificate. It states his Mother’s name, but under the Father’s name, it reads:
    ‘Some Sailors’. This is both very sad, and extremely funny, too. Granville is devastated – he’s always thought that his mysterious father would turn out to be minor royalty, or a Hollywood filmstar.

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