No trains to London: Burgess, Doris and Colonel Blimp

Last month I was surprised – and thrilled – to learn that my essay on the BBC show Pointless had been shortlisted for the 2017 Observer/Anthony Burgess Arts Journalism prize. I don’t enter many writing competitions. About three years ago, in what must have been a blind fever of optimism or delusion, I entered as many as I could. Like the drunkard that I once was, I did not foresee the inevitable hangover of rejection, failure and indifference. Now I tend to avoid competitions that demand my money and my words. There’s better ways of making myself poor (such as buying William Sansom first editions or National Lottery scratchcards). Want to make some easy money? Start a writing competition.

But I was drawn to the Burgess prize. Of course I was. Burgess is one of my favourite writers. He incapable of writing a dull sentence: his prose fizzes with energy and wit. There is earthy erudition on nearly every page. He swaggers, he sparkles. I started (as most people do, I suppose) with A Clockwork Orange. Slim Penguin paperback with the classic cover by David Pelham: cog for an eye, bold colours, the sinister respectability of the bowler hat. I was hooked. Admittedly I was at an age when I was only too willing to be corrupted. I read it while on holiday in Ireland – an unusually bright summer if I remember correctly, which I doubt, for all summers are tainted with sunshine. I had money in my pocket and instead of going into the famous Hargadon Brothers pub, as any self-respecting teenage lad should have done, I visited a small and cluttered bookshop. There was a lot of Yeats, a surfeit of Yeats. There he was, everywhere I looked, thin-faced Yeats in his pince-nez looking a bit too posh and effete for my liking. I came out into the blustery afternoon with four items: a book on Orwell (perhaps my favourite author at the time), Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, a history of  Ireland’s Civil War (that was hard going), and A Clockwork Orange. I was perhaps fifteen, sixteen, unpleasantly awkward and splindly-legged. I wouldn’t have got served in Hargadon’s anyway.

I raced through A Clockwork Orange. The lingo took a while to get used to. After that, it was case of reading whatever Burgess came my way. This was before the internet. Buying books, at least those that could not be found in the glare of WH Smith, often involved getting on bus and visiting a second-hand bookshop in an obscure suburb. I remember picking up a jacketless hardback edition of MF in a small but always browsable second-hand bookshop (more of a cupboard than a shop) in Manchester University’s  Student Union building. (The shop is long gone.)  Manchester’s suburb of Chorlton (now a pseudo-boho enclave) has supplied me with many a Burgess paperback over the years. The Doctor is Sick I bought from a shop on Beech Road (That shop is long gone, too.) I spent many an afternoon in there, under the distrusting eye of the proprietor, perusing the shelves when I should’ve have been writing my masterpiece or washing the dishes. Over the years I built up a library of tatty egg-stained paperbacks and mouldy hardbacks as I chomped my way through the Burgess oeuvre: Tremor of Intent, End of the World News, Nothing Like the Sun. One Hand Clapping, The Wanting Seed. It was always a thrill to find an unread Burgess on the shelves. That particular thrill is gone, for I have read all his novels: but the pleasure of reading them remains. It remains and grows.

So I was invited to this prize-giving in London. I booked my train tickets, bought a new shirt, tousled my barnet. The big day arrived. I was ready. It was also the day of storm Doris. I took no notice of her – a bit of wind and rain, blah blah blah, hardly deserving of a name at all. I set off with my travelling companion to the train station. We found that our train had been cancelled. Oh well. We’ll get the next one. We marched grimly out of the station in search of breakfast, heads down against the rain. We took refuge in a café. Eggs, bacon, sausage, strong tea. A workman studied the sports section of his tabloid. I felt horribly over-dressed, fearful of splattering my tie with yolk, stretching my neck like a giraffe so as to avoid soiling the silken knot. Replenished, we ventured back through the cold, frenzied rain. Thick grey sheets of the stuff. Miserable. Mucky. My trousers sucked up wetness from pavement.

At the station we were met by melancholy staff in red coats. They shook their heads. They apologised. Walkie-talkies crackled with bad news. Delays. Cancellations. A man, small and trim and wearing an expensive-looking raincoat, trotted into the station. He received the grim information with surprising equanimity, almost as if he’d been vindicated. He was on his mobile immediately: ‘Oh,’ he chirped, ‘I’ve spent twenty quid on cabs already but I’m still no nearer … You’ll have to start without me. It’ll be fine … Yes, yes.’ A woman turned up with a small family of suitcases, all as sodden as she was. ‘No trains? Not even the twelve-oh-four? But your website says it’s running … Are you sure? But it says on the website …’ No trains to London. No trains back. The dream was over. We had no choice but to go home. All dressed up and nowhere to go.

I sent an email to Will Carr at the Burgess Foundation in Manchester, explaining the situation. Doris was on the warpath. Country grinds to a halt. I would have to stay at home and watch Pointless instead. (Actually I watched The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a magnificent way to spend a rainy afternoon.)

The next morning I learned that I had won nothing. I tucked away that ten-page acceptance speech in the bottom drawer. I’d lost and hadn’t even been there to witness it.

Doris had done her business in Britain. She was now frolicking over Belgium and Holland, uprooting tulips and blowing the froth off potent beer. Later that morning, as I took an unglamorous train to a familiar place, I looked out and saw a broken fence, it’s wooden planks jagged and jumbled, dreadlocks of green tumbling through the gaps.

I took out my notebook and jotted down a few lines. I must remember to get a refund for those train tickets.

The Joyful Art of Derrick Harris

In a recent article for Litro I wrote about second-hand bookshops, those “pubs for the mind”. The essay was called Just Browsing and contained a brief reference to the illustrator Derrick Harris. I first became aware of his work when I picked up an odd but entertaining old book called Word for Word, An Encyclopaedia of Beer. I was intrigued by the jargon of the brewing industry. But it was the illustrations – small black and white wood engravings, bold and jaunty, with sometimes sinister flourishes – that really caught my attention. I was in the excellent Carnforth Bookshop at the time, nosing my way through a succession of creaking rooms, all crammed with books. I believe it was a birthday expedition, a couple of years ago perhaps. (The messy all-dayers and frazzled nightclubs of curly-haired youth had long been superseded by sedate railway journeys across the north country.)

Carnforth is, of course, famous for its railway station, central to Brief Encounter. Carnforth itself seemed a rather desolate place – at least it appears as such in my untrustworthy memory, a place of wide corners and sloping roads to nowhere. The pubs were uninvitingly big and menacingly empty, with screens glowing in the gloom. There was, however, an excellent little bar serving real ale at the station. I hope it is still there.

The bookshop where I discovered Harris was an endless warren of rooms and sub-rooms. It was almost overwhelming. A few solid hours of browsing lay ahead. I heard a voice. “Relax, take your time. You’ll find some good stuff here. It’s only a matter of time.” The voice was in my head. In such a promising bookshop one almost feels it a duty to leave with armfuls of treasure. But my haul was meagre. A copy of Wolf Mankowitz’s My Old Man’s a Dustman, “the story of a Cockney Don Quixote and his Sancho Panza”. From the flyleaf: “In this story Wolf Mankowitz uses the Cockney idiom with immense relish, making the most of its audacity and gorgonzola ripeness.” How could I resist? I still haven’t read it, I don’t know why. It draws me in. I’ve taken it off the shelf to have a look. It has a nice jacket, designed by Sydney Mould, with an attractive, trembly illustration of the Cockney duo making their way across a rubbish tip.

There were a few William Sansoms to be had in the shop but I considered them overpriced. In the age of the internet everyone’s an expert. So I left with two slim volumes, the Mankovitz and Word for Word. I took them home on the train as Cumbria and then Lancashire darkened through the windows.

A few months later I looked up Derrick Harris. There wasn’t much to be found on the internet. I contacted his Estate. A little later I was invited by Catalina Botello to view the archive. It was an immense privilege to meet Harris’s widow, Maria. She sat with a jigsaw on her lap as she told me of her life with Derrick. It was a delight to see Harris’s sketches and doodles, his homemade Christmas cards, his imposing ink-stained woodblocks. It was a bright day in early summer when I visited Catalina and Maria, a day of glinting windows and halting traffic. Workmen yelled. Students meandered in and out of grand-looking buildings. A woman in huge sunglasses carried a tiny dog in her arms. A boy dropped his ice lolly and let out the most awful squeal of anguish. It was a Derrick Harris kind of day, full of interest and charm and human mischief.

I wrote an essay on Harris, Inspired by the Day, also published by Litro. I’m heartened by the positive response it’s had, with people curious to know more about Harris, to see more of his work. People do seem to warm to his images. Perhaps his time has come at last. It would be wonderful to see an exhibition of his work in the UK. At one time there were plans, I believe, to include Harris in the Design series of books, joining such figures as Abram Games, Edward Bawden, E. McKnight Kauffer, David Gentleman and Peter Blake. Harris’s delightful colour illustrations for a children’s book, Royal Flush, remain without a story.

For more information on Derrick Harris, please visit:

All images copyright The Estate of Derrick Harris.


Browsing on a Sunday afternoon

This afternoon, after an uninspired but tolerably energetic stint in the gym, I wandered over to the bookseller on Oxford Road. I’d seen the tables being set up earlier, just outside All Saints Park, as I ate an overripe banana on my way to the gym. The thought of all those books, musty and foxed, sustained me as I cycled grimly in front of a television screen busy with growling rappers and sneering divas. Soon, I told myself, this bodily torment will end. Soon I will be checking the condition of bindings and dust-jackets, picking out obscure Pelicans and Penguins for closer inspection.

Freed from the bright purgatory of kettlebell and rowing-machine, I ambled over to the tables. There were two long rows today – a chance for some proper post-gym browsing. You never know what you might find on these tables. It’s a casino of the mind. There was a big selection of communist literature, as there often is, from Trotsky’s provocative analysis of Swedish volleyball to Lenin’s thoughts on contemporary millinery. None of it has sold for weeks, perhaps in protest at the capitalist system. There was another table piled with more insidious red propaganda – big, shiny hardbacks about or ‘by’ such luminaries as Ferguson, Beckham, Ferdinand, Butt. These profound tomes inspired such awe in passers-by that no one stopped to investigate. Alex and Eric received far less fondling than did Leon and Karl.

For me, it wasn’t a vintage browsing session. But an hour or two spent nosing through strange books among sometimes strange people is never wasted. I dabbled with a bit of Henry James – I’ll try anything on a Sunday – but halfway through the opening sentence I felt the first faint throbs of a migraine. There’s usually a good stock of luridly-dressed sci-fi – I was drawn to Harry Harrison’s No More Room. In the end I came away with an interesting and sharply-designed Pelican paperback on mental asylums, which has certainly added cheer to a chilly Sunday afternoon.

If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on secondhand bookshops, my essay Just Browsing: An Ode to the Second-Hand Bookshop can be found at Litro.

Through the Flowers

“Good choice. It’s a lovely edition and a very fine story.”

My copy of Popshot Magazine – The Curious Issue – has arrived. As ever, it’s a handsome devil, with stories by Georgia Oman, Danielle Carey, Dan Coxon, Rob Stuart, Jane Wright, Audra Kerr Brown and Alys Hobbs, Christine Burns and poetry from Claire Booker, Katherine Venn, Adam Battestilli, Nancy Carol Moody, Ben Norris, Sophie F Baker, Sharon Lusk Munson, J.S. Watts and Rosie Garland.

The artwork is remarkable. The magazine a thing of beauty. I’m particularly thrilled by Kate O’Hara’s interpretation of my story “Through the Flowers”, my first to be published in Popshot. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised: her design is lush and sombre, marked with sinister wit and invention. I love it. The picture works well with the story. The vivid green leaves, the pleated scarlet petals, the insects, the  furred buds, those eyes. It reminds of an intricate Victorian wallpaper pattern – or perhaps the ornate and nauseous florals of the 1970s. A creepy William Morris design, watching your every move. Kate’s other work is well worth investigating. She’s very good indeed. Check her out at:

Popshot is available from tasteful and enlightened stores all over the spinning globe.  Ten quid will get you a three issue subscription, a bargain. Issue 14 can be snapped up here:

I hope you enjoy your stroll through the flowers.