The International Literary Quarterly

February 2008

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Monkey by Iain Sinclair

Light from elsewhere insinuates a pewter sky. The cold relents. I come less frequently to this room. No more papers, ledgers, manuscripts. The only documents I write by hand are cheques to council officers, tax-gatherers. For unnoticed and unrequired services. Other debits are electronic and instantaneous. Credits are posthumous and they arrive, if at all, after many months. Committees have to be convinced of my status, my desire to operate as a ‘casual lecturer’. I am forever making copies of my passport, but I no longer travel. The freelance gig is over, an anachronism. Books that still surround me are sullen, eager to mutate back into money. Most of the authors are lost or forgotten. Friends, confederates, tutors.


To the left of where I am sitting, above my eye line, among a cluster of objects on the roof of a grey filing-cabinet: the monkey. Where I was sitting, twenty, thirty years ago. Where I ought to be sitting now, at my father’s desk; in his wooden swivel chair (inherited from his father). It creaks, it groans. A small brass plate giving date and occasion. A consulting room chair with nothing to consult, beyond tightly-packed shelves of books. But he’s not here. They are not here, any of them, the old ones. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles. Sometimes they appear still, to my children, on underground trains, or in provincial hotels, sitting quietly, keeping themselves to themselves. I husband a familiar absence, the throb of a missing tooth. Anna thinks I’m following the Quentin Crisp recipe on dust. After the first three years it doesn’t get any worse. But they’re wrong, both of them. You could build an earthwork, Maiden Castle in miniature, in the feathery tilth that has accumulated on the roof of the cigar cabinet. Spectral fingerprints of people who never visited London. Brown flakes of Edwardian cigars. My father didn’t smoke cigars: Craven A in cellophane bricks. His indulgence. Given up after the first heart tremor.


- 1923 -

The Great Western Railway has gone. And the life that went with it. The landscape of a childhood that never happened. Less-remembered walks: the station as seen from the hill on which we lived, the long street that approached it. Banks, butchers, drapers. Not many cars. A Belfast dentist up rubbery stairs. Mask over face, green gas. A pistol wrapped in an oily rag. A lidless cigar box with five bullets. A motorcycle. The General Strike. A mob on the street. Fables retold. The contradictory evidence of unlabelled photographs. Mute things outlive us. Their survival: a goad, a portal. Touch them, take them up, burn your skin on cold metal. Let flakes of silver paint lodge beneath your nails.

My father kept his better books in glass-fronted cases that must, after the war, have been a special newspaper offer: austerity edging towards conspicuous consumption. They fascinated me, those spines. The colours, the shapes. The sliding panels of the bookcases were stiff to operate. Which only added to their charm. The whole deal was as much a unit of display as a working library. Yellowback Austin Freeman crime mysteries. Edgar Wallace. Jack the Ripper. The blue-grey run of that frequently consulted oracle, Chambers’s Encyclopedia (in XV volumes with six supplements). Sawdust Caesar with its fearsome portrait of Mussolini. The slim book on Cuba we both bought, at the same sale, and never read. A fat green Bodley Head Ulysses. With a very particular smell: rancid erudition, rivers of covert intelligence. Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God (revised edition with monkey dustjacket). Most of Conan Doyle in compendium form. And a single leatherbound volume, my great-grandfather’s Peruvian expedition (with fold-out map). Botanical drawings, dwarfish natives. Scottish humour making the best of its prejudices: slovenly, drunken, exploitative priests. Vultures on sweating middens. Earthenware drinking vessels with the teeth and ears of animals.

On top of the bookcase was a collection of curious objects: grave goods from South America, a shrunken head (fake) and a silver monkey. All of these things, along with the random books, titles that caught my eye, solicited a linking narrative. If there had been time, perhaps, my father would have provided it. He worked long hours, weekends, night calls, as a GP in a Welsh mining town. He limited himself to mealtime anecdotes, sinister comedies that had the crafted shape of tales by W.W.Jacobs or Saki. Blood flowing down the stairs of a dark cottage. Hanged men. Hermits in bunkers. Improvised amputations deep underground by the light of a miner’s helmet.

After his death the monkey came with me to London. To the Hackney room where it remains - and where I wrote my first books. It’s heavy, cold, this creature. Dipped in a layer of silver that is wearing away. A Rodin parody, a melancholy beast contemplating a human skull. Hamlet in a gorilla suit, it sits, cross-legged, on three books (of diminishing thickness). The Bible, undoubtedly. Then, I would guess, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. And one other, uncredited, still to be written. The book I’ve been working on all my life.

The inherited monkey is a Punch cartoon ridiculing evolutionism. The hair, centre-parted, makes this ape of god look pathetically fin de siècle. It took me years to understand the metaphor: I was providing houseroom for the physical manifestation of a ‘monkey on the back’. I would stare at that book stack until it turned into a model of the Empire State Building. With the monkey as King Kong (hauling itself up from the dark swamp of my consciousness).

Poor Jacko is doomed to wait until the skull becomes a clock of fate, a Viking drinking vessel. In the curve of the polished memento mori, I saw my own reflection, hammering away at a typewriter. A Faustian contract: heredity. Write or die. Write and die. Grow into the cup of bone the monkey fixes with its knowing eye.

The jaw is broken, a hinge. You can lift the monkey’s cranium and reveal a metal stub, a cylinder like a bullet. It’s a cigarette lighter, but it doesn’t light. Not for me. It sits alongside the cigar cabinet in which there are no cigars. Dust on black-bordered visiting cards. A tartan-bound address book for demolished houses in countries with new names. Air-weight of vanished books.

Which books? Which monkey? While I am walled in, warped, bent over, lost in the dislocation of trying to uncover the elements of a story, the monkey scratches his silver to become an illustration by the Spaniard, David Vierge, for Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Very black, this Congo ape, ravishing a woman in white on a tumble of Parisian bedclothes. While a bug-eyed voyeur stares from the outer darkness, hooked over the sill. The monkey’s paw drips a rosary of blood. Aubrey Beardsley, in his version of this tale, gives the albino chimp a Pat Butcher earring. The predator carries its limp victim from behind. Its hairless condition is justified by Poe’s text.

Razor in hand, and fully lathered, it was sitting before a looking-glass, attempting the operation of shaving, in which it had no doubt previously watched its master through the keyhole of the closet.

Now that monkey and books are brought together, I have a sense of how my squatting silver trophy is not so much weighing the three volumes down as climbing out of them: escaping. Remember Sheridan LeFanu’s ‘Green Tea’? A Dublin improvisation on the classic Edinburgh doppelgänger tale: a tight-buttoned clergyman called Jennings, working late into the night, keeps himself alert with quantities of green tea. Until his suppressed imagination, dark juice, takes the form of a visible attendant. A red-eyed monkey. Trapped by the exhausting study of ‘odd old books’, the compulsion to produce more of them, Jennings conjures up an incubus, in the form of a monkey. Who itches at Hyde-like crimes: ‘satanic captivity’.

My inherited toy had a candle in its head. The monkey-fiend whispered of bonfires. Pyres of redundant words. Fire censorship on a German scale. The belief that libraries are premature ash. Green tea visions. Insomnia. Green monkey disease. Sharp yellow teeth. Infected blood. Fever, rash, diarrhoea. Vomiting, gastro-intestinal bleeding. A lingering death.

Jennings trembles, suffers the word virus:

The thing exhibited an atrocious determination to thwart me. It was with me in church - in the reading desk – in the pulpit – within the communion rails. At last, it reached the extremity, that while I was reading to the congregation, it would spring upon the book and squat there, so that I was unable to see the page. This happened more than once.

It happens still. The monkey is not buried inside the book. It takes different forms. If you won’t write, it says, you must do the other thing: read until your eyes bleed. In the W.W. Jacobs story, The Monkey’s Paw, a man wills his dead son back to life. Part of the psychic outwash that followed the First War. There is a scratching sound at the door of my room. Squirrels in the eaves? What shapes and shadows should I see by the yellow flame in the monkey’s brain? The winter-dead creep to my threshold to listen. They hear the clatter of that ventriloquised jaw as I retell a story the old ones have gifted me.