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.
DR. H. SINCLAIR
MAESTEG GWR AMBULANCE CLASS
- 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:
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
Jennings trembles, suffers the word virus:
The thing exhibited an atrocious determination to thwart me. It
with me in church - in the reading desk – in the pulpit –
communion rails. At last, it reached the extremity, that while I
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.