Archive for August, 2011

Book | This is For You: Eighth Instalment

Friday, August 26th, 2011


This is For You  An autobiography of sorts

The new novel by Pedro Silmon, serialised, exclusively for you on The Blog

As previously explained, the characters within this book are fictitious and any similarities to persons living, or dead, are coincidental but, like many first novels, This is for you, is an autobiography of sorts. At 26,000 words, it is relatively short, however, it was written, re-written, edited and refined over a five year period, spanning 2001-2007, in Germany and the UK. I am endebted to David Miller at the prestigious UK literary agency, Rogers, Coleridge & White, to whom I was kindly introduced by Sarah Spankie, Deputy Editor of the Condé Nast Traveller; having read a draft of the text, David suggested a few changes which improved it enormously.


Part 2
A curious mixture of the combined aromas of singed hair and pipe tobacco smoke filled Bede’s nostrils. Slowly, he lifted himself up, then slumped back down on to the bench, brushing automatically, and to little effect, at his dust-covered clothes. Picking vacantly at the grit ingrained in his skin, then licking the end of his finger and rubbing it in little circles over the dried blood, he watched a small, black spider negotiate its way through the hairs on the back of his hand and disappear under his shirt cuff. Excited shouts from the direction of the lake jabbed through the dense layer of grey felt that lined his skull. Just as the boat was within a whisker of capsizing, the boat-sailing father had pulled off an amazing rescue manoeuvre. Indifferent to his father’s triumph, the little boy’s blue-eyed gaze rested solely on Bede.

Towards midday, Bede rose unsteadily to his feet and bent to retrieve his pipe. It was chipped, but still in one piece, and he pushed it deep into his coat pocket. Although one of the lenses was cracked at the corner, his glasses were unbroken. White glare from the chalky paths stung his eyes. His coat hung heavily on his shoulders, and through the thick fabric, he scratched at an insistent tickling itch near his elbow. His armpits prickled, and he could feel rivers of cold sweat running down the sides of his rib cage. People had been coming and going around him throughout the morning, and at one point someone had even sat down on the bench and asked whether he was all right. Bede had neither answered nor acknowledged the other’s presence; his mind was busy and he was in no mood for interruptions.

Pigeons, and then ducks and geese, scuttled aside as he made his way shakily along the path that ran around the circular lake. Bicycles crunched swiftly at the gravel, which produced a strange, tuneless music as it bounced off their wheel spokes. Overgrown flowerbeds registered vaguely in his peripheral vision. The unkempt park bore little resemblance to the lush haven it had once been, however, the geography remained the same. He steered his body slowly round to the right and, without raising his eyes, took a familiar path, which led at a sharp tangent away from the water. Suddenly, he froze. His back stiffened and his legs bent as his head went back and his shoulders jerked forward. He sneezed powerfully; sneezing again and then again; and again. It seemed that he would never stop sneezing. Bede caught himself suppressing a grin: sneezing had always given him an intense, if momentary, pleasure. Though he had never suffered to any great extent from hay fever, certain types of pollen always seemed to set him off, then his eyes would itch and he would become anxious. Perfumes were a problem, too, and, to their credit, his female partners had, on the whole, reasonably understood this. Those who had not, had not lasted very long in his company. To avoid having to walk through the menacing massed ranks of scent counters in the main entrance areas of department stores, Bede had only ever gone in via side doors. He had never worn aftershave or cologne, and throughout his life stuck resolutely to basic, non-scented soaps, although in recent years he had not had the problem of choice to contend with, there being little else on offer.

The sneezing fit sapped precious energy from his already-weakened body, and he leaned against a brick building to steady himself. Assaulted by the sharp tang of the urinals inside, wafting down through a narrow open window above his head, with intense effort he heaved himself upright and began again to move forward. The park was large, and it was some time before he stepped out on to the pavement of the wide road that ran the length of its southern edge. He turned eastwards. It had been some years since he had ventured anywhere near the city-centre, but he had to go through it to get to where he was going, and all his instincts drove him in that direction. Despite the fuel rationing, the traffic was surprisingly heavy. Nowadays, the city’s roads once again carried the occasional horse and cart, though the clapped-out, ancient cars, bursting with people, the rusty motorcycles and the mopeds and bicycles greatly outnumbered them. Many big lorries and numerous heavily-laden buses lumbered by. As if from nowhere, a long, sleek limousine with dark, tinted windows, sailed into view, escorted by motorcycles. The other road-users swerved to let it pass. As the car came alongside him, one of the windows slid slowly down just far enough to afford Bede a brief glimpse of the man and small boy who occupied it.

Entering a subway just beyond the park gate, Bede got caught up in the solid flow of people heading towards the underground trains, which, he was surprised to see, on that day at least, appeared to be operating, though it made no difference to him. Without papers, even if he had wanted to, he could not have travelled on public transport.

There were many exits from the station, and although he was certain that he knew which one to take, he emerged beside an enormous, white, classical arch, marooned on an island of overgrown grass, completely surrounded by traffic. Through the fumy gaps that opened and closed between the moving vehicles, he could just make out the point where he should have been. Descending the gloomy, littered stairway again, he tried to keep his head angled and his eyes fixed in the right direction. It was not easy, and once he got below ground, it proved impossible for him to move in a straight line. The labyrinth of tunnels was disorientating. He felt dizzy and lost his balance, then banged his head hard against a tiled wall before finding himself, once again, at the point where he had first entered the subway.

Several of the kicks he had received earlier had been extremely hard. There was an area on his back, just below his left shoulder blade, which began to stiffen and ache. As he paused and twisted his arm around so he could massage the tender area, a dense mass of bodies spun him round, swept him up with them, and bore him back down the stairs. Indistinguishable from more-or-less every other female he ever saw now in the streets, the women were almost all dressed in very short, black leather skirts, below which their black suspenders extended down over expanses of white thigh. The suspenders supported sheer or fishnet, randomly torn and laddered, black stockings. Others were in skin-tight vinyl trousers, with tartan loincloths flapping around their buttocks. Every one of them had a white powdered face and wore eye make-up in strong colours, with lots of black liner. Their lips were also black, or sometimes purple. Tall, peroxide blonde or dyed black cockscombs sprouted from the heads of some the men and a few of the women. Others, of both sexes, had teased their hair into spikes. Some wore studded dog collars. All of the men were clean-shaven, and many were dressed from head to toe in short, zipped, black leather jackets and trousers with slogans and swastikas crudely daubed or sprayed across them. They had on capped-sleeved, white or black T-shirts, slashed open at the front. Narrow, black trousers, loosely belted across the back of the knees, which somewhat restricted their ability to walk, were favoured by a few. Safety pins were haphazardly attached to all of their clothes; they had poked them through their eyebrows, and around the tops and lobes of their ears; a small number had even put the sharp ends into their mouths, pierced their cheeks and fastened them on the outside. What looked like lengths of toilet chain – which the women, especially, appeared to enjoy sucking on – were looped between one safety pin and the next.

Bowling forward, the merry, heaving crowd, on their way together somewhere in a hurry, sang loudly in accents that were incomprehensible to Bede. He felt sure that they had been drinking alcohol, or were on drugs. Several of them reached out and draped their arms amiably around his shoulders, vehemently insisting that he must go along with them. Their frank camaraderie intoxicated him, and after the briefest instant of hesitation, he abandoned himself with pleasure to their will. Their voices ricocheted off the graffiti-covered tunnel walls, as they dragged him, laughing with them, down the long slopes and up the stairways then out once again into the open air. Bede could not remember when he had last felt so happy. Miraculously, he was delivered at the exit he had been seeking, and, somewhat reluctantly managing to disentangle himself from his new-found friends, he was soon alone once more. He paused briefly, listening as the fading voices moved off to wherever the crowd was going, then continued on his way.

Powerful shock waves hit him suddenly, square across his back, jarred his rib cage and almost made him fall, as a deafening explosion burst out from the underground station he had just left. A plume of black smoke rose quickly, stopped, and then spread out slowly in the sky. Steadying himself, he swayed and dodged forward away from the screaming, between the frightened masses running frantically past.

Presently, he arrived at a wide, open square with a river of traffic now surging, now piling up, around its perimeter. A classical building of delicate proportions extended the entire length of the north side. Bede recalled that it had once been a great gallery, with a magnificent and renowned collection of some of the very best items of historically-important, international art. A wave of unfamiliar emotion welled up in his stomach; his throat tightened and his eyes filled with tears. Suppressing a sob, he saw that the building’s entire exterior – the delicate cupola, the massive, colonnaded façade, the grand stone steps leading up to the vast portals, what remained of the decorative iron railings, and even the pavement below – had been obliterated by multi-coloured, multi-layered, spray-painted graffiti. He would have liked to cry out, but that would have drawn attention; people would have noticed and he could have been reported.

A few nervous-looking protesters had erected banners around the base of the tall, finely-carved, stone column near the middle of the square – which, Bede recalled, had once supported a statue of some naval hero – and were beginning to attract a crowd. Their demonstration was of no interest to him, but to walk around the perimeter would have taken about three times as long as crossing directly over the square, so he began wading through the stationary cars to get on to it. The speeches started just as his foot touched the kerb of the island. Simultaneously, a hundred or so massive horses, surmounted by armoured, baton-wielding militia, clattered from their hiding place in a parallel street, and charged at the protesters. The militia must have decided beforehand that the sound of the first amplified voice would be their signal to act – and act they certainly did, with the utmost brutality. As the batons swung down and bludgeoned the helpless demonstrators, a great wave of pigeons swept slowly up into the air, circled low over the furore, momentarily masking the obscenities and appearing to calm the chill atmosphere. But the illusion was short-lived: before the birds alighted on the far side of the square, the paving stones ran red with blood. Turning his back and ignoring the shouts and screams of the battle, Bede retraced his steps and cautiously made his way around the perimeter of the square. A small, timid-looking dog appeared from nowhere to tag in his wake.

Bede’s head was gradually becoming clearer. Again, he felt an irritating itch, and, with a rapid movement, he slapped the back of his shirt collar to his neck. Reaching inside with two fingers, he pulled out the remains of the elusive little spider last seen disappearing up his sleeve. He stopped and held them up to examine them closely. The spider’s body lay still, its lifeless legs folded inwards, in his cupped hand. He regretted having been responsible for its death, but felt relieved that he had killed and not merely maimed it. He tipped the tiny carcass gently on to the top of a low wall, and continued on his way.

Shortly, he came to a wide street, at the middle of which stood what had been, he remembered, a very grand hotel. The building was intact, and looked well-maintained. Armed guards stood on either side of the main entrance ushering dark limousines into the underground car park. Bede had memories of taking a girlfriend for cocktails at one of the hotel’s many bars, years before, but that things had not gone the way he had planned. Having booked a double room for the night, he had limited himself to only two dry martinis, while she insisted on trying as many sickly, multicoloured concoctions as possible. Consequently, after a couple of hours, he had ended up having to manhandle her into a taxi, and to pay the driver in advance to offload her in the seedy, outlying district of the city in which she lived. Feeling sorry for himself, and being unable to sleep, he had floundered about alone in the enormous hotel bed. Suddenly, the telephone rang in the darkness, and, reaching blindly for it, he knocked a glass of water on to the floor. The silky-voiced male on the other end of the line introduced himself, and told Bede that he had noticed him going upstairs alone, and wondered if he might perhaps like some male company. Telling him smartly to fuck off, Bede smashed down the receiver, pulled out the jack-plug and leapt out of bed to check that his door was firmly locked. In the morning, making sure that he made no eye contact with any of the male staff, he skipped breakfast and hastily checked out.

All of the shops and cafés he now passed were open for business, but crouching in the doorway of each was a figure wrapped in a blanket, or lying in a sleeping bag on a sheet of cardboard. Ratty-looking dogs accompanied several of them, and each had a handwritten sign. One had taken a plastic traffic cone, cut off the pointed end, and rested it on a small radio, so that the sound of it was impressively amplified. They stared harshly up at everyone who passed by, taunting them aggressively, and thrust forward white paper cups, like the ones used in vending machines, containing a few coins. Bede, who had never before in his life given anything to charity, paused briefly to fish about in his pockets until he found a token and tossed it into the nearest cup.

He trundled purposefully on, his destination still a long way off. The sky darkened and it began to rain, causing the pavement people to scuttle, crab-like, inside their doorways. After a time, his hair became plastered to his forehead and then over the rest of his skull. Raindrops collected in his thick eyebrows, then ran down into his eyes, making it difficult for him to see where he was going. His drenched coat felt heavier, and his trousers wrapped themselves around his legs. The trousers themselves became longer as the sticky tape that held up their hems, like those of all of Bede’s trousers, came loose. Water seeped down around his ankles and into his shoes. He could feel his woollen socks drawing it towards his toes.

A little while later, the rain petered out. As the clouds receded and thinned, the bright sun reappeared. Shiny-leaved plane trees hung heavily over an encampment of scruffy, makeshift tents in an overgrown square pockmarked with the sodden, black remains of fires. Bede continued on through an area where ancient town houses lined wide, potholed streets. Rain-soaked cherry blossom hung heavily above the derelict gardens, where gangs of small children, under the sharp-voiced direction of several women in loose, drab clothing, diligently collected huge bunches of dripping daffodils. Clearly empty now, most of the buildings were boarded up with corrugated iron. One had been partially destroyed by fire, another totally. In former times, many of them would have had numerous nameplates and bell-pushes fixed beside their front doors, but the metal parts had been removed, and only a few brass screws and ragged holes remained to indicate where they had been. Occasionally, an odd, twisted remnant of the iron railings that had contained the gardens, and which must have proved too difficult to remove, clung to a wall. The wide, stone-flagged pavements were in bad repair, and caused Bede to trip, once almost pitching him down into a filthy, exposed cellar cavity.

The light was changing. It was perhaps around six when he sharply altered direction. At one time, he remembered, when he had worked nearby, it had always been possible to know what time it was by listening for the church bells, of which there had been many. Now they had all gone: no clocks were displayed in public places anywhere, and ordinary people were prohibited from wearing watches. Even in his dazed state, some inbuilt security mechanism had prevented him from going straight to his destination. Crossing the river and feeling a little unsteady, he paused near the middle of the bridge and quickly turned his head to see if he was being followed. ©Pedro Silmon, 2011

Don’t miss the ninth and final instalment of This is for you, which follows next
Friday, 2nd September

What do you think of the story so far?

Please leave a comment and look out for The Blog’s posts on Art, Architecture, Books, Design, etc, which continue to run alongside the This is for you serialisation

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Photography | Lee Friedlander

Friday, August 26th, 2011

Lee Friedlander: America By Car/The New Cars 1964
1st September – 1st October 2011, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London

A good few years ago, in 1978, when I was a graphic design student at the Royal College of Art, someone from the Fiorucci company, came to offer our group the chance to design the graphics for their delivery van. At the time Fiorucci were doing great clothes, especially jeans and T-shirts – later worn in the US by trendsetters Andy Warhol and Madonna. They had a very interesting branding style, based around a melange of 1950s and 1960s Americana, bright colours and animal prints – a kind of pop art sensibility – without ever having a fixed logo. Luckily for me, my concept was chosen: to paint an image of two girls driving an open-top pink Cadillac – shades of Thelma & Louise (1991) – on to either side of the van, matching the wheel positions of the real 3D vehicle and the 2D painting to achieve a trompe l’oeil effect, the van to be kitted out with white wall tyres. Similar ideas are fairly commonplace these days.

Unusually, for a photographer who is considered to be in some senses, as pop an artist as Richard Hamilton and Roy Lichtenstein, Lee Friedlander, whose main body of work he has said, takes the ’social landscape’ of America as its subject matter, produces only black and white images. Much of pop art, despite the bright colours, had a bleakness about it. It was never the celebration, which at first sight it might be perceived to be but rather, often a cynical comment on a culture that was and remains, dominated by consumer goods and services and the popular idols and icons that are seen as vital to our existence.

Friedlander, was born in 1934 and has been active in photography since 1948. After studying in Pasadena, California, he moved to New York City in 1956 and began photographing jazz musicians for record sleeves. His first one-man show was in 1963. In the 60s and 70s his work appeared regularly in magazines such as Art in America, Esquire and Sports Illustrated. His pictures captured the look and feel of contemporary American society. One of his most successful works at the end of the 1970s was his production of a series of images of urban industrial landscape along the Ohio river valley, shot in documentary form, Factory Valleys: Ohio and Pennsylvania (1982). At around the same period, Friedlander went to Japan and photographed the Japanese landscape, some of which appeared in Cherry Blossom Time in Japan (1991). His book Flowers and Trees, in contrast to his urban photography, celebrates the beauties of nature. He is also well-known for his later portrait and nude studies. In 2005, the Museum of Modern Art presented a major retrospective of Friedlander’s career, including nearly 400 photographs from the 1950s to the present. In the same year he received a Hasselblad International Award. The retrospective was presented again in 2008 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). At the same time, a more contemporary selection of his work, Lee Friedlander: America By Car, was displayed at the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. The same series of images was on display, in its entirety at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City in late 2010. Previously unseen in the UK, it’s these compelling images, all taken from the driver’s seat of the hire car that Friedlander drove across most of America’s fifty states that are on show next month at London’s Timothy Taylor Gallery.

As with much of his work from the last decade, all of the America by Car images images are in square format. Heavy, dark and angular, the struts of the car’s structure divide up and frame portions of the view through the windows. A steering wheel butts in on the right. The wing mirror on the left isolates a detail of the scene behind the car, or contains an image of the photographer. A car, like some strange monument to the American dream is hoisted high up into the sky on a slender pole, while a fence bars the way forward. The compositional references suggest the montages of Richard Hamilton and possibly Mondrian, as well as, Picasso’s cubism, while looking at the subject matter one can’t help thinking about John Chamberlain’s crunched and mangled car sculptures. There are voyeuristic references, too, to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

The TTG show will also exhibit The New Cars 1964, a portfolio of 33 images, originally commissioned by Harper’s Bazaar and also previously unseen in the UK. Bazaar’s intention was to showcase that year’s much-anticipated new cars but Friedlander’s gritty and uncompromisingly modern images proved too much for the magazine’s editor-in-chief and were never used.

The Fiorucci thing all happened near to the end of the RCA course and once Fiorucci had taken my design away to put into production, we sort of lost touch. Providentially, however, I ended up living in a flat not far from the Fiorucci headquarters in Clapham, South London, and one morning, parked on the main road, directly opposite the end of the street sat the delivery van. I crossed the road to take a closer look at it. It somehow didn’t look quite right – truncated in some way – then I realised that this van was much more compact than the one I’d traced out of the Herz hire company’s catalogue and applied the original design to. Whether the mistake was mine, or Fiorucci’s, I just don’t know but I couldn’t help feeling rather ashamed and was happy never to see the van again.

Image: Montana’, 2008
Gelatin-Silver Print
15 x15 ins/38 x38 cm. Sheet 20 x 16 ins/50.8 x 40.6 cm
© Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

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Don’t miss the eighth instalment, posted today, of This is for you, Pedro Silmon’s new on-line novel, serialised exclusively on The Blog.


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Book | This is For You: Seventh Instalment

Friday, August 19th, 2011


This is For You  An autobiography of sorts

The new novel by Pedro Silmon, serialised, exclusively for you on The Blog

As previously explained, the characters within this book are fictitious and any similarities to persons living, or dead, are coincidental but, like many first novels, This is for you, is an autobiography of sorts. At 26,000 words, it is relatively short, however, it was written, re-written, edited and refined over a five year period, spanning 2001-2007, in Germany and the UK. I am endebted to David Miller at the prestigious UK literary agency, Rogers, Coleridge & White, to whom I was kindly introduced by Sarah Spankie, Deputy Editor of the Condé Nast Traveller; having read a draft of the text, David suggested a few changes which improved it enormously.

Part 1 continued…
He was in love only once. At the time, he tried incredibly hard to change himself into the kind of person who could be loved – the sensitive kind he had previously read about with scorn and bewilderment, but of whom he now felt something resembling envy. It took him by surprise to find that he could spend so much time and energy thinking about someone else, and in making such an effort to make that someone else like him and want to spend time with him and listen to what he had to say.

She was twelve years older than Bede, and he was at once fascinated by her unusual attitude to life, which somehow combined both youthful mischief and deep maturity. One day, for instance, after giving a lecture at a prominent university, she arrived at a restaurant to have lunch with him on a huge, old-fashioned, black bicycle, which she rode right up to the table on the sunlit terrace, at which he was waiting. Having propped the bike against the back of the wooden bench, she sat down beside him and offered up her cheek as usual, for him to kiss. He noticed she was chewing and, although he said nothing, she spat the contents of her mouth into her hand, raised her arm and hurled the balled-up gum away. Unfortunately, she was a rotten shot, and the gum hit and clung to the front of the facing bench. The restaurant was popular and, as the terrace was quite small and provided limited seating, it was customary to share tables. Shortly after they had ordered, two well-dressed businessmen came up and politely asked if the seats opposite them were free. She smiled charmingly up at them and nodded, gesturing towards the empty bench, inviting them to sit down. As she turned back towards Bede, he caught the irresistibly sinful glint in her eyes. She mutely begged for and simultaneously expected his complicity. As usual, she paid and they left first, his lover cheerily saying goodbye to the two men, as she lifted her bicycle and wheeled it jauntily alongside him towards the exit.

Having spent her formative years at school abroad, she had come back to study philosophy at university. Now, after applying herself successfully to several different careers, she lectured in foreign literature at various, prestigious, educational establishments in the city and in the provinces. Complete sets of beautifully-printed volumes of philosophical writings and poetry, which she had inherited from her father, lined the shelves of her spacious apartment. They were filled with foreign texts, which were totally incomprehensible to Bede, who had thought it unnecessary to waste time learning any language other than his mother tongue. He could not even attempt to read them, but he loved to take the books down, to feel the weight of them in his hands, to run his fingers gently over their deeply-embossed covers and along the uneven edges of each hand-made page. He was also impressed with her collection of erotic photography, which she made no attempt to conceal. On the contrary, framed prints lined the walls of the apartment, and large, lavishly-illustrated books, deliberately placed for the maximum provocative effect, littered every flat surface.

With good reason, Bede thought she was beautiful. Although her face was now lined, and her hair must have lost some of its earlier vigour, she managed to look young still, and her sharp, bright eyes were as playful as a young girl’s. She was naturally slim, her stomach was flat, and her small breasts had never been stretched and inflated with a mother’s milk, so they remained firm and showed no signs of sagging. She did a little exercise every day, but was no fanatic. She smoked, and to demonstrate the seriousness of his feelings for her, Bede later gritted his teeth and took up smoking too.

They had, in fact, met in another restaurant. At this stage in his life, he was in the habit of often eating alone, and the type of food that was served there was his favourite. It was also cheap and the portions were generous. Though he would never have admitted it, Bede was a bit of a pig as far as food was concerned, and liked the way that here it was possible to eat mountains of rice and meat and noodles, without anyone noticing just how much you were actually consuming. At most, at any one time, only a tiny, heaped rice bowl sat on the table in front each customer, and no one was counting how many times it was filled up, which, in Bede’s case, was many.

She had been sitting alone near the window, and caught his eye as he was ushered toward the only empty table, in the middle of the room. Feeling exposed, he sat down quickly, immediately opened his book and began reading. There was no need for him to look at the menu. He had been there lots of times before. The lunchtime specials never changed, and he knew exactly what he wanted, but he always had to remind the waiters, who never appeared to recognise him, that he wanted to eat with chopsticks. It peeved him that, even after they eventually brought the chopsticks, they still left the redundant spoon and fork cluttering up the table, as if they thought that, halfway through his meal, he might give up on the wooden sticks and revert to using the metal utensils like everyone else. Also, they always seemed not to have heard what he said, so he was forced to repeat his order. Then, invariably they brought the wrong things, so he had to send them back. He could tell that they found it odd when he ordered jasmine tea instead of the white wine that most of the other people asked for. He was sure that they considered him affected, and their obsequiousness, so obviously feigned to the point of insolence, caused him to fantasise about what it would be like to punch one hard in the face and smash his teeth in.

Glancing up to get a better look at her, he had found her smiling directly at him, as if they knew one another. He quickly looked away and began to rack his brain in an effort to work out where, or indeed if, he had ever seen her before. Perhaps they had met at a book launch, or maybe at one of the big publishing fairs. He thought not, but she did seem familiar. He felt that he knew her face. Someone he had seen on TV? An actress? No, she was actually the double of his junior schoolteacher, with whom he had been infatuated as a child, twenty-five years before.

After his third bowl of food, he had had to crane his neck to get the waiter’s attention and to ask him to top up the tiny teapot with more hot water. Met with a look somewhere between confusion and disbelief, he asked for it again, deliberately exaggerating his mouthing of the words, to make sure that he would be understood. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that she was watching this little performance with an amused expression, and he felt his cheeks begin to flush. Settling back into his seat, he attempted to pick up where he had left off in his book, but it was hopeless. He had now been here for about forty minutes, and had read the same few pages, over and over, but not a single sentence had registered in his head. Now, he could not even decipher the words themselves. The letters on the pages had become transformed into little, black, abstract shapes, and he seemed incapable of forming them into anything recognisable.

Without Bede being conscious of it, the restaurant had begun to empty. Normally, he looked forward to this quiet time. He liked to eat late, so that he could linger a little and read, far away from the uproar of the office. By now, he and the woman were the only remaining customers. Most of the staff had slid away, and he watched with chagrin as the last waiter on duty lifted the half-full serving dishes from his table: it was rare for him to leave a single grain of rice, but, on this occasion, his usual effortless technique with the chopsticks had deserted him, and he had found it difficult to lift the food to his mouth without fumbling or dropping it on the tablecloth. He called for his bill, paid, reluctantly left a small tip, stood up and turned towards the door. He looked directly at her, smiled, nodded, mouthing goodbye and left.

The restaurant was on the first floor, and there was an entrance area with a cigarette machine at the foot of the stairs below it, where, by now feeling frantic, Bede paused to wait for her. Her eyes had seemed to sparkle as her smiling mouth had said goodbye back to him from below the two jets of cigarette smoke, which she was exhaling. His heart boomed in his chest, and his ears burned. Fighting in vain against the muscle spasms that caused his shoulders to jiggle, he feigned interest in what the machine had to offer. It could have been a condom dispenser for all he cared, as he had never had any interest in contraception either. A random thought struck him: perhaps a new, nicotine-flavoured condom should be launched especially for couples that enjoyed smoking.

She was descending the stairs. He turned to face her, looking up before she reached the bottom, and asked her whether or not they knew each other; he felt that he had known her all his life. Although he was certain that she had been expecting him to be there waiting, she hesitated before speaking. After glancing at his face, then letting her eyes travel down the length of his body and back up again, she said that she did not think so, but asked him what he did for a living. He did not know. His mind had gone completely blank, but his hand somehow found its way into his pocket, drew out a card and handed it to her. Seemingly impressed that he worked for what she said was her favourite newspaper, she continued down the stairs. They were now standing very close to one another. He could have stepped back to allow her to pass, but he did not. He sensed that she preferred him to stay exactly where he was. He could not stop smiling. She smiled back, telling him that she wrote a little, herself. Gesturing towards the card, he asked her to send him some samples of her work. She replied that, knowing herself as she did, she would probably never get around to having anything copied and put in the post, but that he was welcome to pop in for a drink one evening, to glance over a few of her pieces. She had had no cards herself, so she borrowed his pen, scribbled down her address and telephone number on his, and handed the card and pen back to him.

**********

She took pains to make it clear to Bede from the beginning that they had no future, that she liked him, but that she had already had a series of long relationships, and was not interested in getting seriously involved with anyone else. She told him that she had been deeply hurt by one of her former boyfriends, that she still was very much in love with him, and that, in her heart, he could never, ever be replaced. Then, of course, there was her father, who, though dead for many years, still loomed large in her life, and provided the model of her perfect partner. In a particular light and at certain angles, she told Bede, his looks reminded her of him, but that that was where the similarity ended.

She was surprised that, although Bede worked for a newspaper, he seemed particularly ill-informed about more or less everything, including the violent anti-government demonstrations and riots that were raging in every major city. Realising that he was not even aware that the country was in an advanced state of turmoil, and that, at any moment, the anarchists might throw them all into chaos, she tried to get him to discuss the situation. He listened attentively, nodding and saying little; as if he understood everything she was talking about. She asked him if the increasingly regular power cuts, rationed water and the shortage of fresh food in the shops did not worry him, or give him reason to question what was happening. Bede avoided answering. Admittedly, he took very little notice of anything in the general news, and his eyes glazed over if anyone tried to start a conversation with him about anything he was unfamiliar with, but, in any case, currently, everything else paled into insignificance beside his love for her. He refused to even contemplate that she could not be experiencing the same all-consuming feelings as he was.

**********

The distant glimmer of a few streetlights that were still working, looked very far away as he edged the car slowly forward over the potholed ground. The car’s headlights sliced through the darkness, which enveloped the graffiti-daubed garages, disturbing a couple of cats, who turned lambent eyes on the lone driver, before sauntering contemptuously out of the way. He had checked his original lock-up only periodically since it became full up. However, once in a while he needed to reassure himself that the books stored there were safe.

**********

One evening, about a month after their first meeting, his girlfriend cooked him a delicious dinner, and afterwards, out of the blue, when they were still sitting at the table, she rather formally invited him to her bed. Taken unawares, Bede discreetly slipped his hand inside his shirt, and drilled his forefinger into his navel to hook out the ball of fluff that invariably collected there. In the winter months this was an aggregate of the fibres shed by the various pullovers he wore; in warmer weather, the lighter, greyish deposit was of a less certain provenance. He deftly flicked it away before they undressed completely.

The sex was straightforward and quite quickly over. Bede was, in fact, so nervous that he had to fake an orgasm. Afterwards, he spoke of love, but she said that it had been only sex. He became frustrated and angry. She, flustered at first, then getting to grips with the confrontation, announced bluntly that she did not love him, and that she had already made it plain that she never would. She said that, during the short time that they had known each other, she had come to the conclusion that he was selfish, domineering, manipulative, vain and untrustworthy. And that, through her studies in philosophy, she had developed strong moral standards, which she was not prepared to compromise on his behalf. She went on to explain that, although she was physically attracted to him and wanted him as a very special friend, she nevertheless regarded him as immoral and frankly rather ignorant.

Though he was taken aback by this sudden attack, her description of his characteristics came as no particular surprise to Bede. The point was that he was in love with her, and, although he would have preferred her to have a good opinion of him, all that really mattered was the thought that she might one day love him. Unwilling to take the risk of scaring her away, he remained quiet and chose not to react. He bided his time and behaved himself, in the hope that she would eventually come around.

She never acted coldly towards him; indeed, his kisses were returned with equal passion. Having realised what had happened only after he left, she had been kind when she gently asked him about his faked orgasm. He said that he had known that, however long he had gone on, he would never have ejaculated, and that he had been nervous and afraid that she might think he found her body unattractive. Soon after, although he remained frightened to touch her without invitation, his potency returned. They continued to see each other, and even had a lot of fun. She seemed happy and contented in his company, so long as he did not attempt to cross the line that she had drawn, and allowed her the space she needed for herself and her work.

If it had been up to Bede, he would have seen his lover every day. When he was not with her, he would spend most of his time wishing that he were, and wondering what she might be doing. She had told him that she had other male friends, whom she saw often, and invited, occasionally to her apartment. The thought that they might be other lovers nagged at him constantly. When he attempted to interrogate her about her relationships with them, she said flatly that, no, they were not her lovers, he was. She told him in soothing tones that some of them were, indeed, ex-lovers, who remained important in her life, and without whom she could not do. He was not reassured. She went on to say that she hoped one day he would become like them, but that she feared he would be unable to be her friend after their relationship had run its course.

It suited Bede, at least, that she wanted their seeing one another to be kept private, something just between the two of them. She never attempted to introduce him to her family, or to any of her acquaintances or colleagues. She did not show any interest at all in going to his place, and when they were not going to hers, they arranged to meet in hotel lobbies and on street corners, from there to drive out to obscure suburbs, to find a place to eat, or to see a film. One of her fascinations was to watch other people, and Bede enjoyed watching her watching, in cafés, on the street and as they drove along in her car, so long as her attention eventually returned to him.

**********

Since he had taken the second lock-up on some ten years before, Bede had been an erratic visitor. It was perhaps six months since he had last been there, and because these days he read fewer books – there being somehow fewer available – it would have been some time before another trip would have been necessary. The whereabouts of his collection had always been secret. Indeed, only his parents had had any inkling that it even existed, and then only because they had watched as he carefully loaded his pre-university boxes of books into the van he had hired to transport them away. He had sensed that they were somewhat ashamed of their son’s preoccupation, so he was pretty certain that they had not said anything about it to anyone.

Tonight, though, he had mentioned it to her. It was some months into their troubled relationship and they had found themselves sitting in a kitsch, ethnic restaurant, surrounded by gaudy, though fairly realistic-looking, silk flowers. Leafy vines made from similar materials trailed overhead, and the tables were separated by tall, slim fish- tanks, in which the neon-striped fish swam, jerking backwards and forwards from one end to the other, as if hypnotised, in a seemingly-endless dance.

They usually took it in turns to choose a restaurant, and that evening, it had been her go. They smiled and took great pleasure in the fact that the deep red colour of the real tulips in the slender vase on the table between them, almost perfectly matched the wine that they ordered. By chance, they had ended up in a place no more than three hundred metres from one of his lock-ups. It excited him to see a glint in her eye at the first hint he gave her of his treasure: perhaps handing his beloved this revelation of his most intimate self might persuade her to give him her love at last. Fascinated, she could not, she said, wait to see it. She had been amazed at the prospect of a deeper, more enigmatic side to her handsome and well-dressed escort, whom she previously regarded as rather superficial. Still, he had prevaricated, had second thoughts, and eventually refused to take her. The evening ended with another of the blazing rows that had punctuated their relationship since soon after they had begun their affair.

Some weeks later, they were driving back into the centre of town, after a long and particularly good lunch in a smart country restaurant, when they came across the shocking sight of the still-smouldering, burnt-out shell of a huge, once-famous, department store. It had been raining, but all at once the sun burst through the dark clouds and illuminated the strings of mostly-intact light bulbs on a network of trailing wires, which still clung to the outline of the ruined building. Bede had been at university just along the road, and although, in those days, he had had no money to buy anything in the store, he was a frequent visitor, shuffling from floor to floor with the hordes of tourists from all over the world. Rich people had shopped for groceries in the food hall, which was filled with only the very best of the best available produce. The less well off had gone there simply on an excursion, to wonder at the displays, as if they were prize exhibits in a museum. On the first floor, there had once been a zoo, where exotic animals and birds could be bought: big cats, snakes, penguins and even spiders had all been on offer, and what they did not have, so long as it was legally available, could be ordered without fuss, at a price. An orchestra had played to the diners in the main restaurant, and green-liveried commissionaires were on hand to open the store’s doors to all visitors. Massively-expensive jewellery and watches were laid out in glass cases fitted with security alarms, and there was an enormous, marbled perfume department, which Bede had always avoided.

They had sex often and, though this was conventional enough when they were in bed together, he discovered that at other times her tastes were peculiar. For instance, she once asked him – and he, without argument, and with only the faintest hint of hesitation, complied – to shave off all of his body hair, apart from that which was on his head, then to perch naked and motionless on a barstool in the middle of her apartment. She wandered around, fully clothed, completely ignoring him, getting on with her usual business. Meanwhile, afraid to upset her, he tried not to let her know just how stupid and bored he felt. Leaving him there without a word, she went out to the shops and bought dark bread and a huge bunch of slender, green asparagus. He watched her cut a slice of bread and spread it with butter that was almost white. She picked it up and took a bite, then walked behind him. Her hand snaked around the side of his head and pushed a chunk into his mouth. Then she came and stood in front of him wearing a wide grin that showed her pink gums. Later, they prepared the asparagus and fed it to one another: the buttery juices running down there fingers and chins.

On another occasion, they had arranged to meet at her apartment for a quick lunch between their various, respective appointments. They ate and were just about to leave, when she suddenly pulled him towards her and slid her hand down to unfasten her trousers, which fell to her ankles. Hooking off one shoe and a trouser leg, she raised the bare foot on to a chair and thrust herself against him. She was a fraction taller than he, and, having released his cock, he had to bow his back to get inside her. He enjoyed her excitement, but for him the experience was uncomfortable, almost painful, and for the next few days, his back was sore and he was almost unable to walk.

Once, she had got an urgent telephone call from a friend with some life-or-death problem, and had very reluctantly rushed off, leaving him alone in her apartment. Bede seized the opportunity, and by the time she returned about an hour later, he had been through every drawer and cupboard, lifted every rug and raked around under her bed and mattress. He had found nothing, and was not even sure what he had been looking for. By the time she returned, everything was back in place, but he was sure that she knew what he had done.

**********

After much devious thought, he resolved to try to make her believe that he accepted her rejection of his love, and that he was now utterly ashamed of himself for ever having expected her to love him. But he gave up on that idea when he realised that she was too clever to be fooled into believing him. In his heart, he knew that she had been totally honest in expressing how she felt about their relationship, and that nothing he could do would ever gain him her love. In consequence, he persuaded himself that he could see no significant reason for the existence of love, if all it did was to make him feel weak and stupid and useless, because he was unable to live without it. Anyway, how could a person look after his own interests and, at the same time, be concerned for someone else’s? To him, the whole notion appeared contradictory.

Stealing himself, he stopped calling her, and left his answering machine on all of the time, so that he could screen his calls. Though it pained him greatly, he never picked up the phone when she rang, or ever called her back when her plaintive recorded voice begged him to do so. He had accepted without question, and even encouraged, her wishes that their relationship be kept discreet. Consequently, she had never been near his office, and he felt confident that she would not try to contact him there now. She wrote, concerned: was he ill? He didn’t reply. He knew she would eventually come to his house, so he dismissed his cleaner, got rid of the odd-job man and went away. She left a note pinned to his front door, written in a tone fraught with doubt and uncertainty as to whether or not it would ever be answered. She had signed it Your friend, which angered him so much when he found and read it on his return, that he tore it into tiny pieces, which he threw into a fire.

Many times, he grew weak in his resolve. He had often rung her number from a call box when he was certain she would be out, just to hear the sound of her recorded voice message, afterwards cursing himself for his feebleness. He experienced excruciating chest pains, and once thought he had had a minor heart attack, perhaps brought on by his tremendous efforts to maintain the separation. Never having been in the habit of visiting doctors, and although the pain was at times almost unbearable and continued unabated for many months, he did nothing about it.

Very early one Sunday morning, just to be on the safe side, he went out and stole from another part of town, an estate agent’s board with a sold sign pasted over it, which he erected in his front garden. He had the telephone disconnected. Her letters, which he immediately burned, arrived less frequently, and then stopped altogether. They had been together for little over a year. He never saw her or heard from her again.7

At around this time the books stored in the first lock-up were lost.

Shortly before their break-up his lover had told him about a massive air disaster that had occurred over the densely-populated eastern part of the city. Bede heard the explosion but had thought nothing of it. Two airliners had collided in mid-air. As was to be expected, none of the passengers or crew survived and there was widespread devastation on the ground. The debris had fallen over a huge area and caused serious fires; hundreds were dead or maimed, their homes destroyed. Totally unequipped to deal with the scale of the calamity, the anarchists – who he was given to understand were now in power – reluctantly accepted offers of help from abroad then promptly arrested two of the aid workers as spies.

As soon as the situation settled down, concerned about his books, Bede attempted to drive into the ravaged zone. However, as he made his approach it became obvious to him that there was little point in proceeding with his journey. Not a single building was left standing. Had he been paranoid, he could easily have formed the opinion that the crash was planned with the sole purpose of wiping out this part of his collection.

In the aftermath, struggling to overcome his grief, he tried to continue writing the book that his ex-lover had encouraged him to begin. Her early efforts at writing stories had seemed to him over-sentimental, superficial, and rather commercial and he had felt that his idea of good writing was a long way from hers. Yet, as time went on, he came to realise that she had an uncompromising agenda, and set herself progressively higher standards. She was driven, and worked obsessively. As a result, her writing developed quickly and gained substance almost overnight, while they both knew that, for a long time, he had been resting on his laurels. However, before long, her influence had insinuated itself inside him, and he felt an overwhelming new surge of inspiration.

Bede, who had written nothing since their break-up, was not to know that his renewed efforts, despite the crazy excitement they might generate in the publishing world, were pointless. It would shortly become impossible for anyone to publish anything at all.

The dream came more often now.

Bede liked the illusion of anonymity created by the sign in the garden, so much so that he stopped using the rooms at the front of the tall, three-storey house, allowed the patch of garden to become overgrown, and began to use only the rear entrance. Most of his time was spent an upstairs room at the back, where he wrote, read, ate and slept. To begin with, it was sparsely furnished, and the only books that were around were those that he scrabbled together and happened to be currently reading.

He had abhorred the clutter crowding every available surface in his parents’ home. Since leaving, he had inhabited spare, clean spaces. As a student, he had been unable to afford decent furniture, so he had preferred to have nothing. Throughout his stay, his room in the hall of residence at the university had contained no more than the table, a single upright chair and a low, armchair that he found there. The room was tall and very narrow, with white-painted walls. His bed, actually a bunk above the door, had spanned the width and was reached by a wooden ladder. The curtained-off cupboard below had served as a wardrobe and contained all his worldly goods – except, needless to say, his book collection. While his contemporaries had covered every inch of their walls with wild assemblages of garish posters and pages ripped out of magazines, Bede put nothing at all on his, though he attached a few small pictures – mostly postcards showing the city’s famous sights, plus a few portraits of authors and artists – that he liked, inside the cupboard, behind the curtain, which was always kept closed. In this way, they never disturbed the peace in the room or distracted him. Since he caught only glimpses of them when he drew the curtain aside, he never grew bored with them. As soon as he was earning enough money to afford to live as he wanted, he had furnished his flats, then later the houses he lived in, with a minimum of simple, often expensive, functional items. He had invested in, and allowed himself the luxury of, just a few large, abstract paintings in muted colours. His rare visitors thought his style of living severe. Now, as he slowly retreated from the rest of the house, he found himself dragging an assortment of furniture, equipment and books along with him. The room took on a nest-like quality as it filled up until there was barely enough space left to move around in it.

When the publishing houses were all suddenly closed down, and the newspapers were taken over by the new government, who replaced all of the senior staff, including Bede, with their stooges, he found it no longer necessary to leave his home, except to collect his ration coupons and to root around for fresh provisions, which became increasingly difficult to find. He had been used to eating well, and the pitiful supply of basic foodstuffs now available outside, did little for his appetite. However, in a fit of uncharacteristic foresight, when luxury items had begun to become scarce, Bede, paying a little over the odds, though everything would have been far more expensive now, stockpiled vast quantities of his favourite items. His kitchen cupboards were jam-packed with tinned sardines, corned beef, haricot beans, petits pois, jars of peanut butter, preserved mushrooms, peppers and artichokes in olive oil, bottles of olive oil, packets of spaghetti and rice. The cellar, meanwhile, was full to overflowing with his stock of wine, whisky and champagne.

**********

The curtains were not drawn. Having long since run out of red wine, Bede sipped the last of the champagne from the bottle he had opened to drink with his meagre dinner. A strange, warm glow seeped into the newly-darkened sky, like a sunset but somehow too low down. He has been sitting quietly for a long time, by himself. The muted sounds of shouting began to filter in from outside. Bede stood up, glanced briefly into the mirror and without reassurance, walked towards the French windows, undid the catch and opened them wide. Cool, fine drizzle stroked his face as heavy smoke wafted past him into the room. Down below his balcony, the public library was engulfed in fire. Huge flames billowed up through the roof, which was about to cave in. Not long now. Bede returned to his chair to wait. Soon after, the clock struck midnight.
©Pedro Silmon, 2011

Don’t miss the eighth instalment of This is for you, which follows next
Friday, 26th August

What do you think of the story so far?

Please leave a comment and look out for The Blog’s posts on Art, Architecture, Books, Design, etc, which will continue to run alongside the This is for you serialisation

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Fashion | Apropos Smithestablishmentarianism?

Thursday, August 18th, 2011


The Paul Smith wedding suit

See July 26th post: Smithestablishmentarianism? and tweets, below


@TheChicGeekcouk

Moore is more – Paul Smith gets inspiration from The Henry Moore Foundation http://t.co/FqaFv9E @PaulSmithDesign @henrymoorefdn

@PedroSilmon
@TheChicGeekcouk I posted a blog about the @PaulSmithDesign@henrymoorefdn thing in July tinyurl.com/3kgqx93

TheChicGeekcouk
The Chic Geek
@PedroSilmon @PaulSmithDesign Do you still have the suit?

@PedroSilmon
@TheChicGeekcouk @PaulSmithDesign Gave it to Tony Chambers, my assistant at The Sunday Times Magazine, now editor-in-chief at @wallpapermag

@TheChicGeekcouk
Has Tony Chambers @wallpapermag still got @PedroSilmon’s 1981 @PaulSmithDesign wedding suit? #detectivebytwitter

@wallpapermag
@TheChicGeekcouk
@PedroSilmon @PaulSmithDesign
He has. It’s a very good cut – very now.

@PedroSilmon
@wallpapermag @TheChicGeekcouk @PaulSmithDesign
Really chuffed! There was a lovely, navy blazer too… 

Images, from top: on the occasion of their 1981 wedding, Pedro Silmon wearing wool suit, cotton shirt and silk knitted tie, all by Paul Smith (Bass Wejuns, not shown) with wife, Lesley, in cotton and silk Mexicana dress (Midas shoes, not shown). P&L’s hair by Smile.
At their younger daughter’s graduation ceremony in July 2010, Pedro wears cotton Paul Smith suit, Agnes B crêpe shirt and Reiss knitted silk tie. Sunglasses by Ray-Ban (Hugo Boss loafers, not shown). Belt from a selection in his wardrobe. Lesley is in Hobbs knitted cardigan with Zara cotton skirt and LK Bennett gold leather clutch. Sunglasses by Ray-Ban. Watch by Skagen. (LK Bennett gold sandals, not shown). P&L’s hair by Tony & Guy.


Please leave a comment
and d
on’t miss the seventh
instalment of Pedro Silmon’s new on-line novel,
This is for you, which follows tomorrow, Friday, 19th August,
serialised exclusively for you on
The Blog

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Book | This is For You: Sixth Instalment

Friday, August 12th, 2011

This is For You  An autobiography of sorts
The new novel by Pedro Silmon, serialised, exclusively for you on The Blog

As previously explained, the characters within this book are fictitious and any similarities to persons living, or dead, are coincidental but, like many first novels, This is for you, is an autobiography of sorts. At 26,000 words, it is relatively short, however, it was written, re-written, edited and refined over a five year period, spanning 2001-2007, in Germany and the UK. I am endebted to David Miller at the prestigious UK literary agency, Rogers, Coleridge & White, to whom I was kindly introduced by Sarah Spankie, Deputy Editor of the Condé Nast Traveller; having read a draft of the text, David suggested a few changes which improved it enormously.


Part 1 continued…
Bede’s new boss died suddenly of a massive heart attack only six weeks later. It was the busiest time of the year, and no replacement was immediately available. In the hiatus that followed, he found himself thrown into the deep end, expected to take on many of his late boss’s responsibilities.

He took the job very seriously, seized the opportunity and quickly became adept at choosing the right outside contributors to produce reviews for the literary pages. Previously, he had been obliged to write a few of his own, and had based them on the style of the review snippets he had read on the backs of the paperback book-jackets in his collection. Most of what he wrote was positive and dynamic, although not profound or critical. It was popular with the publishers and the newspaper’s readership, but gained him little respect from his colleagues. Determined to change their opinion of him, and in order to strengthen his position, in his commissioning he looked for people who had the ability to put things in their correct context, who could understand what an author was doing, and write about it in an intelligent way, without personal prejudice. He deftly avoided those whose need to sound clever or whose approach might jar with the newspaper’s imperatives of integrity and truth. He looked for people who could do the job responsibly, and had their own point of view, firmly convinced that he had many of these values himself, and that this helped him to identify them in others.

It did not often happen, but once in a while, on the grounds that, for one reason or another, he believed he was not the right person to comment on a particular book, a prospective contributor might decline Bede’s offer to review it. However, Bede refused to be put off, and it was on these occasions, as he proceeded to cajole, coax and persuade until he got his way, that he excelled in his new role.

The editor-in-chief was impressed with his efforts, and appointed him as the new literary editor. Immediately adopting Bede as his protégé, he began inviting him along to functions and lunches. At these events, the editor-in-chief did most of the talking, so Bede was not required to do much more than laugh at his superior’s very often rather patronising jokes.

Not long after taking on his new role, Bede was called into the managing editor’s office. They were on friendly terms, and Bede greatly liked and respected him. As he sauntered in, he was surprised, therefore, by the stern look on the other man’s face. Bede was asked to sit down and was told in grave tones that he had been letting the side down. The reason, he gathered, was that it had come to the managing editor’s attention that Bede had been submitting expenses that were far below the level commensurate with his position. With a sense of relief, he sat back in his chair, but the managing editor’s face did not relax. The matter was serious, and Bede was instructed to rectify the situation as soon as possible.

Having been handed this licence, he found that the world was his oyster. His new salary was startlingly good, and he was quick to learn that it was easily supplemented by selling the vast numbers of unwanted review copies that were sent in to him, to a dealer down the road. Virgin, unsullied editions, he liked; signed copies, in his opinion, were somewhat degraded; he could not wait to get rid of them. He had a few hardbacks in his collection, but he was more comfortable with paperbacks, which were easier to store.

As his newspaper’s literary editor, Bede was obliged to make an appearance at some of the big events in the book world. He would put his head round the door at book launch parties, take a few sips of whatever drink was offered to him, nod to a few people, avoiding getting involved in any deep conversation, then quickly make his escape, giving the impression that he had to dash off to another event, which was very often not the case. Getting stuck next to a famous author at one of the literary award dinners, or, worse still, being seated between two famous authors, especially two who knew each other, was his nightmare. His panic always made him drink more quickly, which loosened his tongue, but, he was aware, did nothing for the quality of what he was saying. After a very short time, he would sense the others’ boredom, and see them begin to glance away, smiling fixedly, to shout a comment across the table, taking any opportunity to get involved in another conversation. Invariably, Bede would end up with backs turned toward him on either side, at which point he would get up and go to the lavatory. Whenever possible, he would find a cubicle and remain inside it for as long as he decently could, but sometimes, if all the stalls were occupied, staring into the basin, he just washed his hands and left. If this happened and the venue was big enough to allow it, without him drawing attention to himself, Bede would take the very longest possible route back to the table, hoping that by the time he returned, there might have been some movement, and he should find someone new sitting beside him.

Again, the dream… There was no telling when it might occur.

The long, steeply-inclined arm of a white crane poked up into the dense, blue, morning sky, crossed with a slowly-disintegrating vapour trail, left behind by a jet that was probably, by now, a few hundred kilometres away, dwindling toward the western horizon, out of Bede’s line of vision. Paradoxically, the two opposing elements at which he had been looking created a calm composition in the frame of the dormer window above his head. Bede liked the arrangement: it moved him. Just looking at it gave him a twinge of pleasure. He knew enough about art to be aware that this was not it, but what he saw appealed to him a lot more than much of the stuff that was currently on show in the city’s art galleries, purporting to be art but, in his view, not making a very convincing job of it. The majority of those who claimed to understand art had always irritated him. He believed that many of them were charlatans. Most, he was certain, had no real opinions of their own, but were happy to repeat the latest cliquey rhetoric, knowing that people who read the same magazines as they did, would be likely to agree, in general terms, with what they were saying. Bede’s opinion was that, if a work evoked some instinctive emotional response, be it love, hate, fascination, or sometimes even deep or relentless ennui, it was good art; if it did not, it simply was not, and as far as he was concerned, that was that. He had been called a philistine, but he really did not care. True, he had never studied art or its history, but he trusted his gut reactions to whatever was presented to him, and that was good enough for him. For the most part, although it flattered his ego to receive them, Bede ignored the steady trickle of private-view invitations that landed on his desk. The simple fact of their having been sent to him, he reasoned, meant that he was regarded by gallery-owners as important and influential.

**********

Today’s edition of the broadsheet newspaper for which he worked, completely obscured the face and almost the entire upper body of the woman sitting diagonally opposite Bede. The compartment was otherwise empty. He had had an early appointment with his doctor, and by now most people were already at work. If he had been travelling at his usual time, an hour or so earlier, it would have been difficult for him to find an empty seat.

The climbing sun cast the indistinct shadow of her profile through the yellowy-grey pages, but offered little clue to her features. Only a few light-brown, soft curls on the top of her head were visible. Her green, calf-length, sheepskin-lined coat had fallen open, revealing a pair of well-shaped legs, and Bede could see that she was wearing a very short denim skirt. So short, in fact, that when she adjusted her position, swinging around slightly, away from the window, and re-crossing her legs, he was certain he caught a flash of pale silk under sheer black tights. He looked quickly out of the window, in case she might suddenly lower the paper, but it remained held high.

Irresistibly, then, his eyes wandered in her direction, to find that her skirt appeared to be sliding slowly further upward, revealing, centimetre by tantalising centimetre, ever more of her thighs, as she gradually slumped further down in her seat. The slightly-opaque, stronger section at the top of her tights had come into view, and he could clearly see the wiggly seam that ran up the middle. He shifted his gaze, as the top left corner of the newspaper keeled limply forward, and a hand snaked out below, to adjust the skirt. She pushed down on her feet, arched her body and lifted her bottom, pulling the rumpled fabric out from under it. After an ineffectual attempt to straighten and drag down the front part too, the hand gave up and was retracted. The knickers vanished momentarily, only to reappear a few seconds later as she once more re-crossed her legs.

Bede realised that there was no reason to observe her directly. The sun shone so strongly on her side of the train that it produced a mirror-like reflection on the window beside him, which was almost as clear as the real thing. Raising up and unfolding his own forsaken newspaper, upon which he had so far not even bothered to focus, he ran his fingers along and under his belt. His enlarged penis protruded just above the waistband of his underwear, the elastic stretched tightly over it. His fingertips emerged a little sticky, and when he held them to his nostrils, the pungent odour, with its hint of ammonia, caused them to flare.

Throughout the entire journey into the city, which lasted a little less than an hour, no one else entered their end of the carriage, and her newspaper, although it twitched and lurched as the pages were turned, came down only as the train slowed for the first main station. The woman stood up swiftly, straightened her skirt and pulled her coat around her, tossed her hair and, turning towards Bede with a knowing smile, stepped off the train, leaving the abandoned newspaper on the empty seat.

**********

Bede had wandered all morning around the cool, narrow streets of the ancient seaside town, and sat now in a quiet, sunny courtyard café, enjoying his second frothy cup of coffee. He flicked warily through the pages of the local tabloid newspaper, pondering vaguely the possible meanings of the screaming headlines, grappling with one another like boisterous children, each demanding his attention. The huge, tightly-cropped photographs both frightened and excited him: it was all very different at the newspaper on which he worked, where solid, conservative tradition dictated the use of discreet headlines, small pictures and well-ordered columns of text.

It was common practice at the time, for major newspaper companies to allow journalists a six-week-long sabbatical after ten years’ continuous service. This state of affairs had not come about via some generous, philanthropic gesture on the part of the proprietors. On the contrary, it was a component of the many agreements, successfully negotiated by the powerful journalists’ union, at one point or another, with the various company managements. As such, it was not supposed to be seen as simply an excuse for a long holiday: these agreements stipulated that eligible journalists must put forward a proposal to their editor, describing how they would use this break from their everyday work, to broaden their knowledge and experience in such a way as to make them a greater asset to the company. In reality, the proposals were never given more than a cursory glance, and when the journalists returned to work, none of them was ever asked to present any sort of report on what they had accomplished. It was true that some people went off and wrote books, but this was done more with a view to lining their own pockets than with bringing any benefits to their employers. Others either loafed about doing more-or-less nothing, or did clandestine and often very lucrative work for other newspapers or media, their identities obscured behind noms de plume.

Like almost everyone else, when the opportunity came along for him to take his sabbatical, Bede had no qualms about abusing the system. Without giving it a second thought, although he had no particular idea of what he might do, he dictated a short, rather vague proposal to his secretary, saying that he was going to write a travel book. Within minutes, it was neatly typed out, signed, and put into the internal post. Later the same day, he got a one-line, initialled memo from the editor, granting his approval.

Although the travel book idea had just come off the top of his head, as the sabbatical loomed, Bede began to think it might do him good to get away alone somewhere for an extended period. It was something he had never done. Everyone at the newspaper already had six weeks’ annual holiday, and Bede, though he was grateful for it, always found it difficult to use the whole allowance. On his rather infrequent solo fortnights abroad, he had chosen his destinations pretty much at random. However, his preference was for coastal destinations with a warm climate that were neither too hot nor too humid. Because of his hatred of crowds, he tended to go off-season. Usually, for the first week, he did little more than swim and go snorkelling, in between long bouts of lying around on a beach, reading books, for long enough to acquire a passable tan. Then, although he had scarcely made an attempt at research beforehand, in order to be able to understand something of what he might discover, he liked to spend time wandering around mediaeval towns, or stumbling over ancient ruins. Using his own intuition as a compass, he followed his nose wherever it led him. He visited a few of the many museums he came across, but never stayed long. Without the ability to place anything he saw into historical context, he very soon became irritated, looking at the artefacts on display. Inevitably, he picked up bits and pieces of knowledge along the way, but was never quite sure how any of them fitted together.

**********

It was the hottest part of the day, and Bede was sitting, replete, the remains of his lunch in front of him, on the cool, canopied terrace of a small hotel; one of many whose tables lined the fringes of the busy, bustling flower market. It was his favourite place for people-watching. A slim and very good-looking woman of around his age, sat down at the opposite end of the long refectory table. She was a redhead and, judging by the way she dressed and her pale freckled face, half-hidden in the shadow beneath her baseball cap, he was sure she was a tourist. A smaller, more elderly woman, whom he took for a local, sat down with her. After a while, he decided his initial instincts about the striking redhead had been wrong, as he picked up from her conversation, snatches of patois.

Two youths sitting between Bede and the two women, soon got up and left, leaving a free expanse of table. As the waiter arrived to take the women’s order, the redhead sent a glance down the table in Bede’s direction. Grappling with his reticence, he looked directly at her and gestured towards his half-carafe of house white wine, squeezing his lips and nodding to signal that it was very good. She smiled, thanking him in his own language, and ordered the same. The companion, evidently resenting his intrusion, nodded back with a barely-discernible movement in his general direction, then immediately drew the younger woman into some discussion of the menu. Bede, feeling a little light-headed from the wine, and having long ago finished eating, returned to his book.

**********

Bede admired and envied passion in others, because, no matter how hard he searched; he failed to find true passion in little other than his book-collecting and his obsession with himself. As far as heroes are concerned, all of his came out of books. Though he could easily recall aspects of their characters, he found it difficult to remember any of their names, which made distinguishing one from another almost impossible. It was therefore, hard for him to discuss them with anyone else. Mostly, they were what can be described as romantic anti-heroes. For instance, there was the arrogant one who was always ill because he never seemed to get enough to eat; who robbed and killed an old woman as a kind of intellectual experiment, then turned crazy – if he had, indeed, not been already that way inclined. Then, there was an ancient and very powerful emperor, who was remembered for playing beautiful music on his lyre while the great city at the heart of the empire he ruled burned around him. Another was an eighteenth-century dandy, who was irresistible to women and spent his entire adult life skipping from one lady’s welcoming bed to another, fearlessly risking their husbands’ wrath. But Bede was also fond of the teenager, high on his boiling hormones, who suddenly decided to leave his cosseted life at the family home in a provincial town, to go to the big city to discover his true self and become a grown-up. He was a fan of the author who invented this particular character, too. He admired him for his decision to become a recluse who, in his sixties, with complete disregard for public odium, set up home with a girl a lot less than half his age. Another of his heroes was the multi-talented painter, draughtsman and ceramicist, who spent most of his time away from his own country, but who nevertheless remained very much a part of it, and whom he had heard described as possibly the most important artist of the twentieth century. Bede had gone out of his way to see the art, which, as with most other art, failed to move him. What excited him much more was the man’s reputation as a voracious predator, who would stop at nothing to get any woman he wanted, only to cast her aside as soon as he got bored with her, while moving swiftly on to the next.

**********

Engrossed as he had been in his reading, Bede was returned with a start to the hotel restaurant, by a question from the other end of the table. The redhead, who now appeared to be alone, wanted to know if he could direct her to a nearby garden, which she had heard was very beautiful. The terrace was right by the noisy marketplace and, gesturing that she could not hear his reply, she grinned widely and summoned him with a wave.

They shook hands and introduced themselves, smiling together at their formality. She quickly explained that she was there on holiday and staying with her cousin, who had just gone to the ladies’. She repeated her question about the garden, but, although he told her he could remember having seen a sign for it somewhere, he was unable to give her clear directions. Declining her offer of wine, he explained that he had already drunk more than his lunchtime quota. The cousin now returned, throwing them both disapproving looks, as she reoccupied her seat. The redhead introduced Bede, who at the same moment attracted the attention of a passing waiter and invited the two women to join him for coffee. Normally, he never touched coffee after midday, because it prevented him from sleeping at night, but on this occasion he was happy to take the risk. Pooh-poohing the older woman’s predictable refusal, he insisted on ordering something for her regardless.

This was unusual behaviour for Bede, who was not known for throwing his money around. It was not that he was naturally miserly, but, having come from a relatively-poor background, where money was scarce and luxuries almost unknown, he had developed, or perhaps inherited, a strong instinct for self-preservation, which manifested itself in his hoarding. Whenever there was any abundance of anything he valued, he would carefully squirrel it away as insurance against possible future shortages. This may go some way to explaining the existence of his collection, which would probably be seen as virtually worthless to anyone else, but was of enormous value to him due to its sheer bulk.

He had quickly calculated that, as his bill was already settled, the good-mannered redhead would almost certainly, despite any protestations he might make, insist on the cost of the coffee being added to theirs – a gamble that paid off.

She was still asleep, her long, red hair streaming out in kinks and curls across the twisted pillow, a freckled knee and foot sticking out from below the creased sheet. Her face was invisible, but he knew her eyes were shut, and the constant drone of her light snoring told him that it might be some time before she would wake. His hotel room was tiny and, very claustrophobic. He had been up and about for almost an hour, moving around, at first quietly, and then, when this had no effect, with increasing din and clatter. He shaved and showered in the adjoining, cupboard-sized bathroom, while on she slept. Eventually, unable to endure the ennui any longer, Bede leapt up and went out, slamming the door behind him. On returning half an hour later, he was relieved to find her up and dressed with a lightly made-up face, and hair swept back into a loose ponytail.

It was while her cousin made a second visit to the toilet, over coffees, that Bede and the redhead had arranged their assignation, to meet for cocktails that evening in the bar of a very smart, exceedingly famous old hotel on the seafront. There, she cleverly asked the barman to recommend a good fish restaurant, and he, instantly picking up a telephone to make their reservation, had earned his generous tip by adding confidentially that it was for very special guests of the hotel, who should be treated accordingly. Bede was impressed.

It turned out that she was an architect. During an earlier study trip to the area, she had contracted typhoid fever, and, although she had been greatly taken with the climate and the people who had nursed her, including the cousin who had been so hostile to him that lunchtime, she had gone home to recover. Feeling totally fit again, she had come back, ostensibly for a holiday, but with the idea of looking into the possibility of settling there.

By being cautious with his money, Bede had become comfortably well off. He was on a good salary, and the mortgage payments for his home were well within his means. He did not own a car and when it became necessary for him to ferry more boxes of books to his lock-up, hired one for the day. Otherwise, travelling everywhere in one of the newspaper’s pool chauffeured cars, or taking taxis that he charged to expenses, he avoided any transport costs. Similarly, when not being entertained by a publisher, an agent or a writer, he took one or other of these out himself, and put that cost on his expenses, too. Because it was recognised that he had to be almost continuously on call, the newspaper paid two-thirds of his home telephone bill, as well as the full cost of the line rental and the equipment. They also paid for any newspapers or magazines he bought. Spending so little time at home, he needed very few provisions, and he received so many bottles of champagne and whisky from publishing companies, especially at the end of the year, that his cupboards were full to overflowing. He paid a minimal amount for a cleaner, who came in twice a week, and who also ironed his shirts. Then there was the local odd-job man, who looked after the bits and pieces of maintenance that the house required, and kept the garden tidy. Of course, Bede liked wearing nice clothes, and was prepared to pay what was necessary to have them. But, because they were always of good quality, they lasted well. In making his wardrobe selections, he steered clear of extreme fashion trends, so he could continue wearing whatever he bought from one year to the next. All in all, his outgoings amounted to very little. Consequently, Bede had for some time been building up surplus capital, gradually and to no particular end, and was wondering what to do with it.

Excited by his new architect friend’s design ideas, Bede suggested writing her a brief for a house that she might build for him.  She leapt at the proposition, and immediately began searching the coast for a suitable site. She had been introduced to a famous architect who took regular holidays in the area, and her choice of the site was via a recommendation from this man’s wife, another local. Within a week, she had persuaded Bede to buy the small plot, which was protected by a headland and set close to a small beach, among geometric rock formations.

To Bede, the plot’s isolated position was part of its appeal, but building there was not going to be easy. A very rough footpath, formerly used only by fishermen, skirted the site, along which the lighter building materials could certainly be brought by wheelbarrow from the nearby rail station. Anything heavy or large would have to come by boat, though first a jetty would first have to be constructed.

Her father had designed and built ships all over the world. The peripatetic lifestyle he wished upon the family, dragging them in his wake around the globe, had taken its toll, and her parents’ marriage had eventually fallen apart. But her visits to the shipyards and the awesome experience of looking skywards from the floors of vast canyon-like dry docks, below the massive, towering hulks in various stages of completion, had had a profound effect upon her aesthetic sensibilities. In her own designs, naval architecture became a constant reference point, especially with regard to her clever use of often limited inside space, and the relationship between the interior and the outer shell of her buildings. In fact, the modest house she sketched out for Bede somewhat resembled a large, white boat marooned upon a rocky shore. From the landward side of the sloping site, two floors with very few windows would be visible, as well as the rail that would encircle the roof terrace. There would be a kind of turret on the top, which would protect the entrance to the spiral staircase that linked every floor of the house. She even recommended having a flagpole. The seaward elevation, arranged on three floors, was to be much more open. The main living area on the middle floor – the ground floor on the landward side – was designed as a large flexible space, which could be divided off and adapted by a series of screens that folded into the walls. Huge, plate-glass doors, which could be slid open, so that the division between the outside and the inside of the house all but disappeared, would provide panoramic views across the bay. To avoid clutter and to make economical use of all available space, floor-to-ceiling cupboards would be inbuilt wherever it was convenient. She produced sketches for beautiful, modern furniture and rugs, which she suggested Bede might like to have custom-made for the house.

This dream would never materialise.

Very soon the architect and he began to bicker. Bede, not wishing to let her in on his secret, had nevertheless stipulated at the outset of their discussions, that he would require massive amounts of book shelving, yet only a very limited provision had been made. She re-examined her drawings and made a few adjustments here and there, but Bede was far from satisfied. The idea that had formulated in his mind when he had first got interested in this woman’s skills, was that she could build a house that would be a safe repository, not only for the books currently in his collection, which he would spare no expense to ship there, but also for all the many volumes that he planned to buy in the future. What had attracted him in her initial drawings was the amount of free wall space, protected from the strong sunlight by a broad, overhanging section of the flat roof. He wanted to build in bookshelves to cover every inch of it. Her advice, which, when it fell on deaf ears, turned into loud protestation, was that the entire feeling of space she had visualised would be lost if she complied with his wishes. She told him that this was going to be a great house; the most prominent, international architectural magazines were bound to want to run features about it; it would become an architectural shrine. None of this interested Bede – in fact, the mere mention of media-attention frightened him to death. Cancelling the work that had already begun on the jetty, he decided to cut his losses by instructing one of the solicitors in the town to get the best price he could for the land, then packed his bags and went home.
©Pedro Silmon, 2011

Don’t miss the seventh instalment of This is for you, which follows next
Friday, 19th August

What do you think of the story so far?

Please leave a comment and look out for The Blog’s posts on Art, Architecture, Books, Design, etc, which will continue to run alongside the This is for you serialisation

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Book | This is For You: Fifth Instalment

Friday, August 5th, 2011


This is For You An autobiography of sorts

The new novel by Pedro Silmon, serialised, exclusively for you on The Blog

As previously explained, the characters within this book are fictitious and any similarities to persons living, or dead, are coincidental but, like many first novels, This is for you, is an autobiography of sorts. At 26,000 words, it is relatively short, however, it was written, re-written, edited and refined over a five year period, spanning 2001-2007, in Germany and the UK. I am endebted to David Miller at the prestigious UK literary agency, Rogers, Coleridge & White, to whom I was kindly introduced by Sarah Spankie, Deputy Editor of the Condé Nast Traveller; having read a draft of the text, David suggested a few changes which improved it enormously.


Part 1 continued…

Chapter by chapter, Bede’s life came together, took shape and seemed to follow some sort of direction. It was a slow process and throughout, he was always eager, always keen to speed things up. He was anxious about leaving anything too long, lest, through his tardiness, he missed out on something else – perhaps the fame that he knew he had always merited but never thought he would attain. It worried him that he was not better able to control his life, that he could not simply escape the seemingly ineluctable destiny of obscurity, which clung to his legs, dragging him down. He made a momentous decision: he was determined just to be himself, and to act entirely in his own interests, on his own intuition. No longer would he accept the advice that others offered him. Never again would he even pretend to be a reasonable sort of person, unless appearing to be so would bring him more quickly towards his own goals. He would not tolerate diversions or obstructions. He told himself that he knew exactly where his talents lay, and that he knew how to use what he had been blessed with, in order to get precisely where he wanted to be. Up until then he had often asked himself if anything could possibly be more interesting than what was going through his own mind. Though he almost always took great pains not to appear downright rude, he lacked patience and rarely listened to what anyone else had to say. Someone would ask him something, then be forced to repeat the question, as Bede turned towards him with a blank face. He would struggle and appear to make some effort to focus on the subject of the enquiry, but he found it difficult and irritating to have to let go of his own thoughts.
Knowing and understanding himself so well now, he invented his own maxim:

SELFISHNESS WORKS ONLY WHEN YOU KEEP IT TO YOURSELF

He thought it sounded rather clever, and this was as close as he ever came to the subject of philosophy, with which he had no wish to become involved. Actually, he was rather frightened of it. He despised intellectuals because they confused him and spoke a language that he could not grasp. He refused to accept that there was a level of thought way above his head, with which others were capable of grappling that would always escape his understanding.

Sometimes, when he was feeling low, he would go for walks in the cemeteries where famous people had been buried. It gave him an enormous sense of relief and reassurance to walk among their grand and pompous monuments. In fact, the more ostentatious the structures, the better they made him feel. He felt little respect for the expired scientists who, before dying, had insisted on having their equations inscribed on their gravestones, or for the dead composers with their treble clefs, their crotchets and their quavers. Bede made a will in which he categorically insisted that, when he died, his body must be cremated: his work would be his only monument.

**********

Pencil in hand, head bowed, glasses near the tip of his handsome nose, Bede padded endlessly back and forth along the corridor that ran the length of the building. In his stocking feet, deep in thought, he was both alert and distant. It was late evening, and, as usual, only a few stragglers remained in the offices. His arms were folded around a piece of wrinkled typing paper, and every so often he stopped, pushed the paper up against the wall and scribbled some note or amendment. His repetitive passing of the familiar markers along the way – the uprights dividing the glassed-in offices, the coffee machine, the photo-copying room with its gentle humming, the notice board, the red fire extinguishers and the untidy piles of old newspapers and magazines on either side of the office doors – lulled him into a meditative state. As he reached the point when his mind transcended the mundane surroundings, his creative juices surged. Discarding his shoes helped him to relax, but he was aware that many of his colleagues regarded it as affectation.

Bede struggled to do any real work during normal office hours. There were, of course, the mandatory morning conferences in the editor’s office, attended by all senior staff, to which he was supposed to go. However, his predecessor had argued that, in view of the very special nature of a literary editor’s close relationships with writers, agents and publishers, which he could maintain only by being constantly available to socialise with them at almost any hour, day or night, he might not often be able to attend. The special dispensation sought had been granted, and when Bede himself became literary editor, he simply took advantage of the inherited situation.

Although he was required to edit everything he commissioned, he produced very little of the actual writing that appeared on his pages. However, from the outset, and to the annoyance of the chief sub-editor, who saw them as part of his fiefdom, Bede appropriated the responsibility of formulating the headlines and standfirsts that introduced each of the pieces. It was not long before he achieved universal acclaim as a master in this field, and it was this work that he did in the evenings.

In truth, he spent most of his mornings alone, sitting in his regular café, drinking one cup of coffee after another, skimming through the latest books he had been sent for review, which his secretary had had delivered there for him.

Not one to be seen with a conventional leather briefcase, which he felt would have made him look too formal and serious, he had got his secretary to contact all of the quality carrier-bag manufacturers, to obtain samples of their products for inspection. After due consideration, he decided that none of them suited his purpose. He needed a strong, durable bag, devoid of any graphics, capable of carrying at least half a dozen books, which would not turn to sponge at the first touch of a raindrop. He sketched out his own design, which he took to the company that made the better bags. When it drew up outside the factory shed, the shiny, chauffeur-driven, company limousine that he had ordered to take him to the industrial estate out near the city’s main airport, certainly created the desired impression. Very soon, everyone from receptionist to managing director was falling over themselves in their efforts to be helpful to him. Over mugs of tea – which Bede did not touch, because he drank tea only from a cup and saucer – and shortbread biscuits that came in little cellophane packs of two – in the managing director’s overheated, grimy office, his requirements were exhaustively discussed. The company’s in-house designer was summoned. He cooed over the sketches, and brought along paper samples for consideration. Bede was given a grand tour of the production facilities, and at the end of it, ordered 200 carrier-bags. Struggling to maintain an impression of being grateful for the tiny order, the managing director, who was used to supplying bags in their thousands to the capital’s smartest shops, grimaced, gulped, took a deep breath and wrenched his face into a smile. Bede smiled inwardly, comfortable in the knowledge that he would get exactly what he wanted.

He would push the books he thought worthy of consideration into one carrier-bag, and the rejects into another. Then he took a taxi back to the office, sitting in the middle of the broad seat, the bags on either side of him. Arriving around noon, he passed them to his secretary, who would despatch the chosen books to the list of selected reviewers he had jotted down. By this time, she had opened and sorted his mail, which she arranged in neatly-ordered piles, ready for pre-lunch inspection, on his desk. Putting on his glasses, Bede went carefully through everything. Taking them off again and placing them gently down, he swiftly scribbled out, or dictated, any necessary replies. There were usually a few invitations to parties and launches that attracted his interest, to which his secretary would dispatch an acceptance on his behalf. She would then write the date in his diary, where she also inserted the favoured invitation cards. Those he discarded went straight into the bin, along with the fliers on obscure literary events, work experience applications, and so on. Bede would then disappear. Given the opportunity, he preferred to walk a little then lunch somewhere quiet, by himself, but mostly, his many and lengthy lunch appointments, with writers and editors, and anyone else it was necessary for him to see, as well as the taxi or car rides at either end, took up most of the middle part of each day. Normally, he would arrive back at the office around 3.30, whereupon he slept for an hour or so, slumped over his desk. Tea was brought in at 4.40, when his secretary invariably had to wake him. She always had plenty of time during the interim to take the bagful of unselected titles to the bookshop, and return with the cash the bookseller had paid for them. She gave the full amount to Bede, who carefully counted the money, then, according to their little understanding, handed her five per cent of whatever was earned.

Occasionally, he did not return to the newspaper at all, nor did he call his secretary to explain where he was or at what time he might be expected to return. When this first began to happen, she was naturally concerned, but, as time went on, and as he made no effort to provide excuses for his absences, she decided that the loyal thing to do was just to accept them and find ingenious ways of covering up until his return.

**********

Bede’s route to his exalted position had been tortuous. Directly after leaving university, up until the day of his dismissal only five months afterwards, he was employed on a national newspaper as a junior sub-editor, where he was only ever given what he felt were rather menial tasks. It was not quite what he had expected, and he felt his talents were being wasted.

One morning, a few days after he started, the chief sub-editor, who had noticed that Bede looked rather lost and despondent, sat him down beside his desk, on a swivel chair that had lost its swivel. Then, with an intimate wink but no explanation, the chief sub-editor disappeared out into the corridor, and returned a minute later carrying a squishy plastic cup between his thumb and middle finger. The cup was filled to the brim with a steaming, greyish liquid, which should have been tea, but smelled of coffee. With quivering hands, he placed it gingerly on the desktop beside Bede. Predictably, as his fingertips released their pressure, the liquid slopped around and welled over, leaving a little puddle all around the base of the cup. Then he bent down and reached into the deep drawer of the filing cabinet and lifted out one of a dozen or so cans of soft drinks, which, Bede saw, were stacked inside. There was a swift, sharp hiss as the ring tab was pulled, and lots of bubbling, fizzing and gurgling, as a portion of the liquid was tipped into an extra plastic cup, which the chief sub-editor had brought from the machine. The chief sub-editor took a short sip, then a longer, deeper draught, before leaning back in his chair.

He began to explain to Bede just how important the sub editor’s job was. Every detail in the newspaper had to be thoroughly checked before it went to press. For instance, a quality newspaper, such as this one, had a long tradition of publishing the complete guest-lists of all of the country’s official events. These came under very close scrutiny, and if a single title was incorrect, or a name misspelled, the company’s reputation could be irrevocably damaged. In the worst scenario, this might mean the paper had restricted access to future functions, which would have a disastrous effect. The onus for making sure that each item published was absolutely correct, fell on the subs, who took great pride in regularly accomplishing their task.

The swivel chair creaked painfully if Bede so much as clenched or relaxed a buttock muscle…

In addition, the subs were normally responsible for writing every headline, every introduction and every picture caption throughout the entire newspaper.

Bede began to think about the attraction of the dulling effects of drinking alcohol during
the day…

It was for the commissioning editors and features editors to make any major textual changes to stories, under the direction of a section editor, the deputy editor, or even the editor himself. After they had finished with them, the corrected or amended proofs, all set in single-column galley form, on long, curling strips of creamy, fresh newsprint, were stacked in the subs’ basket for final checking, before being despatched via messengers back to the typesetting room downstairs. The messengers were a mixed bunch of oddball characters; many of them were elderly, and one or two limped as a result of old war wounds. Unskilled labourers, they were nevertheless a very proud lot, who would easily become red-faced and greatly upset at the least breath of criticism. One day they were called messengers; the day after, they were transformed into editorial assistants: henceforth, anyone who dialled their number and asked for a messenger got an earful of abuse before the receiver was slammed down. It paid dividends to be nice to them, as they were the cause of many a dispute between unions and management, which mostly developed out of their being asked to account for items entrusted to them, which had not reached their destinations. Galleys they had dropped were often to be seen, scuffed and torn, among the debris that littered the building’s many staircases, although it would have been tantamount to suicide for anyone on the editorial staff ever to find them.

Bede’s work came in spurts, and in between he found he had a lot of spare time on his hands.  In order to stave off the boredom, he often devoted himself to messing around with, and sometimes completely rewriting, odd pieces of text that he found lying around the office. No one asked him to do this, but nobody seemed to take much notice either.

Close to press time one day, as they all bashed away at their typewriters and checked facts over the telephone, he noticed that the subs’ basket was overflowing with a messy heap of galley proofs. He strode purposefully over, extracted one of the longer pieces at random, rolled it loosely, and took it back to his desk to read. No one appeared to have seen him do this. The text was about the print unions, who were currently on the verge of serious dispute with most of the other national newspapers, over demands they had made for better working conditions, which the companies were refusing to meet. The topic was understandably being treated with kid gloves, and the text, which had already been vetted by the editor-in-chief and the company lawyer, who had asked for some whole paragraphs to be deleted and a few sentences to be worded more delicately, had come back to the subs for final checking and fitting.

Bede wished he had picked up something else. He knew very little about what was going on with the unions, and the subject was of no interest to him. He considered just burying the galley in the wastepaper bin under his desk, in the hope that everyone concerned would think the messengers had mislaid it, but it was too risky. If anyone had noticed him taking something from the basket, he might be asked to account for it, unless he was seen also to put something back.

Having little else to occupy him, he began to work his way down the first column. For the benefit of the newspaper’s readers, the senior editor responsible for writing the piece, had attempted to explain in a fair and even-handed sort of way, the complexities of the disagreements that had led to the current volatile situation, in which, at the drop of a hat, the unions might easily bring production of the country’s biggest titles to an abrupt halt. He went on to talk about historical precedents for the current state of affairs, and finished with a few very generalised suggestions for ways in which unions and management might work together to build a better future for the whole industry. It may have started life as something a little grittier, but, in its edited state, Bede decided, this was very bland stuff indeed. Indifferent to the excruciating efforts and painstaking checking that had gone before, he concluded it could do with a little beefing up. Picking up a ballpoint pen, which was red, just like the lawyer’s, he proceeded to cancel some of the lawyer’s marks. Mimicking the lawyer’s hand, he scribbled the printers’ correction mark ‘stet’, and dashed off broken underlines beneath contentious, excised passages, which he wanted reinstated. The subs would, he knew full well, take it to mean that the lawyer had changed his mind, and, after a brief final check on grammar and punctuation, would send the proof back to the typesetting room from where it would be sent to print. On this particular day, the editorial assistants proved well up to their task.

Bede ignored the braying pickets, who had appeared at first light to line the pavement outside the building the following morning, a few of whom he recognised, having worked alongside them only the day before. He kept his head erect and avoided any direct eye contact as he walked past the policemen and the television crews, toward the main entrance. The familiar, heavy smell of printers’ ink filled his nostrils, as he stepped inside the door and came face to face with the familiar uniformed commissionaire, who was under strict instructions never to allow him to enter the newspaper’s offices again.

Undaunted, and taking the calculated risk of simply lying about his previous experience, he quickly obtained an interview for a job that he saw advertised. He had learned enough to know that, in newspapers, everything depended entirely on how well you hit it off with your potential boss. If he liked you, you were in, never mind whether or not you had the right academic qualifications for the position. On the other hand, an unappealing applicant’s references would be thoroughly scrutinised for the necessary ammunition to compose a letter of rejection.

Through the fortunate coincidence that a somewhat naive, temporary secretary had made the appointment, his interview was scheduled for three in the afternoon. He had applied for the job of assistant to the literary editor, who, as befits someone in that elevated position, eventually appeared at around 3.45, after what had been a long and evidently rather boozy lunch. Bede, who had arrived at ten to three, had been asked to wait in his office, and was taken aback when without warning, the door banged open. The literary editor shook Bede’s hand, rested his bottom fleetingly on the corner of the desk, then slid into his chair, unbuttoning his coat and picking up his telephone, all in one continuous and very fluid movement. Coffee ordered, for the first time he looked in Bede’s direction, and smiled. Dressed in a well-cut, mid-grey flannel, single-breasted suit, blue shirt and bold, dogtooth-checked, red-and-navy tie, he was dandyish, well spoken and in his early forties. It worried Bede that he was being looked over rather than looked at, until suddenly he was asked where he had got his suit and what it had cost. His answer was met with complicit, nodding approval. Over the coffee, into which the literary editor sloshed a good deal of cognac and invited Bede to do the same, the questioning moved on to whether or not Bede could remember his first fuck, and what sort of final score he intended to achieve before he retired from the field.

Out in the street, the interview comfortably behind him, Bede felt sure that his modest, direct answers had stood him in good stead to clinch the job. It seemed to him that the literary editor had been in a philanthropic mood and keen to contribute to his future education.

One fuck, not his first, had flashed through his mind, but he certainly had had no intention of sharing the memory with his potential future employer. He had been at it, doggy-style, with a lusty young nurse he met though friends at university, when she arched her back and farted loudly. After an instant’s pause, they had both collapsed, rolling around in fits of laughter.
©Pedro Silmon, 2011

Don’t miss the sixth instalment of This is for you, which follows next
Friday, 12th August

What do you think of the story so far?

Please leave a comment and look out for The Blog’s posts on Art, Architecture, Books, Design, etc, which will continue to run alongside the This is for you serialisation

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Design | Sitting on a Mid-century Butterfly

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

The Hardoy Chair
Jorge Ferrari-Hardoy, 1947

The seat I like to sit on – or, in this case, in – when the sun is shining and it’s hot outside, is one I bought at Crate & Barrel in New York for about $35 in the late 90s.

I’d first seen this type of chair, some years earlier in Cara Greenberg’s book, Mid-Century Modern, which included sketchy details of its origins. Sometimes called the Butterfly, the Sling, the BFK, the BKR, the Hardoy Chair by Knoll, who in 1947 acquired US production rights, is accredited to Jorge Ferrari-Hardoy (1914-1977), as it is in Moma|The Collection. Knoll’s museum website does explain, however, that it was developed in 1938 by a team of three Argentinian architects, including Ferrari-Hardoy – he had worked in Paris with Le Corbusier – who based their idea on a 19th century, folding, wooden, British officers’ chair. A rash of inferior copies prompted legal action by Knoll in 1950 and, in 1951, after losing their claim of copyright infringement, the company dropped the Hardoy chair from its line. According to Greenberg, the design had by then been knocked off to the tune of about 5 million copies, thus making it the signature modernist chair of the latter 20th century.

The Knoll version, with its luxurious leather-slung seat and non-folding but exceedingly elegant frame, is a very different animal to the worn canvas-slung folding version with its rusting, spindly frame that I carry out into the garden. None-the-less, I’ve had mine for over 20 years and when it gives up the ghost and drops to pieces, I’ll certainly go back for another one.

Have you got the Knoll version?

Please leave a comment and look out tomorrow for the 5th instalment of This is For You, my new on-line novel, serialised this summer only on The Blog.

To see more of my garden images, please go to Pedro Silmon Garden Photography

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