The Low Life Highs of Jeffrey Bernard

The Low Life Highs of Jeffrey Bernard

I was walking along Cleveland Street the other day in a cold drizzle when I suddenly came across an amazing collage on the pavement which just about summed up the human condition to perfection. It comprised a pool of vomit, an empty beer can, some dog shit and a sprinkling of confetti.

– 3 January 1987

My favourite English writer finally got his name in lights in 1989 with the hit play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell that was largely based on his long-running column for the Spectator magazine. That column was also published in three collections – Low Life (1986), More Low Life (1989) and Reach for the Ground (1996) – though some notable omissions mean these are not the collected pieces.

In these books the style changes over time in one important respect. The earliest is perhaps the most uneven. Presumably written in more of a hurry, it still contains more high points of utter quotability than the other two. By the last book, his various ailments have slowed him down so much that he inevitably has more time on his hands, as incident gives way to reflection.

No matter the year, though, Bernard (1932-97) still gives the reader a reassuring feeling like the one he himself had about Turkish baths. You can walk about and have a chat and all sorts of oddballs loom up in the steam. The main subjects remain the same. Booze, women, horse-racing, hospitals, the peculiarities of the rich and famous, getting away from it all, and the Coach and Horses pub in Soho, with his comic foil the gruff Jewish landlord, Norman Balon. I overpaid him with a penny for his thoughts.

In more ways than one, as Bernard reminds the reader, drink gets you somewhere you wouldn’t otherwise be. I have even woken up in a drawer at the bottom of a wardrobe. That was fairly frightening. Trying to open a drawer from the inside. It’s quite tricky. 

His real boozing set in during the Sixties. There is a vignette of the comedian Tony Hancock (1924-68) falling in a heap on the floor of a London cab, after a ten-hour session with Bernard, but still reaching up and handing him his card. Phone me if you get into trouble. I think you may have a drinking problem. Nevertheless it is doubtful Bernard was ever in the eating-is-cheating camp, as is evident from this one-liner.

People who drink wine without food smell like drains.

Drink was always the other woman, he eventually grasped. What I know about women could be put inside the head of an ant. This of course was not true. With seriously dangerous women you can hear them thinking in the dark. He had reached the point of low to zero expectations – All I expect is that they wake me up when the waiter brings the bill – but it was there he could make a vintage brew from emotional and literal car crashes.

I remember once being given a severance kiss in favour of a property dealer who turned out to be impotent. There was also a woman… who… jumped into her car and drove straight into a wall, blinded no doubt by crocodile tears.

I just heard a terrific bang and smash followed by screams, and ran out into the street to find that someone had driven a car right into the Draper’s Arms. It was sitting there oozing smoke in the saloon bar. Luckily the occupants were… simply shocked. Whether they were shocked by the crash or shocked by the fact that it wasn’t quite opening time is debatable.

On life’s episodes of jumping into bed, un-followed, though he was married four times, Bernard focuses on the effects of pre-coital (or non-coital) tobacco consumption.

Sadly I’ve never had a footman to summon and have these people thrown out before they smoke all my cigarettes. I resign myself to the situation, take a Valium and then fall asleep and burn the bedspread… I now have a fire extinguisher by my bed but I never really know whether to aim it at my privates, the lady or the bedspread.

On hospital patients, his conviction did not quite match the old theatrical metaphor that the characters may change but the play remains the same. For him the characters alas did not vary either.

my three companions are dead ringers for any and all the other trios I’ve ever served time with in hospitals. It’s a bit like being in rep.

Sadly the patients never change. Are they provided by some sort of agency? Is anyone worth talking to ever hospitalised?

… it is the patients who get up my nose the most: readers of The Sun, football fans, moaners and men who would take an oath on Reader’s Digest. I sometimes wonder if it is only the ugly and mindless who get sick.

To be fair he does not care for medical students either, with one or two “who couldn’t diagnose a decapitation” but all exuding halitosis.

Norman is a kind but sometimes embarrassing hospital visitor, paying calls as he does to every bed in the ward and then announcing in a loud voice gloomy prognoses on the doomed inmates. ‘He hasn’t got long,’ is his usual verdict. He should wear a black cap on his hospital rounds.

In honour of his hero Admiral Nelson, Jeff recounts the highest point of his hospital career in the style of a naval battle in the days of sail but, in the excitement and fog of war, he also lobs in land-based allusions to Shakespeare, horse-racing and the English Civil War. The incident took place at dawn, while he was trying to sneak a cup of tea, outside the surveillance of a West Indian kitchen tyrant.

This mere sloop, as redundant as a dinghy at Trafalgar, was suddenly about to be engaged by the… Santissima Trinidad, the biggest warship afloat. Vainly I swung the wheel hard to port but her first shot knocked the cup out of my hand and sent boiling water everywhere… ‘Dis my kitchen. Get the f*ck out.’ Now she was wrestling the kettle away from my grasp and… the last thing I could afford was a Rastafarian boarding party. I backed away and dropped anchor by the fridge… There are… moments of inspiration that have changed the course of history and as my right hand suddenly felt the comforting lump of a half pound of butter I knew she was but a Rupert to my Cromwell. I had offered my kingdom for a horse and got Shergar. The butter hit her on the left shoulder with such force she spun round and dropped the kettle… I could hear her in the distance… ‘… Mister Bernard, he f*cking mad. Try to kill me. He cut my arm wid butter…’ It was a momentous victory.

Regarding those historical figures he did know personally, in little more than half a page elsewhere he touches lightly on Germaine Greer, Mick Jagger, George Best, Michael Parkinson and the writer of Chariots of Fire, one Colin Welland, whom he labels Smelly Welland. But the Stone is the most vivid.

I went on the piss with Mick Jagger and… he suddenly burst into tears. Solicitous as a spider to a fly, I enquired as to the cause of the dreadful stream of tears and mucus ruining my lapels. ‘I can’t take it,’ he howled… ‘The success. The money and all those birds.’ At the time, I happened to be short of both… and suggested a transfer of both cash and crumpet into my safekeeping. He soon stopped crying and left without paying. My turn to cry.

Laurie Lee, however, proved even more bizarre and miserly.

Last year I sat next to him and he shovelled four lamb cutlets into his jacket pocket without even bothering to wrap them up in a napkin. I said to him, ‘I didn’t know you had a dog.’ He said, ‘I haven’t. They’re for me. I shall heat them up again tonight for my supper.’ I should have thought that the royalties from such works as Cider With Rosie would bring in enough to pay for food instead of having to wash old chops covered with fluff and bits of tobacco from a jacket pocket.

As for getting away from it all, Samuel Johnson is enlisted to frame the context of it all.

that daft utterance about London and not getting tired of it (a man, like him, who has an opinion on everything can be a bore).

Sitting beneath the palms… I can hear the fizz of frying prawns, the dying hiss of a lobster and the rattle of a cocktail shaker and, with luck, the scream of a German tourist treading on a sea urchin.

The only foreigners he liked and had real sympathy for were the Irish. With the understandable exception of Terry Wogan.

I expect strange things from Americans but this nut introduced himself and then said, ‘You write for the Psychic News, don’t you?’ I told him I didn’t and held out very little hope for much entertainment after death which is why I was holding on to the bar with such tenacity.

For the reader, his best holiday is his most nightmarish, in Egypt, where he battles diarrhoea cramps in forty degrees, with no hat. But, like Indiana Jones, our hero escapes in the nick of time.

I found a lavatory with as much wonder as Carter experienced in 1922 on opening that tomb.

Jeff is nothing if not a philosopher, whose imagination is not of the fantasy variety but that of the man who can grasp connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena. Note how a glass of vodka in the sun causes him to reflect on playing the Good Samaritan.

the ice melts away as quickly as a man you’ve helped.

Nonetheless, where such a man may disappear to can still surprise him from time to time.

A couple of Sundays ago I was watching Songs of Praise, which was coming from Maidstone prison of all places, when to my amazement I spotted a man in the congregation of the chapel who owes me £50. He was standing there and had the gall to be singing Abide With Me.

Another example of his philosophical talent is shown after he has a bag nicked in the pub and he extrapolates on theft.

Most blessings are heavily disguised… I vaguely remember having left a chunk of cod fillet in the carrier bag with the sweater and by this time the thief will have come to acknowledge that it is better to give than to receive.

His powers of sociological observation are also considerable. Though, with the amount of geography thrown in, it is only fair to give credit to both his social and spatial awareness.

Today’s spiv is a smoothie more than anything. He is to be found in advertising, television, Fleet Street and, by the score, in the House of Commons… Most Soho spivs work at producing television commercials.

… journalists are simply shit-stirrers paid to drink on expenses. 

A lot of people in Islington have been hinting at potential talent for at least fifty years. Most of them end up as rip-off antique dealers

Name me a gossip who has been snatched away too soon. You can’t. (…) There’s a nasty grin that plays around their wet lips when nothing whatsoever funny or amusing is being said… they understand the human condition, which is something the village idiot can’t comprehend… The village idiot is the man who mentally jogs through life.

The key to Bernard’s black comedy is that it hinges on the sinister side of life, his philosophical consideration that something bad has either previously happened, could still happen or might just as easily have happened. The more surreal the better.

His life in the Coach and Horses included the day he was stared at and then chatted up by a beautiful black woman who turned out to be the tax inspector who was on his case. The pub also landed him famously in court for operating an illegal gambling book for his friends on the premises.

My lawyer made a really excellent speech to the magistrate but my friends in the gallery who came to lend me support, and in some cases write about it all, laughed too much and the beak didn’t like the levity.

By 1990, the phone revolution was underway and his biggest remaining problem in the Coach was gaining attention at the counter.

A man came into the pub the other day carrying one of those awful mobile telephones. I asked him if I could use it and he kindly obliged and asked me what number I wanted. I gave him the number of the pub. Norman was standing no more than six feet away and when he answered the call he barked, ‘Coach and Horses! Hallo!’ I said, ‘Is there any chance of being served a bloody drink in this ghastly pub?’ My language was a little stronger than that…

At that point Norman just called him a bastard and gave him a vodka. Bernard goes on to link this moment to a racing reminiscence.

… I remember once being served by an Irishman at a Derby lunch in the Dorchester when I spotted Sally, the Begum Aga Khan, a couple of tables away. I asked the man to deliver… a note without a word in her ear. I had written on it, ‘Although I am only a humble Irish waiter, I think I am in love with you.’

Though the play conveyed with pathos the happiness of lunchtime sessions in the Coach and Horses with many old friends by then dead, Bernard’s columns also captured the sadness of the pub life, as in the last days of the year, of any year, as Christmas goes on too long, like the patron who should just go home.

The crowd in the pub is a human left-over soup of a kind… A cheque is cashed, a round is bought and Chorus enters stage right declaiming, ‘You should have been in here last night.’

In his introduction to the first volume, John Osborne remarks on Bernard’s eye for physical detail. This is perhaps most evident in two passages from the late Eighties in which Bernard looks back on good times, out in the country, where, despite the failed attempts to settle down with various wives and despite the various spats with vicars and rural gentry, he was evidently happiest, at least when he was on his own.

(The first spell was ruined when he unwisely invited two rowdy house guests to join him in the sticks.)

There was a cold winter that I did enjoy though… [X] lent me a cottage in Suffolk and I got a job from the neighbouring farmer. For two months I worked at hedging and ditching and it was tremendously satisfying… After every twenty yards or so I made a little bonfire with what I had cut and sat down and had some tea from the thermos. The country was crystal clear. Cloudless pale-blue skies and the cold brought everything into the sharpest of focuses so that a frozen blade of grass was as a needle. Blackbirds and squirrels followed my progress along the edges of the frozen meadows, and then just as I was beginning to feel like St. Francis of Assisi the spell was broken. (…) No more log fires, bonfires and blackbirds eating the crusts of my sandwiches under the frozen blue silence of that sky. I could have killed them but they managed that themselves in their own good time. I miss them a lot.

– 5 November 1988

But the thing I thought mostly about during this sleepless night of remembrance was walking my dog… at dusk on autumn and winter evenings. She was a very pale Labrador – the pallor native to East Anglia … I had a very good gun… and when the sun began to dip below the trees of the wood we would walk along through the mist that gathered above and beside the river. She would go along ahead of me, stopping from time to look back and see if I was still following, and I would be looking out and listening for pheasants, wood pigeons and rabbits. I was poaching but… the farmer didn’t spend money on breeding game. It was just there, like the trees that had been there for hundreds of years. An all-too-rare treat we had was to see the barn owl gliding down along the river. He was so powerful that one that one languid flap of his great wings would carry him about a hundred yards. Freewheeling majesty. Then, when the sun had really sunk, we walked home through the wet grass, the smell of gunpowder lingering, cold and hungry towards the log fire.

– 21 January 1989

As for an epilogue, I choose the passage most apt for these Brexit times, which Jeff would have seen as the predictable evolution of the grossness of this age.

The English man-in-the-street… is largely envious, vindictive and punitive. (…) He knows little about himself, would not even understand the recent Budget but, by jingo, he knows what is best for other people. It is a mercy that there aren’t more referendums in this country. They would be hanging children.




Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin

Photo (c) Paris Review

Philip Larkin (1922-85)

Christopher Hitchens saw Larkin and George Orwell as embodiments of a certain type of Englishness. Both men loved the English countryside and feared for its future. Neither had any religious faith but both respected and learned a lot from the simplicity of Anglican prayers. When his collection The Whitsun Weddings (1964) appeared, fellow poet John Betjeman felt Larkin had “closed the gap between poetry and the public” with his down-to-earth, casual, often humorous style. Larkin and Orwell also admired English church architecture and furthermore both cherished the English affection for animals. In At Grass, Larkin writes of former champion horses in retirement; horses that were famous years before.

Silks at the start: against the sky
Numbers and parasols: outside,
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass: then the long cry

He wonders for a moment if “memories plague their ears like flies” but then observes they have “slipped their names, and stand at ease”. He is glad that they, at least, can enjoy their well-earned, care-free retirement, so the mood of the poem is human nostalgia for the passing of those old glories; those “classic Junes” of racing seasons past.

In MCMXIV the faded photograph is of an English crowd at the start of the Great War. The poem indicates colossal loss as he writes of the army recruitment lines having been like crowds gathered for sporting occasions at “the Oval or Villa Park”, uniquely, innocently

Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark

The poem is packed with everyday details of the vanished world: the coins; the “tin advertisements”; the children named after royalty; the large number of domestic servants. They were all enveloped in hazy summer when the war began, when all these men signed up for the carnage.

The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

A personal suspicion and fear of marriage features strongly in Larkin, even when writing of the excitement it can initially bring. The Whitsun Weddings title poem was inspired by a journey from Hull to London in 1955. Traditionally Whit Saturday was a popular choice of wedding day for the working class. A few years before his death, Larkin recalled the genesis of this, one of his most famous poems.

I hadn’t realized that, of course, this was the train that all the wedding couples would get on and go to London for their honeymoon: it was an eye-opener to me… there was a sense of gathering emotional momentum. Every time you stopped, fresh emotion climbed aboard. And finally between Peterborough and London when you hurtle on, you felt the whole thing was being aimed like a bullet – at the heart of things… Incredible experience. I’ve never forgotten it… It was wonderful, a marvellous afternoon. It only needed writing down. Anybody could have done it.”

The poet vividly sets the scene in terms of touch, sight and smell as the journey begins, “all sense of being in a hurry gone”, giving us sensations like hot cushions, blinding windscreens and a smelly fish-dock. Industry breaks into the countryside, in the form of “floatings of industrial froth” on a canal and “acres of dismantled cars”.

It takes him a while to notice the fuss at the stations, mistaking it for “porters larking with the mails”, but he is soon leaning out the windows, to see the girls in “parodies of fashion”, the “mothers loud and fat”, and “an uncle shouting smut”. These are not rich people but Larkin does not despise them. He uses ambivalent phrases like “happy funeral” to describe the mixed feelings and tension among the female onlookers before turning to the “fresh couples” catching their breath aboard the train.

It speeds up for the last fifty minutes of the journey as the couples sit side by side and watch the passing landscape, all oblivious of the others sharing this same special, brief experience.

And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

Though the poet later said he meant the last line of the poem to indicate fertility, to go with the postal districts of London “packed like squares of wheat”, many people have read the transformation into rain as a sad metaphor. Thus there are other aspects of Englishness in which Hitchens thought Orwell and Larkin also had a share. This was the world of bad food and watery drinks, drab and crowded accommodation, bad plumbing, long queues, poor hygiene, rain and uncultured ignorance.

For a man who knew such things yet never really engaged with life, not to mind entertaining the idea of an afterlife, Larkin had an excessive fear of death. Ambulances is a meditation on how near and random death still is (“They come to rest at any kerb:/All streets in time are visited”). Today people may see them as a positive intervention, preserving life, but, when the poem was written, in the Fifties, to be carried away in an ambulance was a very bad sign, when passers-by could be morbidly hypnotized by, for example

A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets

He links his personal and cultural obsessions again in Church Going, by which he means his habit of visiting churches. His comical English diffidence appears again at the very beginning. Only when he is sure there’s nothing going on does he step inside. He has no hat so he takes off his cycle-clips “in awkward reverence” before he moves to “the holy end” and gets up on the lectern, where he imitates a vicar. Back at the door, he signs the book and, in a cynical yet funny gesture, donates an Irish sixpence.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into

He muses about who will be the last person to go to the church just because it is a church. Will it be someone like himself?

Bored, uninformed…
…yet tending to this cross of ground
… because it held…
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these

So it actually pleases him to stand in silence there. He becomes a spokesman for all those who, lacking belief, nevertheless find some spiritual need satisfied by churches. “A serious house on serious earth it is”, where individuals can at the very least place their own lives in the context of the life and history of their tribe.

And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious

Larkin once told an interviewer, “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,” and he found much of his inspiration in the overcrowded, grubby society that he so much claimed to resent. After his death, the publication of his letters led to him being widely condemned as a misogynist and racist but, as Clive James has written, Larkin really was the greatest poet of his time, and he really did say awful things. Nonetheless he didn’t say them in his poems, which he thought of as a realm of responsibility in which he would have to answer for what he said forever.

In his last interview, Larkin recalled judging the final stages of a poetry competition. When he commented on the absence of any poems about love or nature, the organizers told him they had thrown all those away. “I expect,” said the disappointed and politely disapproving Larkin, “they were the ones I should have liked.”

Journey to the End of the Bed

Journey to the End of the Bed



The flat was like a menagerie. Quirke looked up from Viz and saw the furniture couldn’t seat everyone present. He was squashed in at the kitchen end of the couch, up against a conversation driven by Terry, a harmless goblin leaning forward from an armchair between the couch and the kitchen doorway. Terry had come on a scooter. It was one of his periodic visits to W10 to collect his post. His scuffed white helmet lay at his feet. Up against Quirke sat Dec, blond in a brown tweed jacket. At Dec’s feet lay a matching brown timber box that contained his bagpipes.

Dec and Terry were talking about taxis. In fact, Terry was raving about them and he’d been doing this for an hour since Dec had mentioned the subject. Terry’s brother drove a black cab and it seemed Terry’s ambition in life was to drive one too. The rigorous requirements for a black cab licence might have meant an interesting ten minutes but the monologue on The Knowledge was unbroken and unending, apart a brief blip when Quirke sniggered at something in Roger Mellie. Dec thought he was laughing at Terry, while Terry was unsure but he wasn’t going to be put off that easily.


Behind the armchair in which Terry sat, the steamy doorway and the hissing and bubbling indicated Simon was still monitoring the dinner in a tiny kitchen with red floor tiles. Simon had been the only one in the flat when Quirke got there after dark that evening, the first of February. On hearing the buzzer pressed, out on the street, he answered through the intercom. Then he opened the front door by a switch on the wall and appeared in the doorway of the ground floor flat. Quirke transferred his holdall to his left shoulder with a final effort.

The bare concrete floor of the common hall was scattered with junk mail and a phone book or two. I’m sorry about the mess. Most of it belongs to upstairs. Simon then led him through a carpeted tunnel, past a couple of bedroom doors, a bathroom door and a broom closet. Down a step, the living room had a battered couch flanked by a pair of armchairs. They were arranged in a rough line by the inner wall, on the left. A velvety brown, extendable armchair, shaped a bit like a dentist’s chair, sat by a window on the right. Outside the window, in the dark, lay a small, enclosed patch of concrete. That’s the patio.

Simon paused his dinner preparations in order to make the new arrival a mug of coffee. Quirke dropped the bag and sat down. He expected to feel a bit bewildered for a few days. The television and VCR sat at torso height between the window and the first doorway. A dusty stereo sat underneath it, on the lower shelf of the stand. Simon asked him what his plans were. At twenty-four, Quirke intended never having no money again. He also intended taking no more shit. Those were his twin resolutions.

“I’ll see if I can get an office job and avoid the sites,” he ventured.
“The sites are a trap,” was all Simon observed.

One by one, the other people came. In the crowded room, farther up the couch, sat Chris, barefoot in a tracksuit, reading the Independent. An ex-policeman, he was working as a crane driver in Watford. Just before he’d left for London, he’d turned to Quirke in a bar, on his last day at home, a hot day in June. The calendar suggested it was only months before.

“Will you travel with me?”
He was by no means the first to ask. Maybe people were trying to tell him something.
“I’ll be on the boat tonight. Will you come?”
“I have money, if you need it, if that’s all that’s stopping you.”
“Ah no, I don’t want to.”
“Are you sure?”
“You’re sure? What’s keeping you here?”
“Sorry, Chris, I just don’t want to go over there.”

He wasn’t ready then but it was only a matter of time before a change of speed and a change of scene. Instead, the next day he’d merely headed home, down the country, on a packed bus with the hot sun shining in the windows. Wrecked and flat broke, as usual. Nothing changed. Sweating, unshaven, he thought he must have looked like a junkie, if anyone noticed.

A young woman with green eyes and dark red hair sat on the remaining armchair, in a long cream skirt and a soft green turtle neck. She was talking to an eleven-year-old girl who stood in front of her. The child was one of the offspring of Irish parents who lived in the flat upstairs. It seemed this kid often came down, away from a family of headcases, to talk to this girl, whom she looked up to and who listened to her and gave her some of her time.

The child had approached Quirke earlier, when the room was not quite so crowded, to say she’d heard about him coming and that he was the one who would be staying for a week, to find his feet. She said Kim had told her that. The timescale was the first economy with the truth. In his letter he’d said he wanted to stay there for a week, alright, but Quirke had only ninety quid in his pocket so he wouldn’t be going anywhere in a hurry.

A voluptuous thoroughbred, Kim hadn’t yet acknowledged Quirke except for a bare hello and a fleeting smile when she got home from the office. There were only two bedrooms in the flat. She and Simon had one and Chris had the other. Quirke’s eyes fell upon the chair like a dentist’s by the window. So this was truly his best option when it came to London addresses? Then Simon produced the first big English dinner of meat pie, cauliflower and potatoes. He knew how to work the wonky grill.

As Quirke reclined in his sleeping bag on the dental chair in the early hours, the only light came in a glare from a streetlight through the window of the living room. All it really needed was the faint sound of jazz but nearby Dec was lying on the floor, reciting one of his poems. He was proud of the line “Vivaldi plays on hired contraption” and that stuck in Quirke’s head by virtue of the contrast with the records playing upstairs.

The room was hot because the tenants were in the habit of leaving the radiators on all night. This only added to the claustrophobia. Dec had a stately squat in Greenwich in which he left an electric heater on twenty-four hours a day but it was a bit lonely so that was how they both happened to be crashing in the living room. The glare and the heat helped keep them awake. The window was open almost a foot. Quirke wasn’t too keen on sleep either because bad old dreams were coming back. Dec kept talking and Quirke was trying to keep his head together between anxiety and a peculiar sense of exhilaration. He had never been to London before. He had no money, no work and just a chair to sleep on.

Help was sure to come in the form of Richard, whom he was due to meet at the weekend. The girl whose existence had crept up on him like a tropical disease was in bed with another man at the same address but he had this good-humoured headcase right beside him, reciting verses. Vivaldi plays on hired contraption. Instead of Vivaldi, the music they had to listen to consisted of Doris Day records. The child’s parents were having a party upstairs and shouting voices could be heard erupting intermittently, over Doris. If it meant he really had to listen, then Quirke waited for Move Over Darling.

He slept on and off and had the dreams. You don’t want me, says she. I don’t want you, she means. He slept alone on the chair in the flat during the day too and had the same helpless hallucination.

Friday night they all went out, to Club Dog in the George Robey in Finsbury Park. A black and white film of the Eastern Front ran backwards silently on a screen in a corner. Two chaps were meanwhile moving around through the crowd with woks upturned on their heads, each drumming on the other’s wok helmet, each with a pair of chopsticks, incessantly chopping, chopping. Feeling the surge of a silent rage, Quirke glanced at her and thought she only made him despise himself, resurrecting his weakness, his impotence. Yet he intended to make it there, if he could keep at least a part of his head together.

With Richard, Quirke was stuck in Bethnal Green Tube station on Sunday morning. Some old geezer was leaning out of another carriage, roaring permutations of the same pair of points. The first was a general sort of query.

“What the fark is wrung eah?”
How was anybody on the train expected to know? Quirke and all the rest could nonetheless agree with his other repeated remark.
“Get this farking tube moving!!”

It was hot; the tube was packed, for some reason; people were standing, holding the bars; but at least the doors were open. Finally, when he was standing on the platform, the geezer roared at the train again.

“Fark this, I’m farking off!!”
It was only then that a younger, deeper voice rolled out from another carriage.
“Do us oll a fayvah!”

Richard’s energy was at least in part the result of a worse trauma than Quirke’s, though similar in nature to it. This white-haired Irish boy had been blindsided by a sudden, deathly revelation of unhappiness and hadn’t even had the time for anxiety, as he’d moved his stuff out in a daze the next day. The rest of it was natural roguery. The night before, he’d brought Quirke to meet his friend Kevin in the St. James Tavern on Shaftesbury Avenue.


The bar was a ring in the middle of a timber floor. A tall young man with long hair and a long coat walked up to the newcomer.

“I hear you like poetry.”
That had evidently been Richard’s effort at establishing some sort of context. Quirke shook his hand.
“Eh, yeah, I do.”

Just to be polite. Quirke liked some poetry but usually the chopped-up prose, like most “Poems on the Underground”, would make him curse under his breath. There was more poetry to be found in the Socialist Worker. Nonetheless it was safe to say that he and Kevin hit it off immediately and on Sunday night the three of them went to Covent Garden, to the Punch and Judy, where Quirke looked around him. This city wasn’t like being in any particular country, with the mix of cultures and the lingering looks from the Nubian queens and the lip-licking blondes. Quirke thought he could blossom there, maybe. It would be like life in the afterlife.

Soon, though, he was afraid. Afraid of no exit. Afraid of being heard calling out a name in his sleep. In the daytime he slept for an hour on the dental chair in an empty flat and the siege lifted. Next he helped Dec bring his gear to Heathrow. With Dec was a curvy and quite attractive Irish girl called Liz. Quirke wasn’t sure what her presence meant. Dec had come back to the flat to borrow luggage. When he left the living room to struggle to zip up cases in a bedroom, she sat up and put her hands on her knees and told Quirke she was really into guys who wore glasses.

Quirke pushed his own up on his nose. This was a bit intense – he’d only just got there – but he made no intelligible comment. Then the three of them went to the airport. Dec got on a plane home to Ireland and the other two went to an airport bar. Quirke asked for her phone number after she bought him lunch and a few pints. Liz gave Quirke a work number. She wrote it down for him. She said she presumed he wouldn’t lose it.

A beautiful but overweight young blonde across the bar looked to be under pressure. She wasn’t listening to the conversation at her table. Dressed in black, her body was on the no-brain side of the erotic-aesthetic continuum. In other words, the gorgeous, sophisticated head and the flabby, asset-rich figure were incongruous. The others there looked like stubbly musicians or media types but they might just as well have been film caterers.

Back in the flat, the heavily scented bathroom had a noisy ventilator. Windowless, the enclosed space intensified the claustrophobia. The most vital things to have in London seemed to be a Tube pass and a phone card. There was a faint smell of burning rubber down the Tube and sometimes he liked it, at least when it and the distant echoes smacked of anticipation and a chance for observation, but it was more important to have money for the caff. Always conscious of trying to get used to everything, Quirke didn’t even know what he was doing with the girl’s number. Simon mentioned that she already had a boyfriend but then he just shrugged and raised his eyebrows.

Richard brought him to the Brahms and Liszt wine bar cavern in Covent Garden. He couldn’t see anything in the crowd under the brick arches but he just stood there patiently, sipping red plonk, listening to the band and watching his friend and Kevin get in among the girls on the dance floor. Richard had promised to go to a party later.

In a crowded Battersea kitchen, Richard introduced him to Rachel, who sat on a high stool by the worktop. The look was vaguely Molly Ringwald, vaguely Mimi Rogers and she was immediately friendly. He was soon talking easily with her, at least until she discreetly beckoned to his friend to come back, whereupon Quirke didn’t want to be a gooseberry and slipped out of the kitchen.

The stereo was playing low. He put on Funny How Love Is and decided he felt as forsaken as a leading man in the Bible, namely Job. Playing the song over and over, he was the only one up and he had a nervous hangover, sitting in an armchair and looking up at the grey window and a Battersea morning. He was sad but again somehow felt inspired by revelation that there was no more mystery or hope. Back in W10, the divinity was sleeping in another room.

Some site beckoned to Quirke inevitably when no office job worth even ten grand looked on the cards. Up in the Portobello Road market to look for work boots, he couldn’t find any. The market stank of rotting fruit and vegetables in the evenings as old people and pigeons searched through the rubbish, when men and birds mingled as equals. He was in the grip of a cold by then. His cheap shoes burned the soles of his feet. He was running out of excuses. He couldn’t control his moods. He asked himself was it even a neurosis. Playing The Cure’s The Head on the Door on the old stereo, he, too, felt, like the last track, that he was sinking.

Through a feverish night he couldn’t think straight. He didn’t know what to think. He went down to Hammersmith and bought insoles. For a whole day at least, he felt he was having a nervous breakdown but the next he finished a story he called The Retrial, along the theme of the sleeping beauty.

Richard then got him a job with a rough Irish crew on a site near Mile End, to start Monday. That much was settled then. He’d been warned often enough at home to stay away from the Irish, that they were the worst, but he had to start somewhere. He found a pair of old boots in the broom closet, not knowing they would practically cut the feet off him.

His sinuses felt chronic. He just couldn’t shake his illness. Varieties of the common cold seemed to have grown more virulent. Then he let himself be trapped on the patio during a party in the flat. She admitted her unease, when he asked. She said she hadn’t meant to hurt him. He just told her to be herself. He told her to do what she wanted. The night air looked clear. He was out, so to speak. But at least she’d talked to him more like the way she used to. He then got drunk and started mumbling about politics, this time to a thoughtful, teetotal Glasgow Rangers fan who was the last person who’d have wanted to hear his thoughts on Irish freedom.

The worst thing about the first day of work was the old theme of people being strange. Quirke just wanted to be left alone to vegetate, down in the basement, pulling nails out of boards with a nail bar, which wasn’t exactly doing the business. The thought of each thirty-five quid was the main thing to get him through each day. Obviously, but it was a nice figure.

The competing IRA and SAS graffiti had to fight for space with inscriptions outlining the regional rivalries of Britain. Quirke was making a list in his head of ethnic occupations he’d already noticed in London: Irish (building sites, pubs); Asians (small shops); Italians (cafés); blacks (low-paid public service jobs).

He studied the magnificence of cranes. Tower cranes. He watched fist-thumped tables in the climax of card games in canteen huts. They broke a table two days into the week. It just couldn’t take any more punishment. As the week wore on, at break times Quirke sat resting his cut feet in a hut mostly populated by the English. He found them more interesting – less depressing – to listen to than the Irish. They didn’t ask each other if they’d ever played GAA in Drumcolloher, for instance.

Not long after midnight, on the dental chair, he was having a coughing fit when he was sure he could hear the rhythmic sound of a bed creaking in another room. Each breast must have felt the rhythm of the bed creaks, resurrecting his weakness until they’d had all they could take. Little miss loves it. Let me eat cake. It was friction for a wound to weep. He was too wound up to sleep. Then the coughing ceased. Influenced by the bad thoughts of fatigue and work in the morning, he became possessed by an idea of mindless cruelty, of a child who disregarded the consequences of her actions as of nature. Well, when he thought the creaking had stopped, he coughed a few more times before finally falling asleep.

Just when the morning fry-up had begun to be the highlight of his working day, though, Quirke got the boot. Nine in all were let go at the end of the week but at least he got almost one hundred and ninety quid for his trouble. It reminded him a bit of a good old grant day. To change the cheque, he had to go up to the Archway Tavern at the western end of the Holloway Road, where a hand took four quid out of it, appearing and disappearing through a small hatch. Whatever happens he wasn’t going back to Ireland, running back into the arms of the dole. The day was mild and, wanting to have more of a look around, he took his time and walked all the way down the Holloway Road with his money in his pockets. With the fingers of his right hand he rubbed some compact pound coins together, while the left felt the small wad of notes in the other pocket.

This was the way Quirke remembered being born. He was on the edge of a cliff or some other precarious height before he was cast down by some sudden, irresistible, invisible force. He zoomed downward but just before he hit the ground the flight stopped suddenly and he landed and survived. The strain of the pain, the pain of the strain on his neck was always there, in the dream. At other times he dreamt his head was stuck to his shoulder. Thirty-six hours it lasted, originally. To that day he’d found it hard to get a hat to fit him.

Kim didn’t go to the office on Monday. After dropping his laundry in for a service wash at Ladbroke Grove, Quirke wandered up Portobello Road and bought a Triffids tape, Calenture.

In the daytime, Portobello smelled of hippie veggie and exotic foods, where English was like a minority language behind the likes of Polish and Spanish. So many beautiful women went to and fro. When he got back to the flat, she sat on the edge of an armchair and told him he was freaking her out.

“You’re the most selfish person I know. Not selfish in small, everyday things, but in an emotional sense.”

She had a point. His own happiness was evidently more important to him than hers – he was in her place – but the eventual detachment that allows people to think of someone else’s welfare first, if necessary, also allows them to think of the right kind of person for that regard.

She asked him to stop using her. Who’d been using whom, he wondered. Why couldn’t she have just left me alone?


They watched Prick Up Your Ears on video in the afternoon, alone in the flat together, talking to what real purpose? If she saw a monster in him then he’d let her feel its power. He was freaking her out.

“What do you want to do?” she asked.
“You mean, what’s my goal?”
“Out of here, that’s my goal.”

She didn’t go to work the next day either. He had to be a model prisoner. It was the agony in the box garden. They watched Scanners, with the bad psychics exploding the others’ heads. It was like what he’d been doing to her since he’d got there. He thought of making a joke about that but decided against it.


Simon said he’d try to get Quirke a job on one of the sites where the company he worked for, in a white collar, was one of the names on the billboards. The site in question was an office block called Beaufort House, on the site of the old P&O building beside Petticoat Lane. Quirke asked about the firm that owed Simon a favour and he said they were English, dry-liners, from Nottingham. Shoes would suffice indoors, it was good to hear, as he still picked scabs off his feet after the old boots.

On the first of March, Quirke took a tube to Liverpool Street to meet Simon for lunch and discuss it further. Quirke said he’d do it for a few weeks, to get on his feet. Raising his eyes as far as the end of the carriage on the tube back, he fixed upon a striking, dark young woman, dressed to match, standing at the other end. Then he noticed she was really stacked, in black. Then he saw she was Maria Whittaker. Then she got off.

His first celebrity had been spotted, the reigning queen of page three. Stardom seemed more tangible, more real around London, in the shadow of the stars. It waved itself under a person’s nose. He longed to thump his fist on the table at home and say, “I told you I could do it!” If visions of world destruction were characteristic of schizophrenia, then, in a world of fifty thousand warheads, he just assumed the conditions were there for mass psychosis. Quirke’s proposed solution was to pick a subculture and make it within that.

Mile End had been a dirty site. This one was merely dusty. More than that, it was surreal. The lifts caused chaos, breaking down or meeting trolley gridlock at the groaning doors on every floor. He didn’t know how anything got done but it was nice to be able to look out from a high floor and see the city without cars or people. The soundproof windows presented a silent skyline. The greyness made him think of the Sixties but he wished it was Paris or Rome.

He wondered was it always going to be a dawdle but of course the very next day was hard, with lots of deliveries. Quirke nearly did serious damage to an old chap when the weight of a wheel made a hole and he allowed a trolley of plasterboards to go over the side of a wooden ramp, down on the basement-like ground floor. It was his teenage colleague, Martin, who shouted a warning just in time but all trolleys tipped over, all floorboards broke.

Pushing another trolley of boards, Plug the ganger and his nephew Martin managed to detach the water pipe to the portable toilet cabins, thus flooding a large part of the same floor. Martin was only seventeen. The site was full of pretty boys but this lad had a snaky, zigzag scar down one side of his face. He told Quirke he’d got it when he “went under” a car at home in Dublin. The Geordies with the firm nicknamed Quirke “Shadwell” after Rob Brydon’s Welsh caricature on Naked Video. It was because he wore an old pair of glasses held together by masking tape, to save his good pair. The tape only made him look like another headcase.

Chris and Simon went out on Saturday night but, just to do something different, he didn’t join them. Neither did Kim. She wasn’t much of a drinker. Even in their short time together she’d let him go to the pub on his own more often than not. They sat watching TV and, clean and properly bespectacled, he drank a bottle of whiskey. Kim gave him a bottle of Southern Comfort she didn’t want. She looked at him after it and said she hadn’t thought he’d be able to drink it but he had, with enough of a mixer mixed in, admittedly. She watched him walk from the living room. She reluctantly acknowledged his composure, even though he’d become too skinny for her, for one thing. Plus he drank too much. But she was young and Irish too and she never told him to stop it.

Back on the job, skin irritation grew from rock wool, gypsum and general dust but at quarter to five he was thinking that when he looked out from a gathering in a hotel suite on such a high floor, then he’d have made it. Then Martin then started throwing things at him, just for a laugh, and they very nearly came to blows but in the event merely came to pushing. The kid didn’t understand how irritating it was to Quirke, that schoolboy rough stuff. It upset his mellow late afternoon. Maybe it was just fatigue that made him react so quickly but, anyway, he apologised the next day. He had to work here. At least Martin didn’t throw anything at him again. To pass the time in the afternoon the two of them then sneaked into the finished marble halls in the centre of the block and invented a new sport – racing the lifts up and down the floors.

A new girl then turned up in the flat, to make them five. Eileen knew Simon. She looked all right: slender with bright brown eyes. She started to sing along with Love Street on a Doors tape. She held the tune. Quirke liked that. His inner turbulence subsided a little. Many ideas came to him before going to sleep. He thought he had a novel in him, a green liquid circulating in genesis, as in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.

In the meantime he roughly broke the corners off nine heavy, pink, fire-line boards and discovered that he and Martin had damaged a load of thin pipes covered in special paint by flinging them aside in a heap. They had been told to shift them out of the way and they had done this task while it noisily pissed down outside. The clang of the pipes had peppered the dull roar of the rain.

He skived off twice, another day, for six pints in total. He’d been working on a quiet floor with two Tonys when one of them mentioned St. Patrick’s Day and asked if he had any plans for the night. Then the other revealed that he wanted a pint right then, so the trio slipped away to the Archers. Of these two Tonys, the London one had a ponytail and was rather quiet, while the Leeds one said the only people he’d ever met who were like him were people from Leeds. He also wondered why he was bothering nailing up plaster boards when he had an order from Leeds for 4,000 E’s, if he wanted to fulfil it.

The second skive was with Plug, who claimed to have been the driver for some stick-up artists at home in north Dublin, where they had to share the proceeds with the IRA.

On Saturday afternoon, Quirke went up the Portobello Road to buy a Roy Orbison compilation, in honour of a man who’d recently died for joy at being back in fashion. There he ran into Eileen so they went for a few drinks. They sat in the Elgin in Ladbroke Grove with the sun in the windows above their heads and the fruit machines blinking, across the carpet. She confidentially claimed Simon had told Chris he was trying to get away from Kim. It was a twist but he decided not to swallow that one right away. It was inconceivable. He swallowed his drink instead.

In the night, though, thanks to some crossed wires about where people were meant to be meeting, it transpired that just he and Kim met in the Lonsdale, near the top of Portobello Road. There they had a couple of drinks before going down later to Shepherds Bush to catch up with the others. They sat at a table in the large porch beside the beer garden. Somehow they did love each other. Even though, as the Man said, It’s Over. When, for effect, he said he needed a good f*ck, Kim told him he needed to make love. Her suggestion was impractical, his suggestive, but the fact that his talk seemed to make her happy for the evening, which seemed to be her maximum, gave him a strange if fleeting feeling of gladness.

If Chris was going to persist with Eileen after that weekend, though, Quirke knew it would be yet another dangerous liaison for him to consider when manoeuvring to preserve and advance his position; to preserve, protect and defend his constitution. A third girl had turned up in the flat, to make them six and to crash either on the couch or the floor of the living room. Katie knew Kim. Katie’s temporary occupation consisted of hanging around the Shepherds Bush TV studios, waiting to be called in as an audience member for Kilroy Silk, where she could look solemn and interested in what other people were saying, at least until her face got too familiar in the crowd.

A new Dublin kid on site, Robbie, seemed a bit of a nutter. He lifted weights and did press-ups on the job. He was hyper. He and Martin soon crossed words up on a scaffolding tower and Quirke saw how natural such aggravation was to them. He wondered about what kind of selection of criminals had come over. They were like wild animals.

After spending enough time in the Archers, Quirke realized the EastEnders soap was real but he found he couldn’t cash one of his cheques there after an ingenious little scam had come to the attention of the staff. There was a loch of water in the cigarette machine. The usual transaction toll was a fiver from each cheque but, for any and every dud, there proved to be a more constant source of annoyance for the governor in the form of bits of ice frozen in the shape of fifty-pence pieces and dropped into the money slot, to melt at the bottom. He never caught anyone so he had to impose a sort of collective punishment.

Eileen then made a cuckoo move into Chris’s room so she got more threatening. Quirke wasn’t averse to firing a shot across her bows because she had a neck as long as her arm but she’d only have been a scapegoat. It was only the hassle of chess. He needed success quick, he felt, but then Chris turned around and informed Kim that a Scottish blonde was moving in, that he was moving her in. He gave Eileen no explanation except to serve notice in advance of a return to the living room. Simon put his hands to his face and observed that this was all getting out of hand.

Quirke retreated to a bench in the park. His life had consisted of college, dole and unreal jobs, as opposed to having a ‘real’ job. Once upon a time in Ireland it had been possible to have a ball if you got into a college – presuming you could lay your hands on a few quid for a drink – because with a degree you could walk into a job afterwards. That’s if you were lucky in that, economically, you got on one of those last choppers out of the Sixties. In the Eighties, in contrast, student types thought they might as well enjoy it too, prolong it as long as they could, because there were no jobs outside, unless one had pull or had earned a first. Thus college, dole and ‘unreal’ jobs kept the rest going before they left the country.

There were now candles in the bathroom to be lit for the sacred rites after Chris had dried his hair too vigorously with a towel and smashed the light fitting in the ceiling. While the sturdy ventilator was still booming, no one inside could hear a thing from the rest of the flat, no matter what was being said about him or her. While Quirke was newly clean and resting briefly in the dark on Chris’s bed, though, someone might have advised Kim not to talk so loudly when the living room window was open, across the patio. When she in turn went for a bath, he and Katie started bitching in return but later, with just the two of them there, his hostility melted away again and he tried to reach out, to help calm her evident distress. He didn’t like to see her in visible distress.

While Quirke was waiting for Chris to get out of the bath the next evening, Katie came back from a venture out of the flat and sheepishly confessed to Eileen that she’d got her card swallowed at an ATM, after Eileen had given it to her in a manner of lending her a few quid.

“How did you manage that?”
“I, eh, got the number mixed up, or something. I…”
“I told you to write it down.”
“You just kept pushing buttons, didn’t you?”

Three strikes and you were out. Buttons were being pushed all over. Kim got up off the couch without a word and squeezed into the kitchen to see how Simon was getting on with the steamy dinner. Katie then turned to Quirke, as if for support or sympathy, but got none.

“That wasn’t the brightest thing to do, now, was it?” he shrugged.
She turned back to the exasperated Eileen, who had her head and her hair in her hands.
“I’m sorry.”
“Jesus,” she sighed. “Do you know what a nuisance you’ve caused me, now that I have to go and get that back?”
“I’m sorry.”

Then Simon got even more stressed, collapsing at work but managing to gasp Kim’s name and work number to his colleagues. He had to have his appendix out. The day was unusually warm when Quirke walked up towards the Harrow Road to visit him in hospital. In his pyjamas, the patient described the post-op pain, of being unable to speak, while lying at night in a shady corridor, on a trolley, silent and helpless. He’d managed to lift his arm a little but it only fell back again. The heat of the day was like summer, deadening. Tell me about it, thought Quirke, as he looked out over the grounds via the nearest window. At least Simon was out of the flat for a few days.

The job was a dangerous joke at times. Martin opened up on him with a fire extinguisher in the plant room, up on the roof. He could have fried them both, apart from causing millions of pounds worth of damage. That was the verdict of the suits that later appeared up there to do an inspection. Two of the company’s tradesmen, while nodding and listening to the gravity of the incident, waved Quirke away, behind the backs of the suits, when he appeared again at the top of the ladder to see if they needed anything.

Getting dressed after a bath was still wonderful, though, even if there was even less illumination in the bathroom after Eileen had stayed so long in it that the hot candle wax that filled a glass ashtray on the upper of two glass shelves by the wall inside the bath caused a cracking, crashing, flaming cascade into the bath and she screamed through her Psycho moment.

Quirke made a call with a card, from a box across the street. Needing an outlet, he got invited to go out and meet Richard again, in the West End. Rachel was among the people with him. Rachel was likeable. Intelligent, educated North Americans tended to be more open-minded than their European peers because they had fewer intellectual prejudices. Plus her manners were impeccable.

The group they were in went off to a house in Kent where, in the course of the night, Quirke went through another bottle of whiskey. He was the last up, finishing it and listening to REM and The One I Love, when he joined in forcefully and repeatedly on the one-word chorus. Fi-err! With his eyes closed in concentration, he heard the door open in a rush. It was Richard, bursting in.

“Jesus Christ, I thought there was a fire! Why were you shouting “Fire”!?”

Quirke moved the CD onto the next track. Back at work, he just wanted to kill Robbie. He saw him as a real moron who didn’t know what he was dealing with. None of them did. It was when Robbie and Martin were together that they started to take the piss. Quirke tried to avoid them when possible. Then he hurt his back again. He was never going to lift plaster boards after this. The two kids reminded him of his teens. That’s what he didn’t like most.

In the Aldgate Nag’s Head at lunchtime, a black stripper focused her attention on Quirke, partly because he was sitting next to the stage, where the only space remained, but also because she’d wrongly hassled him over money and was only trying to make it up to him. “Come on love, we all have to make a living,” said the stripper, having forgotten that he’d given her a couple of pound coins at the other end of the bar. The suits congregated back there while the builders sat and stood up front. Though he thought the women had to be dead while they were up there, her remorse seemed genuine when she realised her mistake, but then again he saw more of her arse and vagina than her face. All the while the roars drowned out the music – the strippers having brought their own tapes –

“Shadwell! Shadwell!”

Late that afternoon the driver of a company van down from Nottingham arrived to take gear away and he looked shocked to find all their people drunk on site. It was like several simultaneous re-enactments of The Plank, with each man improvising with one or more lengths of aluminium, all wobbling like seesaws on their shoulders. Ends were rising, ends were falling, ends were swinging and crash banging on their way into the van but Quirke didn’t care. He was about to give his notice anyway. He wanted to get away from there.


One of Katie’s friends had a typewriter and he brought it to the flat in W10 to sell it to Quirke and Chris for fifty quid. It was the business. Then Quirke was brought off with Richard, Rachel and Eileen to the Wag Club in Chinatown. It was seven quid a head for an acid house type of racket. Bollocks, he duly noted, but Richard paid in. Eileen was pissed and she cut up Kim. She’ll not take me on because of her, Quirke thought, though she kept asking him if he found this or that woman there attractive. In the end, though, he gravitated to spending most of his time comfortably talking to Rachel, leaving the other two to converse as they saw fit. The four stayed up by the bar while some sort of orderly attempt at a rave went through the motions in the background. Only Kim noticed, after that night, that Quirke spoke of this American in a way she hadn’t heard him speak of any girl, over there. It was in a positive way she’d hoped to hear, to take the heat off her, but it was just a pity that Rachel already had a boyfriend and couldn’t solve her problem.

Up on the roof the day was wet and then the rain gave way as the breeze chilled his chin. He thought he did his best thinking at such a height. The vast city set him going. He imagined a voice-over as a camera swept across it. He had set his heart on quitting the job. A London skinhead complained that nobody was willing to do anything about the shit in the corner, behind the company hut.

In the canteen, Robbie and Martin spent over an hour talking about their past lives of Dublin crime. In a feud, Martin’s granny had got shot in the eye with a pellet gun while his grandfather “got” an axe over the head.

He left the job early on his last day, in case they stuck him to the ground with a Hilti nail gun. He’d either go home in a month or, then again, maybe temping might be easy. As they walked up to Sainsbury’s to do some shopping, Chris must have read his mind or else he just wanted to be rid of him. He asked him out of the blue was he going home. The answer was still a bit uncertain.

It was late when Quirke went out alone for a walk in the damp night. How could a child really be blamed? All it boiled down to in the end was lust and pride. How galling it was not to have had her. But if that was all that remained, it meant he was pulling out of something. He was only affected by her presence, no longer her absence. That’s how it had been, before the summer, but there was a huge difference at that age between understanding something and bringing it home to oneself.

The next time she pestered him with her point of view, he manoeuvred her into an argument about sadomasochism, where he could try to baffle her with references, but she staked out her ground on how and where and when.

“I decide.”
“How selfish you are,” he replied.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I should know.”
“But nothing like that is black and white.”
“Like what?”
“As in what’s between us.”
“I know what you’re saying.”

She got up then and left the room for the sanctuary of her own, leaving Quirke more bewildered than ever. He sat in the little park, nearby. Earlier he’d been at a book stand up at the market and felt the warm tangibility of the book he was going to write. Then he’d moved on to the stall where the classical music played. There, Kim growled in his ear. She was with Simon. Tears weren’t a million miles away. He’d never wanted more to be on his own. He’d never wanted less to see them. To see her. He thought he had to go home. He felt he’d learnt some lesson there but later she just said she didn’t believe he’d go. Usually, when he was with her, he felt no hostility, only to brood later, on his own. She should have left me alone.

He and Simon went out for a long walk, late. Simon said he too didn’t think he should go home. Quirke crashed out a couple of times on the chair the next day before he and Eileen went out to Ladbroke Grove. He didn’t want her. That’s what he thought, he knew. Kim and Simon joined them there later that evening. If he’d met her in other circumstances, it might well have been different. The first two were twisted on the walk home because they’d had little to eat but he still resented Kim trying to encourage them to get together. It was not on, not least because of that. He wouldn’t let her cool the mark out.

Chris, in contrast, simply decided that he was going to America. Quirke guessed that they’d both be leaving this monstrous regiment of women. Saturday saw a lot consumed in the Lonsdale, around a table in the back lounge where Richard too was quietly egging him on to take on Eileen, but where again he found himself deep in conversation with Rachel, before it all got a bit hazy and the group found itself outdoors in Hammersmith.

Quirke got separated from the rest by tripping on and getting tangled in some wire in a building site into which he’d slipped, through a hole in the hoarding, for a leak, on the way to a party. By the time he extricated himself and returned to the street, there was no sign of the others and no one had noticed he was no longer with them, so he had to walk home. The sites were indeed a trap.

After some more time had elapsed and Eileen arrived back at the flat, on her own, Quirke had nothing left to lose and he decided he hadn’t walked home for nothing so he climbed into Chris’s otherwise empty bed beside her. The Scottish girl hadn’t moved in and she was lucky but Eileen took on a new dimension horizontal. Not for the first time, he noted the previously unimaginable healing power of touch, leading to an altered state of mind, for however long.

He was a bit sad that Chris was leaving. His moods were swinging. Looking at the cards in the slots, he felt almost faint in Ladbroke Grove job centre. A desire to flee from struggle seemed overpowering. He’d have loved just to f*ck off in the morning, if he’d had the money, but he had to keep his head.

With a spring in her step, Kim breezed down into the living room in the morning. He sat on the couch with a cup of tea and asked her why she was so happy. “I’ve a great sex life,” she volunteered, just in case he needed to know. “Good for you,” he answered and took a sip of the tea. His hatred of her idiocy, her cruelty, welled up in familiar silent rage and pain from which he wondered if he’d ever get a break. He hated that delicate phrase “sex life” too but still he didn’t fling the cup at the wall or at her head.

A proposed month’s work in a dole office then fell through. He’d put on a tie and all. He went home and crashed and felt a bit better when he woke. It was as if his will to work was broken. He was lacking in nourishment too but his college experience as regards hunger artistry was standing him in good stead. Then Eileen kindly cooked him a couple of meals. He’d had ugly premonitions of what it would feel like to be in London. These had come horribly true yet he told himself not to worry.

Quirke confidentially told Richard what had happened with Eileen, only to be told in turn that he’d already had a discrete encounter with her, before the Hammersmith trek. Whether or not it was an exaggeration or a wind-up, this latest episode of feeling the floor move beneath him was really all Quirke needed at that moment in time. Did the world know something he did not?

Before he went back down to Hammersmith to do some photocopying, the sight of Kim in the flat – the way she was lightly dressed, virtually exposed – made Quirke realize he was the coyote and she was the roadrunner. He just had to have her sometime. It was an existential thing. He then went down to Ryman’s on a sunny day but something went wrong with the photocopier and the people in the queue turned to each other in diffident, smiling uncertainty.

In front of Quirke stood a middle-aged transvestite, with plucked eyebrows and bright red lipstick. The guy behind Quirke then asked him what kind of script he had before adding quickly that he was in the film business. This man’s name was Stanley and in the course of their conversation he said he’d help him. He had tight black hair receding at the temples and looked like the type of chap who’d be involved in some expensive, minority sport. He didn’t seem gay.


Chris was gone. Quirke had given him the tape of Calenture and in turn the departed had waived a debt of twenty quid and left him the typewriter. Kim then announced that she and Simon were kicking everybody else out in two weeks. Out of there, that was his goal. Rooms were switched, walls were washed, in a flurry of spring cleaning that Quirke participated in by helping with some furniture lifting, fearing Kim’s wrath if he didn’t.

Katie moved out first, to a flat in Shepherds Bush. Then the typewriter ribbon gave out. It never rained but it poured. The sun went down in the park. It probably went down broader, down by Wormwood Scrubs. Very nice but he wanted to be home.
In the same weather, Richard promised money. Maybe, thought Quirke, he could relax, just a little. He read that Welsh pigs wouldn’t drink London water at an agricultural show and he flogged the typewriter in Notting Hill Gate. It cost him a lot of effort to lug it up there. He lifted the machine onto the shop counter. A grey t-shirt with greasy black hair plastered across his head moved forward to inspect it.

“So, wot have we eah?”
“Will you buy this typewriter off me?”

The grey t-shirt leant forward and peered into the works. There he spotted the loose ribbon and wiggled the problem with a suspicious forefinger.

“Wot’s this?”
Quirke then stated the obvious.
“Er, the ribbon’s given up.”
The t-shirt gestured with both hands at the machine, like he was pushing an open till closed.
“Well, fix it.”
“I can’t.”
“Why not? How do I know it’s your typewriter, then?”
“Er, I’m a writer. I’m not very technical.”
A second’s pause for thought evaluated the plausibility.
“Oh, OK then. How about fifty quid?”
Just like that.

He saw a Slattery’s bus ad on the Tube – only fifteen quid to get to Dublin – but just for a change he spent a Saturday night in Eric’s place, way out east in Dagenham. Eric was Kevin’s landlord and they lived in Gay Gardens. It was like an address in a sitcom. Quirke had asked if there was possibly any room there for him, so Kevin invited him out to test the water.

There was a guy called Mac staying there too, along with a canary called Harry. Mac had done a runner out of the North in 1971, when the Brits had piled in through his mother’s front door and he’d dived out the bathroom window, pulling his pants up as he jumped into a car waiting in the back lane to take him over the Border.

Mac and Quirke went to the pub, then to the off-licence. Mac’s fair comment on Irish ‘entertainment’ in places like the Archway Tavern was, “If they love it so much, why don’t they go back there?” With the hot sun forcing its way through the net curtains in the window and the whiskey and cans on the table, he provided images of the Southern border town of Dundalk (“El Paso”) in the early 1970s: people who’d never set foot on a farm used to walk around with bags of fertilizer over their backs, while the locals stayed indoors. It was like the Wild West back then but, by this time, 1989, he believed the IRA were only wasting their time.

Playing table football in the house with Eric reminded Quirke of a diversion from lonely bar extensions as a new student, when he’d had no one to talk to. Eric’s Irish impression consisted of saying, “Where’s me fucken shovel?” and it was decided that Quirke would move in, to the empty room at the back, off the kitchen.

Back in W10, the woman upstairs had stitches over one eye. It was evidence of a backhanded compliment from her other half, Quirke guessed. She wanted Quirke to get some things in the shop across the street. She gave him coffee and kept him talking upstairs. He told her he was moving out in a few days. She said she was glad people were moving out downstairs, that Simon and Kim were like a married couple down there and needed their space.

As the good weather survived, he might not have wanted to be in London any longer but he wasn’t moping or panicking. He had an attitude like that of Micawber. Things kept turning up. He had a job for Monday through Mac’s boss but there was some kind of war going on upstairs again. He was down to his last fiver. Then Kim said something that surprised him, after all that had happened.

“There’s a bed here now, if you want it.”
In ways, though, he was still sane.
“No, I think it’s for the best that I go.”
“Yeah, I think so too.”
“Anyway, I feel like a safecracker when trying to light that grill.”

On leaving he forgot to say thanks. He knew he’d go crazy altogether if he stayed there. What did he think about the reality of London, in the end of the day? He couldn’t starve to death or be executed. It was highly unlikely he’d be put in jail with the newsworthy Irish. These facts had to count for something.


The phone rang and it was Kim. He agreed to go and see her that same evening. He simply couldn’t refuse that voice at the other end of the line. Simon was away and they had a good time, relaxed and yet urgent, in the pub on the corner before returning to the laboratory conditions of the flat. Two of Simon’s brothers were crashing there in his absence so she brought Quirke into her room to continue the chat. She sat up on the bed, leaning on the pillows. She was in one of those moods again. She’d cause havoc wherever she went. He took the other end.

“Right now I feel like crawling over there and nibbling your ear,” she said.

It was a journey to the end of the bed. Either take your clothes off or keep your hands off, he thought. God we are stupid c*nts, us, in different ways. He not long twenty-five, she not yet twenty-two. Was there something the world knew that he did not? At his age, he wondered sometimes.

“But you can’t, you know that.”
He felt a little unwell but he had to tell her now.
“Have you any idea at all how much I wanted you, from the beginning?”
When it had been just the two of them, there might have been a double date with Adam and Eve.
“But darling, you never gave the slightest sign of it,” she answered.
“I thought you were… you know… you hadn’t…”
She sat up a bit.
“I had.”

To him she’d seemed a childlike angel, with a body to confuse all the numskulls down below, what with all the false alarms. She may have seemed a kid back then but all hadn’t been quite as it seemed. It never was. That had only been a spell that lasted a month, before travels on her part intervened for the first time.

When she came back the first time, she soon said the thrill was gone but the dust between his teeth didn’t infest his emotions, at first. She’d told him back then that he was up in the air, like a man tied to balloons in an art shop print they both saw, on one of those Dublin afternoons where there was always a bus or a train to get, but he didn’t understand what she meant. Now, in the room, she was quiet for a moment. Then she spoke up again.

“But wouldn’t it be a mistake for us to make love now?”

He thought of three things at that instant: the knot of bitterness and the pair of righteous brothers outside the door. The bitterness could have been overcome but, like Wilhelm Reich, he at least understood the crippling effect of a lack of privacy on human relationships. He muttered an answer instead of breaking something. He mumbled that it would.

One of the righteous brothers entered the bedroom to give her a little lecture while Quirke was in the bathroom. A blast of flashback occurred before he returned to her room. The heavy scent of the windowless bathroom with the noisy ventilator. The claustrophobia. Astral projection. The conversation died away, drained after that talking cure. He left the room soon after she said she was tired. There was a somewhat upbeat conclusion on her lips. We’re only beginning. I’m not letting you go.

In the course of falling asleep again on the extendable chair, it seemed to him the emotional coast was clear. No noise came from the flat upstairs. Presumably they still blared Doris Day, occasionally. Our lips shouldn’t touch, I like it too much.

The strange birds that strayed down from the heights had to be grabbed and thrown into sacks but knowing just when to make the lunge seemed the art. Ask the coyote. Waking up was like the relief after an operation. Then the patient leaves the hospital, thinks he’s healed, but the scars are tender for a long time and finally leave their mark.

The next day a girl friend of hers called to the flat and the three of them went down to the park, Wormwood Scrubs. The way Kim was dressed, in light pink shorts and matching tight top, with sandals with heels, helped explain the looks she got from the chaps sitting drinking outside the couple of bars on the road. Jaws were dropping away from the pints, at the tables, across the lively traffic. He saw them. He understood them. As for the feeling in the park, he felt like tearing up tufts of burnt grass instead of contributing to the conversation. By then it felt like a Mediterranean climate.

Another feeling was one of wondering if the emotional coast really was clear. The prison stood in the distance. What prisoner, had he known, would have swapped places with him at that moment? The common or garden psycho would have had no problem with that.


He went to meet Katie in the Station Tavern on Latimer Road, where a blues band was resident on Sundays. Kim came in later, a bit shaken after spending the night in the modern eternal triangle, stuck in a room that wasn’t her own, with a couple bonking. Quirke just had to laugh at this reaction and squeeze her arm.

Simon brought him down the road from the flat for some late ones. The pub landlord ejected two identical twins for refusing to drink spirits instead of pints, after closing time. Simon said they looked like undertakers. “Bound to be villains of some description,” answered Quirke. Simon kept saying things like, “Isn’t this great?” and in truth it was really enjoyable despite the moment of on-looking horror at the sickening state Jim McDonnell was in when knocked out in the final round of his televised fight against Azzuma Nelson.

They talked about Kim, and Quirke, sounding as sober as a judge, was quietly satisfied with what he saw as his honest, clear and just appraisal of their situation and what needed to be done. He was calm and even-handed, that was all. It was like looking at a sibling in the throes of a childhood illness, like measles, from which the observer had just emerged.



In the morning he woke up there on the dental chair. The living room was empty otherwise. Simon was banging on a locked door in the tunnel beyond and shouting Kim’s name. Then he could be heard muttering to himself before he left the flat, slamming the door to the street. Quirke sat up and the back of the electric chair sat up with him. He didn’t like the sound of this and he pulled on his jeans.

He dressed fully on hearing a crash of breaking glass. It had to have come from the street side. Simon had put a bottle through her window because she was in bed with another man, in revenge for Simon previously getting off with some girl, when Kim had been like a hen with an egg, trying to prevent that happening.

The other guy vamoosed in a trice, having perhaps first peered through the broken window to see if the coast was clear. Then she entered the living room, alone and scared. Next Simon came back into the flat and started screeching at her. Quirke even thought he was going to hit her. Well, he wouldn’t have let that happen. He stood between them, calming the situation, protecting her to the end. But he knew he’d be finally fully cured and healed. He’d just never have reacted with such overt passion. Simon stormed out again, this time for the day, and when the dust cleared Quirke asked her if she was all right. She said she thought so and he said OK and confessed that he didn’t want to hang around any longer.

Tales you can take to the bank

Tales you can take to the bank

Willie Sutton’s autobiography denied that he’d ever explained why he robbed banks by saying “because that’s where the money is”. Though the apocryphal quotation became known as Sutton’s Law, he dismissed the story but, at the same time, admitted that, had anyone ever asked him, he probably would have said it.

Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life.

To reduce the power of the privately-owned Bank of England, a plan was hatched by Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford, for a group of merchants to assume parts of Britain’s national debt in return for an annual payment of three million pounds for a set period and a monopoly of the trade to the South Seas i.e. South America. The group then assumed the title the South Sea Company. Extravagant notions of the available riches in faraway fields were fostered and the company’s stock flourished until, in early 1720, it offered to take on the entire national debt. The British state’s creditors were encouraged to swap what they were owed for company shares and speculation then carried South Sea stock to ten times its nominal value. Then the chairman and directors sold out, the bubble burst and the stock collapsed. Thousands were ruined.


Companies of all kinds had been floated to surf on this tidal wave of interest in South Sea stock. They soon got the nickname of Bubbles, the most appropriate description that the popular imagination could invent. Some of them lasted for a week or a fortnight, while others were only around for a day. The most preposterous of all showed the complete madness of the people sucked in. It was started by an unknown adventurer who is definitely a candidate for the title of the unknown soldier of cynicism. His venture was entitled a “company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is”. The genius who mounted this bold and successful test of public gullibility merely stated in his prospectus that the required capital was half a million, in five thousand shares of one hundred pounds each, with a required deposit of two pounds per share. Each subscriber, paying his deposit, would be entitled to one hundred pounds per annum per share.

How this enormous profit was to be obtained he did not inform them at that time. Instead he promised that after a month full particulars would be announced and a call made for the remaining ninety-eight pounds of the subscription. The very next morning, at nine o’clock, this entrepreneur opened an office in Cornhill in London. Crowds flocked to his door and when he shut up shop at three o’clock, he found that the deposits had been paid for one thousand of his shares. He was thus, after five hours, the possessor of two thousand pounds. Content with his day’s work, he set off that same evening for the Continent. He was never heard of again.

With the death of Louis XIV, the finances of France were in a bad state but the Duke of Orleans became Regent and this meant everything to a Scottish gambler called John Law who was a friend of the Duke and a man convinced that no country could prosper without a paper currency. In May 1716, a royal edict authorised Law to establish a bank. He made all his banknotes payable at sight and in the coin current at the time they were issued. This was a masterstroke and immediately made his notes more valuable than precious metals. The latter were constantly liable to depreciation by the tampering of the government.


Law publicly declared at the same time that a banker deserved to be put to death if he issued notes without having sufficient security to answer all demands. It was not long before the trade of the country felt the benefit and branches of his bank were established in several cities. In the meantime, Law started the project that has handed his name down to posterity. He proposed to establish a company that would have the exclusive privilege of trading to the Mississippi river and the province of Louisiana, where the country was supposed to abound in precious metals. This company was set up in August 1717.

It was then that the frenzy of speculation began. Law’s bank had brought about so much economic good that any promises for the future were swallowed but, when the bank became a public institution, the Regent ordered a printing of notes to the amount of a billion livres. Law helped inundate France with this paper money, which, based on no solid foundation, was sure to cause a crash, sooner or later.

Law otherwise devoted his attention to the Mississippi project, the shares of which were rapidly rising in spite of the opposition of Parliament. At least three hundred thousand applications were made for fifty thousand new shares. Every day the value of the old shares rose and new applications became so numerous that it was deemed advisable to create three hundred thousand new shares so the Regent could take advantage of the popular enthusiasm to pay off the national debt.

From the tremendous pressure of the crowds, accidents continually occurred in the narrow rue de Quincampoix where Law lived. A story goes that a hump-backed man who stood in the street made considerable money by lending his hump as a writing surface to the speculators. The great masses of customers and spectators drew all the low life of Paris to the spot and constant riots and disturbances occurred. At nightfall, it was often found necessary to send in a detachment of soldiers to clear the street.

Thus the system continued to flourish until the beginning of 1720. The warnings of the Parliament that this massive creation of paper money would bankrupt the country were disregarded but, despite every effort made to stop its exodus, the stores of precious metals in France continued to be smuggled to England and Holland. The little coin that was left in the country was hoarded until the scarcity became so great that trade could no longer be conducted. An edict then forbade any person to have more than five hundred livres (then the equivalent of twenty pounds sterling) of coin in his or her possession, under threat of a heavy fine, plus confiscation.

It was also forbidden to buy up jewellery, plate and precious stones. Informers were encouraged by the promise of getting half of any amount they might discover.
Lord Stair, the English ambassador, said that it was now impossible to doubt the sincerity of Law’s conversion to Catholicism, as he had established an inquisition after having given ample evidence of his faith in transubstantiation by turning gold into paper.

All payments were then ordered to be made in paper and even more notes were printed – to the tune of more than a billion and a half livres – but nothing now could make the people feel the slightest confidence in something that was not exchangeable for metal. Coin, which the Regent aimed to depreciate, only rose in value on every fresh attempt to reduce it.

The value of shares in the Mississippi stock had also tumbled and few people still believed the tales that had once been told of the immense wealth of that region. A last trick was therefore tried to restore public confidence in the Mississippi project.
A general conscription of all the homeless in Paris was made by order of the government. More than six thousand of the poorest of the population were press-ganged, as if in wartime. These unfortunates were provided with clothes and tools and told they would be shipped off to New Orleans to work in the gold mines. They were then paraded day after day through the streets with their picks and shovels before being sent off in small detachments to the ports to be shipped to America. Two thirds of them never reached their destination but melted into the countryside. There they sold their tools for whatever they could get and returned to their old way of life. In less than three weeks, half of them were back in Paris.

Sometimes cynicism is wrapped up in a man simply knowing his strengths and limitations. Take JP Morgan in the 1907 American financial crisis, sitting alone in a room in his home, smoking cigars, while all the ordinary bankers were huddled in the next room, presumably with ties loosened and pencils perched over their ears. When a servant entered and ventured to ask him if he had a plan, he said, “No.” By way of reassurance, he added that he knew someone would come through the door with the right plan and then, he also knew, he would be the person to know it was the right one. Who knows that much today?


W. C. Fields made The Bank Dick. In this film, Fields plays a drunk named Egbert Sousé who trips a fleeing bank robber and becomes a security guard at the bank as a result. Upon being introduced to his daughter’s boyfriend, Og Oggilby, an official at the bank, Egbert remarks, “Og Oggilby… sounds like a bubble in a bathtub.”

Egbert talks Og into embezzling money from the institution. In order to divert a bank examiner from discovering the theft, Egbert takes him to his favourite bar and asks if “Michael Finn” has been in yet – a signal that the barman, one of the Three Stooges – is to spike the examiner’s drink. During Fields’ career, Hollywood standards demanded that good be rewarded and evil be punished but, in The Bank Dick, Fields’ character lies, cheats and steals and yet at the end is rewarded with wealth and fame.