Living on the Edge

I grew up with a form of identity confusion.

My family home was in Northwood, in the former postal county of Middlesex, a region on the Northwest edge of Greater London.

“Middlesex” belonged to London. But we had a Hertfordshire phone number.

We lived on a quiet street. But 50 yards from a fairly busy main road.

If I walked away from my house, in one direction I moved towards the densely-packed suburbs of Greater London; in another direction I could find a series of splendidly landscaped golf courses; another direction took me into the heart of a private housing estate of detached, mostly mock-Tudor properties with large grounds; elsewhere nearby I could walk our Bernese Mountain dog through thick woods into unkempt fields whose ownership seemed unidentified – apparently common, wildmeadow land.  In Northwood, we were serviced by the Metropolitan Underground Line. Except it was overground. We called it the train (not “the tube”) – I didn’t understand the difference between real trains and my tube-trains until adulthood.

Welcome to the identity confusions of the suburbs, where you are neither one thing nor the other.

Later, after a few years of moving around, I bought my first flat not far from Northwood, in a commuter town called Rickmansworth, which lay about 3 miles northwest – a couple of stops further out on the Metropolitan Line.

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Rickmansworth is in a valley where three rivers converge – literally the Three Rivers District of Hertfordshire. They feed the Grand Union Canal as it passes through between London and Birmingham.

ricky1 - canal

It also marks the northern beginning of a remarkable series of over 60 (yes, sixty) lakes (former quarry pits – whose extracted gravel was used to build the original Wembley Stadium) that combine to form Colne Valley Park, a zone of managed wildness stretching many miles from Rickmansworth in the north to the Thames in the south, towards Slough in the west, and Heathrow in the east.

Despite the proximity of all this beautiful, watery countryside, Rickmansworth is densely housed, and expanding – a population of 15,000 in the 2001 census, 24,000 in 2011.

Ricky High Street

I lived in Rickmansworth from 2007 to 2016, and experienced there the strange, unsettling territory of a true “Edgelands”, an experience neither urban nor rural, neither truly London nor the Hertfordshire countryside. I had to start writing about it.

The “Edgelands” are a concept first defined in 2002 by the writer Marion Shoard in her essay of the same name (published in Jennifer Jenkins (ed.), Remaking the Landscape (2002)):

“The apparently unplanned, certainly uncelebrated and largely incomprehensible territory where town and country meet… it is characterised by rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks … golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland.”

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In its own low-key way, Rickmansworth can lay claim to all of that. I’m not sure where exactly I first heard the term “Edgelands” but I do know that my first immersion into researching the concept was a book written by poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness (2011)) that further opened my eyes and ears to the territory I was living in.

I was fascinated by the catalogue of landscape features that Symmons Roberts and Farley identified as classic “Edgelands” elements: landfill, water, pylons, allotments, verges, canals, wasteland, woodlands, hotels, retail parks, industrial estates, golf ranges, airports etc. And I found the descriptions themselves captivating, possessed of an ungainly, mythical beauty: “the fringes of English towns and cities, where urban and rural negotiate and renegotiate their borders…” (p.5), “the hollows and spaces between our carefully-managed wilderness areas and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism…” (p.12)

ideal place for recycling in town - there's almost always space

“In the A-Zs of major English cities, there are always pages where the circuitry of streets gives way to blank grid squares, peppered with nameless ponds, industrial parks, nurseries and plantations…” (p.20), “seldom visited wastelands bypassed by the flows of commerce and leisure, the landfill sites and blank unnamed pools of dark standing water…” (p.23), “this is a different wildnerness… It has the echoing silence of miles of empty car parks, dark and locked glass offices, pockets of woodland and strips of standing water.” (p.267)

Their book was the perfect introduction to the idea of “Edgelands”, and I heartily recommend it. It’s a future classic of landscape writing to be mentioned in the same breath as its acknowledged ancestor The Unofficial Countryside (1973), by Richard Mabey, who pioneered writing about the same kind of geography before anyone else had thought to celebrate it.

possible cover3 - signpost.JPGIn my new book Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, June 2018), I’ve tried to celebrate the strange hinterland that is Rickmansworth, neither properly the suburbs of a big city nor exactly the countryside. As research, I often went for walks with notebook or camera in hand, documenting the landscape around me and trying to find ways to bring it into the context of my fiction. (I think the people I passed may sometimes have looked at me oddly). Three Men on the Edge attempts to capture the split self of the town as a character in its own right, divided between its canals, lakes, fields and woodlands on the one hand, and its supermarkets, commuter train lines, and busy cafés on the other.

The book also has another in-betweenness. It’s very much a literary hybrid: a novella composed of three linked sequences of miniature stories, informed by the techniques of prose poetry. I could suggest with a fair amount of conviction that you won’t have read anything similar before.

If you enjoy books that put landscape and environment at the centre, or if you have ever experienced the strange and ambivalent emotions of suburban life, or if you enjoy the “edgelands” of unusual forms of writing, I hope you might find Three Men on the Edge an interesting kind of territory to encounter.

More details about the book, from the publisher, and from me, here:

Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018)

https://michaelloveday.com/fiction/

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Cause for Alarm

The stories in Three Men on the Edge are divided into three parts. Here’s the first of three blogposts, one for each of the sections, which I hope might serve as a useful set of introductions.

The sixteen stories in ‘Cause for Alarm’ – the first part of the book – are devoted to Denholm. Denholm has lived in Rickmansworth for thirty four (and a half) years, and has been a Hertfordshire resident all his life since his family set up their newsagent business across the county. He’s retired, long-married, physically fragile – and would admit to a few quirks of behaviour in his maturity. For example, he has five different telephone lines at home, each for a very specific type of phonecall; he owns two garden sheds and every day he squirrels away at building something secret and intricate in the second one; and he makes major life decisions according to the lyrics of Neil Diamond songs – his wife, Joan, is a lifelong Diamond fan, and Denholm is intent upon fathoming this very masculine enigma. Quirks like these, while perhaps socially inconvenient, help to make Denholm the very particular man that he is.

Old telephone - for 'Denholm' blogpost

Denholm and Joan have been together for so long that they no longer know if they love each other. Crucially, about ten years ago, Faith, a voluptuous widow, moved into the house next-door and has since embarked on a campaign of temptations in Denholm’s direction. Denholm is equal parts beguiled, obsessed and bewildered by Faith’s many charms.

Oh, and there’s Phil. Phil is Denholm’s only friend in Rickmansworth (he’s not much of a talker or ‘joiner’, our Denholm), and he’s trying to keep Denholm on the straight and narrow, if Denholm would only listen.

Will Denholm remain faithful? Will Joan and he bridge the chasm that has opened between them? Will Denholm’s story ultimately prove to be tragedy or comedy?

You can buy and read Three Men on the Edge here. In the meantime, this is the opening story of Denholm’s section, which first appeared (in an earlier version) in Flash: the International Short-Short Story Magazine in April 2015:

 

Lost Object

(Where are the fragranced pillows, where are the flying horses) Denholm balances the square box on his palm, lifts the purple lid, and inside, instead of hazelnut whirls and lemon crunches, resting in the depressions of the plastic tray, are the fifteen pairs of keys which used to open Gorgeous Gifts, no longer a going concern (where are the Union Jack beard trimmers, where are the tiger-print purses), he closes his eyes, fingers the keys, they rattle in his brain, fifty years trading on Rickmansworth High Street, Watford, Chorleywood, Bushey, St. Albans, places where mother’s business dug into Hertfordshire soil (find us the faux-diamond ballerinas, find us the Spitfire key-rings); how he cherished helping buyers turn panic to inspiration, and he drifts back to the Rickmansworth storeroom, clambering through stuffed cardboard boxes, the one-chair staffroom with its grown-up magazines (go find the Hertfordshire egg-timers, go find the invisible inks), and the smell of Grandma’s daily gammon rolls, how the shop became a home, how he memorised those cluttered shelves (go get the coin-box skulls, go get the footballing pigs), and how much he loathed the family party-trick, the loss of light as they put the blindfold in place.

 

Why Clowns Have Never Been Funny

When did clowns stop being funny?

Some trace a change back to Stephen King’s 1986 novel It (adapted into a TV miniseries in 1990 and a film in 2017), where a malignant being disguises himself as a clown called Pennywise and terrorises neighbourhoods. It spawned a generation of cultural imitators, not to mention real-life counterparts (although King’s novel itself was supposedly prompted by newspaper reports of a violent criminal who dressed as a clown). There are people nowadays who are genuinely terrified of clowns (the phenomenon even has a name: coulrophobia, a word coined in the 1980s, or sometimes balatrophobia), to the point that some professional clowns apparently fear their tradition may never recover.

But Stephen King’s horror story is a particularly gruesome, extreme, and late-twentieth century expression of the ambiguity of clowns. It is certainly not the first.

A change in attitudes towards clowns is found by some commentators in the life of Joseph Grimaldi, the British entertainer of the early 19th century.

Grimaldi

His distinctive stage make-up created a visual template for modern circus clowns, but Grimaldi is rumoured to have suffered from bipolar disorder, and after retirement (brought on by physical ill-health), ended up in improverished, alcoholic obscurity.

Yet, we can go back further – to Pierrot, the stock character of commedia dell’arte, the part-improvised pantomime tradition originating in 16th century Italy. Pierrot, dressed in white clothes, and with whitened face, pined in frustration for the servant Columbine who was indulging in an affair with that archetypal trickster Harlequin. Pierrot was a sad, sensitive and naïve buffoon. The “zanni” (rustic fool) characters of commedia dell’arte grew out of the traditions of Greek and Roman theatre, but it was in commedia dell’arte that the modern clown concept has its direct roots. (Pierrot’s story was famously reinterpreted in Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera Pagliacci, where real life and art are seen to intermingle as the pantomime performer Canio (who plays Pierrot) is cuckolded by his wife Nedda (who plays Columbine), leading to jealous and violent revenge.) For more on the history of clowns, such as Auguste, whiteface, and hobo clowns, see here and here.

Pierrot, therefore, clowns have been associated with failures in human relationships, with loss and disappointment, ever since their origins.

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the figure of the troubled clown. Although I was born in the 1970s, I wasn’t a teenage fan Stephen King. But, like many other people, I was introduced to the ambiguity of clowns through a milder, more mainstream cultural example, the Motown song by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: The Tears of a Clown.

“Now if there’s a smile on my face
It’s only there trying to fool the public…”

“You’re gone and I’m hurting so bad
Like a clown I appear to be glad…”

Link to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: ‘The Tears of a Clown’ on YouTube

Clowns, Robinson told me, are the epitome of the ambiguous sign – there’s tragedy buried beneath the comedy. Until as a young boy I heard Smokey Robinson sing about it, I don’t think I’d perceived sadness within the clown figures I’d encountered in childhood.

Of course, in childhood for many of us there was also the Ronald McDonald clown. As an adult, I associate strange, hollow feelings with this device of 20th century capitalism and marketing. At what age did I first notice this? Certainly I don’t think any of my “political” awareness of this advertising figure’s ambivalent morality emerged until after Smokey Robinson had changed my perceptions of clowns. What’s clear  is that clowns, thanks to Motown, soon became complex and multiple in my childhood perceptions.

So, when trying to find a photo for the cover of my novella Three Men on the Edge, I wasn’t surprised to find myself repeatedly drawn back to the photograph below.

Three Men on the Edge front cover

[Photo copyright: Lynda Bryant]

It was snapped by my wife Lynda at the Rickmansworth Festival. The Rickmansworth Festival is held in May every year, and is the annual highlight of the local calendar – up to 20,000 people attend the weekend (not bad for a town of population 24,000 in the 2011 census). The Festival began in 1993 as a canal-based event for the British Waterways Trust but has since expanded across the Aquadrome (Rickmansworth’s public park of fields, playground, and boating lakes) and indeed into the rest of the town, incorporating a funfair, folk music performances, fortune tellers, morris dancers, and many marquees showcasing local arts and crafts and food producers. [Link to Festival]

I liked this photograph because not only did it show, in the background, one of the Rickmansworth Aquadrome lakes that are so central to the setting of the book, but also because the clown seemed to express exactly the kind of mixture of comedy, tragedy, danger and fear that I hoped to accumulate in the stories. What’s more, my wife took the photo because she loved the clash between the lake’s “natural” landscape and the garish, human-designed artwork [I’ve written more about the tension between the “natural” and the “human-made” here]

As clowns are so often associated with troubled, hidden lives, the photo also seemed to capture something about the book’s three male protagonists Denholm, Gus & Martyn, who teeter towards crisis while trying to maintain an equilibrium within the small society surrounding them. These men, in their differing ways, all share an incompetence with regard to human relationships. In real life, don’t many men begin with a certain native clumsiness in this respect, a broad trait of masculinity that has to be gradually unlearned by the individual? Maybe those who know me will tell you I am biased by my own life. I couldn’t possibly comment. [NB Interesting to note, at this point, that “clumsy” may share etymological roots with “clown”. Link to etymology]

Anyway, I was very pleased when my publisher V. Press agreed that we could use this photograph as the cover of the book.

The Rickmansworth Festival, while being mentioned in Three Men on the Edge, doesn’t feature heavily in it – I never managed to write that perfect story featuring it as a setting. But one regular Rickmansworth Funfair that does feature in the book is Carter’s Steam Fair. You may have seen this touring fairground, as it pops up in different places across the country. (I’ve even seen it recently at the local park in the city where I now live, Bath.) http://www.carterssteamfair.co.uk/rides.html

As I do with clowns, I find something ambivalent and ambiguous in fairgrounds. One morning several years ago, I was taking a walk through Croxley Green and stumbled across Carter’s Steam Fair as it was being assembled prior to opening to the public.

Chair-o-planes

It was early morning, there was a fine mist in the air, the fairground was deserted, and a feeling of melancholy overwhelmed me as I walked among the unpopulated fairground rides. I felt all of the emotion that I used to feel when listening to Bruce Springsteen’s magnificent song ‘Tunnel of Love’ in the 1980s:

“Well, there’s a crazy mirror showing us both in five D
I’m laughing at you you’re laughing at me
There’s a room of shadows that gets so dark brother
It’s easy for two people to lose each other in this tunnel of love”

Link to Springsteen’s ‘Tunnel of Love’ on YouTube

So I’ll end this blog post about tragic clowns and funfairs with the story that my experience of Carter’s Steam Fair inspired, ‘Ceremony of Machines’, taken from the first of the three parts of Three Men on the Edge.

 

Ceremony of Machines

Denholm and Joan follow the Croxley Boundary Walk, through tunnels of hedgerows and hawthorns. They emerge into a clearing: a shock of burgundy, olive and gold signage. Carter’s Steam Fair is gathered on the Green, its annual ceremony of machines invading the mown grass. It is shrouded in rain-mist, deserted by the public after closing.

Here are the rock ‘n’ roll dodgems, Sensational Octopuses, Jubilee steam gallopers. The Paramount Chair-o-planes dangle on rusted chains from the top of the carousel. An il Tricolore ice cream van loiters at the edge of the Green. Vintage Scammell trucks litter the turf between rides.

The only person visible in the twilight is a pony-tailed man at a Test-Your-Strength stall. Rain has dampened the cigarette clenched like a reed between his lips, and he hunches over to fuss with synthetic dogs. Joan leads Denholm over to where the ritual beckons. The stall is decked in florid curlicues of Victoriana, flaunting portraits of Lloyd Honeyghan and Frank Bruno. A striped wooden hammer lies discarded on the grass. The bell at the top of the pole seems a long way up, its silver glinting like an object of worship.

“I’ll do you a deal while I pack up – two pound for three strikes. Release your inner wild man. Or woman. You can win this, er, cuddly toy.” He holds up the furred black dog; even the dog seems doubtful.

“My husband accepts your challenge,” Joan says, apparently for her own satisfaction. She starts scouring her purse. “Denholm, do you have change?” She doesn’t look up from the depths of her handbag.

Denholm withers. A relief to find his wallet empty. He offers up its bare leather as evidence to the man.

“How about you let him have a go anyway?” Joan asks, as Denholm feels his stick-in-the-mud stance stiffen.

“Nothing free in this life,” the man replies. Rain mizzles around them. He turns abruptly back to his dogs, leaving Denholm and his wife to face the silence of the fairground.

[Find out more about Three Men on the Edge here: Link to V. Press]

Test-Your-Strength Stall

Tuberous Begonia

Below are two additional stories I wrote during Christmas 2017 for the Denholm section of Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018). Both of the stories focused on Denholm and his wife Joan, and I felt that they brought out new elements in Joan’s personality. I sent them to my editor Sarah Leavesley, to discuss including them in the manuscript. We had a long email exchange, but in the end it was felt that it was too late to risk changing the manuscript – we might, in hindsight, regret altering Joan’s role at the last minute. It was decided that it would be more prudent to publish them separately. So, here’s the second of the two stories, in which Denholm and Joan consider whether to move into a retirement village. It seems to be particularly harsh on Watford. Now, as it happens, I like Watford, and have many fond memories of time spent there in both childhood and adulthood. Denholm and Joan, however, are less convinced.

 

Tuberous Begonia

Even when Denholm’s shielded by Croxley Green, and facing away, dreaming of the Chiltern Hills, Watford’s shops, small industry and relentless housing cast a morbid urban shadow. It might as well be London. Nevertheless, he subscribes to the Watford Observer – the only credible local paper. And this morning, while Joan deadheads the triple blooms of the tuberous begonia (female, female, male; female, female, male), his eye has been drawn to an advert for retirement living – maybe Phil had the right idea.

On the outskirts of Watford, between the M25 and the abandoned golf course, homes are being built. Once flung out by London’s centrifuge, he’d thought never to move, but perhaps this new village is reality for threadbare old age.

He looks out through the patio windows: his wife stoops with garden shears in one hand, the other now massaging her hip as she grimaces upright. She scrunches some petals in her fist, lifts them to her nose, inhales. Her brow seems furrowed.

There’ll be coded gates, a residents’ pool, gardeners tending communal lawns, porters to deal with Joan’s demands, and a driving range at which he could refine his swing. A certain, leisurely lure is undeniable, though he can’t bear to leave before his matchstick model’s complete, and surely he won’t find a neighbour as hospitable as Faith. But maybe that’s the point.

The back door opens, and in walks Joan, still carrying her fistful of petals, sniffing them carefully.

“The begonia smells strange this year. As if it’s rotting, though it looks alright. For goodness’ sake, Denholm, come out to the garden with me. Get some exercise.”

“Do you think we should move?” he ventures, uncertainly. “Something cheaper, near Watford?”

She stares, steps over to him, looks over his shoulder at the newspaper.

“Good God. Not that, not yet,” she says, then pauses. “But we do need to move. It’s time you considered it. Recently, you seem addled.”

Humming softly, she turns her wrist. One by one, the crushed petals tumble onto his head.

The Belly of the Whale

Over Christmas 2017 I wrote two additional stories for the Denholm section of Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018). Both of the stories focused on Denholm and his wife Joan, and I felt that they brought out new elements in Joan’s personality. I sent them to my editor Sarah Leavesley, to discuss including them in the manuscript. We had a long email exchange, but in the end it was felt that it was too late to risk changing the manuscript – we might, in hindsight, regret altering Joan’s role at the last minute. It was decided that it would be more prudent to publish them separately. So, here’s the first of the two stories, in which Denholm pays a visit to Joan’s loft space. I’ll publish the second later in June.

 

The Belly of the Whale

Indecision creeps higher with each step up the spiral. Above him, a dark square, through which (if he’s quiet) the undulating moans of whalesong can be detected. It’s not often he braves this staircase; its wrought iron curls seem to tighten blackly round him as he climbs. No matter that it’s only there because Joan refused to seek planning permission, and insisted, insisted (against his advice) on claiming the loft space as a room of her own. No matter that invitations to this sanctuary are as grudging as they are rare. Now, he thinks, is surely a safe time – now, when candlelight and incense-fumes have lulled her towards good humour.

Above him, Joan will be spread-eagled on her mat, supine yet strolling along a sun-blissed beach, feeling the sand between her toes, beguiled by the spill of the love-struck surf. At last, her pulse will have slowed, her breathing will have lengthened, and, in this mode, she’ll be more likely to welcome him ascending the iron steps in order to talk, in order to confront the gap between them.

He waits at the entrance – waits for the whalesong to die, and for Joan to emerge from the humpback’s belly. She must waken, but not waken too much – a certain drowsiness will aid his agenda. He’s almost unmanned by the billowing aroma – ‘Deep Forest’? ‘Wild Grove’? – he never remembers. He studies the ribs of the roofspace (once devilled by damprot), and runs his hand over the flooring (no further trace of dead ladybirds). The stair creaks under his foot. A sudden shift in the dark. Denholm? Who’s there? The voice is tense, hard-edged, a barrier awaiting him. He stiffens, neither inside nor outside her zone, doubting his mission, his head claimed by attic darkness, his body by the landing below.