The third section of Three Men on the Edge (I’ll get to the second section next time), is a sequence of 36 micro-fictions called ‘Chewing Glass’, and it revolves around the life of Martyn.
Martyn is a young, melodramatic and impotent artist in love with his best friend Anja, and probably too her husband Rob.
He struggles to reconcile his love-hate feelings towards them, barely keeping a grip on the violent impulses that shadow his day-to-day routines: even at the supermarket checkout, he’ll daydream about stabbing people in the eye. In his love-sickness, he swings between depressed inertia and manic productivity.
At night, he uses one of Anja’s leotards as a mask to help him sleep; he studies yoga and breath-exercises with her, beguiled by the other lycra-wearing participants; he dreams up non-existent ex-girlfriends to bolster his public reputation.
When he’s not arm-wrestling or bear-hugging Rob, he’s sickened simply by the noise of him eating, or talking, or walking. (The man is insufferable, despite his physical charms, and it makes no sense for Anja to be married to him!)
But when out in Rickmansworth with Anja, Martyn lives in dread of being greeted by other members of his community therapy group – such is his lack of self-acceptance; he lies to his doctor, because he doesn’t want to be sent back to hospital; he fantasises that he’s Odysseus – and Anja Penelope, fending off suitors as he travels homeward – all the while not realising that Anja is perfectly content in her marriage.
A self-deluded fantasist then, and hardly coping with life; but Martyn is intensely creative too, and all his neuroses feed into a rich seam of art projects – watercolours of the Grand Union Canal, oil portraits of Anja, an Olympian project to document the local lakes throughout the seasons.
Will Martyn keep it together long enough for his artistic career to take off? Will he confess to Anja his passionate admiration? Will he try to break up her marriage to Rob? Or will he lose his nerve and be provoked into violence?
Below is a Superman-themed micro-fiction from the sequence, first published in Funny Bone: Flashing for Comic Relief (Flash: the International Short-Short Story Press, 2017)
Sometimes Anja praises Martyn so highly she makes him feel like Superman. He has the Superman dream always the same way: not the caped crusader saving the civilised world, but Clark Kent the reporter wearing preppy spectacles and befuddled by Lois Lane—except Lois is Anja—and Anja’s nipples are made of kryptonite. But this is a dream and Lois-Anja is also somehow Lex Luthor at one and the same time—looking like Gene Hackman with his big-collared 1970s shirt—and Lois-Anja Hackman takes off Clark Kent’s glasses, kisses his brow sadly, then draws his head closer to her deadly, trembling chest.
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.
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 Edgehere. 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:
(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.
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.
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…”
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.
[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.
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”
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.