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The first novel, in revised form, from “possibly the best living writer in Britain” (The Daily Telegraph)
In The Colour of Memory, six friends plot a nomadic course through their mid-twenties as they scratch out an existence in near-destitute conditions in 1980s South London. They while away their hours drinking cheap beer, landing jobs and quickly squandering them, smoking weed, dodging muggings, listening to Coltrane, finding and losing a facsimile of love, collecting ...
The first novel, in revised form, from “possibly the best living writer in Britain” (The Daily Telegraph)
In The Colour of Memory, six friends plot a nomadic course through their mid-twenties as they scratch out an existence in near-destitute conditions in 1980s South London. They while away their hours drinking cheap beer, landing jobs and quickly squandering them, smoking weed, dodging muggings, listening to Coltrane, finding and losing a facsimile of love, collecting unemployment, and discussing politics in the way of the besotted young—as if they were employed only by the lives they chose.
In his vivid evocation of council flats and pubs, of a life lived in the teeth of romantic ideals, Geoff Dyer provides a shockingly relevant snapshot of a different Lost Generation.
"Like its subjects, the book is sharp and witty. . . . [Dyer] fans will enjoy reading about the characters’ obsessions (such as jazz, film, and photography), as well as Dyer’s thoughtful and absorbing digressions." —Publishers Weekly
“Of all the hyped novels of 1980s London, it remains one of the most genuine.” —New Statesman
“Dyer writes crisp, Martin Amis–inflected prose, full of acute perceptions and neat phrases . . . The book abounds in colourful descriptions of familiar aspects of London life.” —The Times Literary Supplement
"The great thing about [The Colour of Memory] is its tone, which is neither snide nor wistful, but sharply contemplative, with the typical (and typically pleasing) Dyer humor underlying it all." —The Threepenny Review
Praise for Geoff Dyer:
“What I find most remarkable about Dyer [is] his tone. Its simplicity, its classlessness, its accessibility and yet its erudition—the combination is a trick few British writers ever pull off . . . [Dyer’s humor is] what separates him from Berger and Lawrence and Sontag.” —Zadie Smith, Harper’s Magazine
In August it rained all the time—heavy, corrosive rain from which only nettles and rusty metal derived refreshment. The sky was a grey sea with no tide. Gutters burst their kerbs. When it didn't rain it drizzled and when it didn't drizzle the city sweltered under a thick vest of cloud. Even the clouds looked as if they could do with some sun. The weather was getting people down. I wasn't keen on the rain either but what really put a damper on things was being thrown out of my house and sacked from my job.
Being evicted from a house was a new experience for me but getting sacked was something I'd always had a talent for. I started early, when I was still at school. On Saturdays I worked in a sports shop and was laid off because there was a question mark against my honesty. Called in to the manager's office at four o'clock, I left for good at quarter past, helping myself to a generous silver handshake from the till as I went. A few years later I was fired from an insurance company for lack of attention to detail. My work involved checking someone else's figures for errors and I tended not to bother. There was no point; my checking was checked by somebody else and before anything went through the computer it was double checked, cross-checked and double-cross-checked by two or three other people. Would you have bothered? Of course not; you'd have been down in the basement playing in the ping-pong tournament like the rest of us.
Next I was sacked from a place before I'd even started working there. Now that takes some doing. Apparently there was a little problem with one of the references—I'd drawn up some headed notepaper and written it myself—and my future employer felt that under the circumstances they would have to withdraw their conditional offer of employment. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. A week later I was taken on at a civil engineer's. Before they had a chance to sack me I trashed my leg in an industrial accident and picked up a thousand pounds in compensation. Easy money.
Cursed with a track record like that and tainted by several years of unemployment it seemed unlikely that I would ever get a job. Experience is all-important as far as employers are concerned and since my only experience was of un-unfair dismissal it came as quite a surprise to find myself in a proper job with a regular wage, luncheon vouchers and everything. I thought I'd finally got a foot on the ladder. The job turned out to be a real ladder on the foot number but at least it took my mind off having nowhere to live. A week before starting work myself and the five other people who also lived there were thrown out of the crumbling cesspit on Brixton Water Lane where we had lived quite happily since the riots. Discourteous visitors assumed it was a squat but no self-respecting squatters would have lived there; in fact we were legitimate, rent-paying tenants. We had a rent-book to prove it. We didn't have a rent-book to prove it but Len said we could have one any time we wanted. In the meantime we handed Len's dad a total of five hundred pounds a month cash (it made no difference to us: we were all claiming housing benefit anyway). Len didn't own the house—he owned the motor repair shop next door—and neither did his dad. It was Len's brother Stass who actually owned the house. There were three other brothers as well but at any one time at least two of them were in gaol. Stass himself wasn't in prison; he was in the nut-hutch. Unlike his brothers Stass wasn't a bit violent; he was very violent—that's what his father, Anastassi, told us the day before Stass got his discharge. The first thing Stass did when he got out was tell us to get out. There was no reasoning with him. I started to explain how we, as tenants, had certain rights. Stass looked at me with eyes like dead planets and asked if I'd seen his brain anywhere.
'Whose brain?' I said.
'See I took a big shit and realised I'd shit my brain down the bog,' said Stass and then just stood there.
Bewildered but unable to counter this belligerent interpretation of the Rent Act we all moved out at the end of the week. A week later I started my job.
The night before my first day at work I crashed at a friend's house and went to bed early to make sure I got up in time. I set the alarm for seven thirty. Jesus! How did people ever get used to getting up at that kind of time? Slightly drunk, I got into bed and thrashed around for a couple of hours without feeling sleepy, got up to go for a piss, crawled back into bed and lay awake until four o'clock. In the morning the alarm split my sleep like an axe. More than anything in the world I wanted to go back to sleep, to call in sick and say I'd start tomorrow. All around was the wireless crackle of rain. The room was full of early morning light that seemed both brighter and darker than the sort I was used to. In the bathroom I slapped my face with cold water and took a joyless crap before running out of the house to catch the bus. The sky was pigeon-coloured and sick-looking. The pavements were already swarming with people splashing through the drizzle to work. And this, I remembered with a jolt, was going on every morning: the busy hum and honk of the metropolis.
All that first day and for most of the ones that followed I longed for time to pass and dreamed of doing fuck-all. Typically I spent a good part of any morning trying to tunnel my way out of a hangover before getting down to the serious business of skiving and flat-hunting. I was in no shape to work: being homeless, I slept at the flat of whichever friend I happened to be seeing on a particular night, went into work, changed into a suit, and slowly assumed the identity of a diligent employee as the morning wore on. Sometimes I didn't make the transition until the afternoon; sometimes I didn't make it at all. If I was out very late I let myself into the office at two or three in the morning, slept on the couch in reception, and then shaved in the washroom and clambered into my suit before anybody else arrived. The good thing about this arrangement was that by the time anybody else turned up I was already beavering away like a going-places company man. The bad thing was that it was difficult to sleep properly on the couch and by eleven in the morning I felt like Lazarus.
I was in even worse shape than usual on the Wednesday morning when Mr Caravanette said he wanted to have a word with me in his office. The night before I'd had a brief glimpse of what the ten-to-six lifestyle entails. Having got to work dutifully enough at ten fifteen I left at five thirty and met people for a drink in Soho. Swilled out by eight o'clock, I stayed on for another hour's dousing and then travelled up to Highbury to crash at a friend's place. On our way we called in at the local pub, stayed till eleven, and then dropped in at the chippie. I woke up on the sofa the next morning with my suit for pyjamas and a half-eaten bag of cod and chips for a pillow. I got into work smelling like I'd washed my hair in salt and vinegar shampoo and dried it in the deep frier.
As I tidied myself up before going to Mr Caravanette's office I thought it was highly unlikely—all things considered—that he would offer me a seat on the board. I knew I was going to get a dressing down and a strip torn off but that was fine by me. Getting told off had quite a lot going for it: it didn't hurt and it didn't cost money. Getting told off I could handle.
Mr Caravanette was a self-made man with a face like a toupee, a silver-haired slug stuffed into a fat pink shirt with his initials embroidered over the left tit. The shirt fitted him like a bun fits a burger and ketchup: he was squeezing out of it any way he could.
Mr Caravanette was a busy man. His time was so valuable that he didn't want to waste any of it walking to the kitchen (where I had been known to take up to twenty minutes to make a trayful of coffee). He had a kettle in his room and he switched it on as I sat down. His desk was crammed with stacks of correspondence, memos, intercoms, and telephones, all this clutter indicating my comparative unimportance in the face of the many and varied responsibilities that converged here.
The problem, he said, was my attitude. Now attitude, I knew, was shorthand for 'bad attitude'; a good attitude was like a bad guard dog—invisible and inaudible. Mr Caravanette then outlined exactly what he meant: I was slovenly round the office, I took a long time to do things, my letters needed correcting ...
'No they don't,' I said.
'... And your office is a mess.' (Dead right—it didn't even look like an office; it looked like the bedroom of a rebellious adolescent. Being homeless I'd ended up keeping most of the things I needed on a day-to-day basis—clothes, tapes, books, squash racket, and so on—in a filing cabinet but gradually they had spilled on to the floor. My filing wasn't all it could have been either.) As he continued with his list of grievances I got the first inkling that maybe I was on the brink of a sending off or a disqualification, not the booking or public warning that I'd first imagined. Meanwhile the catalogue of breached office protocol continued:
'You don't even wear shoes in the office.'
'They were pinching my feet,' I whined.
'That's not my problem.'
'I know it's not. That's why I took off my shoes not yours. Besides, what difference does it make? The only people who see my socks are the people who work here. Has somebody complained about my socks?'
'Look I'm not here to argue about your socks ...'
I think he was about to call me 'sonny' but changed his mind, possibly because the kettle, after a lot of huffing and puffing, had managed to work itself up to a steamy climax.
'As I say, I'm not here to argue with you,' he said, absentmindedly taking a book from his shelf and weighing it in his hand as if he might, at any moment, throw it at me. 'Things aren't working out as we hoped and I think it's best for all parties concerned ...'
And that was that. He was giving me a month's money. I could leave in the afternoon. Maybe with a month's money I could sort myself out ...
'Sort myself out?'
'Get a grip on things.'
'Get a grip on things?'
'Pull your socks up?'
'Pull my socks up?'
As the kettle subsided into sighs and rattles I looked at Mr Caravanette, at the boardroom glaze of his glasses, at the hands sitting heavily on the desk in front of him. Eventually I said, 'Is that all?'
He said it was.
I left his office shaking slightly. It was a piss-bin job but you always feel demoralised and foolish when you've been sacked. It's like getting punched: by the time you see it coming it's too late to do anything about it.
My workmates all wanted to know what Caravanette had said. I told them about it through a half hearted grin. They all said how unfair it was but there's something about losing your job that makes people take a step back in case it might be catching. The swish of the guillotine generates excitement, fear, and, at the same time, a sense of relief—that it's you not them—which also serves as a warning.
I didn't want to stick around. I went into the office of the old toad in accounts to get my month's money. I'd heard from someone that I ought to watch out for her, that she'd said a couple of things to Caravanette. Now she uttered a few sympathetic murmurs.
'Just give me the fucking money will you?'
What with all my stuff in the filing cabinet and desk and every where it was less like getting sacked from a job than being evicted from a flat. I packed a small hold-all and arranged to pick up everything else some other time.
I left before lunch. Everybody said stay in touch.
From a payphone I called Fran's house but nobody had seen her for a couple of days.
'D'you want to leave a message?'
'If you could just say her brother called. I'll try her again.'
I wandered round Soho in the rain for a while, unsure what to do next. Getting fired was bad news. It wasn't something I'd counted on or planned but at least I had a month's money in my pocket. I'd have some spare time again as well. During the time I'd been working I'd badly missed the life I'd been leading for the two or three years before: signing on, doing casual jobs when they came up. Getting sacked meant a return to normal life.
I walked up Charing Cross Road, past Leisure Hell or whatever it's called where the noise of electronic whooping and cascading money rushed out on to the wet street from the flashing, purple interior. The kids in there looked like ghosts, their pale faces tattooed by agile shrieks of light.CHAPTER 2
When I woke up the next morning I had no idea where or who I was. Gradually I realised I was at Freddie's—he'd gone away for a few days and had lent me his keys—and that I was someone whose circumstances were enviable only from the perspective of total dereliction. No job and nowhere to live. The slippery slope. I lay in bed and wondered at what point somebody actually becomes derelict? You can see how it starts (a run of bad luck; losing your job, having nowhere to live, slipping through the social security net) and how it ends, but the long interim tends to take place invisibly. That is probably the most painful part: when you are still tormented by the thought that one last effort of will might improve things. From then on time means nothing; there is only weather, benches, and booze.
With this in mind, I spent the rest of the day re-activating my social security claim. Since I'd last been to the DHSS offices a month before, they'd spruced the place up a bit. In particular they'd put in a thicker plate-glass partition and lowered the claimant's side of the counter so that you actually ended up on your knees and yelling, as if praying to a deaf and bureaucratic God.
I left the dole office and shook my head at the pavement-faced guy selling a revolutionary tabloid. Across the road the pale sun brightened the colours in the huge Nuclear Dawn mural showing a spectral figure of death clad in stars and stripes, striding over the dwarfed, fish-eyed landmarks of London. Bricks, their colours slowly warming in the weak sun, would have looked nicer but that was probably not a relevant consideration any more.
Immediately behind the mural was the railway bridge. After the uprisings the local traders paid for huge 'Welcome to Brixton' hoardings to be hung from the bridge. Now only a few tatters were left to cover the blank boards. A train clanked overhead, pulling a long freight of dangerous-looking, toxic-coloured containers towards some unspecified zone where no one was sure what happened. An innocent possibility of horror, the train clunked and screeched past. Further off, visible over the moving freight, were the large letters ATLANTIC forming a balcony on the roof of the pub.
Outside the pub Luther shook his coffee jar and asked for money. Years ago I used to see him in the George Canning, wearing a combat jacket and selling his paintings which were bright and colourful. People who hadn't seen him before were fascinated and he always managed to shift a few. Then, after seeing him in the boozer selling the same paintings night after night people stopped taking any notice. The more trouble he had selling paintings the harder he hustled. The landlord barred him and things began going badly. I saw him in various places, wearing the same green combat jacket but looking less like an artist and more like somebody with time not paint on his hands. By the time of Band Aid he was reduced to roaming around Brixton with a coffee jar, an optimistically wide slot cut into its green lid and a label saying BAND AID: PLEASE GIVE GENEROSLY. ETHIPIA FAMINE. The jar was never quite empty; there were always a few bronze coins in the bottom like half-an-inch of beer in a glass. After Band Aid he rationalised his enterprise still further by taking off the label and throwing away the lid.
Until today I hadn't seen him for a couple of months and in that time he'd slid a few inches nearer to destitution. His combat jacket had big rips in it; one sleeve was in shreds as though he'd been mauled by a spiteful dog. He shook the tin at me, still trying to maintain that he was not begging but collecting.
'Who's it for?' I asked.
He paused for a moment, looked me up and down and mumbled, 'Nicaragua.'
Excerpted from The Colour of Memory by Geoff Dyer. Copyright © 2014 Geoff Dyer. Excerpted by permission of GRAYWOLF PRESS.
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