Harry Preston says goodbye to the provinces and comes to London looking for life and adventure. It is the mid50s and he soon finds himself in the impoverished and slightly seedy world of the emerging Beat Generation.
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I arrived at St. Pancras in the late afternoon, and immediately made my way to the Youth Hostel in Great Ormond Street. This was the third time I had been in London; the two previous occasions had been during my RAF service, and had lasted a day each. I handed over my card, wrote 'hiker' in the book, and dumped my bags in the dormitory. I was wearing a dyed RAF overcoat over old corduroy trousers and a woollen sweater.
As I went into the tube at Russell Square I felt out of place among the crowd of neatly dressed clerks and girls who looked like models. I fell into a gloomy and defensive frame of mind. I travelled to Leicester Square, walked up the Charing Cross Road (the bookshops were just closing, to my disgust), and finally found a cheap café in Tottenham Court Road, where I got egg and chips for one-and-sixpence. I was disappointed in my fellow customers. I expected them to look like out-of-work writers or actors, but they looked more like spivs and racing touts. I took care, when paying for my meal, to hold my wallet under the table while I extracted a pound note; I didn't want to risk somebody spotting the wad of notes. I glanced through a copy of the Star that someone had left behind, and learned that James Dean had died in a car crash, and that his fans all over the States were mourning his death. I felt a certain satisfaction about this, for although I knew nothing about Dean it seemed to me that one film actor less in the world could only be a good thing, a step in the right direction. If a far-sighted destiny would arrange enough accidents of this sort, the world might be left in the hands of really intelligent people, and thus be nearer the millennium. If you live in a world that bores you, any sort of violent accident seems a change for the better, and a newspaper headline announcing the death of a politician or the discovery of another mass-murderer in Austria produces a pleasant sensation of movement.
Brooding in this manner, I made my way down the Charing Cross Road, and stopped at a pub on the corner of Old Compton Street. I had eaten too much to drink beer, so I had a whisky; since I was unused to spirits, it produced an immediate exhilaration. After a few minutes a bearded youth came in with an arty-looking girl; she wore thick red stockings and a duffle coat. I tried smiling at her when she glanced in my direction, but she looked away as if I were invisible. This annoyed me, and I realised why I felt so rebellious about London. The whole city was a part of the great unconscious conspiracy of matter to make you feel nonexistent. It produced in me the opposite of the feeling of weightlessness which I had had at the funeral. A city can sit gently on you and squash you flat. It is a monument to your unimportance, a perpetual gesture of disrespect from the universe to people who lack a sense of their own necessity. I had been reading a gloomy novel by Pisemsky called A Thousand Souls in which a young idealist marries for money and betrays everyone he loves. Abruptly I understood the meaning of the book. If a devil had appeared beside me and offered to make me complete master of London, on condition that I renounced every other ambition, I think I might have accepted. Unfortunately there was no devil to tempt me; nobody cared that much.
So I wandered back to Great Ormond Street, exhausted and depressed, using a half-crown street atlas to navigate my way, and wishing that some adventure would happen to me. But nothing did, and I arrived back at the hostel at eight o'clock and found a crowd of hearties in cross-country kit singing puerile songs about the difficulty of getting to heaven in a rocking chair and ten green bottles hanging on a wall. There was a copy of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes in the hostel library (I felt morally unfitted to read any of the philosophical volumes I had brought with me), and I took it up to the dormitory, where I read until ten o'clock. I found it difficult to believe that Conan Doyle's London and mine were the same place. I fell asleep long after the hearties had come to bed, wondering where I should start looking for a cheap room, and what kind of work I should do. I was determined not to spend another night in the hostel if it could be avoided. The next morning, after sweeping out the dining-hall and paying my one-and-sixpence, I collected my hostel card and walked down Southampton Row in search of breakfast. I bought a copy of the London Weekly Advertiser, and settled down to study it in a coffee bar, while I ate a cheese sandwich. There seemed to be a great many advertisements for rooms to let; I marked half-a-dozen in pencil, asked the girl behind the counter for some pennies, and went out to a call-box. The London telephones baffled me; I had never before seen telephones with letters as well as numbers on the dial. So I tried dialling the operator and asking for the number I wanted. This method worked well enough, but the operator took an unconscionably long time to reply. The first two numbers I rang had already let their rooms (these were the cheapest, at twenty-five shillings each). The third — a woman with a foreign voice — asked me what work I did, and when I replied that I was a student she said she wanted a working man who would be out all day and hung up on me. I was beginning to feel discouraged. I dialled the operator again, waited a quarter-of-an-hour or so until she replied, and asked for another number. She asked me irritably why I couldn't dial it, and then explained impatiently how I could do so. This cheered me up; I had already been in the box for half-an-hour, and two people were striding up and down outside and periodically glaring at me. Always susceptible to public opinion, I decided to make this my last call. But the man who replied told me the landlady was out, and could I ring back in half-an-hour? So I gave up the box. A little woman swept past me, muttering, 'About time, too,' and I sat on a nearby wall to wait my turn again. Already London was beginning to seem one of the most detestable cities I had ever been in. Ten minutes later it began to rain, and the little woman was still talking busily, now smiling and laughing with animation, and sometimes making gestures with her hands, as if to say, 'Would you believe it?' A man in a raincoat strode up and down and glared in through the glass; finally he grew annoyed, and tried tapping on the glass with a coin. The door flew open; the woman, her gloved hand over the mouthpiece, shouted: 'Do you mind!' and slammed the door again. The man glared at me venomously, as if I were to blame for all this. I decided to go and look for another call-box; besides, the rain was now falling in a sheet. I hurried on for fifty yards, and found myself outside Holborn underground station. I walked inside and stared at the tube map, trying to find a name I recognised. There was Kentish Town and Whitechapel and Earls Court. In my early teens I had been a student of murder, and all these places aroused memories of violence. I seemed to remember the murder of a prostitute in a cheap room off the Earls Court Road. If cheap rooms were available there, the district was worth investigating. So I took a ticket to Earls Court. In the train I scanned my Advertiser. Sure enough, I found two addresses in Earls Court; I located these in my street atlas before I got off the train.
The first proved to be a little overawing. It was a large house that stood among other identical large houses in a tree-shaded square. At first I wondered if there could be some mistake; the place looked more like the town house of one of Oscar Wilde's characters. But the address in the advertisement was clear enough, so I rang the doorbell. A coloured maid opened it; when I said I was looking for a room she nodded pleasantly, and led me up four flights of stairs. The carpets were thick and red, and the wall decorations were of a kind I had only seen in Hollywood musicals. I had a premonition that I was about to be shown a fifteen-guinea-a-week flat and that I should feel very foolish explaining that I was looking for something about ten times as cheap. But she led me up a final narrow flight of stairs (with no carpet, only linoleum), and showed me a tiny room with a gas-fire, a single bed, an armchair and a table. It was icy cold.
I glanced out of the window at roofs and back gardens, and asked diffidently how much it was. She said she would have to ask the landlady. She led me back to the first floor, where she rang the bell of an enormous white door with a cut glass knob. After a long delay a tall woman in a dressing-gown opened it. She had a beaky nose and the eyes of a bird, and she ignored me, rasping at the maid: 'Well, Matilda?' like a headmistress demanding an explanation.
'This gen'lman'd lahk a room, ma'am.'
The sharp eyes now turned on me; I felt she should have held a lorgnette to stare at me through. 'Which one? The top one?'
'The one you advertised,' I explained.
'I have no idea which we advertised,' she said acidly. 'I leave all that to my agent.'
'The top one, ma'am,' Matilda said.
'It's two pounds fifteen a week,' the woman said, surveying me as if to say, 'I am sure this person can't afford it.' By this time I felt so thoroughly in the wrong that I put on an overjoyed expression, as if such cheapness surpassed all my hopes, and said: 'Good. I'd like to take it.'
'Can you pay a week in advance?'
'Certainly,' I said, fumbling for my wallet.
She made a little aggrieved motion, and raised her eyebrows at me. 'Give it to Matilda,' she said, and closed the door on us.
Matilda grinned at me sympathetically, and led me back upstairs. She showed me the location of the bathroom and lavatory, how to put shillings in the gas meter, and how to light the gas fire without causing an explosion. Finally she went off with three pounds, and returned with five shillings change and a front door key. Then I was left alone in my own room at last. The warmth from the gas-fire had given it a smell of hot linoleum. I arranged my few books at the back of the table, threw my clothes into a drawer, and lay down on the bed. The rent seemed absurdly expensive — most of the single rooms in the Advertiser ranged from twenty-five to thirty-five shillings — but, after all, I could find somewhere cheaper at my leisure.
I decided to wash my hands, and then go out and buy some food. I made my way down to the bathroom, but the door proved to be locked. I tried one on the floor below, but that was locked too. Finally I met my landlady, still floating around in her quilted satin dressing-gown. She stared at me coldly, and asked me if I was looking for something. I told her the bathrooms were locked.
'But of course they're locked. They're always locked in the mornings, after nine o'clock. If you want a bath, you have to pay a shilling for it. I found that dishonest people were sneaking in during the day to avoid paying.' Her stare showed me that she felt I was quite capable of this. She added: 'If you want to wash your hands, you'll find a washbowl in most of the lavatories.' As I tried to sneak off, she called me back. 'Hasn't Matilda told you about the rules?'
'Then I'd better. There's no cooking in the rooms or any kind of perishable food allowed. The gas ring is for making tea only. If I catch any of my lodgers cooking food, I reserve the right to give them half-an-hour's notice. Is that clear?' She ticked off the points on her fingers. 'I don't allow visitors in the house after ten o'clock. I don't like lights left on in the rooms when there's no one in them. Our electricity bills are enormous. It's no trouble to switch off a light if you go downstairs to the lavatory. And finally, I don't allow women in the men's rooms or vice versa. This house has a good reputation.' She began to walk away, dismissing me, then turned back again as I started up the stairs. 'One more thing. You'll notice there are negro tenants in the house. Some landladies won't have them, but I don't hold these prejudices. But I think the white people in the house should try to set them an example of good manners and tidiness. They can easily be taught with a little patience. They don't understand our ways yet. We ought to try and help them. So if you notice any of the black tenants breaking the house rules, I hope you'll remember to mention it to me.'
This time she allowed me to go. I washed my hands and face, went into a cold sweat when I discovered that I'd left my light on while I was out of the room, and scuttled out of the house. I wandered along Earls Court Road in the thin drizzle, and stared morosely at the crowds that made walking along the pavement a feat of navigation. The sight of a second-hand bookshop cheered me, and I spent a quarter-of-an-hour browsing through its shelves. I might have spent longer, but the uncertain condition of my stomach caused a constant disturbance in my intestines and bowels, and I moved surrounded by an odour of vegetable decay. This is a subject not usually mentioned by novelists; yet it plays its small but distinct part in our everyday lives. (Even those advertisements that speak so frankly of body odour and bad breath have not yet thought of suggesting tablets that will deodorise the fetor of the bowels, or disguise it under some more acceptable perfume.) So I bought a copy of a translation of some plays by Grillparzer, and a volume of stories by Andreyev, and wandered out into the rain, feeling pleased with myself.
Finally I found an ABC, where I drank three cups of coffee and stared out into the wet street, the Grillparzer open in front of me. Der Traum, Ein Leben; I had been familiar with the play since I was fourteen; after Flecker's Hassan it was my favourite play. A dream, a life. But the words were meaningless as I sat in a café on a wet Friday morning. It would be intensely comforting if life were a dream or a nightmare. Unfortunately, it is neither. This London was no 'unreal city', fourmillante cité, cité) pleine de rêves, tenanted by ghosts. It was tenanted by landladies like the one I had just left behind in Courtfield Gardens, and women like the one who had pushed past me into the phone-box; people too busy to care much about one another; people who had to push their way through crowds into jammed trains, to queue for meals in crowded ABCs or struggle through a packed self-service grocery store. Suddenly it all seemed horrible and absurd. This was not civilization. Why did people live in this city? To distract myself, I read the introduction to the volume of Andreyev's stories. From this I learned that Andreyev considered life completely futile, that most of his stories deal with the ways in which people deceive themselves, and how, when the illusions disappear, they are left with nothing but 'the basic pain of existence'. My natural optimism tended to reject this extreme view. On the other hand, when I looked out of the window to consider an alternative, I found myself staring at a hoarding which advertised a series on Christian faith by a well-known writer for women's magazines. His face, boyish and confiding, but twenty times larger than life, stared across the road at me, urging on me the necessity of buying a certain Sunday newspaper to read about his new Pilgrim's Progress. I finished my coffee and went out.
Back in my room, I counted my money — it still amounted to about twenty pounds — and tried to work out on a notepad how long I could make it last me. Of one thing I was certain — I felt no immediate desire to look for work. The more I saw of London, the more I thought nostalgically about retiring to some ivy-covered old tower in the country, like a character in a Peacock novel, and spending my days studying the Church Fathers. The alternative was to find the local Labour Exchange and ask for some well-paid labouring job, or a job in an office. Of course, there must be jobs that I should enjoy doing, somewhere in London. In a theatre, for example, or a publisher's office. But my ignorance was so complete that I could only hope for the benevolence of fate to guide me towards them. And I had an instinct which told me that fate had no intention of serving me well. A destiny that could guide me to the house in Courtfield Gardens was obviously looking forward to playing further jokes on me.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Adrift in Soho"
Copyright © 2011 Colin Wilson.
Excerpted by permission of Five Leaves Publications.
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