Nigel aka Simon

The phone call came out of the blue one Sunday afternoon, and it changed my life. It was Charles Platt asking if I’d like to be the Art Editor of New Worlds. I said that I would and continued reading Gormenghast, which was just reaching its exciting climax. This was in 1969.

I had been doing occasional illustrations for this New Worlds, which had started out as a straight science fiction monthly years earlier but under Michael Moorcock’s flamboyant editorship in the 1960s had become the leading forum of what would soon be termed the New Wave, rejecting most of the well-worn SF ideas in favour of more experimental, avant-garde writing with J.G Ballard at the helm. Those of us who cared about such things found it wildly exciting and I — a PhD student at the time — was thrilled at the prospect of being an integral part of it. Charles was officially the designer but he also acted as a sort of business manager, doing his best to make sure that the magazine appeared on time each month, and it seemed that he liked my work.

The only problem was that New Worlds already had an Art Editor in Nigel Francis, a young fellow that Charles had recruited from his old school. “Don’t worry about that,” said Charles, but I felt uneasy as I mounted the stairs to the New Worlds office for the first time. It was in a very run-down terraced house at the shabby end of Portobello Road, and the banisters had been removed (for firewood? We were all desperately poor) leaving a sort of cavity below the upper flight. This was filled with a heap of what looked like old clothes, but as I passed it the heap stirred (rats?) and from it emerged Nigel. “Hello,” he said, seemingly without rancour.

It transpired that although Nigel was a neat and careful designer he was very slow. He had apparently spent the best part of a fortnight creating a small title-piece from smoke, spending hours waving a candle beneath various pieces of art board that he had treated with gum. Somehow it worked and his smoke-lettering did appear in the magazine, but for Charles it had been the last straw as deadlines had come and gone, and I was soon installed at the design table in the corner of the main office.

Nigel evidently lived in the heap under the stairs, and over the next few weeks as I beavered away getting the magazine out on time he would occasionally materialize behind me, looking at what I was doing but saying nothing. This wasn’t particularly disconcerting, however, as Nigel proved to be a gentle, amiable soul who never gave any hint that he might resent my presence. I came to like him a lot. He was certainly eccentric, though. After consulting some sort of guru he shaved his head and changed his name to Simon. OK, now we all have to call him Simon.

With winter approaching he decided that he needed an overcoat and penniless as usual he decided to make one. He had noticed that right-handed people wearing jeans rarely used the left back pocket and vice versa with the left-handed ones, so on weekends when Portobello Road was crowded with tourists there would be Simon armed with a small sharp pair of scissors asking people if he might carefully remove one of their jeans pockets for this coat he was making. He did it too, and we’d occasionally see him out and about wearing his patchwork coat of many colours, all of them blue. Charles, meanwhile, had decided that shoes were unnecessary and was walking the streets barefoot. He soon gave that up, however (“broken glass and dog shit”). Strange and rather wonderful days.

I lost track of Simon soon after that, but Charles told me that he had started earning money repairing people’s bicycles from a squat in Kilburn, then that he had got married — and to a lady doctor — but it wasn’t long before he was killed in a traffic accident in the West Country: a nasty end for an odd, sweet guy fondly remembered by the dwindling band of people who knew him.

And how did that phone call change my life? Well, the idea of a PhD had lost some of its allure but now I was learning new skills which would eventually lead me to a career in publishing. Another story.

Bird

The French windows in the study were open and a sparrow flew in. It perched on a standard lamp, and when I tried to shoo it out again it flew across to the bookshelves and found a hiding place high among the books where I couldn’t get at it.

We don’t see many sparrows these days. Loss of habitat, pesticides, cats? Who knows, but they have certainly become scarce round here, and this one didn’t look too well. Had it flown indoors to have a rest, or even to die? Dunno, but there’s something rather alarming about having a wild creature in your room, even a tiny and possibly sick one, and I needed to do something about it.

I had a long-handled brush thing for sweeping cobwebs away from corners and ceilings, and started poking about among the shelved books to try and shift the little visitor. It was a soft brush which I thought wouldn’t do any harm if it touched the creature, but when it did the sparrow simply flew across the room and took up a new position on top of the clock on the wall, looking at me with its mad bird’s eyes. I tried cajoling it, shouting at it and flapping my arms up and down to demonstrate what it ought to be doing, but it just sat there.

I wielded the brush again, trying to manoeuvre the sparrow towards the French windows, but it just flew back across the room and found another hiding place in the bookshelves. I had work to do and tried to get on with it, hoping that the bird would fly out of its own accord, but it didn’t, and I found that I couldn’t settle to my writing knowing that I had an avian observer only a couple of feet away. This went on for quite some time.

At one stage I went out into the back garden and tried to lure the bird out by making what I hoped might be seductive sparrow-like noises. God knows what the neighbours must have thought if they’d witnessed such a strange performance, but this didn’t work either. I went back inside and just sort of paced about, wondering what else I could do.

Soon I needed to pee, and this was tricky because if the bird flew away while I was out of the room how could I be sure that it had gone? It was adept at concealing itself. So I went upstairs to the loo, closing the study door behind me reckoning that at least it couldn’t get into any other part of the house, and when I returned all seemed calm. Perhaps the bird had gone, but I eventually spotted the little bastard still there amongst the books. Another long stand-off ensued.

By now it was starting to get dark and a good deal cooler, and I wanted to close the French windows and lock up but didn’t like to shut the bird in overnight, so out came the brush again, now applied much more vigorously, and with a good deal more poking and shouting the bird did eventually go. It didn’t seem to be flying very convincingly as it disappeared into the sunset, but what can you do?

And that, dear Editor, is why my manuscript is late.

After lockdown in London

Driving down to Broadstone is like travelling back in time to the 1950s.  There are no black people on the streets here, while Asians are to be found only in the newsagents’ and restaurants. Muslims? Burkas? Don’t make me laugh.

I think most of the residents like it this way. The whole area has been staunchly conservative for decades: stopping for petrol at Rownhams services on the way down I made a scathing remark to some people in a queue about Dominic Cummings, and was surprised to find them springing to his defence (“He does a very useful job actually” etc.).  So I have to make some big mental adjustments when I’m here and keep some of my more insurrectionary thoughts to myself.

So why do I want to live here?  Mostly because of the house and the garden, but also because my neighbours here are terrific, the same age as me, and sharing many of the same tastes.  Music, movies, food, gardening etc.  When I arrived neighbour Pete happened to be wearing a Bob Dylan T-shirt,  which made me feel at home straight away.  We have formed a little Yorkshire enclave, and they assure me that there are other decent (not necessarily Yorkshire) people around who I’ll discover when I’m permanently here.  They tell me that the local restaurant, which is literally a stone’s throw from my front door, has recently changed hands because the previous owners were busted for having a cannabis factory upstairs, so I guess not everyone’s True Blue.

The garden here, which I love, has completely gone to hell in the ten weeks that I’ve been away (the photo above shows it before the lockdown).  The grass is now knee-high, the hedges are massively overgrown and there are weeds everywhere, some sprouting vigorously through the tarmac on the drive.  Pumped-up superweeds.  A few of the newer plants have died through lack of watering, though most of the others have survived and are ready to bloom.  I missed the brief flowering season of the weigela while I was gone, but the hydrangea looks nearly ready to roll. It will take a lot of work putting everything to rights.  I like gardening but this is rather daunting, so I’m thinking of borrowing the gardener that Pete and Celia have in once a week.  They say I can.  And if you’re thinking that I’m lucky with my neighbours, believe me I know it — and I haven’t yet told you about my London neighbours who during the lockdown have been absolutely … I’ll save them for another time.

Despite these challenges it’s good to be back here in Broadstone, reunited with my lovely big iMac after weeks of pissing about with the nasty little laptop I bought to use when travelling — I’m really just camping out when I’m in London these days — and with my La-Z-Boy which though rather scruffy now is the most comfortable chair I’ve ever known.  Zzzzz.