‘Jaws without the Shark’

‘A couple of years ago, when I was in the closing stages of working on my last novel, Umbrella, I began casting around for a new subject for the next one. I greatly admire WG Sebald’s The Emigrants, which tells the stories of six refugees from the Nazis without heavy-handedly describing the mechanics of the persecution that the regime visited on Jews, gay people and the politically suspect. Following this pattern, I conceived of writing a novel about some of the more interesting characters I had known during my two decades in the netherworld of drug addiction. I would fictionalise their stories, of course, but more importantly, I would never mention, or otherwise allude to, the reasons why these people lost jobs, experienced relationship-breakdown, moved abroad, and went to hospital or jail. Their addiction would remain a strange sort of absence, deforming the course of their lives but never emerging into the full light of day. My working rubric for the novel was “Jaws without the shark”.

Real meals: Sonic drive-in

De gustibus non est disputandum, so I don’t want any wise-ass backchat from you lot when I tell you that the meal I had at the Sonic drive-in on the Murfreesboro Pike on the outskirts of Nashville was probably the best one I’ve ever eaten. I don’t, by this, mean that the food was the best I have ever eaten – far from it – nor that the ambience was particularly good (I was sitting in the driver’s seat of my rented Chevy SUV), but the sky overhead was beautiful, the company highly amusing and most importantly: I was on holiday … sort of.

On location: Florence

Arriving at the Stazione di Santa Maria Novella I feel like a bit of a Rodin’s Messenger of the Gods: after all, I’m in Florence merely to make money, while all around me people are purely intent on having a good time. I walk towards the centre of town; the throng of tourists swirling about the flanks of the basilica church parts for a moment, and beside one of those hat stalls that have sprung up the world over (selling panamas, trilbies and caps of many colours, none of which you ever notice anyone wearing), I see a man with no feet lying on the pavement and begging, the ends of his stumps apparently smeared with mercurochrome, or something else that stains them an obscene reddish-orange.

Mapplethorpe beach, Holderness coast

The beach at Mapplethorpe.

The beach at Mapplethorpe.

“This is the extraordinary beach at Mapplethorpe on the Holderness coast of east Yorkshire. I walked the length of the coast from Flamborough Head to Spurn Head in the summer of 2007 as part of the research for my misery memoir Walking to Hollywood. The Holderness coast is the fastest eroding coastline in Europe, losing six feet of its friable loess cliffs every year to the chomping of the waves. My idea was to walk the entire 35-odd miles within six feet of the cliff edge or bottom, thereby taking a route that could never be replicated. All went oddly from the start: I left my maps at Flamborough Head; my boots turned into flesh-eating monsters; and the weather was a weird compounding of bright sun and ghostly sea fret blowing in off the sea.”

The madness of crowds: Empty airports, empty streets

Arriving at London City Airport a month ago, I was the first off the plane – and there’s always some satisfaction to be gained from that. For a start, you avoid the awkward game of Twister that ensues as cramped people lever themselves from their seats, un-gum underwear from clefts and pits, scrape carry-on bags they’re unable to carry from the overhead lockers and then hover leadenly in the aisle. If you’re at the very front you get to hear the gangway being cranked into position, then witness the strange moment as the cabin door is opened and the steward greets the ground crew with a bog-ordinary salutation that wipes away any remaining wonderment you may have felt contemplating the marvel of international jet travel.

On location: Dublin

Standing on a patch of induced greenery, I stared first at the vast and glassy curvilinear buttocks of Dublin Airport’s newish Terminal Two, then at the shiny cars being shat out from between them along the approach road. I turned and saw the entire sweep of Dublin Bay open out before me: I could see the Wicklow Mountains to the south; the city centre with its hugger-mugger of recent building; the Brobdingnagian bodkin spearing up from O’Connell Street and the triangular roofs of the assemblage of office blocks that Dubliners – with typically irritating self-deprecation – have named “Canary Dwarf”. To the north was the massy brow of Howth Head and before it the long promenade of Dollymount Strand. Out in the bay, the Bull breakwater lanced through the waves. All was in order, all was legible: I had achieved my objective … or had I? I stubbed out my cigarette, turned on my heel and headed for the terminal. In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus remarks, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”; and here was I, lapsing yet again into the troubling reverie of international air travel.

Madness of crowds: Male changing rooms

A fine smir of testosterone wavered about the bobbing heads of the jogging boys – or at least, that’s as I remember it. Oh! Where are the changing rooms of yesteryear? Where are the gracile bodies, the downy pelts, the helium squeaks of larynxes tossed hither and thither by the hormonal flux? We come to consciousness of our sexuality among the naked forms of our peers – and no doubt once this painful awareness has finally ebbed away we’ll find ourselves once more: bare, forked things, laid out in a row on the mortuary slab. I found the crowd in the boys’ changing room a torment: it didn’t help that, like so many pubescents, I yearned to excel at sports but was at best adequate. Nor was it helpful that I was a late developer – boys like Bullock and Gordon had a full pubis of hair while my assemblage still resembled an unfurling bracken frond; as for Nattawallah, at the age of 13 he had a handlebar moustache, the ends of which he could actually twirl.