The Coat in Question

Iain Sinclair

  • All the Devils Are Here by David Seabrook
    Granta, 192 pp, £7.99, March 2003, ISBN 1 86207 559 X

‘Yet the dream he describes is a traveller’s nightmare: Englishness lost, identity cancelled, fatal infection,’ David Seabrook writes of Thomas De Quincey. Of himself, the dole-queue De Quincey, making a high-velocity, long-term progress through the Isle of Thanet. More speed, less haste: Seabrook is a master of the throwaway put-down, a speculator in tachist topography. The short haul, down the Medway from Rochester to Chatham, represents ‘a basic shift from retro to necro’. In Ramsgate ‘light bulbs swing unclothed.’ And the blue-plaqued yawn of Middle Street, Deal is ‘where escapism ends up’. Seabrook’s special subject is the ‘areal’, as proposed by the geographer Carl Sauer (a great favourite of that poet of place Charles Olson). Sauer, like Seabrook, deals in awkward particulars, grit under the eyelid.

Areal is what you finish up with when there’s no way out, economically, emotionally, spiritually – with Connex and Railtrack operating the only escape chute. With Quatermass pits for Channel Tunnel links. With chalk quarries made over into retail colonies. With every tame wilderness marked down as a future flight path. You take what you find, stay where you are, dig in. That is the nature of the contract. And Seabrook seems happy with it. He has enjoyed two stints, student and postgraduate, at the University of Kent. Canterbury, with its provocative mix of decanted tourists, unimaginative beggars and cultural promoters looking for heritage funds, is where he has settled – between moonlight flits and hinted-at episodes in the tight crease between disenfranchised scholarship and accidental criminality. Refusing to allow the area he inhabits, the banishment, to become a noose, Seabrook has decided to celebrate it with a virtuoso exhibition of sardony. He champions the unloved and the unlovely. He sneers with transparent generosity and notes, with approval, ‘faces that ought to be spouting water from the walls of Gothic buildings’. His franchise – the area he describes, raiding and returning – is anywhere that can be reached in an hour or so, by bus or train, from Canterbury.

The sky has poured down its filthy pitch, Seabrook turns up the collar of his Crombie, divides his Flake bar, hangs about until the appointed hour for his interview with an old queen in Deal, or with the executed traitor William Joyce’s daughter, by his second wife, in Gillingham. Carry On grotesques, professional alcoholics, poets suffering with their nerves, Broadstairs fascists, economic migrants of every stamp: all the devils are here. From the areal to Ariel, Seabrook casts Thanet as Prospero’s island – exile with demons and furies, hell emptied to provide a cast list. A shelter on Margate Sands is the only place where T.S. Eliot, fidgeting with his notes for The Waste Land, transcribed what was immediately in front of him. He sketched Cockney excursionists on the beach, then returned for dinner to his hotel in Cliftonville (now known, Seabrook says, as Kosoville). Walking with Seabrook along the shore at Margate, subjected to the white noise of puns, submerged quotations, barks of self-intoxicated laughter, is to understand the manifold potentialities of the word ‘front’. North Sea, First War, BNP, con, flash. Seabrook is a very mouthy writer, his rude tongue perpetually thrust into someone else’s cheek. He pronounces: Eliot sat here, he took a tram, he dined alone in the ‘white’ room. Look at his memorial, his Margate plaque, the anagram on the side of the public convenience: toilets. There’s still puff left, after Seabrook has swooped on a Stanley knife lying in the gutter, ducked into a milk bar, made an exchange of contraband cigarettes, pointed out the hooky electrical goods shop that cashes cheques, detoured through the diminished surrealism of the Dreamland funfair, to dismiss such transitory cultural pretenders as Billy Childish (‘a hundred records, all bad’) and Dame Tracey Emin. They peddle bad memories of the Estuary, Chatham and Margate, for the shocked delight of bored metropolitans (who never have to go there). Seabrook lives it, thrives on the way he’s been spurned and ignored.

I met the Kentish commissar when he took an awayday in the late 1980s. He arrived on my doorstep with a polemic he had written about my first novel, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. I thought it was rather good, spirited, funny, bright and very pleased with itself. But it shocked me that anybody would take on such a doomed project. An obscure novel from a small press in the East Midlands. There wasn’t the remotest chance that his closely argued diatribe would see the light of day. The essay, I soon discovered, was a feeble echo of Seabrook as monologuist, motormouth. He doesn’t drive, but he talks like a minicabber. Over his shoulder. Opinions on everything. My visitor was a rare spirit, left over from the age of Gissing, an enthusiast who wrote about whatever took his fancy, without commissions, grants, patronage or potential outlets. If an author grabbed his attention, he made contact, interrogated them. None of his elective affinities appeared among the influences reviewers have detected as informing All the Devils Are Here. They offered W.G. Sebald, Seabrook snorts. He’s no melancholy walker. There is nothing ambiguous about the photographs he hammers into his texts. They are pure archive, filched from tabloid libraries: Freddie Mills posing in his trunks (low angle, hard shadows), the murdered Peter Arne (in a blizzard of newsprint dots), Charles Hawtrey having a very bad hair day after a house fire in Deal. Seabrook loves the reforgotten, the misrepresented. None of his heroes will be acknowledged in The Oxford Companion to English Literature – except Robert Aickmann (sic) who gets his name misspelled, and he is banished to the ghetto: ‘See ghost stories and horror’. Seabrook’s disinterested championship of Aickman lasted for years and carried him to an interview with Elizabeth Jane Howard, co-author of Aickman’s first book, and to a reconsideration of the values of a certain kind of Englishness. ‘These people did what they wanted to do. They carried on when their work went out of fashion, when nobody was listening.’ Thinking about what Howard told him sent Seabrook back to writers who are in the Oxford Companion, Waugh, Betjeman, Anthony Powell and Jocelyn Brooke. I’m not sure that any other critic is capable of enthusing, in one long breath, about Brooke and David Peace (author of a tersely written novel sequence from the era of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper). Nobody else would link John Betjeman with Anthony Frewin, compiler of The Assassination of John F. Kennedy: An Annotated Film, TV and Videography 1963-92.

At this point, Seabrook needs a videography, not a bibliography. He is what he watches, late at night. Charles Hawtrey, in his youthful pomp, in Michael Powell’s A Canterbury Tale. Hawtrey (pre-booze) with Will Hay. James Fox’s strangulated Elephant and Castle in Performance. Hitchcock’s expressionist version of The Thirty-Nine Steps. Seabrook’s work, before the wonderful accident of All the Devils Are Here, went straight into the ether. His early essays, as Ginsberg had it in the dedication to Howl, are all ‘published in Heaven’. You won’t find his tributes to Gordon Lish (pen-pal) or Jonathan Meades (doorstepped) in any literary periodical. If you tracked down the originals, you might spot some of the elements that dress Seabrook’s whippy style: the Meades-to-camera performed prose, the music-hall delivery of arcane information. Seabrook is scornful of Colindale researchers, library hacks, scissors and paste men. You have to be there. You have to see it. Sniff the candy floss and petroleum jelly. ‘Peter Ackroyd never set foot in Margate for his Eliot book,’ Seabrook accuses. As if that was the end of the matter. As if the epiphany in the sea-front shelter explained everything, the fault line in 20th-century consciousness. The gaunt, close-cropped scholar, hugging himself against the cold on a late-season esplanade, is like one of those small birds who pick meat from a crocodile’s teeth. He has chased Ackroyd, dogged him, as the stone-throwing ‘Deputy’ worries Stony Durdles in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Across the badlands of literary biography, from Eliot to Dickens. A parodic and jeering sidebar to Ackroyd’s monumental heritage project.

‘Tombatism’, Durdles’s coinage, part rheumatism, part graveyard damp, was the original title for Seabrook’s collection. Now it is a single chapter (Deal, gays, Robin Maugham, the suicide of Freddie Mills). Dickens’s Cloisterham – or Rochester – is brushed aside in a couple of brisk passes, like a film script:

Evenings. Dead-eyed drinkers six deep at the bars, not always alone but often unspeaking, unsmiling – as if the pubs were cider houses . . . Staccato laughter strafing the Casino Rooms just off the High Street . . . Down by the station, all the year round, scores of prostitutes, some of them very young indeed – and every soul desperate for trade. They hassle locals hurrying home; they go down on drivers waiting for the lights to change; they pound locked cars like gibbons at Longleat.

The Medway towns, like the rest of Seabrook’s Kent, are posthumous: rinds and abortions of history bottled in vinegar. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is cleared up, after the fashion of James Ellroy or Mickey Spillane, by kicking down a few doors, leaning on unusual suspects. John Jasper is an avatar of the patricide painter Richard Dadd. Dadd, by this account, lost his marbles under an Egyptian sun, trying to keep pace with his patron, Sir Thomas Phillips. Phillips couldn’t keep still: he drove on remorselessly. As Seabrook sweeps through Egyptology, psychological profiling, snap portraits, conspiracies, De Quincey and Dickens to find himself, suddenly, unexpectedly, trapped on the stile where Dadd stabbed his father. Cobham Park, site of the murder, is the place to which Dickens made his final excursion from Gad’s Hill. It is now owned by Joe Pasquale, ‘the comedian with the strangled voice’. But stand there in the twilight, beside the busy commuter road, with the line of poplars as a windbreak, and Seabrook will treat you to the full Edgar Lustgarten re-enactment. He doesn’t report some earlier account of the event, he witnesses it. Anticipates every bloody stroke of the blade.

Which might explain Seabrook’s advocacy of the novelist (conspiracy buff and former Kubrick associate) Anthony Frewin. It was Frewin who encouraged Seabrook to shape this material, to anthologise his devils. Frewin, the author of Scorpian Rising, a paperback original, which performs a sort of Derek Raymond autopsy on Margate, appeals to Seabrook, the pulp addict, in ways that Graham Swift and his Last Orders never could. Seabrook takes his Faulkner neat, binge reading, with chasers of Sir Thomas Browne and a dozen ghosted gangland memoirs. As an archivist of the 1960s (Kennedy, Keeler, Profumo), Frewin was the subject of one of Seabrook’s rare excursions into print. During those invisible Canterbury years, the would-be cultural historian conducted interviews for a fugitive magazine called the Edge. These gigs were of course unpaid. But they provided a useful calling card for acquiring multiple review copies. Appearances of the Edge were so infrequent that nobody other than Seabrook could remember what they’d submitted; extracts from novels were featured long after those novels had been remaindered. A piece on Robert Aickman was commissioned. Seabrook supplied a rare photograph of Aickman and Elizabeth Jane Howard at the opera. Years passed. Driven to distraction, calls unanswered, he took the train to town. He tracked the editor to a block of flats in West London. He pressed the buzzer for the entryphone, tried to gain access. The editor, his hands – so he said – covered in cocoa butter, couldn’t see him. He was up to his elbows in a session of reflexology. Seabrook, muttering, departed for Canterbury.

‘London,’ Seabrook said to Frewin, ‘has been done to death.’ The past is the only place left to visit. Revise it, rewrite it, improve it. Avoid the deep past of Ackroyd – or the Charles Dickens Centre, off Rochester High Street, with its ‘sensor pads, soundtracks, video footage, laser-disc projections and full-size dummies’ – stay close to the local. To yesterday. Remembered TV (the memory span of a goldfish). Video slums of overfamiliar clips: Dealey Plaza, the Paris underpass, Thatcher sniffling in the limo. In a vernacular translation of DeLillo, or Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand, Seabrook marches into rumour, to reinterrogate history. He teases out the story, as a fiction fit for the present moment. Unlike the American heavyweights, he delivers a book that can be devoured at a sitting. No point in taking All the Devils Are Here on the tube, or the railway: one halt in a tunnel and you’ve finished it. This prose twitches. It reads itself aloud: anecdote, attitude, insult. Gossip, scandal, pantomimed outrage. If London has been overcooked, then Thanet (Broadstairs, Deal) must serve. Begin with Eliot, take The Waste Land for a model, as you contrive a jigsaw of quotations, echoes, wild riffs. The area beyond the M25, London’s liminal territory, is post-literate. Post-paper. Off-highway (M2/A53) Kent belongs on CCTV, scene of the crime footage. It solicits Seabrook’s brand of intelligent tabloid lyricism. He is a lecturer without tenure. A man who has speed-read everything and forgotten nothing. Margate, he believes, can be accessed only through time-travel. Broadstairs holds personal as well as cultural ghosts. ‘It’s six years since I last came out here,’ he confesses. ‘Six years, this summer, not long after my fiancée’s funeral (I wasn’t invited).’

It’s impertinent to speculate about the autobiographical asides with which Seabrook dresses his expeditions. A dead fiancée, another woman at the Bridge Country Club (‘smiling like a hostess as she listens to jokes about the clap’), a bit of cruising in a Deal pub. ‘It’s a question of rent; no more, or less.’ A question of focusing material that jump-cuts between documentary reportage and improvised fiction. The design and organisation of the prose, after Seabrook had been introduced by his editor, in the gentlest way, to the concept of holding back, not delivering everything in a single take, requires a measure of ambiguity. ‘No one who knows me will think any less of me for doing what I’m going to do now.’ Which is a shift from transcribed interviews – long, long afternoons with an unreliable witness – to invention. ‘Similes are thin on the ground around here.’ Seabrook moves from imitations of reality to enactment: he infiltrates his own essay. There’s always a final story, a saloon bar anecdote to be told. Time for another round before the last bus. Rain. Wind. A small boy in a pink – yes, pink – duffel coat who is followed by a potential molester, out across the sands. ‘I wanted to hold him, take care of him, take him back to the cottage.’ Seabrook recalls the dialogue, sets up the sting with hints at the violent conclusion of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. The child in the coat, as the hood is taken down, is no child, but Charles Hawtrey, now the veteran Carry On gargoyle. Seabrook keeps the bottle-strewn table between himself and the storyteller. This is too much, even for Deal. ‘I put away what’s left of the gin and squeeze his hand, gently, sweetly, as my way of saying that perhaps it’s time to go.’

Coats, pink or otherwise, play their part in my vision of Seabrook, out there, pacing Deal’s narrow streets, puffing up the hill in Broadstairs, counting the 39 steps on the North Foreland – and finding ‘115 (including five in various stages of erosion)’. His Crombie, pockets filled with crumpled paper and crumbs of chocolate, is the Thanet translation of Philip Marlowe’s trenchcoat. A trip through this territory, guided by the man himself, is both exhilarating and exhausting. He doesn’t talk, he lectures. Loudly. With a full head of steam. Like a man starved of proper conversation, denied an audience. Seabrook, as tourist guide, is coatless, whatever the weather. The fictional Seabrook, narrator of All the Devils Are Here, clings to his uniform, the gangland Crombie. At the time he was launching his reverse pilgrimage into Thanet, he was invited to London, to appear in a documentary film about ‘lost’ writers, and arrived coatless, bones rattling in a malarial seizure. The head was shaved, the cheekbones prominent, the mouth moving in rehearsal of the speech he imagined himself delivering. He was incapable of producing a soundbite, he had twenty minutes on Pan book covers, twenty minutes on Performance, off by heart. His coat, he told the director, had been pawned that morning to raise the train fare.

I know that train. I spent the best part of a day, the hours of light, trying to make it from London Bridge to Canterbury West. The usual transport scenario: cancelled services, delays, leaves on the line, information on blinking screens contradicted by muffled tannoy voices (like the voices of the drowned). The first driver, announcing that the service was ‘terminated’, abandoned us at Tonbridge. He’d cracked up. A substitute had to be found. And then a guard. By this time, there was nobody else aboard. Apart from a muscular Russian, in a leather jacket and a Nike sweatshirt, cropped head, heavy stubble, travelling in the general direction of Margate with an attractive young woman who he pets and strokes. He is unconcerned about the delays and takes an endless stream of calls on his mobile. I drift off towards the deserted first-class compartments. Nobody is going to be collecting tickets. The single exhortation ‘fuck’ has been etched into the window. The no smoking sign has peeled into moking. My seat has been eviscerated and is leaking kapok. The substitute driver told me, while he waited for a suitable ‘orange jacket’ to ride shotgun, that the network would be losing ‘£60 a minute’ on this journey.

Seabrook was waiting on the platform, mid-sentence, coatless on a chilly and darkening October afternoon. I’d left Hackney at 9.15 that morning. I’m sure he’d spent the day at the station. ‘Eat, sleep, wake, shiver, drag yourself into town and there they are,’ he wrote. The buskers, the charity shop casuals. Seabrook scans as he walks, hopping around me, on and off the pavement, stopping, starting, pointing. The smouldering rubble of a low-life pub, a wild party or an insurance scam. A now defunct bookshop where he’d found his copy of Four Quartets. A wine bar, outside the city gates, which serves minimalist portions and features design and decor by the graphic artist Dave McKean (a regular). The Oxfam shop where he picked up a first edition of Jocelyn Brooke’s The Goose Cathedral for £2.99. Beggars fixed to their pitches with superglue, weathered like fence-posts. Seabrook doesn’t spurn the familiar. He registers small shifts, missing faces of the culled. He leads me to a place called the Ha Ha Bar & Canteen. I risk a couple of hours, before returning to the station, and still get back to London before midnight.

The hardest thing, with the book, Seabrook admitted, was learning to listen. He went back time after time to Deal, endless afternoons, waiting while his informant eased through the loops, dismissed young boys at the door, tracked back into memory: Robin Maugham in his attic. ‘The Captain will see you now.’ The immediate proposition, the monstrous member dangling in his lap. Freddie Mills waiting in a bleak suburban flat in South London. ‘No foreplay, no preamble, no conversation.’ Robin and Somerset Maugham at the Villa Mauresque: ‘Deathshead Revisited’. The Deal story, ‘Tombatism (a touch)’, is clammy, necrophile: like a Carry On film directed by Carl Dreyer. It interweaves, with astonishing facility, numerous narrative strands. In Seabrook’s essays, there’s always a sense of place overwhelming personality, of dark histories misremembered in twilight pubs, of Englishness defined by dead gossip, lies that work better than the truth.

The risk is accepted: Seabrook as snoop, as witness, as whistle-blower. But nobody’s listening. The cuttings have yellowed in the files. Peter Arne? Forgotten. Robin Maugham? More undead than unread. Count Stenbock? Refer to antiquarians, dealers in private press Uranian poetry. Being here by accident, as a student, Seabrook stayed. I know the syndrome. Now it’s almost impossible to leave, the energy to deal with the train systems wilts. A glass of cola, ordered an hour ago, sits untouched on the table. Canterbury has its share of post-prandial drinkers (who leave out the meal bit). When the woman appears to offer replenishment, Seabrook mentions a frappé he risked last summer. She denies it, warmly. This is not that kind of establishment. She removes the first cola and brings a fresh one, so that Seabrook can ignore this, too. The options for Canterbury freelancers, bohemians without Bloomsbury private incomes, are bleak: Portakabin language schools on the coast (fronts for property scams), minicabbing (out to Swaleside prisons), or conscription into Pfizer’s experimental drug-testing programme (with time off on Thursdays to sign on in town). The Pfizer pharmaceutical colony is taking over Thanet, lifting property values in Deal. A new kind of economic migrant. But being a voluntary human beagle is a short-term option, Seabrook reckons.

His book, the first to do justice to the transcendent weirdness of this boot of land that isn’t London, should be treasured. By living so long in the immediate past, by digging and listening and making the phone-calls, Seabrook has hallucinated an alternate English history. Margate Sands as the pivotal moment for Modernism, nothing connected to nothing. The Mystery of Edwin Drood not so much solved as rewired: John Jasper as schizophrenic dreamer, the paradigm for Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, the divided man of future gothic. Artist/driller killer. Choirmaster/opium addict. A De Quincey stalker who rehearses his crimes in drugged sleep, thereby infecting Richard Dadd. So that the site of the murder is more significant that the identity of the murderer. Dig through the rubbish of seaside junk pits and pinball arcades, Seabrook suggests, read the shilling-shockers, and the pattern will reveal itself. English fascism hidden in the pages of John Buchan. A schoolteacher living in retirement who remembers William Joyce as a benevolent father.

Sitting in this Canterbury bar, revellers with the revel burnt out of them, Seabrook refusing food (never seen to eat), I can understand how the local, the areal, is the only reality. Outside London, nobody wears a coat. Short football-watching, road-gang, anorak-style jackets over business suits or sweatshirts. Smart casual, the preferred style of provincial wine bars. William Burroughs wrote about mean days in New York, men who paid for their habit by walking out of restaurants and bars with other men’s coats. In Canterbury, such careers are impractical. There are no coats on pegs here. If you can’t drive, you have to write. It may take years, time enough for a dozen train trips from London Bridge, but I’ll be waiting impatiently for Seabrook’s next instalment.