David’s background is English on one side, Scottish, Welsh, Swedish, and Greek on the other. His mother’s family: London tradesmen who became merchants on Grimsby fish docks. His father’s: wanderers who transited from the Swedish diplomatic service to the British colonial, via a spell working for the Ottoman empire.

       David grew up in England in the 1950s, and ended university with an MA in “political science” – which by then even he had realised was nonsense. Turning down a PhD grant, he became a labourer, security guard, and hitch-hiker, before getting drawn into the world of popularised encyclopaedias. This involved summarising the official Olympic rules of clay-pigeon shooting, and then becoming expert on all the gambling games of the world.

       Jumped up to “editor” at £2 an hour because there wasn’t anyone else, he then had to write, for a US publisher, Man’s Body: an owner’s manual – in five months with a couple of researchers, Ruth Berenbaum and Jefferson Cann. This went into 16 languages, sold over a million copies, and in many cultures (Catholic, Asian, Muslim) was the first time ordinary people had access to health and body information. He’d added a final section, “Woman’s body: a non-owner’s guide”, which he hoped did some good. Then contributed to the Woman’s Body book itself (edited by Ann Kramer), writing the chapters on gynaecology and on ageing.

       With the proceeds, he bought a half-terrace of three houses for £2000, in a village in the Forest of Dean. The empty one should have taken six months to do up. Him it took four years, so he became village postman. Eventually escaping to Ireland, he ran backpackers’ hostels, then got taken on as a sailboat-delivery cook/crewman. They only realised after they’d left Ireland that they might have asked more carefully about his sailing and cooking skills.

       Earlier, the hitch-hiking had taken him through Iraq just after the Ba’ath party had come to power (including resting up for a few days in the family home of one of their government ministers), and twice to Morocco – where he stayed for a while on a kif farm in the Rif mountains (the first European they’d ever met who had absolutely no interest in drugs), and then, without even a green belt, ended up teaching karate in a village down south. The sailing led to a couple of Atlantic crossings, an enforced dismasted stay in the Azores, travels in the Caribbean and USA, and a spell of owning his own boat in the Canary Islands.

       Back in the UK he did a bit more editing, then returned to Norwich to keep his father company after his mother died. Couldn’t take him travelling at first, the authorities wouldn’t give his father a new passport, they’d decided he wasn’t British any more. But eventually the two of them got away, to Tunisia, Morocco, India, Egypt, eastern Europe, in the last years of his father’s life.

       David now mostly splits his time between Great Yarmouth and Vietnam, sits in cafés scribbling or cheap hotel rooms on his computer, and is one of just four surviving male members of the senior branch of the von Heidenstam family.

*  *  *

A sort of retrospective blog

In memory of my parents
who had to suffer the consequences
of having a wayward son

An eclectic, eccentric, non-chronological mix…

Some work and hitch-hiking experiences written in retrospect.
Most other entries written at the time.

The strands include:
The Modern Characters
The Great Bicycle Walk
Letters Home

The Modern Characters mostly date from the late 1960s and early 70s.

The Bicycle Walk entries date from 1990, when I walked for a while through south-eastern England pushing a bicycle over-laden with camping kit and with its pedals detached… The slow progress had the intended effect in opportunities for observation and conversation.

A range of stuff to kick this off…

*  *  *

Cottam, May 1968. Nine deaths per power station, on average. Not a remarkable figure. Bert sees today’s. The man’s up on scaffolding, high inside the blockhouse. Slipping, he twists hard in the air, trying to catch hold. Then hits a projecting pole and gives up. Custom is, take the day off, or work it for the widow. That’s among the unionised. In your little un-unionised gang – breaking into others’ bothies at night to eat your mid-shift meal – the only debate is: night off or work on.
Gang members at Cottam, Drax, Longannet. Jeff, foreman at — : young, black glasses, greasy black hair, feet that stink out his billet, son of the family who control – – docks. Phil, his brother, older than the rest of you, former owner of a night-club, just out of prison. Ray, the ex-boxer with the broken nose. Sid, his humorous sidekick. John, black guy who rarely speaks. Bert, homosexual with creased face and rough Beatles’ haircut, who wanders the site off-shift looking to find someone to chat up. Hank, the diminutive alcoholic.
“Don’t stand there picking your nose,” says Sid to Hank. “You’ll lose weight.”
Two jobs on the power stations: tubing condensers, and concrete grinding. Tubing is hard work; concrete grinding not, but a bit unhealthy. You polish little patches of concrete, till they’re utterly flat, smooth, level. For metal blocks, about eight centimetres by 40, on which heavy machinery will sit. Your tools are pneumatic grinders, sample blocks, spirit levels, engineers’ blue. You get the patch level, but there’s a wobble; you get the wobble out, and the level’s gone. You get wobble out and level right – but the blue shows your block’s only resting on a few high places. Your masks against the concrete dust are cotton wool pads in little frames over mouth and nostrils. Within minutes they’re sodden with saliva and snot. But you each get a free pint of milk a day, to help wash the dust down into stomach instead of lungs. More immediately lethal is when an air hose detaches from a grinder. The metal end thrashes viciously through the air while you all duck and scatter, till someone gets to the compressor and switches off.
Meanwhile in the sleeping huts the billet walls are thin.
“I find it difficult to make conversation.”
“Mm.”
“When I’m driving, I hardly ever talk,”
“Mm.”
“When I’m driving, I hardly ever talk. Even when there’s someone with me, I hardly ever talk.”

*

(With apologies to Thoreau.)
Most men lead lives of quiet perspiration.

*

(From The Modern Characters.)

Archie exhibits that common trait among human beings: of worrying most about the good opinion of those he respects least.

For Bernadette, living on the edge of a racial ghetto – having all that poverty and misery only just down the road – really satisfies her social conscience.

Charles has an ideal vision of what he wants from a woman – and avoids any who might begin to match his dreams. After all, when he is hoping for so much, there’s always a danger they might be hoping for something too.

*

Sweden, June ’64. Hitch-hiking from Göteborg to Norway and back over a long weekend, you stick out your thumb at an approaching car. A little upmarket, but one has to try. As it gets nearer, you finally see – the decorations – the uniformed chauffeur – and the newly married bride and groom in the back.

(Posted 30 May, 2018.)

*  *  *

Tenerife, Jan. to June ’86. Los Cristianos boat yard: sample people. Danny the English football fan, who’s trying to get a lift to the Caribbean in time for the World Cup. Tove the Californian girl, who lives by theft and drug running and dress design. Old John, who was in Las Palmas two years back, now with a fishing boat in place of his little sailboat and trying to keep going doing a cheap illegal ferry service for the German backpackers heading to the next island. The nameless German hippy who wanders round playing a flute wearing only glasses and a fur jockstrap. Lars, the businessman who had to leave Sweden in a hurry and has since sailed twice round the world without passport or boom. Heidi, the Aryan blonde, whose boat, when it’s lifted out, is clustered thickly round with men with offers of help. Greg, the American, who used to tend missile silo computers and now mends autopilots. Tony, the retired N. Ireland businessman with half a million pounds worth of new yacht, who having just cruised down from the Channel Islands has already got bored and decided to go into property investment instead, and in one week has bought 31 apartments, a parrot, and a mountain top. Dee, his wife, whose baby bursts into tears every time it sees you. Roger, the ex-expensive-private-school alcoholic with the ex-Francis Chichester boat. John, who used to be an art lecturer in England and emigrated to Tasmania to be a fisherman. Paul, who claims he’s already crossed the Atlantic once in a barrel kitted out with sail and keel, and is now planning to do it again, only this time just drifting, and meanwhile is keeping alive going round the shops with an old paint tin with a slot cut in the top and a label saying “Research for survival at sea”. And Bo, the Swedish girl, who’s been staying with her baby on Tony and Dee’s boat ever since her husband decided to try to set out (again) (in Old John’s ex boat) for the Caribbean, and she was found still huddled on the quayside in the morning muttering “I just couldn’t take any more of the sailing…….”

*

(From The Modern Characters.)

Donal’s marriage immediately fills him with disappointment. Edith will always claim that it was love at first sight. Donal had assumed that loving someone would include being kind to them.

Frank is sufficiently self-aware to notice that signs of sadness in a woman’s face provoke in him flickers of desire. But he’s uncertain if this is because he has a longing to alleviate unhappiness – or because he’s reassured that the damage he’s going to do has already been done.

George has energy when Helen is low, is low when she has energy. As if there was only so much to go between them. Though that, of course, is not the reason.


*

Upper Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj, May 1987; Tibetan and travellers’ India. Fourteen days of rain. Not the monsoon, just freak spring weather. You hide in the cafés and eye the drizzles and downpours outside. At dusk, lightning jolts along the ridges, filling the rooms with blue light. Fellow travellers talk of Tibet, Buddhism, meditation, travel. Rest stomachs from curries and psyches from India. Sit over chow meins and pancakes, Tibetan mo-mos and milk shakes, spinach quiches and German sourdough bread. Outside is Tibet in exile: monastery, library, hospital, temple. “Medical and Astro Institute”. Dalai Lama’s “Security and Passport Office”. Children’s Village with 1,400 charges. Jerry-built houses, earthquake cracks, adjacent runs of bare bent water pipe and open sewer. Hundred-mile views southwards into India. Kids in tiny gumboots playing marbles in the mud.

(Posted 23 June, 2018.)

*  *  *

Summer ’85. Glenmalure, County Wicklow. The smallest youth hostel in Ireland. Only open summers. No piped water, no electricity, no telephone, no showers, no sewers, quite often no hostellers, and not much sunshine. Twenty-five mile round trip to the nearest carton of milk; eight mile round trip to the nearest Guinness. Three previous wardens have: i) resigned after two weeks; ii) come down for a summer’s painting and been found at the end of it with an odd gleam in the eye and canvases covered entirely in dark brooding conifers; iii) disappeared, and been found back at the family home hiding under the bedclothes. You, today, have got up, fetched water from the river, burnt a sack of rubbish, emptied the contents of the chemical toilets into a hole in the ground, had a sponge and bucket bath in the woodshed, had breakfast, put the finishing touches to the month’s accounts, and put your laundry to soak. Also checked for one hosteller if there’ll be shooting today on the army range in the next glen, and for another whether she’s recovered yet from going out to the women’s toilets last night in the dark and bumping into an Irish corporal in battledress and blackened face sitting on the loo having a quiet smoke. Then you’ve locked all the metal shutters against the kids’ gangs from Dublin (who so far this summer have smashed up one hostel, pinched bikes from a second, and camped to waylay and rob outside a third), and headed off down the track on the 25-mile round trip to town, to pay in and buy a toothbrush; past the overgrown remnants of the house where Synge set the plot of a play, across the picnic carpark where 405 years ago Fiach MacHugh’s men killed 900 English in half an hour, past the rubbish bin where you sometimes find empty cartons with vouchers for that free film processing offer, down the glen to the sounds of chainsaws and sheep, past its three farms where before the Famine 150 families lived, past the waterfall foaming like wool, past the stone for Michael O’Dwyer who finally surrendered in 1800 and ended up in Australia as a policeman, to, after an hour, the crossroads, and the pub, and the red warning army sign, and the old ruined British barracks, and maybe the chance, if you’ve timed it right, of bumming a lift from the local postman.

Letters Home

*

(From The Modern Characters.)

Ivor was always critical of Julie for being ‘bourgeois’ and ‘conservative’. Recently, of her own accord, Julie has become a socialist and a dropout. Ivor is, of course, even less happy with this.

Ken claims that the reason he doesn’t attract more women is that most of them are masochists. He just doesn’t look like he’ll treat them badly enough. In fact most women, meeting him, see rather deeper – and decide that perhaps they’re not feeling quite so masochistic as that.

Luke is restless, always moving on. Though he understands very well that, if we don’t love ourselves, we are never where we want to be.


*

On weekend security shift in London, in the Kuwait Oil offices, walking among the tables of the basement canteen, and reaching up and flicking with finger and thumb each lampshade as it goes by, leaving behind a succession of clear notes, each one different.

(Notebooks, August 1970)

* *

(Posted 27 August, 2018.)

*  *  *

Retrospective, 1963. The North Sea from 9,000ft: black with white fumes of waves looking like miniature clouds. 
Your second trip abroad. Your first is at 16, to improve your French, 30 or so schoolkids from around the UK. The accommodation looks like a chateau from outside, a prison inside. It gets worse as you go up floor to floor. No hot water, and you can’t criticise the food because you don’t know what you’re eating. Was that dog they gave us for dinner last night? And this – is it a sauce? a pudding? ah, no, it’s potato. But you go to a rugby international, and Chartres, and Montmartre, and fancy the most fanciable girl among you, and send postcards home, and don’t meet any young French women, but do accidentally say “tu” to a cinema usherette.
And now, in the plane, the others eye you uncertainly. You don’t look like a deck officer or an engineering officer – which is what they are. Relief officers for a 50,000 ton cargo ship, on its European turnround. But you, 6’8″ tall, thin, with wiry curls of ginger hair and thick National Health glasses? Looking – as an affable American comments a few years later, seeing your old passport photo – like a 15-year-old chess-playing nuclear physicist who’s just defected to the Russians? No, they decide – you discover later – you must be the guy who sits peering into the Decca Navigator.
In fact you’re just a passenger. You’d wanted to work your passage somewhere, in the time between school and university. Inheriting a dream from your father. But it’s all unionised now, it can’t be done any more. Still, thanks to his contacts, you’re on board for this two-week trip. A Palm Lines boat on turnround from its Africa run; off-loading and on-loading; Rotterdam, Bremen, Hamburg, Antwerp, Rotterdam. Flown over to join it; paying 10 shillings [50p] a day for food. Driving you down to the airfield, your father blurts out, at the last minute, “Wear a condom”. It’s the only piece of advice about life he’s ever given you. It hadn’t actually occurred to you you could pay some lady to terminate your virginity. You’d be far too shy to buy the condom anyway.
Earlier that summer, like everyone else, you’ve been reading Catch-22. But at school, you took French, not English. You haven’t read Chaucer, Marlowe, Blake, Jane Austen, James Joyce. You have, Corneille, Molière, Racine; Lamartine, Vigny, de Musset; La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes and La Bruyère’s Les Caractères. Oh yes, you know what literature should look like. In the sixth-form library, you come across a quotation from a medieval Christian scholastic, and its translation: “Omnis ardentior amator propriae uxoris adulter est. – All passionate love, even for a man’s own wife, is also adultery” (Peter Lombard, De excusiatone coitus.) Utter ignorance of life, love, interpersonal sex, and religious feeling, and only a junior observer’s knowledge of marriage, do not, unfortunately, prevent you from attempting a first aphorism in reply: “The only true adultery”, you write, “is that which derives its pleasure from its illicit nature.”

*

(Obiter dicta, Notebooks 2010s)

Life is God’s experimental mode of time travel.

* *

(Posted 9 October, 2018.)

*  *  * 

December 1968, Turkey. Sitting in a lorry cab, crossing the ancient rolling slopes of the Anatolian plateau. To the left, a line of telegraph poles, then low green hills. To the right, the great expanse of Tuz Gölü: its mudflat edges alongside the road, then the motionless salt lake itself. Beyond it, the opposite shore dark purple, with the dying sun making the sky orange and the clouds deep blue above. Not a living thing to be seen, not even a bird. A road and a line of telegraph poles, cutting through bare nature.
Then the first sign of life: a large flock of sheep, clustered below the hills on the left and scattered up their slopes, and with them a dark-coated shepherd. Then a low stone hut. Then a dwelling cottage, brown render on stone, roof of branches and dried mud.
Two days later you’re riding into Mardin, standing on the mud- and manure-covered floor of an open truck, a pullover tied round your head in a makeshift headdress, your back to the wind and the rain. Two Turkish peasants in the cab, in the truck bed with you an old mule, on its way to become mule stew.

*

Summer 1972. Coming back to England with L. from Morocco, you find X. – a good friend, the same age as your parents – starting to break under the strains of his life. He has an appointment with the NHS for psychiatric assessment, asks you to go along. He’s presented with a questionnaire. Five hundred and sixty-six questions… and a masterpiece of stupidity. Because many assume that the respondent is at ease with the double negative – and in a condition to cope with it. “I don’t usually [whatever]” – tick yes or no. When he disagrees, X. wants to tick yes. Thinking, despite the breadth of his intelligence, that this will mean “Oh yes I do”. One wonders how many treatments, policies, papers, will be based on the resulting false data. Dostoevsky in The Devils has Shatov say to the effect: ‘The life force is beyond the analysis of science and reason, and negates their attempts to describe and control life.’ (An issue that academics try to ringfence, with a nod to self-denying hypotheses.) But sometimes, in our ‘social sciences’, the problem is a bit less fundamental than that…

*

On a train going out of London, the line runs for a moment alongside a small reservoir. At the next table, a young boy leaps in his seat, presses against the window. “Oh mum, there it is – Water!… Water…”

(Notebooks, 1970s)

* *

(Posted 31 December, 2018.)

*  *  *

March, 1973. You’re back in Morocco, alone this time, escaping a labouring job in the English winter. The bus from the frontier takes you to Tetuan, but that’s not a town to stay in, and your body is desperate for exercise. Putting your pack on your back you start walking, west then south, through the shallows under the Rif mountains. It’s already late afternoon, and as dusk falls the dogs start barking, sensing a stranger. When it’s dark they start coming down at you, but only one at a time. Each time you shine your torch to show a hand picking up a stone, and they stop at a distance. There’ll be rabies around, but these are sane enough, just dogs defending their territory. After a time an Arab falls into step alongside you, coming suddenly out of the dark, a tall figure in a hooded djellaba. You don’t react, and in a while he disappears.
You walk for a few miles, then it’s time to find somewhere to sleep. There’s a junction, with a small road going off to the left, and a single-storey house where the roads meet. Over the yard wall you can see a light. There’s a gate like a door set in the wall, and you knock on it, and after a moment the light moves towards the gate. The light lifts, a lantern appears, and a face looks at you over the top of the wall, above the tangle of thorns. Then the lantern lowers, and the gate opens to let you in. You sit on the floor of the house, drinking the mint tea they’ve passed to you. The man, his wife, a daughter, a young boy. They’re not the poorest, to have a light burning; but there’s something wrong with the boy. You have no language; your French is ok, but here in the north it’s Spanish that’s the third language, and they’ll be speaking Berber or Arabic. You should be carrying postcards of home, or photos of family. Instead you can only show your passport and your maps. You point to where they are on the Morocco map, and your route down across France and Spain; but you don’t know if it means much. You’re offered bread, which you accept, and after a bit they fetch out some butter. You take a little, not to offend, but you know this is something for special days. As soon as possible, you refuse any more. The man presses you, gesturing that it’s good, but you smile and gesture that you’re full. Then it’s time to sleep. The man takes you back out into the yard and into an outbuilding. With the raised lantern he shows you straw to bed on, and you thank him. In the morning maybe you’ll offer money, but you’re afraid of offending, hospitality’s sacrosanct, and you won’t know how hard to press. He leaves you, and you fetch your sleeping bag out of your pack, unroll it on the straw, and clamber in. There’s the sound of another animal in there with you in the dark, but you fall asleep soon enough.

* *

(Posted 27 January, 2020.)

*  *  *

Winter 1991, east London. You’re back to being a security guard again, after 20 years. You’re thinking of trying to get a mortgage; but for that, you need to show a steady job. Meantime you’re back too to primitive bedsit digs, to match your paypacket. Just down the stairs is a young Irishman, not long over, and he’s always got full-blast soundtrack spilling from his room. After you complain a second time, he says – Well, which is it, the music or the TV? He’s got both on together, turned up full, in opposite corners of the room.
Another time, when you’re chatting, you mention you know someone who’s a film double. A body double?, he says, with interest. You laugh. No, just an ordinary double. He looks puzzled. He doesn’t know what that means. And yet he’s the one who realises what the German guy on the ground floor is up to. He brings women into the house, and, yes, men come and visit them. But visiting the women seems to be free. You barely notice: you go out, do your 10 hours plus travel, come back, eat, sleep. It wouldn’t be the first time you’d accidentally ended up living in a brothel. There was that cheap hotel in the back streets of Las Palmas, while you taught English and worked on your sailboat. But here it’s the young Irish guy who works out the economics – not you with your PPE degree. It’s drugs where the German makes his money. The girls say something like – You know, this would be even nicer with a bit of a hit. So the client passes over the cash to get some in. The girls get free fixes, and probably commission, and maybe a gift. The client’s been drawn in, reckons he’s had free sex, just paid for shared sociability. It’s a creative solution to the mores of the market. The young landlord couple hear something about the drugs, but shrug it off. It’s only a bit of hash, they say. No it’s not.
Meanwhile, at work, you’re guarding a different end of the economy – an empty multi-million office block in Canary Wharf. There’s nothing to do; your partner guard, Vic, sits reading the tabloid Sun. Today there’s a front-page pic of a young woman at a ball, a titled baroness, caught wearing no knickers. Scratching her rump, and inadvertently showing, as the Victorian poet put it, a bright backside. Look at that, Vic says: the dirty tramp. He’s genuinely shocked. He belongs to an era when one’s betters were supposed to behave better. Ah, you wouldn’t worry, Vic, you say; you’d give her a quick cha-cha. He does an instant switch to po-faced wit. Well, I wouldn’t mind, he says; only I’ve got a headache coming on.

*

There are two temptations: to think the moral life is a seamless web; and to think that it is not. The first appeals to our slackness of intellect; the second to our slackness of virtue.

(Notebooks, 1980s)

*

The Great Bicycle Walk, 1990: East Anglian signs. Outside pub: “Mad wife sells homemade food.” Signpost to villages: “The Deals” – comprising, no doubt, Big Deal, Little Deal, and Raw Deal. Streetname in Alburgh: “Pagan Terrace”. Official notice: “Warning, sludge lagoons” (bureaucracy happily enlisting words in ways that confound our emotional expectations). “Dead Lane” – appropriately home to a farm owned by a well-known pharmaceutical company. And elsewhere, the possibly unappealing: “Lonely Farm, camping and caravan site.”
Meanwhile the sun shines off the first shoots of wheat as sharp as off wet pebbles.

* *

(Posted 2 February, 2020.)

*  *  *

1984, Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. You’re working on your newly purchased old Hungarian wooden sailboat in the “sports harbour” of the city, living alongside the expatriate yacht dwellers, Scandinavian tourists, South American businessmen, Indian duty-free shop owners, Korean and Arab and Japanese fishermen, Russian and Romanian and Cuban seamen, and assorted local waiters, bartenders, beachboys, 8-year-old pickpockets, strippers, transvestites, bar girls, language students, and old men playing chess. Plus Lola, the vast and intermittently amiable landlady at your hotel in the back streets, Oystein and Torstein, the permanently drunk Norwegians on the adjacent boat who are supposed to be renovating it for their money-earning co-owners back home, assorted busy single-minded and technically adept French yachtsmen, your friend Graham the schizophrenic Buddhist who lives in a cave along the coast, Romido who lives on the old white catamaran and is according to choice either a rich bum or a gun runner or a police spy or some combination of these, Fernando, the only one of your students to have a sister who was Miss Spain, and your Korean Consul conversation student, with his love of Gibbon and Disraeli, his vast impractical English vocabulary, and his tendency to start the lesson articulate and sober and end it mute and boozed. Spending your time cleaning your bilges, picking discarded batteries that might still be sort-of ok out of the harbour dumpster, smoking cheap cigars, and pretending to teach English. Plus ransacking the battered haphazard contents of the local library’s ‘foreign books’ section, and, among the old American 1950s college textbooks and copies of James Bond in Dutch, coming up with an unbalanced diet of Nietzsche and Margery Allingham thrillers – though your favourite find is an old English University Library edition of “Teach Yourself English for Swahili Speakers”.

Letters Home

*

(From The Modern Characters.)

Michael is temperamentally suited to making plans, and temperamentally unsuited to keeping them. But then what is resolution, but a sign that something is not going to be done?

*

What was revolutionary about Lawrence was that he was the first English novelist of the human spirit. He writes about people transported beyond themselves. Thackeray, Trollope, Dickens, Wells, Bennett, saw only people locked within themselves. In this sense, he is an American novelist – as Henry James was not. It’s also why he had trouble writing novels. Trouble, at least, once he’d left his roots – and perhaps why, of necessity, he had to leave them. English novels are about social worlds; not about lone psychological growth. American novels are about the journey.

(Notebooks, 1970s)

*

For our own failings, we have endless compassion.

(Notebooks, undated)

* *

(Posted 6 February, 2020.)

*  *  *

London, summer 1987. Nelson’s Column has been scaffolded and screened for cleaning. The repetitive neat oblongs of canvas make it look like a miniature high-rise or a squared-off Post Office Tower; a diminutive model for some future eyesore. Nelson’s hat peeks ludicrously out the top; the lions peek solemnly and warily over the four corners of the hoarding below, as if making a last-ditch stand against all comers. It could be a stage set for an unsubtle satire on loss of empire. No-one takes much notice, not even the pigeons – who know they’re better off down on the pavement, and are by far the most animate life-form around. They swirl, scatter, flutter, group and re-group; full of energy, being busy with life. The rest of us stand, sit, sometimes amble listlessly – are generally nonplussed – having nothing to do but enjoy ourselves. Only their cameras give the humans a bit of a high – and much more in the taking than the being taken. As if the kick isn’t the communion, or the future photo (though that’ll no doubt make it all seem ‘real’), but simply something to do, something done.
Down in the Embankment gardens it’s the pigeons that are somnolent. Here the humans are vociferous, energetic, jokey – not being on holidays but only snatched lunch-hours – so quite safe from getting oppressed by any lack of necessity.

*

(From The Modern Characters.)

Nigel dislikes people because he’s afraid of them. If he sees them put at a disadvantage, then he unexpectedly finds himself quite fond of them.

For all her independence, Olive is the most determinedly submissive of women – desperately repulsing all attempts
to treat her as an equal.

One sign of Paul’s neuroses is that when the natural impulse should be to give, he finds it hard to do so. Only when nothing is expected is he able to act as he would wish.

*

Srinagar, Kashmir, late May; Moslem – and more central Asia than India. When you ask a local which cricket team he cheers for, he grins and says “Pakistan”. On the Dal Lake, the water level’s eight feet above normal, lakeside living shacks are under water, the waters lap over the boulevard and soak the shoes of Hindus up on holiday or honeymoon from the hot south. Out in the countryside, entire crops have been lost. At night on the houseboats you hear the calls to prayer from the city mosques. But not the clear human beauty of a lone muezzin’s song. Whether it’s the water, or just the weird overlapping, as the calls come amplified and unsynchronized, but the effect is unearthly, unnerving, fading and rising, unutterably strange. Exactly like the soundtrack of some Hollywood horror, where a choir of the undead cries into the night.

(Notebooks, 1980s)

* *

(Posted 15 March, 2020.)

*  *  *

Based on the Q&A with David Heidenstam on Goodreads.

Q: How would you compare your treatment of men and women in Tales for my dog?

David Heidenstam  Well, I’m clearly pretty hard on the men! Their portrayals range from old cultural distortions (the man who talks about “keeping a ‘mistress’”) to sudden violent domestic insanity. In between, there are the stupid, the naively optimistic, those ready to beat people into submission or to death, and those happy to have embarked on world conquest because it’s finally made them feel loved… The women are not shown in such positions of power, because that’s still usually untrue to people’s observations, including my own. Instead they are mostly shown trying to deal with circumstances with intelligence and sensitivity – including turning the tables on someone who’s using authority to threaten them. But, to even things up a bit, there’s a woman with a very emotionless approach to marriage; and – humorously – another who tries to turn a profit from her ex-lover’s heart!

Of course, there’s always the danger that some readers may not be well attuned to satire – e.g. in the case of the man who thinks it’s easier to keep a ‘mistress’ than a dog, because you don’t have to walk her every day… They might like to remember Swift’s bitter satire, in A Modest Proposal – suggesting that the Irish can deal with poverty by selling their children as food to the rich… As a writer, I have to guard a carefully ambivalent attitude to ‘political correctness’. Changing what words are acceptable has clearly played a vital role in changing attitudes and behaviour. But changing what writing is acceptable can distort truth-telling. There are two overlapping dangers. One is a modern version of Victorian bowdlerisation, where some topics are censored. The other is a modern version of Stalinist literature – in which the job of the writer is distorted by the importance of presenting favourable role models.

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Q: How would you defend your portrayal of Christian theology, in Tales for my dog and In the Beginning…?

David Heidenstam  Oh, I don’t think I would! I happen to be religious, in the sense that I think that the material world is superficial. That consciousness is the underlying nature of the universe, not a rare result of a physical brain. But Western attitudes to religion – both favourable and critical – are grossly distorted. They are distorted by the Abrahamic tradition of God as an all-powerful person – who then has, ridiculously, to be capable of being everywhere and knowing everything. And they are distorted by Christian theology – driven into a cul-de-sac by the issues of the divinity – and parentage! – of Jesus of Nazareth. Which requires that people commit to believing unlikely things – and that they must do so by the exercise of faith. So then religion becomes something necessarily at loggerheads with science. I don’t think Westerners realise how odd Christianity is, how much of an outlier, in the spectrum of world religions. And one which clearly has nothing to do with anything that the historical Jesus actually taught.

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Q: Where did you get the idea for Tales for my dog?

David Heidenstam  The individual stories came in many different ways. Some years ago, I started trying to tap the unconscious by setting out to write stories in five minutes – with no ideas beforehand… That worked. “The moondreamer” came about in that way, at a hotel café table on Djerba. One minute it didn’t exist, and I had no inkling of it; two minutes later it unalterably did.

Many of the stories in Part One happened like that. Others came deliberately, from memories I wanted to explore. Sometimes the two things came together. The title “The archipelago of the dead” came out of nowhere – and was too good to waste! At first, it seemed it would have to be some kind of fantasy about the afterlife. But then I realised how it could bring together experiences both from sailing and from childhood – with only at the end a nod to the looming consequences of age and to those who’ve gone before.

As for the overall concept, “Tales for my dog” – that started as a jokey title (and a potentially dangerous one – since people might expect them to be stories about dogs). And the justification only comes in the very last words of the last story – with the claim that most people might have had happier lives as dogs… Which then allows one to look back, and see the stories as a kind of education, for, perhaps, a canine audience, in the various strange psychologies of humans.

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Q: What’s the best thing about being a writer?

David Heidenstam  You can do the writing anywhere. Yes, at some point you’ll probably have to type it up on a computer. But the creative part, that can be sitting at a café table with pen and paper. Or talking into a pocket recorder as you walk – or when you wake in the night.

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Q: What’s your advice for aspiring writers?

David Heidenstam  Only do it if you have to. Some can make a living from it: but that’s mostly if you’re in contract writing, or (for a successful very few) creating genre fiction, or working in some non-fiction genres – business, health, self-development. Thanks to modern self-publishing & self-promotion, you can bypass the old gatekeepers. But that doesn’t mean anyone’s going to read your stuff. So then it’s a lifestyle choice; sometimes a driven one. Which is fine if you can fit it into the corners of a life that makes you happy in other ways. But if not, you may be facing unhappy choices.

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80 microfictions from humour to horror

No, not – mostly – tales about dogs

Just stories about human beings

But any intelligent dog would understand

And in the end you will too

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It was in the dark before dawn that he saw the woman walking across the water…

I had a misunderstanding the other day. I thought I was a pastry cook, but then realised I was Chief of Police…

I was disappointed when I found out I’d been lying to myself…

The house was at the end of the world, where the land ended and the water began…

Everybody knew about the blue jacket. You put it on, and it told you what you wanted to know…

He folded the dragon carefully, studying how to do it from the book he had…

There were two of them. One fat, one thin. One old, one young. One rich, one poor. One greedy, one needy…

A long time ago – before even your father was born – there was a great debate among the animals, over who should rule the land…

He was a miser, and so didn’t buy any clothes…

The dog came into the pastry shop…

 

SPR Award - Tales for my dog

 

Now available in paperback and ebook.

Please click HERE for more information, reactions of readers, and purchase options.

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(Bookshop orders: ISBN 978-0-9955934-0-4; paperback, 132pp.
Please contact YPS – York Publishing Services – for usual industry discount and sale or return.)

Occasional postings of humour.

Bad Connections.
(1997)

Hello, 999? I wish to report a murder. I’ve just strangled my wife. She’s a telephone call centre operator.

Welcome to 999 Emergency Services. If you have a star key on your telephone, please press it twice now.

Beep. Beep.

Thank you. You now have five options. For lottery numbers, please press 1. For television schedules, press 2. For fire, press 3. For police, press 4. For..

Beep.

Thank you. You are through to 999 Police Services. If you have committed a crime, please press 1. If you are in the process of committing a crime, please press 2. If you have information about a crime, please press 3. If you intend to commit a crime, but have not yet performed any illegal acts, please ring back when you have done so. Thank you.

Beep.

Thank you. To help us process your call more efficiently, we have provided direct access keys for the most common crimes. For income tax irregularities, please press 1. For murder of a family member, please press 2. For murder of call centre operators, please press 3. For..

Beep beep.

Please do not attempt to press more than one key at a time.

Beep.

Thank you. If you have previously been convicted of a crime, please enter your account number now. Otherwise, please stay on the line for an operator.

Transferring you to an operator.

I’m sorry. Due to an unusually high level of crime in your category, all our operators are busy at the moment. You are held in a queue and will be answered as soon as possible. Please hold.

We are sorry for the delay in dealing with your call. Your crime is important to us. Please continue to hold.

Please hold.

“..Hello, family murder centre.”

Ah, yes, thank you, I wish to report a murder. I’ve just strangled my wife. She’s a call centre operator.

“I’m sorry, sir, you want the call centre murder line. I’ll put you through.”

Yes but..

Please hold while we redirect your call.

“..Hello, call centre murder centre.”

Hello, yes, I wish to report a crime. I’ve just murdered my… I’ve just murdered a call centre operator.

“Thank you. Do you have a customer number or are you a new murderer?”

No, I don’t, I’m a new..

“Thank you. And did you say the murder had already taken place?”

Yes, about thirty minutes..

“I’m sorry, sir, this is 999 Emergency Services, we don’t deal with murders that have already taken place. Please phone your local police.”

But.. Oh, I see. Do you have the phone number?

“Sir, we are not Directory Enquiries. There’ll be a display ad in your local phone directory.”

I’m afraid our phone directory got badly damaged. Quite recently.

“Well then, sir, why don’t you try Talking Pages. Now, please get off the line, or you’ll be prosecuted for wasting Emergency Services time.”

..”Hello, Talking Pages, Amanda speaking, how may I help you?”

I’d like the number of my local police.

“Thank you, sir. And what town or city are you calling from?”

Well, um, London, I suppose, but..

“Could you spell that, please, sir?”

L-O-N-D-O-N. But..

“Would that be Little London in Oxfordshire?”

No, just London, but..

“I’m afraid we have no listing for London, sir. Is there a nearby town or city we could search under?”

Yes, look, try under Hackney.

“Thank you, sir. Looking for you now. Yes, we have three police services advertising for the Hackney area. There’s the British Transport Police, ‘crimes investigated, public transport a speciality’, their number is..”

No, I don’t think so, thank you. What others so you have?

“The Ministry of Defence Police, and the UK Atomic Energy Constabulary.”

The Ministry of Defence Police?

“I’m sorry, sir, that advertiser’s number is ex-directory.”

No, I mean, don’t you have the Metropolitan Police?

“Not among our advertisers, sir, but they may be in our other listings. Yes, here we are, sir, the Metropolitan Police, Hackney.”

Ah, thank you.

“Here’s your number now.”

..Hello, Hackney Police?

“No, this is the British Police Central Switchboard in Aberdeen. Hold on, I’ll put you through.”

Hello, Hackney Police?

“No, this is the Metropolitan Police Central Switchboard in the Faroe Islands. Hold on, I’ll put you through.”

Hello, Hackney Police?

This is the Hackney Police..

Thank goodness..

..Call Centre in the Falkland Islands. We’re sorry no-one can take your call at the moment. Please leave a message after the beep. For urgent calls, please dial 999. For telephone-related crime, please call the National Call-Centres-Crime Call Centre on….

Hello, this is the National Call-Centres-Crime Call Centre. If you have a touchtone telephone, please throw it at the wall now.

Thank you. We hope you feel better already. However, our stress recognition software is transferring you automatically to the National Call Centres Suicide Helpline. Please hold.

Please hold.

Please hold.

Your suicide is important to us. Please hold.

Hello, this is the National Call Centres Suicide Helpline. If you have already committed suicide, please press 1…

(Posted 30 May, 2018.)

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A few previously published poems

“The hands are useful objects..”

The hands are useful objects – prime evolutionary tools.
Consider:
The fingertips encourage people to convict burglars;
The nails, painted, may excite lust or love;
Knuckles can be broken with excruciating agony
And fingers explore private parts while wearing tokens of identification;
Also palm-lines make a practical alternative to tea leaves,
While the heels of the hands conveniently cover the eyes
Without obstructing the tear ducts.

(1972, published Ambit magazine 1992.)

(Posted 30 May, 2018.)

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“The land stands silent..”

The land stands silent in the sun:
Solid; green; encompassed; known;
Till a crow's caw sounds, like a great door opening,
And makes of the dark wood an inhabited thing.

(1975, published Agenda magazine 1988;
Carcanet 
Agenda anthology, 1994.)

Debts of gratitude here far longer than the poem. First, to Diagram (Visual Information) Ltd., then of Goswell Road in London, for allowing for a time a work arrangement that triggered an intense period of creativity. Second, to a former fellow graduate student at Essex, Chris Game, for inviting me on a day’s visit to Cliveden House (then an overseas campus of Stanford University), where this was unexpectedly written. But mostly to William Cookson of Agenda, for being the first to think there might be something publishable in my versifying. William, who’d founded Agenda as a young man under the encouragement of Ezra Pound, tried very hard to find anything else in my poetry that he could like – but never succeeded!

(Posted 23 June, 2018.)

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Two scripts available

In the Beginning…

**Now published**

A stage play set in the Garden of Eden.
A four-hander (God, Satan, Adam, Eve) with quite simple staging requirements.

Written 1978-82. Well received by script readers, but never produced, apart from a rehearsed reading at the Sheffield Crucible under the direction of the late Clare Venables.

Reactions to the original 1980s script:-

– “a lovely play..”
Michael Fox of Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre Company.

– “one of the most arresting openings I can remember for some time..”
Alan Strachan of the Greenwich Theatre.

– “a funny, fluently written and well-constructed play..”
Graham Whybrow of the Royal Court.

– “The staging of this play would be a challenge, and director and designer would accept with glee. It is imaginative, intelligent and vastly amusing… The sound person would have a glorious time making up the appropriate tapes… God’s smugness is riveting and Satan, wary, enigmatic and sceptical, is obviously the centre of the play… Eve.. is sharply defined, clever and very much in control… a play with tremendous potential.”
Reader’s report for the New Playwrights Trust.

And a recent review:-

– “…reimagines the first chapters of the book of Genesis with wry humor… [It] evokes sympathy for the Devil with a clever combination of naturalistic action, humor, and engaging, thoughtful dialogue… [Eve’s] compassion for Satan turns the moment when she and Adam eat the apple from humanity’s greatest failure… In Heidenstam’s telling, Eve is not tricked; rather, she makes a moral choice… A feast of challenging ideas for those who are willing to taste of it.”
Bryon Reiger in Rain Taxi, issue 98.

Please click HERE for purchase links to Amazon – but also available free to theatres and drama groups. Please send a message via the form on the Contact page

SATAN: No, well I’m not as good in the mornings as you are…

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One day

A short script written in about 1971 for possible television production as a ‘silent comedy’ – a kind of combination of silent movie and “Monty Python” comic sketch.

But it might have been better conceived as a short animated film, using plasticine characters and sets, in the style (if they’d been around at the time) of “Wallace and Gromit”.

Indeed, the atmosphere, of class-bound 1950’s conventionalism and repression, is very close to that of “Wallace and Gromit” – though not so affectionately remembered!

It could also make a short stage production – a combination of mime and slapstick that might appeal to amateur drama groups.

It’s a script – never intended for ordinary reading. But it’s available as a free pdf to anyone interested in using it. Please send a message via the form on the Contact page and mention what you have in mind.

(Permission to use will be free in the case of amateur drama production, and by agreement for animation.)

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