Mark Sadler’s When We Fell in Love

The American Beat writers circled back into fashion in the UK during the late 1980s / early 1990s. Their resurgence coincided with a spike in the counterculture that was perhaps a reaction to the grind of over a decade of conservative leadership and Thatcher-ism. The dour political protests and sermonising which, up until that time, had characterised the grass-roots political opposition, parted like clouds, revealing a hedonistic alternative, where the focus was less upon affecting change through direct confrontation, and more about dragging what could be salvaged to a new forum. Illegal raves were flaring up across the country and the authorities were racing to stamp them out. The barriers separating different genres of music seemed to melt away. The youth was primed for rebellion and change.

There was a literary element to this wave of dissent. Mainstream bookshops picked up on it and started to incorporate small underground writing sections. The canon of Jack Kerouac was gradually republished. Charles Bukowski’s novels and anthologies (which at the time were printed in over-size softbacks by Black Sparrow Press) began to appear on the shelves of the larger London stores, alongside books penned by more marginal figures – Neal Cassady’s autobiography ‘The First Third’ and Jim Carrolls’ ‘Basketball Diaries’. It had never been easier to purchase books that had either previously been banned outright, or else had been pushed so far into the margins that they were all but unavailable. I consider myself very fortunate to have come of age during this period of free expression, that was colloquially referred to as the second summer of love. The pendulum seems to have swung back the other way now, only in 2019 the authoritarianism appears to originate from the youth and the censorship is self-imposed.

At the age of 17 and 18, fiction and reality were reacting with each other in a very volatile way, braiding together to a point where they became indistinguishable: I would devour Jack Kerouac’s accounts of high-tailing across 1950s America with Neal Cassady – the patron saint of the handbrake turn – hunched over the steering column. During the school lunch-break I would fling my own car at high speeds around the country lanes nearby. On one occasion I rounded a bend to discover that a large pile of bricks, recently shed by a lorry, had partly blocked-off the way ahead. I dived on the brakes and wrestled the car to a halt in-between the drainage ditches. In that drawn-out moment, where fractions of seconds passed as if they were minutes, and the pile of masonry grew larger in my wind-shield, I felt a kinship with men like Jack and Neal, and those moments they must have faced, where their crazy odyssey across the American continent threatened to come to an abrupt end, leaving them upside down in the verge with their wheels spinning in thin air.

From out of my mad adolescent rush to consume books, music and film, in search of a personal identity, something more considered, informed by the work of more reflective individuals, and therefore less likely to get me killed, was beginning to take on form.

A few years before, a supply teacher had handed out photocopies of a poem by Ted Hughes, titled ‘The Thought Fox’, for us to critique. Because she was a supply teacher and the exercise had no bearing upon what we had been studying in class, nobody really took the lesson seriously. However there was something in that poem that lodged in the back of my mind and made me want to seek it out years later. When I finally did, in my early 20s, I was awestruck by its brilliance: In vibrant and evocative language, Hughes personified the moment of creative inspiration, that leads to the writing of a poem, as a feral animal nosing its way out of the darkness toward the civilising, brightly-lit window of his study.

Faber & Faber published four volumes collecting Ted Hughes’ animal poetry. I quickly purchased them all. Where a lesser poet, or even a very good one, might wrap-up an animal up in language, Hughes would subvert grammar and syntax, making language obey the movements and the characteristics of his subject. He possessed an uncanny ability to evoke photo-realistic mental imagery, particularly in his ontological observations of the natural kingdom. I can think of no other author who displayed such a command over words and descriptions.

During my mid 20s, I somehow stumbled across the Nobel Prize winning Argentinian short story writer and poet, Jorge Luis Borges. Very soon I had read everything he published that had been translated into English.

Borges’ fictional prose falls into two broad categories: There are re-tellings of contemporary South American folklore, reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce’s ‘Tales of Soldiers and Civilians’, where the focus is predominantly on the outlaw. However it is Borges’ more philosophical imaginative works, rooted in mythology, the study of obscure books, and in conspiracies that threaten to unbalance the established order of the universe, or a small part of it, that continue to resonate throughout all types of fiction to this day, and which are still widely imitated: A benign secret society successfully overwrites reality with their own version, initially by seeding stray volumes of The Encyclopaedia Britannica with an entry describing a fictional country known as Uqbar; a grieving narrator employs a device known as an Aleph – a point in space and time from which all over points may be observed – to steal glimpses of an unrequited love who has since passed away; a solitary man roams an infinite library comprising hexagonal galleries, which contain every possible book that ever has or ever will exist. Borges died prior to the popularization of the internet which, in a sense, is his “total library” made flesh. I often wonder what he would have made of it

I have returned to Borges’ stories many times since my first reading. Initially I took his writing very seriously. It was only later that I picked up upon the vein or dry humour in his work.

His verse (some of which he translated into English himself) is the equal of his prose. His short poem ‘Manuscript Found in a Book of Joseph Conrad’ remains one of my favourites.

I have always lived close to (and some within) the city of London. I have walked around it and read about it and studied its history. During the late 1990s, I learned of an author whose work was to deepen my appreciation of the city, and that would later offer me comfort and solace during a time when I had nothing and no-one to fall back on.

I had been holidaying in Dartmouth which is a town in the south-west of England. The houses cling to the steep valley sides above the widening channel of the river that empties into the English Channel. There used to be a second-hand bookshop there that was located inside a dilapidated old church. Those books that had been sorted were displayed within a teetering labyrinth of shelves. In the centre of the nave, stacks of old records and decaying magazines, dating to the early 1900s, were heaped on tables that had been pushed together. Within this trove that was one-part treasure to nine-parts tat, I discovered a number of volumes collecting newspaper columns, on the subject of London. They had been written by a man named H V Morton during the first half of the twentieth century. Morton was a compulsive wanderer around the British capital and beyond. He was also a keen observer of people – the English equivalent perhaps of The New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell. His columns were vibrant snapshots of times long gone in a city that still stands. When I read them now, it saddens me that the people who he wrote about are all probably long gone from this world: The gallant men who rallied to rescue a child’s balloon after it became trapped in the rafters of a tea room; The girl who, when presented with a new puppy, hugged it to her chest and called it ‘darling’. The man who talked Morton into travelling with him one evening, to what was then the suburbs of London, to see the staked-out foundations of the house where he planned to live with his fiancé. Their time came and went. Morton’s books still reek of mould and of the church where I bought them.

In 2015, I found myself suddenly homeless. I travelled to London where I slept rough in an overgrown corner of the graveyard at Saint Sepulchre Without Newgate, which is a ten minute walk from Saint Paul’s Cathedral. I ate nothing. After a couple of days without food I completely lost my appetite. I lost so much weight that my trousers slipped down my waist and the crotch chaffed all of the skin off my inner thighs. Walking was agony. I waited patiently for my situation to deteriorate to a point where it would be easy to throw myself off one of the bridges over Thames. I planned to do it early one morning, when there would be less chance of being rescued and no-one around to ghoulishly film the act on their mobile phone.

One afternoon, I stumbled across a temporary outdoor exhibit, just off Tottenham Court Road: A pop-up museum celebrating street architecture. Tables and chairs were scattered around a semi-circular, flat-cobbled plaza beside the road. There was a wheeled trolley – the kind that they have in libraries – with books about London on it. One of the volumes in the collection was a second-hand copy of ‘In Search of London’ by H V Morton.

Everyday, I would awaken at dawn. I would drink as much water as I could from one of the taps outside of Saint Paul’s, then I would hobble in great pain just under two miles across the city to the exhibit, where I would spend a few hours reading the Morton’s book. It was my only pleasurable activity during a very dark period of my life.

Of course, there have been many other books and writers. I mention Kerouac Hughes, Borges and Morton only because their writing has had profound impact upon me. I am the person who I am, in part, because of these authors.

Photography Credit: Jason Rice