I Hear Voices, page 1
I Hear Voices
Preface to the 2014 Edition
I Hear Voices
Preface to the 2014 Edition
Paul Ableman – playwright, experimental novelist and screenwriter – was one of the most recognisable and well-loved literary figures of Hampstead.
When I first knew him, he was living in a penthouse flat in Fellows Road, which went through many metamorphoses during his long residence. It started off as a small bachelor pad in the wild late sixties, but expanded mysteriously over the years to accommodate more and more books, computers, his second wife Sheila, his younger son Tom, talkative dinner parties, and large summer parties of guests who would crowd on to newly sprouting balconies amongst the pot plants, sit on top of one another on settees, and yell at one another happily in crowded corridors. It was like the Tardis. There was much more room in there than you would have thought possible.
Ableman, too, though small of stature, contained multitudes. He was born in Leeds in 1927 into an unorthodox Jewish family. His father, Jack, was a tailor. His mother, Gertrude, wanted to be an actress, left his father and moved to London, to Hampstead, where she fell in love with an American journalist, Thurston Macauley. (I liked his mother, a flamboyant woman who used to make lively contributions to my class at Morley College, but Paul was more critical of her, and I guess he knew her a lot better than I did.)
Paul was brought up in New York with his mother and stepfather and sent to Stuyvesant High School, returning to England aged eighteen. He did his National Service in the Education Corps, in Gibraltar and Scapa Flow, then went to King’s College London to read English, but did not finish his degree, hanging out in Paris instead, writing erotic fiction.
His novels include I Hear Voices (1957), published by the Olympia Press (a work of which Maurice Girodias was very proud), As Near as I Can Get (1962), Vac (1968), The Twilight of the Vilp (1969, his first book to be produced by Gollancz), and Tornado Pratt (1978): these works were praised for their inventive language, bawdy high spirits, and originality of form by Anthony Burgess, Philip Toynbee, Robert Nye and other friends of the avant-garde.
But his first publication had been a play, written with his mother, Even His Enemy (1948) – produced in London as Letters to a Lady in 1951. Green Julia, his first full-length play, in which two young men discuss an absent mistress, was a great success at the 1965 Edinburgh Festival, and other surreal and experimental plays (such as Tests, 1966) followed, with the encouragement of establishment critics like Harold Hobson, but Ableman also wrote screenplays of a more popular nature. He described himself, proudly, as a freelance writer, and could turn his hand to many different genres, including general science books.
He made something of a speciality of ‘novelising’ BBC series, such as Shoestring (Shoestring, 1979, and Shoestring’s Finest Hour, 1980), Porridge (Porridge: The Inside Story, 1979, and others under the pseudonym Paul Victor), Hi-de-hi (Hi-de-hi, 1983), Dad’s Army (Dad’s Army: The Defence of a Front Line English Village, 1989), Minder (Straight Up: The Autobiography of Arthur Daley, 1991) and Last of the Summer Wine (Last of the Summer Wine: A Country Companion by Clegg, Foggy and Compo, 1992).
His embrace of the sexual revolution of the 1960s unwittingly exposed him to risks. In 1969 he published a book called The Mouth, a harmlessly entertaining and informative book about orality drawing on mythology, psychoanalysis, literature and art, and pleasantly illustrated with images from Magritte, Kitagawa Utamaro and other respectable sources. This provoked an obscenity case of some hilarity, which was very ably contested by Jeremy Hutchinson, and the book and its author were triumphantly acquitted. I appeared as witness for the defence and I hope made a good case for Ableman’s good heart, innocent intentions and literary merit.
Ableman’s first marriage to Tina Carrs-Brown ended in amicable divorce: they had one son, Martin. He married Sheila Hutton-Fox in 1978, with whom he had Tom. His emotional life went through periods of turbulence, but he was always an attentive and affectionate father. As he grew older, he grew milder and more benign (although his amazing shock of hair grew larger and wilder), and he remained an eccentric rather than a conformist.
He was a great walker, and liked to set off into the wilds with his compass, alone or with his wife and son, sometimes sleeping in the amazing expanding Dandy he attached to his car. He made a good gin and tonic in his Dandy, high on Exmoor. He loved the natural world as intensely as he loved the pubs of Soho. On my last walk with him, in the Chilterns, we sat in a field eating our sandwiches, watching a red kite, while he explained to me his theory of the mind, which he expounded in his last book. He was a wonderful talker, but never a deliverer of monologues: he was always eager for a response, and listened to the stories of others with keen curiosity.
The Secret of Consciousness (1999) concerns the function of dreams and the archival capacity and processing mechanisms of the brain during sleep. His claims have yet to be tested, although he maintained it would be easy to do so in a sleep laboratory. His scientist friends (who included Lewis Wolpert) were not persuaded by them. He believed that during sleep the brain sorts and stores diurnal sensory impressions, on a Twin-Data system, one pathway leading to consciousness, the other to the archival memory, and that identity is no more (or less) than the unique set, or narrative, of sensory data of each individual. He saw the novelist’s use of ‘interior monologue’ as an attempt to describe this fluid and ever-changing process of creation.
In later years he began to keep an impressively detailed journal – a sort of forerunner, as he saw it, of the blog – in which he noted domestic and social events and his thoughts on such disparate matters as Judaism, technology, the restaurants of Swiss Cottage and the acting techniques of Peter Sellers: a record of an enquiring mind which found all human life of interest.
Ableman bore his last years of illness with an exemplary mixture of stoicism, good manners and good humour that made his company a pleasure. He never complained, and retained his affectionate delight in others to the last.
(Margaret Drabble’s obituary for Paul Ableman was first printed in the Independent on 31 October 2006.)
Until, gentlemen, you decide further
what my occupation is, you may as well
announce me as comforting 35 whirlpools
below sound.—A Schizophrenic
NOW WHAT’S HAPPENING? I reach out for Cousin Susan. I think it is morning. But all I hear is buzzing. Can that be flies or machines? I can see nothing. The thought comes to me—are my eyes open, or do the lids still press upon the lens? Is there something opaque, the membrane, between the source of light and the inner eye and brain? How shall I know if there is any light?
“Arthur?” I call. “Maria? Jane? Cousin Susan? Anyone? Is anyone there? Is it daylight?”
Now that is strange. They don’t hear me, but I hear them. They must be near me. They must be discussing me. I must be the third person they’re discussing. And yet they don’t sound near, nor even very real, not like the voices of humans rooted to the earth, heavy and tangible, but like diagnosticians impersonally analyzing—abstract voices—and yet I am sure they move in the light.
“Is he all right?” asks one, without feeling, without any but the attempt to secure a curt reassurance and so shed responsibility. It is a masculine voice, perhaps that of Arthur or of the darker of those three, Merkitt, Merew, who hopped beside the ditch. Children’s voices? Can it be the selfish voice of a child? Not Merkitt for I never knew his name. It must be Arthur.
“He is muffled this morning.”
“He is stony.”
“He is turning again.”
“Quite a villain.”
“Quite well off.”
Why do they do that to me? Why do they misunderstand my condition? I can’t be held responsible in this way. I can’t be worried. I’m not a swollen thumb, nor rags.
“What peace shall we give him?”
“Arthur, is that you?”
“Yes, yes, me—Arthur.”
“Ah, well that is something. I suppose you’re going to work?”
“To my office. I’d prefer it if you said ‘I suppose you’re going to your office.’ It sounds more—well—responsible.”
“Yes, I meant that—to your office. I suppose you’re on your way out? Only one of you will go?”
“I go alone.”
How fine to be awake at last! There are the walls and curtains, and chinks, and I know there are houses beyond. I was apparently mistaken. Only Arthur is with me and I doubt if he simulated all those voices.
“You look very fine, old fellow,” I compliment him. “Very fine, to a younger brother’s eye. I admire that suit and your general air of grooming and efficiency. Well, I wish you a prosperous day, no less than that—as for myself—”
But then I break down again. I am not whole like Arthur. What can I wish myself?
“Yes, yourself,” insists Arthur, fixing me with that terrible, questioning stare. “Yourself?”
For a moment, I fear that he will pursue it to the end, driving me, driving me, but no—he glances at some art and his voice is quite casual when he asks, having modified the question, “What’ll you do today?”
“Twenty-four hours of the best, round cheeses of time. Eat them, my lad, devour them!”
“That’s a good idea, Arthur,” I enthuse, with what I hope will seem fitting gratitude. But somehow he is not pleased.
“Oh, go to Hell!” he snaps, and strides from the room.
Sometimes, when Arthur displays that unreasonable touchiness of his, and is rude and abrupt to me for no reason at all, I get quite resentful. I’ve even felt myself sweat momentarily with resentment so that if I had the strength I might pursue him into the street and—But not today. Today I just feel relieved that he’s gone and I stretch out my arms to embrace solitude. How real, how logical is solitude! There one may cultivate damsons. There one may—I devise different plans at different times. Of course, I’m not an actor.
When I have thought enough, I get dressed and go down to the cheery tavern dining room.
“I dare say you get better every day,” cries the cheerful waitress. She does not clap her hands, or stand with arms akimbo, but genuine delight at the improvement she has detected is reflected on her pretty face. She wears a bonnet. “I’ll get you a lovely breakfast.”
She turns to hurry away to the huge, fragrant kitchen to assemble a selection of its richest and best productions for my meal. Unhappily, I have to prevent her. I realize now that this is, in fact, an important day. Normally, I would be sad and reluctant to truncate her enthusiasm, and I have, on occasion, gone to extraordinary lengths, eating bad food, allowing myself to be misdirected, wearing repulsive articles of clothing, rather than be reponsible for thwarting the sort of impulse that now moves the girl. But today there can be no question of heeding that sort of consideration. After all, there are levels of importance. Since I am going today to win for this girl, and for everyone else, eternal fulfillment, eternal enthusiasm, there can be no justification, since time presses, for staying to minister to the small, regional branch of it that has now appeared.
“One moment, my dear.”
She hurries back to me and I can tell from the change in her expression that already something of the majesty of my mission is apparent to her. She looks at me now with awe and respect, in the way that a common soldier might look at a gold and scarlet general into whose headquarters he has brought a message, or an ordinary workman in a factory at the little group of immaculate managers who descend into the clattering works every so often, preoccupied not with the trivial concerns of workmen but with matters of high policy.
“Yes, sir?” she asks timidly, although a slight wrinkle of preoccupation begins to work on her brow.
“No, I shan’t have time for breakfast. You see—”
And I begin to explain to her, as well as I can, the reasons why I am unable to concern myself with matters like eating and drinking on this particular morning. The explanation, however, does not proceed very well, partly because I find great difficulty in remembering what it is, and partly because I am distracted by doubts as to whether the attentive expression of the girl’s face is really caused by absorption in what I am saying.
“Are you really listening?” I ask finally.
“Oh yes, sir.”
“Not like Arthur?”
“Oh no, not like him.”
“No, well then—what’s wrong with your stocking?”
At this, she bursts into tears.
“I can’t help it, sir, it’s not my fault. It keeps slipping.”
And now that the truth is out, she bends, raises her skirt and fumbles with the attachment of her stocking, sobs shaking her body the whole time.
“It’s all right,” I comfort her.
“Perhaps,” she says, letting her skirt fall again and moving to the window seat, “I know more than you. Do you like daylight?”
I try to see it with her, judging, from the light of rapture on her face, that each granule must be worth attention, but the buildings distract me.
“I suppose,” she says, looking at me now from lowered, suggestive eyes, “you find me quite submissive?”
That can hardly be. I’ve been so much trouble already. I don’t willfully oversleep or mope—and once I tore my trousers—but I understand the effects. I know why that flinty woman cursed. I know why they observed me, and anyway I’m used to it by now.
And then I see that she’s mocking me. But this time I merely smile.
“We must divide here,” I say gently.
“I thought so.”
“I thought it for you. I was led to it and you marched in the host.”
And, before she can mention chasms, I go quickly out.
And for the first time that day, I feel genuinely calm.
It lasts quite a long time. The calm undulates around me, crossed by flickering lights. It is not serene.
I am just becoming aware of this when Cousin Susan brings me in my breakfast.
“Not dressed yet?” she asks. “You’re merely an added complication.”
“My racer’s broken.”
“I have no patience with you.”
“It’s stuck. Auntie May, it’s stuck.”
She shakes her head, standing by me with the tray, but I can tell by the deliberate manner in which she does it that I’ve really caught her attention. She does not, however, yield to her curiosity and, a moment later, firmly deposits the tray at my bedside.
“There’s an egg. Now come on. You like eggs.”
“Yes—I’m just getting up—” I look at her irritably.
“Now if you don’t eat that egg—” She wants to threaten but, after another long look, she turns and leaves the room. Almost immediately I jump out of bed, rush to the window and look out. It is a fair, speckled day with smoke and children.
I eat the egg quickly and get dressed. As I leave the house, on my way to work, the thought comes to me, “Dear, good Cousin Susan. How much she gives up for my sake!”
How well I have done! How long I have gone on! Every morning through streets, every hour, every meal. Sometimes they tear about me, sometimes they address me or address themselves to me. They have even flattered or kindled. I can’t be nothing. One rustled—one—there’s been great variety at least.
Unexpectedly I bump into Arthur.
“Come up for cigars,” he suggests
He is very affable, very expansive and takes me through the immense building. We rise swiftly a
“Rapid promotion,” he explains. “I’m doing very well.”
“Yes, I know. I found it hard to believe. One settles in. One gets used to the way of it. Here’s authority. Here’s dominion. Just press that button.”
“Arthur,” I begin, somewhat anxiously. “I don’t see any—”
“That button!” he cries, his temper flaring again, though not, this time, very savagely. “That button—there.”
“Do you mean this buffer?”
“Lean against it, put your weight to it! Oh, for God’s—”
Maddened, as so often before, by my ineptitude, he strides over to the window and stands glaring out at the hollow buildings beyond.
“Have you grasped the principle?”
“It’s been pushed,” I assure him. I look round as if expecting some response, knowing that really, since at the last moment I forgot to push it, nothing will happen. Nothing does, and after a moment Arthur slumps into his comfortable, padded chair.
“The staff are away,” he admits.
“Oh well—I mean that explains it. Don’t be sad.”
But he does look sad, quite disconsolate in fact, as if the impossibility of some event, of some anticipated experience of great delicacy and truth, had suddenly become clear to him.
“It’s remarkable, Arthur,” I say, looking enthusiastically around the imposing room, “the scope you have here. I suppose you can do virtually anything, within limits, of course. It must be enormously satisfying.”
“It certainly is.”
“I can see that. I mean you can sit here at this desk and direct all sorts of things, plan and scheme—can you move mountains?”
“I’m only a clerk.”
“No, don’t think of it—”
“I don’t want your sympathy!” he springs up again, furious once more, but this time he merely stands at the desk and glares challengingly at me. “I’m getting on. I’m doing all right. I’ll have buttons enough one day—what the hell are you doing here anyway?”
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