The Cautious Curiosity

I receive an email from someone who says they’re a literary agent, mentioning the words ‘book deal’. And suddenly the world gains new colours.

Hopes at ground level, of course. But it has galvanised me into author-shaped action, making me dig out the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, scribble ideas, and generally Take An Interest In Life again. As opposed to just being interested in sleeping. And sleeping again. And sleeping some more.


Just when I’m in the mood to write, it’s getting on for time to go to the night shift. I’ve promised a short story for someone’s collection. It’s due on Monday. Have it all worked out, am terribly pleased with the idea, and want to write it now. But it’s  time to go to work. And although I have taken tomorrow night off, it’s in order to DJ at someone I don’t know’s wedding. Still, presumably that won’t go on all night. I shall just have to steal moments with my notebook wherever I can get them.

If you have the nerve to call yourself a writer, you’re meant to learn from experiences of being thrown in amongst strangers. Observe, note their conversation and so on. Except I’m hardly the fly-on-the-wall type. Too often, I AM the subject of conversation. ‘Hey, look at him! What’s he writing? Look at his hair! Oy, mate, are you gay?’ And so on. So much for eavesdropping. My ‘Overheard By Dickon Edwards’ book would be filled entirely with comments about me.


Boys with bikes in King’s Cross the other evening. Shouting at me from the other side of the street.

‘Oy, blondie!’

I keep walking, and don’t look over.

‘OY, blondie. Blondie. Hey, Prince Charles!’

(Prince Charles…!)

That makes me look up. They grin, and put their thumbs up.

I grin back and nod in what I hope looks like ‘Yes, I do look funny, don’t I. Heigh ho!’ Without sarcasm, though. It’s hard work.

Walking in the street is improv class. You pretty much have to cast yourself in the role of a person walking in the street. No one ever tells you this.

Because my appearance isn’t particularly outre compared to the proper human peacocks of Camden and Shoreditch, I’m convinced part of My Problem is in the way I carry myself as much as my clothes and hair. Or in the way I don’t carry myself. I’ve never quite managed to convincingly play Bloke Walking In The Street. Or even – crucially – Arty Bloke Walking In The Street. Neither fish nor fop.

Sunday morning. Sitting in Waterloo Station Starbucks, still recovering from the queasy swaying of the overnight ferry from Guernsey. The Japanese girl working behind the counter is playing her own mix CD in the shop. Entirely 1980s UK indie. New Order’s Age of Consent. OMD. Echo & The Bunnymen. The Cure (it’s always The Cure – they should get a Queen’s Export award). And best of all – some Durutti Column. On a Sunday morning in Starbucks.

I’m quietly enjoying the music, reading ‘Sark: As I Found It’ by a rather eccentric character called Captain Ernest Platt, published 1935. Can’t decide whether he’s real or a pastiche, a joke. Googling him later reveals he was both: a British Fascist. Common experience when reading old books, of course. So much latterday forgiveness has to be factored in. Even Mervyn Peake’s 1950s ‘Mr Pye’ refers to a burning match looking like ‘a hanged negro’.

Just then, there’s a knock at the plate glass window. A couple of men I don’t know, pointing at me, laughing, before moving on down the street.

This ability – or curse – for attracting attention. No, not attention, curiosity. It has to be worth something in the cut-and-thrust world of marketing new authors. Has to help. I’m hoping to find out.

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In Sark

Wednesday, St Peter Port, Guernsey. I catch the 4pm boat to Sark. It’s a kind of floating minibus, seating 50 or so on this trip. Smooth enough journey out of the harbour, but as soon as we hit the open Channel, it’s roller coaster time. I think of that old quote about the Channel being Britain’s greatest line of defence, defying Caesar and countless other invasions, and making those D-Day colleagues of Mr Hanks throw up so memorably in the opening of Saving Private Ryan.

I can never remember the best way of dealing with rough crossings. Maybe it’s nothing by the standards of more seasoned sailors, but my idea of rough is any time the horizon just can’t make up its mind where to sit. Some say you have to lie down – not always easy in a minibus arrangement of bench seating. I choose to hold on to the seat, turn on my iPod, close my eyes and imagine I’m playing the music. I am not here, I tell myself. I am not in a boat being thrown about. I am playing this Galaxie 500 track somewhere else. On a stage, say. A stage on a boat… oh, I’ve lost it.

It works well enough at the dentist. There, I imagine my mind is not in the body in the chair, the one at the mercy of the drill. I am floating above, looking down. I am in the next room. I am elsewhere. This attempt at amateur self-hypnosis is actually pretty effective, perhaps because one is already in a reclining position. But not on the Sark boat. I make a mental note to get some bottled anaesthetic – Pino Grigio Nitrous Oxide – for the trip back.

At Sark harbour, I meet Philip and Elizabeth Perree from the hotel I’m staying at, La Sablonnerie. Turns out Elizabeth was in the boat too, in the other seating section behind me. ‘How was that crossing by your standards?’ I ask her. ‘Excellent! Very quick!’

Behind me I watch the boat taking passengers deliveries for the journey back, including lots of grey mail sacks.

For the steep trek up the cliff to the main part of the island, I’m given a lift on a goods trailer pulled by Philip’s tractor, me and Ms P (and her Harrods shopping bag – reused for Guernsey) sit and chat together amongst the suitcases. The scenery is spectacular: it’s wildflower season and the hills are speckled with bluebells at every glance.

The slope levels off at a crossroads, and I’m given a horse-drawn taxi ride to the hotel, the driver Elaine telling me all about the island’s history on the way. How Sark is part of Guernsey in some ways, and not in others. How it uses Guernsey currency, mail service and stamps, how like the other Channel Islands all the place names and nouns are French, but the main language is English with a variety of accents, from RP posh to working class Essex. Just like in ‘Bergerac’, of course. But while Guernsey is in the UK, Sark is actually a self-governing independent state, a feudalist fiefdom from 1565 till last year, when they finally had their first Parliamentary elections. The ruler of the island is still the hereditary Seigneur, but I’m told he ‘helps out’ rather than tells others what to do. And as his son has divorced and remarried, which is frowned on in the Feudal Rulebook, it’s not clear what will happen to the line of Seigneurs.

I’d already read about the recent democratic elections and all the hoo-ha over the Barclay twins. The Barclays are billionaire playboy owners of the Telegraph newspaper and the Ritz Hotel, who live in their newly built castle on nearby Brecqhou Isle, one of the fiefdoms ‘parcels’ of land, and own a number of hotels and shops on Sark. The Barclays controversially kick-started Sark’s democratic reforms, bringing the scrutiny of international human rights to the anachronisms of a feudal system. An unelected Seigneur being King is unfair, they reasoned. But of course, the flipside is in the freer world of democracy, money is power instead. As the world’s press recorded, once their favoured candidates at last year’s election were democratically rejected by the island’s voters, they dramatically closed down all their interests and sacked over a hundred staff (out of a population of 600). Orwell would have loved this one: which do you choose between the power of hereditary barons versus the baron-like power of billionaires? Still, what’s less reported is that the Barclays-owned jobs were quietly reinstated a few weeks later, that the twins continue to help boost the local economy, and Sarkese-Barclay relations are, I’m told by a few locals, more or less back to normal. If a little bruised and wary.

There’s a fascinating Guardian article on the post-election Sark here:

(With the Barclays, I can’t help thinking of the archetype of elderly rich twins in films like The Million Pound Note and Trading Places).

‘I’m re-reading Mr Pye, by Mervyn Peake,’ I tell the horsedrawn cab’s driver, Elaine. The horse is called George.
‘We’re just about to pass the house where he wrote it,’ she says.

And there it is on the right, still occupied by Peake’s daughter. It’s also where he wrote Gormanghast.

The highlight of the journey is La Coupee, the narrow sliver of cliff topped by a thin path – an isthmus – connecting Little Sark, where I’m staying, to Great Sark, where all the other hotels and the main ‘Avenue’ are. ‘Hold tight. I hope you have a head for heights,’ says Elaine as she takes George into a fast trot. It’s like a very small part of the Great Wall of China. A plaque marks how the railings and track surfacing is the work of German POWs during WW2.

It’s a chilly night. But when I get to my room at La Sablonnerie farmhouse hotel, I find a real coal fire burning and two hot water bottles in my bed. It’s fair to say I’ve gotten over the rough crossing.

(Uploaded in Sark’s Island Hall cafe. Laptop battery running out.)



Am using the free wifi and sofas in Guernsey’s Tourist Information Centre, where the staff are very nice indeed, while waiting for the ferry to Sark.

Another impulsive mini-holiday made in a moment of desperately wanting to get away and go somewhere, coupled with paint fumes from the flat downstairs’s major redecorating stint forcing me out – anywhere. Plus the night shift really got to me last week – not quite breaking down in tears before my colleagues, but the closest I’ve come yet. I need… something. Somewhere quiet. Without paint fumes. Or indeed, traffic fumes. Sark has a ban on cars – it’s all horsedrawn carriages and hired bicycles.

I’m also off to Gibraltar and Tangier two weeks later – booked months ago. So after that my wallet will need a holiday too. I’ll be pretty much grounded for the summer, fumes or no fumes. But it’s utterly worth it.

What I don’t want to happen is to turn into one of those people who work, then feel the need to blow all their wages on doing things that take their mind off the work. I took the night shift job partly to earn money while getting plenty of time off, but also to get me out of my spiralling nihilism and slapping me about the face with a dose of the real world. Maybe I’m still in shock from the slaps.

If I were back on the dole, chances are I’d be just as miserable and frustrated, except it’d be worse: miserable and frustrated AND penniless. Instead, here I am travelling to places I’d always dreamed of visiting if only I had a little cash.

Been meaning to go to Sark for 20 years, ever since I saw the 80s TV dramatisation of Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye, starring Derek Jacobi as the alternately angel-winged and devil-horned protagonist . Though it may be only me that remembers it. A distinctly eccentric tale, set on a distinctly eccentric island.

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