Letter from London: ‘Republic of North London’

Rooftop man, North London. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

It is interesting what we remember from our schooldays. It is interesting what we forget. I had forgotten how much I liked German writer Hermann Hesse. He had a rebellious youth. I am sure I would have liked that about him. Until 1893, at the age of sixteen, he was forever being transferred from one school to another due to ‘bad behaviour’. Though well-liked as a pupil, for me he was probably the victim of heightened, life-affirming curiosity, compensating perhaps for inadequately good schooling. In Hesse’s books, he kept faith with these strong feelings of adolescence, which is perhaps why his work can still ring true today. Last week, I was thinking about Hesse while reading Barry Stewart Hunter’s new book ‘Republic of North London’. It was not that Hunter reminded me of Hesse. They are very different. It was more that Hunter was so obviously also keeping faith with something, a resolve towards renewal.

Hunter is an Aden-born Scottish writer living here in the capital who early on in ‘Republic of North London’ describes June as ‘that ravishing month when everything seems right with the world, and summer must be seized with both hands or forfeited entire.’ I knew exactly what he meant by that. I shared several Junes with Hunter at school in Scotland, though cannot claim to have known him especially well. A leafy month, with summer holidays fast approaching, June was always when the best poetry was written. Hunter was himself poetic, thoughtful, a few years older than me. He had two fantastic brothers, and was serious but never unapproachable. I wondered reading his latest book last week if he had shared with me back then my strong but unhelpful need to break free from school, even if in my case it was a disquietude probably largely borne out of having no parents, than simply over-restrictive rules. Normally in the autocratic Scottish schools of the day, it was pupils blamed for everything. Personally, I blamed the problem in part on an ungiving headmaster in desert boots from a family of spies, who was so unreadably fixed on protecting the reputation of the school, that any pastoral care was an admission of defeat, and therefore pushed aside.

This now late headmaster was cited last week in a major Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry accusing him of writing a reference in which he described a known serial child abuser on his teaching staff as exceptional, enterprising and hardworking, ignoring a long history of complaints: ‘The reference wholly failed to take the opportunity to protect children from him in the future,’ it stated. And it didn’t. I know this for a fact as a subsequent new pupil of this man with the good reference, taught later by him in the south of England, said he had not changed at all. Though bizarrely less snobbish than their English counterparts, what I also realise in retrospect about these boarding schools north of the border is that back then they were fearfully conformist, dens of petty fiefdoms, like part of Freud’s death instinct, in which a kind of conformism spiral, or repetition compulsion, denotes the beginning of the end. This is quite the opposite of what I have read described as Eros, an attractive tendency for survival, sex, breeding, and lots of other creative drives. It was so bad at times at school that refuge was often found only in friendship, or in that obliquely aforementioned extracurricular writing. I know the late Alexander Cockburn of CounterPunch attended a school not unlike ours in Scotland — we played sport with his school regularly — before finding himself in the States. Respectfully, I don’t know how it was for Alexander Cockburn at school, but I suspect people go one of two ways after such places — either towards the radical or the institutional. When it came to my move to the States, definitely to find myself, Barry Stewart Hunter, as I recall, already in the radical camp, was an outsider with a camera about to edit a photography magazine.

The first of Hunter’s brand new three novellas neatly stitching together the ambitiously written ‘Republic of North London’ is ‘The Blood Diaries’. This is where ‘at a top university’ we enter the well-read universe of frustrated creative writing teacher Donald Donaldson. He is like a man searching for compassion in a pitch black cave. His is a seeping mortality. I am no literary critic — and do not wish to give the game away too much here — but Hunter’s health references smack of the real world. I know this from personal experience. Elsewhere, we meet wife Tamara, a long-headed lawyer who dismissively refers to her husband’s students as ‘wannabe Woolfs and fledgling Forsters’. But it is towards transition-troubled son Henry, fifteen, we must reserve our greater benevolence. (There is also diving enthusiast young daughter Alice, nine, but we are somehow reassured by her.) Henry is a sweet figure wrapped in a brittle hell. You can sense the brutality of those who forget that a human being already made to feel wretched about themselves is always within such a life story. He is abused by the world. There is a tender moment when Henry writes in his diary that his father gifted him a Conrad novel for his birthday. (As it happens, I recall Hunter liking ‘The Shadow Line’.) Henry writes: ‘“I think part of the thing with his Conrad birthday gift lay elsewhere — he wanted me to be more of a man. I don’t know how to help him with that.’” I love that last line: ‘I don’t know how to help him with that.’ As conscious light relief, there is an amusing later moment when during a sixties theme party, Tamara, whom Donald suspects sleeping with one of his star students, another spherule of surprise, wonders out loud if she is witnessing a real life physical rendition of the cover of Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’: ‘But wasn’t that the seventies?’ her legal brain ticks.

The fact Hunter gets right inside the dynamics of this family living in a terraced house in Finsbury Park in North London shows to me what great observational and investigative powers he must have. There is not a single jarring or ‘untrue’ moment. It is seamlessly told. As an aside, it is a tricky business writing about the work of someone known from schooldays, not least because there is a risk of being incorrectly seen as over-partisan, but when I finished this, I was authentically inspired, though already a fan of Hunter from his high-reaching novel ‘Aden’. (He has also written ‘Something You Once Told Me’, ‘Two Summers of Billy Morton’, and ‘The Swimming of the Deer’.) My reaction to this was that I must write about it, regardless of knowing the writer. It even has ‘London’ in its title, for goodness sake: a perfect fit for this column of sorts. Hunter today lives in the far reaches of the Republic of North London with his talented partner Rob. Hunter is also a screenwriter, and they do say novellas, or long short stories, make better films than novels — ‘All About Eve’, ‘Brokeback Mountain’, ‘Rear Window’, ‘Don’t Look Now’, ‘Heart of Darkness’ (‘Apocalypse Now’). I could easily envisage ‘The Blood Diaries’ played out on our screens, even though we would miss the cosy intelligence of Hunter’s actual prose. A screen adaptation would require greater sensitivity than an over-faddish director could provide but Hunter’s natural flow of speech would ensure great dialogue. The structure is already perfect.

Nor is Hunter ever parochial: there must be a lot to be said for being born by the Red Sea. Indeed, the work in general for me is about the whole big cosmic mess we are all in — together — called life. This particular book is not about North London, per se. North London, for the record, is a very particular part of the city’s imagination, in many ways a perfect metaphor for Hunter, especially as it is a place often referenced unflatteringly by people whom you would be tempted to consider a little frightened of life — Jeremy Corbyn for instance was regularly mocked for simply living in north London. Regardless of what opponents thought of his politics, where he lived hardly mattered. Come to think of it, how an area with just under one and a half million people, characterfully made up of the boroughs of Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey, Islington and Westminster, can strike such fear in people, is anyone’s guess. I once interviewed a smart Brit in Afghanistan who thought he was being clever by referencing North London, and I remember thinking at the time that military casualties for the UK were far heavier than expected, with particularly vigorous firefights further south in Musa Qala and Sangin, indeed the entire war aim was off kilter, and yet there was I, listening to negativity about ‘North London’.

The second of Hunter’s three novellas is ‘My Benidorm Summer’, an altogether different, less peopled, more intense, rich heart of the matter type of tale, but told with a kind of knowing innocence. It is a novella unafraid to sing. Reading it for me was like switching from metropolitan rage to self-imposed welcome isolation, a place where ‘character’ went without saying, and exploration was what wakes us up in the morning. There was nothing North London about this whatsoever, except for the vagaries in my mind of all those roads leading to Scotland, which for those of us who used to hitch regularly to Edinburgh from the start of the motorway at Hendon just outside North London, perhaps even Hunter himself, when the exact same age as the narrator, seemed oddly familiar. It actually begins with our narrator telling us his Scottish mother was an alcoholic. This is something delivered to us straight — in a way that makes us feel we and the writer are as one on this, even if we are not. Quietly, he improves us under the cover of literature. ‘If this is to be a British tale,’ our narrator warns, ‘driven by trademark arrogance and false modesty operating together in restive harmony, it should at least be fair to all concerned.’ With this he has us by the brain. For some reason, stepping right out of my self-proclaimed remit here, it makes me think that whenever people say there is no money in writing, they are not only setting out opposing views in a way, but are often unhappy themselves. For me, however unwittingly, Hunter reminds us that writing, like painting or sculpture or music, can be for its creator made out of profound necessity. You can always tell when it is. It is like when the orchestra conductor character in the film ‘Tar’ played by Cate Blanchett says: ‘There’s no glory for a robot, Eliot. Do your own thing!’ Yes, better to go out in a blaze of beautiful words and literary conceit than with a poison pill of resentment in our mouths. Hunter has the courage of his convictions. He is doing his thing. I bet he has fields of reasonable summers left in his psyche for us all. What I think I cherished most about ‘My Benidorm Summer’ was that at its heart lay a freedom, a warm and vibrant sense of emancipation. Like the narrator himself, we surprise ourselves by finishing it with the sun on our backs.

‘Under the Bridge at Midnight, the last of the three novellas, is set in an imagined ‘fledgling twenty-second century’ London full of anguish and injustice. Whatever the protracted warmth trawled in the Benidorm novella, we are now crammed stiffly into an ice-box. We do not fit. This is a time for honesty over pleasure, with a chilling reference to earlier raids on ‘garbage cans heavy with microprocessors and semiconductors’. Our narrator is under 30. He is busy destroying documents, ones already committed to memory, like the novels in ‘Fahrenheit 451’, which is cleverly referenced, as if anticipating the comparison, as ‘old science fiction’. (Later he says fetchingly: ‘We are bookless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves.’) You can sense a vigilant code of conduct here, real political force. Hunter is not messing about with us. When we learn our narrator was a spy, we don’t like the character any the more or any the less. State murder here in this novella is a matter of fact. The concept of people fleeing persecution feels alarmingly present tense. In all, Hunter has conjured up for us in ‘Under the Bridge at Midnight’ a kind of heavy-duty ambivalence, which is arguably the principal breeding ground for authoritarianism, be it a school in the past or a capital city like London in the future. In today’s world, it is near-future dystopian novels or novellas which probably speak best to us about where we are now in human and social interaction. Hunter keeps his story moving at all times, racing it forward to stave off dwindling time itself. He is the Bob Fosse of novellas: ‘I had to save my own skin, and take certain others with me on that self-interested trip,’ declares the narrator at one point. It may seem strange but I felt nervous reading this. It was only with eventual sight of ‘the ancient kingdom of Fife’ that I was able to remember a better world. (At our school, pupils would stare quizzically across the Firth of Forth at Fife as if that was another freedom to conjure with.) ‘What will you do now?’ our narrator is asked, sensing the tale’s ending. ‘Resist better,’ he says. Those of us who feel dissatisfied with the world today have an uncomfortable knowledge of where he is coming from here. Dear Keats even gets a mention, and we learn something further here which I won’t give away. ‘Under the Bridge at Midnight’ is dedicated at the end to those who perished in the Nazi death camps ‘and to those who survived’. It is a militant novella.

I may have said this before but someone once said to me that just to have a film made is an achievement, regardless of what it is like. I don’t know if similar rules apply to literature, but ‘Republic of North London’ is both important and an achievement. There is a feeling of fulfilment here, of triumph even. I don’t know what Hunter wanted to create. I have never sat down and discussed this book with him. (He doesn’t even know I am writing about it.) I have no idea what he promised himself that he would write. But I do feel sure his requirements and conditions if they did exist have been met. I am also remembering that whenever I would see Hunter at school, he always seemed to be in a hurry. Never in a neurotic way, always with curious panache. He would angle his head, maybe emit a quick hello, but soon was off down the hall again, his silhouette growing smaller by the second before disappearing altogether. I wonder now if this was not in fact some kind of natural inhibitedness, or proof, if you like, of a rich interior life, the type which every writer has or craves. Reading this was like catching Hunter on the way back down the hall again, seriously on top of his game, the product of honoured restlessness, good as new.

Peter Bach lives in London.