Aug 7, 2019
London is the city that looms largest in my childhood. I spent almost every summer of my youth here and have many memories about time in the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, Camden Town, and so many other places. I remember going to the theater and seeing Dustin Hoffman in the Merchant of Venice and both Starlight Express and Les Miserables with the original London casts. I remember staying in a flat several summers in a row near Michael Palin’s place on the edge of Hampstead Heath. I never saw the Monty Python member, but I did pass by the Laurel and Hardy statues he had outside his home on numerous occasions. And I remember playing in parks with my brother and enjoying British television—Doctor Who and Rowan Atkinson’s Black Adder on the BBC—and, most of all, British comic books.
My brother and I were huge fans of the fortnightly 2000 AD. When we were kids, we could get it at almost any newsstand. My parents bought us copies to keep us happy while they spent time with their friends at the local pubs. Each summer when we would stock up on as many copies as we could before we went back to Michigan. Through 2000 AD we were first introduced to writers like Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore. We also became familiar with the comic’s tradition of dystopian political critique and techno skepticism.
I was excited to introduce my son to 2000 AD when we arrived in London. I went to look for a copy in the Gatwick airport only to discover that newsstands don’t carry it anymore. When I was a child it was so ubiquitous that many of the longstanding comic book shops in London refer to it in their store names. Camden Town’s excellent shop Mega City Comics is a direct reference to 2000 AD’s disturbing vision that in the future the vast majority of humanity will crowd into a handful of urban conglomerations. But now Marvel and DC seem to have largely pushed out the independent, and political, 2000 AD. So it was to Mega City Comics that I ultimately had to go to buy a solid set of 2000 ADs. I bought a run of the most recent issues and another run of issues from the early 1990s.
On my way out of the store the clerk told me, “Many Happy Future Shocks to You.” The phrase is a reference to the short vignettes that appear throughout the comics—brief stories with surprise endings. They are creative and often push one to imagine a horrifying, totalitarian, future, as something that might be on the horizon. When I was a child, the comics usually celebrated the plucky bands of misfits and outsiders who struggled against thinly veiled illustrations of futuristic version of Thatcher’s Britain.
The clerk’s invocation of the classic phrase got me to thinking about how much London has changed since I was a kid. In many ways, the future of environmental degradation and rising totalitarianism that some of those 1980s comics warned about appears to have arrived—perhaps partially in the form of a corporate monoculture that won’t stock subversive comics. In other ways, London still feels like a familiar city in a familiar world. Pock marks from German ordnance still line the edge of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Tube is still way too hot in the summer. Double decker buses are still a really fun way to travel. A bits of Victorian, or even Roman, Britain keep popping up in unexpected places. I suppose that’s the way cities, and countries, are, the shocking future comes but often it overlays, rather than entirely replaces, whatever existed before.
Aug 5, 2019
My parents and I had dinner in the Exmouth Market with R and S, two of their oldest friends in London—people that they’ve known for forty years. There was quite a bit of storytelling, including one episode that involved R almost being thrown into a canal in Belgium. When they told the story, I thought it was from thirty years ago. Turns out it was from about five years ago—which surprised me since my parents and their friends would have been in their late sixties or early seventies then. The basic gist is that they went out for a meal in Belgium that turned out to be quite mediocre. After the meal, there was some dispute over check. During the course of it, R unwisely told the proprietor, “Your beer is shite.” I was a little unclear on exactly why he felt this was appropriate. The proprietor apparently didn’t think it was and began backing R towards the canal they were all standing near while threatening to deposit R in it. Catastrophe was averted when my Mom and S hustled R off and my father settled up with the proprietor. It is a little hard to imagine the four of them—grizzled and opinionated—getting into a significant enough dispute that someone—presumably a good thirty or forty years younger—would threaten to deposit one of them in the nearby canal.
That story was far from the most interesting one told over the course of the evening. That honor goes to one that R and S recounted about their mutual friend, the journalist and academic Henry Clother. Henry died almost twenty years ago, earning obituaries in the Guardian and elsewhere.
I have vague memories of Henry from my youth. He loved to sail, and I remember going to see the tall ships with him. I hadn’t thought of him in more than twenty years and if it wasn’t for our dinner with R and S I probably wouldn’t have thought of him ever again. He was a notable eccentric. He never married nor had kids. His closest friend was the well known BBC commentator Margaret Howard. The two of them served as each other’s journalist review companions—one accompanying the other to the theater or a restaurant or whatever when one of them had been assigned to write a review.
Henry’s greatest eccentricity might have been connected to the flat in which he lived in London (he also owned a home in Gillingham). Apparently, it was owned by a cat.
S took great relish in describing the flat, the sight of many, I can only presume, somewhat wild parties from her and my parents not quite youth (early middle age?). It was an old Victorian flat which she repeatedly labelled “grotty.” It hadn’t been remodeled since sometime in the 1880s or 1890s. The kitchen doubled as the bathroom (in Britain the toilet is where you go do your business while the bathroom is where you bathe). There was an old claw bathtub in the middle of it. When Henry had parties, or presumably when he cooked, he put some boards on top of the tub as a makeshift counter and chopped vegetables, sliced bread, and prepared the meat.
Anyway, Henry wasn’t the owner of the flat. It belonged to a cat. Some years prior one of Henry’s equally eccentric friends had died. She had been a cat lover and organized a Society for the Protection of Cat, not cats in general, cat in particular. Specifically, the purpose of the society was to protect her cat. On the occasion of her death, the Society for the Protection of Cat became the owner of her flat. Henry was allowed to live there—rent free as I understand it—provided he saw to it that the cat was fed and received its daily injection (in addition to being, the owner of a flat, the cat was also diabetic).
It is unclear to me exactly how long Henry lived in that flat as a tenant of the cat. But it sounds like a long time—quite probably much longer than the cat itself lived.