How deeply does the inner life reside I now wonder, when thinking of a caf regular who, through a couple of coincidences, and a degree of curiosity on my part, became a certain type of mentor? A fellow regular, and a friend of mine, nicknamed him Dr Death, and the doctor carried with him not only a black overcoat that on a warm day he held over his arm, but also a mood that no amount of sunlight could brighten. He had an air that seemed asphyxiated by pain and age, and a diet that appeared based chiefly on fluids. I don't think I ever saw him eat solids on all the occasions that I half observed his behaviour; and his general food and drink allowance consisted of coffee, fresh orange and soups. Whenever someone forgot, and bread accompanied the soup, he would wrap it up in a paper napkin and feed it to the pigeons when he would go outside and smoke a cigarette.
He was not a tall man, but he nevertheless hunched slightly, and though at the time I guessed he was probably not much more than fifty, he wore his age as badly as he wore his clothes. Though like many people who seemed dispossessed and isolated, he made an effort towards smartness - usually wearing a black suit and a white shirt buttoned up at the collar but with no tie - the suits looked either second-hand or well worn, and the shirts were so off white they seemed jaundiced.
I probably first saw him in the caf about three years ago and, overhearing conversations he would often try and have with various customers, I worked out he had come from somewhere in England, or perhaps a Scot who had spent many years there. His voice wasn't so much tight as contorted, as though his accent was trying to unravel itself and find the appropriate intonation and enunciation for the proclamations he would often make. All it seemed to require was for his eye to catch a stranger's stray gaze and he would open with a question or two that was never it seemed a precursor to a dialogue but the opportunity for a monologue. As he talked about various subjects that I could never make out, so I would notice initial curiosity on the other person's face give way to frustration, bemusement and irritation, even exasperation. They would pull themselves out of the situation like someone yanking on a coat that was stuck in a door, as he tenaciously offered them another word of wisdom undiluted by the enquiries of his apparent interlocutor. I never allowed him to catch my eye, and at that time I sometimes wondered whether there was an implicit agreement that since I was a caf regular he wouldn't disturb me as I sat reading, or whether he assumed caf regulars were of no interest because they were too like him. That we were too keenly lonely and in need of alleviating it with people who were likely to be less so as they passed through a caf to somewhere more interesting. For regulars like myself, and I suppose also for Mark who neverthless gave him the moniker of Dr Death after conversing him with him a long time ago, the two cafes we frequented, The Red Caf and The Alabaster, both near each other, were less way stations than terminals. They were places central to our day and not peripheral to it, and perhaps Dr Death realized this as he saw in the pair of us an atmosphere that resembled his own terminal decline.
It was probably true that for both Mark and I the cafes were important places in our lives, if for quite different reasons. I taught on average six hours a week adult education classes in architecture, earning around nine thousand pounds a year. I owned a studio flat I bought cheaply a few years ago in a pleasant part of town, after my mother had died and left me her ex-council flat, which I promptly sold. I hadn't talked to my father in many years. The bills for the flat were small and so I had around eight thousand pounds a year, minus a couple of hundred on tax, to spend as I wished. It was a small sum undeniably, but enough to live on as I didn't drink, would eat well but economically, and my one luxury was occasional travel, visiting cities whose architecture I tried to match to the image I had in my mind before going. My flat was too small to have much of a library, and so in the one room that I had apart from a shower room with a toilet and sink, and a kitchen with space to cook but no space to eat, I had seven, four feet shelves above my desk. This was full of books that though I regarded as indispensable, if I occasionally bought a new one I would reluctantly dispense with one of them. Most of the time, the books I read came from the city library, and any passages of great interest I would photocopy. I suppose I had ambitions to write on the subject, but could never quite find my way in to saying anything interesting about architecture that someone hadn't already articulated.
Mark made a living as a novelist and an editor; though he himself wasn't well-known, a couple of the books were very successful, and close to airport novels, and with the money he had earned from them over the last four years, and the steady income he got from editing, he was able to call himself what for many years he wanted to call himself: a professional writer.
During those three years I never knew how Dr Death survived, and assumed that he was either unemployed or getting disability benefit; that some years before he worked in London at a taxing job and ever since relied on state help. Alternatively, I thought it possible that he had a private income, that his parents had left him perhaps a house and a sum of money. What I didn't expect was that he might have been a wealthy man with an income entirely self-earned, and earned on the basis of his abilities as an interesting mind.
It was several months ago in The Alabaster as I was sitting one afternoon at a table outside when I noticed Dr Death coming towards the caf with a woman half his age and she looked like she was listening to him with at least a hint of curiosity. As they came and sat at the table next to mine I could hear snatches of the conversation, and I say only part of the conversation because Dr Death would speak in a low, whiny voice that would allow you to catch chiefly vowels and leave one to work out roughly what consonants were in between. I couldn't really say for certain whether she was interested, but she seemed attentive, and even occasionally would take a few notes when he would say she should take a name down. I only half managed to make out any of the names he proposed, and so at the time I couldn't say for sure that they were actually and generally talking about literature, and indeed a couple of writers I think he mentioned were writers I greatly admired. As I sat for a couple of hours reading a book on Gaudi; so I would occasionally wonder why she was still in conversation with him. It was true it was a warm day, and it was true the caf was a sunspot in the mid-afternoon, and it was also true that there was a gentle breeze that made sitting there a pleasure, but would these be reasons enough to sit and listen to Dr Death? As it approached four thirty, I recalled I had arranged to meet a friend for a film on the other side of town at five, so I left with the enigma unsolved.
Over the next few weeks I would see him come into the Alabaster, or the Red Caf, and as usual we didn't acknowledge each other, even though I would have liked to ask him whether he had actually talked about a couple of writers I liked, and why an attractive, apparently sympathetic and potentially interesting young woman had been talking to him. The next time I saw Mark I mentioned that I had seen the good doctor in the company of a much younger woman, and that he seemed to have held the woman's attention for a couple of hours. When I said she had even taken down notes, he looked at me as though Dr Death had suddenly been given not so much a new, but a lease of life. Now generally Mark was both crueller and more curious than I happened to be, and one reason why he coined the moniker was in a moment of intense irritation after once stupidly allowing himself to shoot the breeze with the man and realized he had more obviously shot himself in the foot. For an hour Dr Death wouldn't leave him alone, and Mark realized he had a chronophage to deal with: someone who will happily waste your time assuming you have nothing better to do with it than they have with theirs. As Mark wanted to get back to editing the final passages of a book, to meet a deadline the following day, so he said he would happily have ruined his best jacket yanking it out of this particular door. Dr Death, he thought, after finally managing to do so; thinking that people who can so cheerfully rob you of your time are insidious grim reapers.
He assumed it must have been a daughter feeling guilty who had decided to get in touch with her father, but when I mentioned the note taking he reckoned maybe she was interviewing caf regulars. I thought that unlikely; she had been talking to him for well over an hour: this would have been a very in-depth article. And it wasn't as though she looked like she was trying to get away either. Dr Death had moved from being a bore to if not a mystery at least someone capable of generating the anomalous.
Over the next couple of weeks I watched him more attentively as he came and sat drinking his orange juice or supping on his soup, or slowly sipping his coffee. In all the time I had observed his behaviour, ever since first seeing him, he never read even so much as a newspaper let alone a book, and I always assumed reading matter would have distracted him from the task to hand - to waylay a stranger. But was that really the case; or was he indeed as interested in observing the behaviour of others as quagmiring them in discussion? I noticed as I observed him with more scrutiny and less prejudice than before that he was attentive to much more than the person he might next talk to, and I also noticed that he would often look at what people were eating, what they were reading and what they were wearing.
The next time I saw Mark I said to him that I believed Dr Death had more life in him than we assumed, and that he might actually be almost interesting. I said I thought he might be a better observer than either of us, and maybe we assumed he was hopelessly inattentive to events around him because he seemed so incapable of listening to others. Was our assumption that he wasn't much of an observer saying more about our own prejudices than our friend's inadequacies? Mark wondered whether I was crediting him with qualities he didn't possess but that I had projected upon him, and while I was tempted by the flattering notion that whatever was interesting about Dr Death said more about me than him, I wasn't so sure. I mused over whether the modest social skills that Mark and I possessed could more aptly be described as skilfully learned social prejudices that passed for normal behaviour. How many other people who tried to escape from his conversation were equally social adequates but observationally limited?
It was around that time when I went for a few days to Paris. As usual when I visited a city I wouldn't avoid the great sights, but I wouldn't search them out either, and one of the projects I had long thought about, and was close to teaching, and would eventually like to write a book on, was 'hidden architecture' - the parts of a city that were not ostensibly architectural, but where creative thought had gone into something. These would often be cafes, small gallery spaces, second-hand bookshops, ad hoc cinemas, vintage clothes stores. I recall one basement caf in Mostar in Bosnia that utilised a bombed out building; in San Cristobal in Mexico a little caf also somehow managed to create enough space for a two screen cinema, in Kas in Turkey, a caf courtyard was turned into such an intimate space you had to remind yourself you were outside.
There was one place in the area of Oberkampf where people had started a new photographic magazine, and their loft conversion was both magazine office and exhibition space. In a place near the Canal St Martin, a caf seemed a cross between a drop-in centre and a hippie hang-out as they sold food and teas and coffees at half the rate of most places in Paris. It wasn't as though I wanted to avoid the major sights of the city; more that in seeing them I had nothing to add. They were so established as buildings, so petrified in the past and gawped at in the present, that they gave me little of the sense of the wellbeing passing a make-shift caf or cinema provided. It was these types of places that I wanted to write about, but didn't quite know how.
Yet even in the centre of Paris I found cafes and bookshops that gave me a good feeling, and it was in one of them that I came across books by none other than our friend Dr Death. It came about when I was asked by the owner of one of the bookshops where I was from and I said Edinburgh, and he mentioned that he knew a number of writers in the city, and that years ago, when the shop made rather more money than it did now, he would have Scottish and Canadian writers coming over for a week long festival. He was from Nova Scotia, he said, and so he called the festival New Scotland/Old Scotland, and named some writers I had heard of and others that were unfamiliar to me. We have a few books from a couple of guys I used to quite like, he said, though they were often utter bores to be around. As I impulsively asked if he happened to have any pictures of the authors, he passed over some of the books and I looked at the sleeves and noticed on one of them was a picture of what was clearly a younger version of Dr Death - or to give him his real name, David Pearce, a Scotsman with a strange accent that seemed more English than Scottish, the book owner said: nasally and cawing.. He was one of the most interminable figures he had ever met, the book-owner insisted, but he used to enjoy reading his work.
He had three of Pearce's books, and believed they may have been the only ones Pearce ever published, and all within a six year period in the early to mid-eighties. Two were novels and the third was an essay collection. As I bought them all, and as I read them in my remaining days in Paris, I was fascinated by their ability to touch upon the sort of real problems that I so wanted to cover in my own work and my own teaching. One of the novels was about squatters in early eighties London, some of them working on building sites; others busking, still others working on small magazines. What surprised me in this novel was how Pearce would bring out the details in living. He would describe each person's living space; how one had painted the walls of his room bright yellow and picked up a bright red settee, blue chairs, and a rug that combined the three colours. Another found ornaments almost for nothing in antique shops and his room looked liked a Turkish teahouse. He had stripped the floors and varnished them a dark brown, and indeed would often invite everybody into his room for tea. A third person who had an attic flat, made it look like an artist's garret, where he had a thousand books lining the walls, with the shelves angled to take into account the sloping roof. Each room in the squat offered a distinctive style, and Pearce said this was a sort of politicization of interior space at a time when Thatcher wanted everybody to spend on the expensive and the new. He mentioned how they published a small magazine called The Political Interior, and the purpose of the mag was to get people to spend as little as possible and reflect their own subjectivity as much as they could. It was a post-punk ethos trying to counter the sort of style magazines that were becoming popular at the time. At the back of the monthly magazine they listed all the places that had recently become squattable. As I read it I wondered whether it was really a novel, or a sort of fictionalised manifesto for living, and then found myself wondering why more novels weren't exactly that. The book often relied on chance and coincidence more than plot logic, and I'm sure some critics would have attacked it for its lack of apparent craft.
Indeed in one of the essays in the non-fiction collection, Pearce argued for a fiction that was neither realism nor fantasy, neither based on day to day reality a la naturalism, nor strong authorial subjectivity; that we should instead create the sort of characters who might not be common, but in their fictional representation may become more so. He insisted advertising created fictional selves that it turned into reality, so why shouldn't fiction do the same, but without the greed of capitalism and consumerism? All three works were short, and I finished the second novel in one day, not long before I was due to return to Edinburgh. The flight wasn't until eight in the evening, and so in the early afternoon I returned to the book-shop and said to the owner I'd read all three of Pearce's books in the last three or four days and found them all invigorating. He agreed, though he admitted he hadn't read them in years, and wondered whether he never did re-read them because he found Pearce himself such an uninteresting human being. As he asked me to pull up a stool that was usually used for standing on to reach the higher shelves, and poured me a coffee from the pot that was constantly sitting there for the customers to help themselves to, so he tried to explain why he believed Pearce's writing was so interesting and yet his personality so dull.
He explained that Pearce possessed an other-worldly air that never quite engaged with people, and that he wanted a revolutionary consciousness without quite showing an interest in the individuals who would bring it into being. It was the case, the book shop owner said, that Pearce had the ability to write characters on the page, yet never quite to engage with others in social situations. It was as though he had the capacity to project onto a person yet not quite extract anything interesting from them. I asked him what he meant exactly, and he said that Pearce was perceptive rather than empathic. In other words he couldn't share anybody's thoughts or feelings, but he could guess quite astutely what made someone function. For example, the bookshop owner said, Pearce once pronounced that the owner bought a second-hand bookshop because he wanted to be close to art without creating it, and supposed that the owner's relationship with life could be a bit like that. Very vicarious, Pearce said, cruelly drawing out the word vicarious, but at the same time offering it with the cruelty of self-deprecation. In other words, the bookshop owner believed, Pearce could observe in others aspects of himself, and look at these attributes both astutely and coldly. It is this characteristic that makes his work so fascinating, yet nobody liked him, nobody wanted to help him, and this is why there are far less gifted writers than Pearce making a comfortable living, while, he assumed, Pearce can barely get published.
When I returned to Edinburgh I arranged to meet Mark in the Red Caf, and explained that Dr Death was a writer just like him, and for a brief period of time quite a successful one. Maybe, I mused, that day when I saw him talking to a young woman, it was because he was preparing to publish a new book. Mark looked sceptically at me and wondered whether I was really talking about the same man, and it was then that I took out a copy of the collection of essays with a picture of him on the sleeve. Mark said it was clearly him, and noted that it looked like he might even be wearing the very shirt and suit that we would often see him in now. The shirt looked white in the picture; the suit newer and the hair dark brown as opposed to grey, but Dr Death was David Pearce.
Over the next few months Pearce rarely came into the Red Caf or The Alabaster, and I would occasionally wonder what had happened to him. He could of course have moved away, or as readily have passed away, but it was a few months after returning from Paris, while I was sitting reading in The Alabaster, when Mark came in with a copy of a new novel by Pearce. He said the night before he was walking past Blackwell's at around quarter to seven and he noticed in the window that there was going to be a reading by David Pearce at seven. He had phoned me but my mobile was switched off, so he went on his own. There were about fifty people there, and all the seats were filled, and Pearce was typically dull in his introduction, and not much more interesting in the brief Q and A, but the writing was he had to confess sharp and insightful - even painfully so he said as he passed the book over to me at a particular page that I proceeded to read.
It was the beginning of chapter three, and the narrator was sitting in a cafe observing the behaviour of one regular that was of course a synthesis of Mark and me. As the narrator, who happened to be unemployed and recently released from a mental home, offered his observations on this figure whom he would regularly see in the caf, and who would always ignore the narrator's glances in his direction, so he accurately captured numerous traits and gestures that Mark or I possessed. I would have a way of tilting my head at a certain angle that no one had ever noticed, or certainly never before commented upon; Mark would surreptitiously look at women with his head tilted upward slightly as though meditating on an elevated thought, though actually following a lowly instinct. Throughout the chapter there were numerous astute sentences nailing our personalities on the page, and as Mark went off to get himself a coffee, I read through the whole chapter. What was especially uncanny was that Pearce had not only caught a few superficial traits; he had also managed to address a few of the pressing questions I had asked myself about doing more than teaching a few hours a week and dithering over the writing of a book. The narrator proposed the caf regular was someone who thought life had to be lived and not observed; but was someone who spent most of his time neither living nor observing.
When Mark came back he asked what I thought of it. I said I didn't yet know; I reckoned I should read the rest. He said I needn't bother - except for the last few pages. He had read the whole book the previous evening, and it wasn't until just before the end that the caf regular came back into the story. I said I wanted to read through it nevertheless, and as it was, like his other novels, a slim tome, I finished the entire thing in three hours. As I was approaching the end of the book, and as I was reading through the pages that once again concerned basically Mark and me, Dr Death himself walked into the caf. He was as usual wearing his faded, dark suit and his yellowing shirt, and had his coat over his forearm. I didn't know whether to look up at him or down at the book where his words were cruelly imprinting themselves on my strangely and hopefully momentarily fragile self, and as I looked up to see whether Mark had seen him come in, I noticed Mark must have left some time ago.
Pearce came over and asked if he could sit at my table, a large, round table that would seat up to eight, but where I was sitting alone, and I said that would be fine, as he put his coat on the chair and went off to order his drink. By the time he had returned I had finished the last pages and put the book in my bag, and prepared to get up to leave. He said that he noticed the book I was reading and asked me what I thought of it. I told him I believed it was interesting; that the writer had successfully written a novel in the first person with no dialogue, no interaction. He asked me whether I thought that was a valid approach. I said I wasn't sure, but I found it readable, believed it had its own truths to offer. Pearce in his strangulated way, wondered whether that was the very point of certain books; they didn't try and recreate the social world, but imagined a very private space within the world. Now it wasn't as if the caf figure he created out of Mark and I was an especially cruel portrait, nor even caricatured. It was more that it was observant, that he had drawn out of us characteristics we probably hid even from ourselves, and Pearce ignored the ones we would project out onto the world. From Mark I think he caught a sort of underlying social violence that in moments of despair would sometimes boomerang back at his own person. The caf regular was someone with a caustic turn of phrase who would frequently feel the weight of his own wit turn against him. Mark may have been lightly amusing in commenting on others as he believed life was basically a biological farce, with inner motivations, the soul and meaning all of little final significance, but this skill could sometimes lead to a despair of the meaningless, where life was no longer humorouslywithout point, but despairingly so. I knew from Mark's eyes that there was not much humour in them; that much of the comedy lay in his use of language, and perhaps that is what Pearce noticed also.
What Pearce saw in me, I suppose, was a person afraid of the world, someone who read in cafes as though at the same time willing to be social but afraid of too much engagement. He also noted that I was keen to acknowledge certain cafe habitus and not others. The narrator noticed this seemed predicated on what people wore, which in turn could have been based on what people did. The character was someone who ignored those who wore clothes that looked not so much second-hand as hand-me-down, and most of the people the character knew in the cafs were obviously employed as writers, teachers, artists - the sort of professional people who made his own precarious employment status look more stable.
It wasn't that what Pearce said was always valid, but these were thoughts I had certainly entertained about myself, and while thinking them through assumed while they contained half-truths on a vulnerable day, they were still half-truths that belonged to me alone. To have one's own worst-case scenario acknowledged by another in the pages of a book is to turn from bone to glass in a couple of hours, and yet over the following weeks, and then the next few months, I became more steel than bone. It was as if Pearce had recognized me, where most of the other people I knew, merely acknowledged me as I acknowledged them. Most of us seem mutually to support each other without enquiring too much into each other's psyches, assuming it seemed that we were the sum total of our social engagements, and these, while mutually aggrandizing, were hopelessly inadequate in helping us understand ourselves or those around us.
For a while I stopped going to The Red Caf and The Alabaster, and after a month I went travelling for three months as I determined to produce a book. I went to countries where I never spoke the language or spoke it very poorly: I went to some countries I had been to before; others that were new to me. I went Germany, through the Balkans, to Greece and to Turkey. And then got a flight to the South of Spain and worked my way back up through to Paris. I hardly spoke to anybody in the entire time I was away, but I tried to read people's gestures, tried to make sense of the architecture of their everyday lives as well as the buildings that housed them, that they prayed in, that they drank and ate in. What I've produced is no more than a hypothetical work, a project that proposes certain ideas about people whom I barely conversed with in places where I spent no more than a few days. Maybe it is a work of immense arrogance, but I can at least say it came out of a place of extreme fragility. It helped make me strong, but that doesn't mean the work isn't weak. I may one day publish it; maybe all I'll do is find a way of making Dr Death aware of its presence. He has certainly, in various indirect ways, made me more than aware of his.
© Tony McKibbin