I lived in London for about six years, and for most of that time was in Highgate, one of the most beautiful and romantic parts of the metropolis. Highgate gets its name from the Bishop of London’s old hunting grounds: there used to be a high, deer-proof hedge surrounding the estate, and the bishop kept a toll-house where one of the main northward roads out of London entered his land, hence the ‘gate in the hedge’. As the village of Highgate was about a day’s ride from London, a number of inns and pubs sprang up there to accommodate travellers. Later, Highgate was associated with the highwayman Dick Turpin, whose name is still remembered in the village - it’s really a suburb of London now, but retains a ‘village’ feel partly because its development is overseen by the Highgate Society which tends to restrict too much ‘modernism’. It was and probably still is a fantastic place to live: Highgate School has existed on its site since its founding was permitted by Queen Elizabeth I in 1565, and Highgate Hill, the steep street linking Archway and Highgate village, was supposedly where Dick Whittington stood with his cat, looking back on London, before he turned round and returned to the city to become its Lord Mayor three times. There’s still a little statue of a cat looking back wistfully, halfway up the hill, from which can be seen almost the whole span of the City of London, miles away. Not only that, but the hill was also the route of the first cable car to be built in Europe, operating between 1884 and 1909.
It's a very literary part of London: one of my favourite poets, Andrew Marvell, had a house there; T. S. Eliot went to school there; playwright J. B. Priestley lived there, in a house once occupied by Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge - one of the fascinating things about living in England is this peculiar 'cross-current' phenomenon of history and culture.
Highgate is also the home of the notoriously overgrown and spooky Highgate Cemetery, where many famous people are buried, including the novelist George Eliot, the actor Sir Ralph Richardson, and probably most famously, the philosopher Karl Marx, whose huge tomb can be seen through the trees from the nearby magical Waterlow Park.
It is to the cemetery that I now turn, as it was through this part of the world that I occasionally had to return from my regular meetings with a small writers’ group, which occasionally convened at a house on the other side of the cemetery from where I lived. The cemetery is divided into eastern and western halves by an ancient road known as Swain’s Lane. Such is the geography and geology of the place that the lane cuts deep between two high stone walls, on either side of which lie the creeper-festooned graves of the dead.
Now at this time, my writing consisted of a thinly-disguised and rather dark sensual fantasy. I say ‘sensual’ rather than ‘sexual’ because there was no actual sex in it, just lots of strange imagery of which I was only partly aware but which probably communicated to the listeners in the group on some level. I mention this in order to bring up the fascinating question of how much of our writing is conscious and how much of it arises from wells within ourselves of which we know very little. I’m pretty sure that the pleasure of writing for some, if not most, writers is partly because during the act of writing they are touching upon something not analytical at all, something that could be part of either a personal unconscious mind or a collective unconscious universe, or perhaps both. While in this state of reverie, a writer is not quite dreaming, but not quite awake; the images and ideas being tapped into seem to be connected, but not usually in ways that are logically explicable. Some authors - Stephen King and J. R. R. Tolkien to mention just two - describe the process as ‘discovering something that is already there’, rather than simply creating something themselves. That perennial annoying question of the non-writer to the writer, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’, is probably best answered by ‘I haven’t the faintest clue’ - because the process is of necessity mysterious and inimitable by a machine or a fully rational and conscious mind. Analytical powers can produce essays and treatises and works of non-fiction; but something else produces fiction.
In these meetings of this select group (most of whom are still writing to this day, by the way) we would, like many such groups, open up our briefcases and bags and pull out our latest typed manuscripts, then move around the group and listen to each other's works being read aloud. All of the stuff I heard, from memory (it was a long time ago) was good. Some extracts were obscure - afterwards, during the short and usually embarrassing and tense feedback sessions, I would ask for clarification, hopefully in such a way that wasn’t utterly devastating to the writer concerned. Some stories were funny; others were cringingly awkward, like mine, because I felt that parts of the writer’s unconscious were ‘poking through’ too obviously, and all I could do was sit and smile politely, as they sat and smiled while the bones of my dark desires also intruded into the evening air.
It’s a strange process, being in such a group: intensely valuable, because here are the living Holy Grails that writers quest after, actual readers, captive and sitting and listening; but also emotionally excruciating, because there is no distance between your soul, as exposed in your work, and the instant responses of those readers.
After one such agonising session, then, I made my way up the dark and lonely Swain’s Lane, lit by a single Victorian lamppost, as silent and as cold as the graves in the east and west cemeteries, which I soon calculated were, due to the levels of soil on either side, at least as high as my head as I walked along the cutting of the lane. The slightest sound - a breeze-blown leaf or a bird in the bushes on the other side of the wall, or even the echo of one’s own footsteps against those ancient walls - was enough to ice-pick one’s spine with primal terror. But there was nowhere to run - the dead were on either side, the lane ran up and down into shadows. Briefly, for perhaps a dozen paces, one was outside the century, with no sign visual or auditory, that the modern world existed at all. One’s footsteps marked the passage of time in an earlier, haunted epoch. Then, slowly, the modern world reappeared as the lane crested the hill. Cars; homes with lights; perhaps even other human beings - the journey through the spirit world was done.
And when we close a book, a journey is done too. We’re never quite sure where we’ve been, but we know with certainty when we’re back.