You may be certain of meeting him in Liverpool, on most afternoons between the Penny Lane junction and the bordered up Christmas Tree shop, the word 'WREATHS' peeling from its boards. Walking with his head bowed. Dodging puddles on the uneven paving. Splashed by those in the road. Towards the Oxfam shop. A daily magnet for his part-time bibliophilia. He'd even acquired an eighteenth century Milton there. But more to the point, he's hoping for the only operation that he credits chance with creating in his life (?) – that of being able to obtain once more some of the worst novels he's ever read. He gave his copies away years ago.
The attraction is the same as that of watching a one star film late night on TV. It never seems to have a title, some girl's name. The scenery trembles. The plot creaks. A plaster on the hero's left temple becomes a plaster on his right! The dialogue clogs. The actors corpse. An artifact ever more artful the more artless it becomes. Its mechanism foregrounds the artifice with each successive disaster, sabotages its emotive onslaught, film's propaganda for the agitation of fixed subjectivities. Even Thelma, watching this one, couldn't weep into her gloves, alone at a matinee showing at the London Road Odeon.
But even the re-discovery of the kitsch sensationalism of Constantine Fitzgibbon's book When the Kissing Had to Stop cannot erase the memory of the most inane (and therefore most valuable) of these productions. It is by Andrew Brighton, whom he had known on and off in Norwich. Published in the 1970s by Octopus Press of Swaffam, and set in contemporary Norwich, it traces a thinly-disguised Brighton's obsession with a woman he calls Natalia. She gives her name to the book. Though perhaps it is more accurate to say she has her name taken away by it.
Although he's not read it for years, he's certain that his memory's accurate.
It opens with an account of Natalia's role as regional muse. At a conference of thirties poets at the University, David Gascoyne, chaperoned by his wife, comments how much Natalia resembles Alice. William Empson pockets his teeth and then bows before her, Chinese style. Stephen Spender bores her to tears (literally, she sobs!) detailing the plot of a play he is writing about Hitler!
Jeff Nuttall belches at her before his poetry reading, shifts his gut with his belt, calls her a 'bit of Norfolk rough', which amuses her no end.
Malcolm Bradbury coaxes his latest literary élite to develop their obsessions, their USP, in the oak panelled snug of The Maid's Head. But their true obsession is the inspiration they detect in Natalia's wild but evasive eyes. It is impossible that Natalia does not attract a drunk to their table. Bradbury – sensing a media 'incident' – feigns invisibility. His famous bray fades. 'Brighton', the dullest of the students, tells the drunk that he has no right to breathe contaminants over the fragile unfurling of Natalia's petal-like genius. Adding, in case that doesn't work, 'Piss off!' The drunk shuffles away, muttering.
This one convincing scene in the entire 'novel' marks the beginning of the doomed relationship between the neurotic Brighton and the psychotic Natalia. They pass early evenings of quiet desperation in the Plasterers, watching endless sheets of summer rain through the open door. They meet, as though by accident, on Castle Mount, picking out the coloured awnings of market stalls below, beyond the sandy façade of St Peter Mancroft – where they once attended a concert of Cage's prepared piano music, which they disrupted by unprepared surrealist dancing. They arrange tearful rendez-vous at Cow Tower and other carious remains of the city wall, which either of them breaks at will. They push against the football crowd at Carrow as it pours over the swing bridge to taste 'the surging tide of humanity'.
This social, almost-political, remark only serves to contrast with the pervasive post-adolescent surrealism that the characters have pieced together from Athena posters, Thames and Hudson illustrateds and New Apocalypse verse. He writes: 'The lemon teardrops of Loplop drip on Lennon's lap'; words in his journal punctuated by Natalia's amateurish doodles (the sort found on any pad left long enough by a telephone): a distended tear depends from a schematic avian shape.
Finally Natalia is driven insane by the sheer parochialism of it all. It isn't Paris!
In the grip of what Brighton calls 'Octophrenic Frenzy', Natalia fragments into eight separate personalities, each tedious and intricate in equal measure, a state which stretches narrative technique. Attempts at parallel plots. Blind corners. False endings. Dissonant multiplicity. Beyond endurance and coherence.
After Natalia is removed to an asylum in Wymondham (from which, one of her personalities remarks, in its last letter to Brighton, one can see the twin-towers where the rebel Ket was hanged) she slips into eight separate comas. Brighton, who is too exquisite a personage to risk contamination by her insanity, never visits. He issues a series of self-congratulatory sub-Laingian panegyrics to the persipacity of the mad, but nevertheless authorises that her eight life-support machines be switched off.
He shoots himself one minute before opening time on the steps of the predictable Wild Man. The words he has pinned to its door only serve to betray the book's incalculable debt, its final sentence:
'BE CONVULSIVE AT WILL OR BEAUTY WILL NOT BE ALL.'