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‘A cigarette butt; a silver ring-pull; a dry brown leaf; a crumpled till receipt; a one-penny piece; and a discarded baby’s dummy.’ Picayune things: forgotten, commonplace. It’s the sort of stuff you see but do not notice: in the gutter or down the back of a sofa, in the pocket of an old pair of trousers or in that dark cupboard under the stairs, among cobwebs and locked suitcases. But these items are not rubbish at all. They are worth something, they are important. This butt, that receipt, they form part of a work or art. Ruby, one of a number of outsider artists in Harriet Paige’s Man with a Seagull on his Head (Bluemoose Books), creates ‘memory boxes’ filled with bibelots and debris. Ruby’s work is a kind of compulsion, a psychological twitch or urge, far removed from the slick machinations and corporate of the contemporary art world. She lives on the eleventh floor of a tower block in Hackney, behind a door so ‘blue and so glossy it could still be wet, or at least sticky, from a new coat of paint.’ Paige’s prose is full of such details, lending this slim volume a curious density. Coupled with a narrative that shifts perspective, seeing events through apparently peripheral characters, this accumulation of detail and observation creates an effect that is sometimes poetic, at other times laboured. Her style, always ambitious, is one of careful impasto. The narrative is full of reflection and moments of quiet revelation – everyday epiphanies. Eccentric Ruby is visited by a dealer interested in her work. The doorbell is answered by ‘a woman as wide as the doorway, in a skirt that hung round her middle like a cubicle in a cheap clothing store’ – another fine detail. Ruby shows the dealer her memory boxes: ‘each was covered with a thick layer of wax. Beneath were faces, photographs – couples, family groupings, small children holding hands – cut out and stuck together in a kind of collage, their eyes strained up towards her … In the small spaces between the pictures, she could see indistinct lines of printed typeface, showing that Ruby had made boxes from newspaper.’ The dealer looks closer: ‘they were light, these boxes, borne aloft by the deep pile of the carpet’. (Perhaps that ‘borne aloft’ strikes a rather too heavy, grand note.)
In many ways, Man with a Seagull on his Head reminds me of one of Ruby’s carefully assembled memory boxes. The plot is slight, no bad thing, and the title itself sounds like a surrealist gag or child’s joke (often the same thing). The pivotal character (who is absent for long periods) is Ray Eccles. He is the man with the seagull on his head. The opening chapter brilliantly captures the ennui and methodical futility of office life, that disconcerting blend of almost domestic familiarity and strange, ritualistic repetition. ‘The office he worked in was on the ground floor of the Civic Centre, just a few doors down the corridor from main reception. He shared the room with four other people. He knew the names of these people, which were Pamela, Frances, Paula and Mr Turner, and he knew that Mr Turner was in charge, but, beyond typing and talking on the telephone, he didn’t know what any of them did.’ Eccles’ desk is a small table next to the photocopier. It’s his job to ensure that plastic trays are kept topped up with various forms. He’s never far from the Xerox machine, churning out requested forms. ‘It was not an easy job keeping track of all these bits of paper, and in springtime especially, when demand for forms was at its highest.’ It’s a downbeat but comic opening, and we are placed squarely inside the world of Ray Eccles as he struggles with templates and photocopies and baffling office politics. The comedy, at once tender and revealing, derives from the importance Ray places upon his humdrum tasks. He is an innocent. This opening chapter, particularly the office sequence, with its neatly rendered rhythms of pedantry and jargon, reminds me a little of Anakana Schofield’s Martin John. But while Schofield’s approach in portraying an unusual mind is clipped and elliptical, full of space and dark suggestion, Paige prefers descriptive richness to build her scenes and characters. It is not always successful. Yes, there are moments of poetry and pungent observation. But all this detail and reflection results, at times, in a clogged surface, obscuring the glitter and shimmer of her best writing.
Like Martin John, another factotum, Eccles inhabits a world he does not fully understand (or want to understand). But Martin John is possessed by visions far more sinister and paranoid than those that haunt Ray Eccles. Gentle and contemplative, he is surrounded by the brute, unforgiving currents of a life that is strange and stressful. The opening chapter is a marvellous portrait of a quiet man adrift in a noisy world. Is he a genius? A loser, a loner? A madman? We do not know. But at this point – following the littoral epiphany of the seagull – the narrative veers away from Ray Eccles. Momentum is lost, a strange charm evaporates. The story drifts through a number of other lives, all intricately captured, all linked to the man with a seagull on his head. Sometimes the prose is too careful – it lacks movement, gusto, abandon, and there is a sense that we are looking at a tapestry, full of lush detail and colour. Suburban life is nicely captured, as is the Essex landscape, the salty decay of Southend. Each chapter feels like a palimpsest. I was disappointed not to be spending more time in the company of Ray Eccles, the guardian of the photocopier who, in his spare time, compulsively paints the same image – a woman’s head – over and over again. He paints with food when he runs out of paint. He paints the interior walls of his house, an ever-evolving mural, thick and clotted. He cannot stop. This loner, this harmless oddball, lives inside his imagination. But from Ray we flit to a shop-girl, a local journalist and an art dealer, among others. The result is that Ray Eccles, the artist at the heart of the novel, is never at the centre, not really: in his own story he remains an outsider (which is perhaps the point).
Paige is good on the boredom of a small-town shop-girl. ‘Jennifer looked up. Here she was, in her shop. The silence was heavy; the street seemed to have emptied out in a way that made her wonder if she’d missed something, some catastrophe. But then a lone car drove slowly past and, as the sound of the engine receded, she caught the distant judder-judder of machinery making holes in the road somewhere, and now a woman walking past, a child running on behind, and she breathed again, relieved, and a little disappointed too, that the world was carrying on.’ Paige finds poetry in such quiet moments. Her characters do a lot of walking. They travel on trains. This gives them room to think. Paige likes to explore the dusty corners and damp dead-ends of uneventful days, if only to tell us that no day is uneventful.
There is one particular image that stays with me – Ray Eccles’ suburban house floating down the Thames. (It is being towed to the Tate.) I thought of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, although Paige approaches the scene obliquely. Another writer might have rubbed her hands together and turned the scene into a set-piece. Instead, we see the house in passing, it is almost an afterthought, and this seems appropriate, for we never really get to spend much time with Eccles, we glimpse him, we hear of him, we see him through the eyes of others, we read about his achievements in newspapers and magazines. Eccles remains an elusive figure. The man on the beach who has a vision. The weirdo neighbour. The famous artist. The derelict in suit who befriends a pigeon and sees his house floating down the Thames.
In life, there are long journeys and short journeys, but seldom do we know which is which. This slim book is full of journeys. Eccles’ Southend house travels into moneyed heart of London from the blandlands of the Essex coast – his memory, his mind, his passion. His house is then put on display in the Tate, where the public walk through his rooms, inspecting his crusted murals. Are we to take this display as a kind of vivisection? The artist himself becomes a tramp. There are the faintest flickers of satire here – but they never flare or sparkle as in Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall. True, the art dealers (Mr and Mrs Zoob) are vulture-like, even parasitical, in their search for quirky, obscure, amateur artists. Their quest even has something of the lonely hearts about it: ‘Valerie. Knitter. Lewisham. 23 Dover Road. No phone. Sweet person. Careful – very prudish!’ FANTASTIC MASKS.’ The supposedly sophisticated Zoobs are every bit as obsessive as the unknown creators they hunt and snare. But satire is not Paige’s concern here. She focuses on the domestic, the psychological.
At times the language in this slim book is over-elaborate. The characters talk in ways that are not always convincing. The ending, aiming for ambiguity, is a disappointment: the story fades into platitude, even mawkishness. ‘If that sounds crazy, then I suspect you have not seen the paintings themselves … He took up a paintbrush and tried to find wings. For it was never just a painting for him. It was a hope.’ But the story lingers in the mind, and there is some fine writing here. Paige packs a great deal into this novel, which, with its many strange characters and mysterious scenes, it’s reflective, meandering tone, is as intricate and curious as one of Ruby’s memory boxes.
Man with a Seagull on His Head is published by Bluemoose Books.