July 28, 2011
Jack Robinson: Days and Nights in W12
I’ve praised before on this blog the one-man wonder that is CB Editions, which scoops up the underappreciated and overlooked and gives them
handso nic brown jackets and a much needed presence. David Markson, Gabriel Josipovici, Gert Hofmann, and others have benefited from Charles Boyle’s good taste. But as well as having an eye for literature, he can also turn it on: or out. Three of CB’s books are written by Boyle under assumed names: Jennie Walker’s 24 for 3 (which was subsequently reissued by Bloomsbury) and Jack Robinson’s Recessional and Days and Nights in W12. The latter, first published in 2007, has now been reissued in an expanded edition and carries praise from Geoff Dyer and Josipovici (who compares it to Sebald, Benjamin and Bernhard). And it doesn’t have a brown cover.
Days and Nights in W12 is a series of vignettes or meditations – more Dyeresque than Sebaldian – on the said area of London. The structure is simple: one hundred and ten pieces of prose (twice the number in the earlier edition), each less than a page, each topped by a photograph (ah! That explains the Sebald reference…). Each has a heading, arranged alphabetically, but otherwise without order or direction. They consist of memories, imaginings, and observations.
The waiting time in A&E this afternoon is three hours and thirty minutes. And, truly, no one here looks as if they are about to die right now, or even in the next half hour; it feels more as if their flight has been delayed. [...] After around an hour you are learning how to wait, and beginning to accept that hurt, pain, error and the need for help are not accidents or emergencies at all.
Sometimes Robinson (let’s stick to that name) creates a whole story around one image glimpsed in passing (“Driver With Police”); elsewhere he begins with the sort of line that Lorrie Moore would kill for (“In the months after Ted’s wife died the various ailments that had kept him virtually housebound began to clear up”). Often the pleasure lies in the difficulty in establishing, without referring to other sources, what is real and what is invention, particularly when Robinson plays with known factoids (such as Walt Disney’s cryogenic afterlife). The King of Redonda is real (sort of), but does Javier Marías really lay claim to the throne, and has he “conferred dukedoms on, among others, Almodóvar, Coetzee and Alice Munro”? Does it matter whether it’s really true that “all public toilets and washbasins in W12 are designed by contemporary artists,” when the resulting fancy is so pleasing? What Robinson does is create a kind of twilight zone of west London, doing for Shepherd’s Bush what J.G. Ballard did for Shepperton.
Sometimes specific places feature, so that these parts of the book could only occur in W12. The Shepherd’s Bush Empire, for example, where we learn that
Ford Madox Ford, whose work at the office of The English Review in Holland Park Avenue was constantly interrupted by visiting authors, used to take the day’s submissions to the second-house performance. ‘During the duller turns, Ford made his decisions and I recorded them,’ recalled his assistant. ‘But when someone really worth listening to – the late Victoria Monks, for example, or Little Tich or Vesta Victoria – appeared on the stage, the cares of editorship were for the moment laid aside.’
Mostly, however, these stories could take place anywhere, and it is Robinson’s eye and personality which corral them into one vision. Depending on one’s constitutional viewpoint, the unifying location could be either a cheering marker of life’s variety, or a depressing reminder of the limitations of most of our lives, ploughing the same furrows day after day. Certainly there is a mortality-teasing sadness running through the book. In the piece headed “Funeral” (the photograph showing a flower-filled hearse), Robinson imagines the old women attending the funeral of a friend. “They turn their heads, sometimes, these old women [...] as if looking for something that appears to be missing, which may in fact be the old men, most of whom have long since departed.”
As well as recurring themes, stories and people cross-refer throughout the book, though Robinson’s voice is what really gives the book unity. His sense of absurdity mixed with social awareness is habit-forming. What better epigraph for a book with the potential for immense popularity, but destined to be overlooked and under-read, than the conclusion of his piece on the BBC Building at White City (“Office Building”), site of the stadium for the 1908 Olympics? “Even those contemptuous of competition and celebrity must be drawn in by the mixed emotions of those who come second, who so very nearly get (but don’t) what they desire and feel they deserve.”
The easiest way to buy Days and Nights in W12 is by going here.