During my first five years in London, my own life swung between living around and in absurd poverty, whilst also working for the grotesquely wealthy every day. I lived above an old East London pub and worked in the private apartment blocks of Mayfair, Knightsbridge and Marylebone as a porter and night-watchman; low paid, uniformed, security work at the very bottom of the career ladder in grand apartment buildings populated by some of the richest people in the world.
I put myself into that situation to get the headspace and the time to write, and to read. I was putting away five books a week, reading a broadsheet every day, and subscribing to three literary journals. In one month on night shifts, I read Saul Bellow’s complete works. In another building I read dozens of books about the history of Britain. One week it might be philosophy, another week the Roman Empire. I probably took the equivalent of four masters degrees in my reading during those years.
My time was my own, and every writer worries about time. In one building I was probably ‘busy’ with porter duties for twenty minutes each day – giving keys to maids, and calling the odd airport car service. The other eleven hours and twenty minutes of every shift were my own. I wrote four erotic novels while actually at work as a porter, and finished and endlessly rewrote Banquet for the Damned on the job. The residents in one building even called me “the writer in residence”. So I saw this work as a practical way of achieving basic financial security and the freedom to be a writer, not as a hunt for material to write about. But the environments I was experiencing were so fascinating, and the experience often so demoralising or comical, that they became the only thing I could write about at one stage. And this often happens with downshifts – your experience down there becomes overwhelming. The original title of the novel was, Down Here with the Rest of Us.
The people I worked with, and the residents I worked for, were real characters too – in that tiny bit of London high society you can still see the London of Wodehouse, Waugh, Maugham, Greene, and Sitwell, even Dickens. Uncannily, when researching Oswald Moseley and the British Union of Fascists for Apartment 16, I discovered that Moseley and Diana Moseley had actually lived in the one building I had worked as a night watchman. I also remember one resident being stolen by a tramp – she was an invalided heiress and worth over 100 million pounds; another high profile guy got locked out of his penthouse with a towel wrapped around his waist, with a Russian call girl at his side, a girl who would dress as a secretary and announce herself to me on arrival as “a business associate”; I once fell down a flight of stairs with a very expensive painting and nearly put my knee through it; I ate food from a royal kitchen, every night in one building - five courses brought downstairs by a monarch’s private chef (it took me eighteen months of running around Hyde Park to shift my belly afterwards). I carried shopping for international crooks hiding in London, and took the garbage out for Sheiks.
I had a great many adventures, and sadly watched part of a fascinating generation of real old school ladies and gentlemen die. You’d be amazed how many people live to a hundred in those places, while keeping every mental faculty. I even began a memoir at one point, a Porter’s Confidential, but the six agents I approached rejected it – one saying it was “too sinister and too dark”. What do you want from me?
So it was hyper real; a literary fantasy; larger than life; an old school writer’s adventure. In the end, how could I not write about it? I also wanted to deconstruct the English novel’s love affair with high society; it’s one of the reasons I tend to favour the American novel; I’d grown tired of the social aspirations, the social climbing, the obsession with wealth, status, and profile in middle class English fiction; so I made British society utterly bleak and grotesque at every level through a kind of Francis Bacon anthropomorphism.
But I actually never once minded going to work as a porter once I switched to day shifts, and I worked days for my last three years in the job in Mayfair; and I have never experienced that before or since in careers in television or publishing. I hate conventional work; I dread it. I’m not lazy, quite the opposite, but it’s the pathological competitiveness of the sociopathic that wears me down in the creative media. As a porter, there was no need or place for ambition; it was a soothing sabbatical.
Those years were the second stage of my right of passage as a writer too, and I guess Apartment 16 has that feel about it; it was the modernist novel about a creative outsider that I just had to get out of my system. When I sat down and began writing about those years, the novel just burned its way out. I consider myself very lucky to have had it published at this level.
The book also came out of a paranoid, enraged, morbid, but often euphoric mind-set that I naively cultivated in myself during the first two of those five years in London when I worked as a night watchman. Revisiting that time many years later, and the collection of fragments I had written at night, the actual writing of the novel was cathartic and very satisfying. It was much easier than enduring the two years of sleep deprivation that inspired the book. And because the story came out of a difficult period of my life, in which my perception of the world tilted, the novel always felt ‘real’ and especially vivid to me, as if I really had something to write about as opposed to just striking something out of my imagination to entertain readers. Though I do remember watching a lot of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm when writing the book, so maybe that was my way of coping …
To give some background about that period of sleep deprivation, from 2000 to the end of 2001 I was never awake during the day, rarely socialized, and was near floored by exhaustion; put yourself through that, let your mind turn on itself, and you never know what you will start to imagine. I completely unraveled myself at one point; hovered above a dark and terrifying place at times. But it enabled me to write about another level of horror, fusing the supernatural with madness. I did start to hallucinate from sleep loss. Some of the scenes in Apartment 16, when Seth tries to escape from London and his visit to a supermarket are drawn from those experiences. Apartment 16 would not have had the same impact, or carried the same force, had I not gone through that difficult period. I wrote fragments of Apartment 16 back then, but weaved them into a coherent narrative much later. But it gave me the whole idea of a character glimpsing a radically transformed world, that no one else could see, while the character also wonders whether his vision is a truth, or the evidence of a tormented mind staring back at itself? I was excited by the idea of only being capable of seeing life as a continually shifting and changing set of Francis Bacon paintings.
My coping mechanism was switching to day shifts in 2002, and reintegrating myself back into a more normal existence. It took about two years to fully recover from that time though. To give some context, the book was such a loose and amorphous collection of dreams, images, fragments, notes, I produced seventeen drafts over nearly four years up to 2009 in order to make the book internally consistent and fluent. But this book is for real. It was forged in despair and hewn from compulsion.
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