‘I’ll put them to fast for nine days with a sprig of thyme, then clean them till they spit with vinegar and salt,’ Derek Raymond, He Died With His Eyes Open


But this cold will pass. The woodlice will come out of the walls again with the spring rain; the snails will sail slowly through the young weeds on the path. There will be warm, wet mornings dark with cloud, and I’ll be out with my plastic bag and a stick to get a free dinner of snails, the petit gris. I’ll put them to fast for nine days with a sprig of thyme, then clean them till they spit with vinegar and salt, boil them out of their shells and cut the shit off them, then do a cold garlic butter with parsley and eat them off the special plates that Margo bought in the market. I shall eat them by candlelight and pretend it’s a dinner party. [Derek Raymond, He Died With His Eyes Open, Chapter 17]

…I soon found number eighteen; it was the door that banged in the dark wind and had a pile of costermongers’ garbage three feet high beside it. The door banged because it didn’t lock, and it didn’t lock because the traders used the street-level passageway for parking their barrows and empty crates. I stood at the foot of the stairs in the gloom for a minute, then got my flashlight out—where would anybody be in modern London without one? I looked for a push button to light the cement stairs that yawned in front of me; there was one, but it didn’t work. On the inside of the street door was a wire basket full of mail. It looked like disagreeable mail, the kind that arrives in buff envelopes, and evidently nobody ever read it, because it looked as if it had been there a long time. [Chapter 20]

‘But you weren’t prepared to try the famous knack on anybody else, were you? No, because anyone with any balls would have told you to fuck off, and you’d have burst into tears, just like you’re about to do with me. You’re like a sinister little boy, Eric; every time the beastly horrid sand-castle falls in you burst out crying and try and kick someone smaller than you are. I bet you think of yourself as the detritus of your society—it’s a good excuse for a wallow in self-pity. But all you are, Eric, is just a wanker.’ [Chapter 20]

I’m still working my way through Derek Raymond’s He Died With His Eyes Open, but I had to post these three, coming so closely on top of one another (all three within 20 pages) as they did, and each one so perfect in its own way. I’d unexpectedly come upon this Derek Raymond book at a different branch library, so after the week before last’s pleasure at reading How The Dead Live, I couldn’t leave it be but had to borrow it.

Aux escargots! To the first passage we go. How do you tell a poor man? He’s someone who can’t afford a long word. Out of the 128 words I’ve quoted, there’s only two of three or more syllables: vinegar and candlelight. It’s not the book’s narrator who’s talking, it’s the victim, quoted speaking on an audio tape he left behind. A regular clue.

But the only clue you get out of this passage is how exquisitely close his life is to the bone of subsistence, and yet how much pleasure he derives out of the search for nourishment. Even though his life (as described earlier in the chapter) has been reduced to cycling through one punishing task after another in order to ward off complete destitution, he still envisions waiting more than a week to completely prepare for a nice dinner. It’s left for the reader to decide whether he would actually let the little gastropods alone for nine days, or just skewer and roast them that first spring evening.

The second quote is delivered by the book’s nameless protagonist, a police officer (naturally). Describing the desolation of a squat through the mail that it receives is a stroke of genius, and to me a peculiarly English one; I can’t imagine Bill Pronzini’s nameless San Francisco detective nailing the exact color of envelope that “disagreeable mail” comes in, but the descriptor evokes for me both the desperation of the departed tenants to whom the mail is addressed, as well as the liberation of the current crop of squatters living there, who pay no attention to the mail basket because their names aren’t known to creditors, yet.

And the third quote I tossed in because you’re like me, and you always wondered what exactly a “wanker” was. Now we know, right?
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“Moss choked the blocked teeth of the keyboard” D. Raymond, ‘How the Dead Live’

Another mildew picture


Rain, which I could see pelting through a glassless window, had now set in for the night. It tapped monotonously on floors, on tables and broken chairs as we passed—a gilt clock without its dome and smothered in verdigris stood with its hands forever at twenty to ten on a dripping mantelpiece. Pictures, eighteenth-century prints and maps, askew on the walls, some lying on the floor in their own glass, gazed at us in the light of Mardy’s gaslamp—light that also glanced across a tallboy with jammed and swollen drawers, on a stricken chandelier with half its lustres missing. It danced over a music-room with a concert grand in it; moss choked the blocked teeth of the keyboard. It slid over partitas spread wetly on a stand, on a drenched metronome with its pendulum rusted out to the left, and the water streaming down the walls glittered in it.

—Derek Raymond, How the Dead Live, Chapter 9

I’ve read one of these Derek Raymond novels before, but How the Dead Live strikes some neverbefore heard chord in the Gothic repertory. Half a Chandler knockoff, half a Poe knockoff, it’s completely original in the depth of its existential flagellation. The nameless protagonist, a detective, proves to himself that he’s alive by constantly abrading his personality against the worthless rotten inhabitants of a Kentish village, the way my cat self-medicates her swollen gums.

The 80-room ruin holding pride of place in the minimal plot, the one the narrator describes in the quote: is it a metaphor for the ruined England of the early eighties? Or a metaphor for the creakiness and rot at the heart of the detective novel? I wouldn’t call this one exactly a fresh approach, but there is something to be said for the grand gesture of degradation.

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