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Dark Voices – The Suarez Séance

By Steve Finbow.


Standing outside on the cobbled street of The Colonnade just behind Russell Square Underground station, pint in hand, I thought I recognised the tall, thin figure wearing a black suit, white shirt, and pale-blue pork-pie hat, brim set jauntingly close to his Romanesque hooter – Richard Strange, once of The Doctors of Madness, actor/writer/musician and host and founder of Cabaret Futura. I had a horrible flashback to the early ’80s – coiffed and Elnett-lacquered hair, white make-up, 18-pleat trousers, winklepickers, some weird Russian-Klingon hybrid shirt, posing in a club in Wardour Street. It was only later in the evening, after The Suarez Séance had finished, that I saw the connections.

The Horse Hospital – home to the avant-garde since 1993 – was the venue for the Sohemian Society’s evening of film, discussion, readings and music in honour of the late Robin Cook, aka Derek Raymond. As I walked up the steep ramp into the dark confines of the Horse Hospital, I spotted some familiar faces – as the audience took their seats, it was obvious that Derek Raymond had a staunch following among a younger generation of writers and that Robin Cook still had a loyal group of friends, supporters, and champions.

Cathi Unsworth started the proceedings by ringing a bell both to silence the room and to summon the spirit of Derek Raymond. Unsworth’s novels – directly descended from the work of Derek Raymond and Ken Bruen – raw, tightly written, aware of their roots, yet a step apart, a continuation – made her the perfect person to set the night in motion. Talking about the influence of Raymond’s work on her own, his legacy and life, and creating an atmosphere of haunting expectation, Cathi Unsworth introduced the documentary Passages in Black: Three Days with Derek Raymond directed by Agnes Bert, Raymond’s fifth wife.

The film showed Raymond at his home in France. Tall, gaunt, with either beret pushed forward or straggly hair pushed back over his forehead, Raymond – in both French and English – talked about his writing and adventures, his hatred of the British police force, and his literary heroes – Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, and David Goodis. Although the sound quality of the print was poor, the documentary showed us Robin Cook as his friends in the audience remembered him – passionate, darkly flamboyant, and extraordinarily well spoken. Watching him sing along to the Pogues while drinking his bottles of beer and glasses of red wine, one could just imagine him in The French House, Gerry’s Club, or The Coach and Horses (his “office”) in Soho. As tall and as thin as James Joyce and Louis Ferdinand Céline, like Joyce Raymond enjoyed a drink or six; and like Céline’s novels, Raymond’s fiction explores humanity’s capability for evil and depravation. The film showed Raymond at home – a tower from within which he looked into the deepest pits of human existence.

After the interval, Cathi Unsworth chaired a discussion with Geoff Cox who had the original idea in 1993 of putting Raymond together with the band Gallon Drunk to record a soundtrack for I Was Dora Suarez and Derek Raymond’s literary executor and author of The Cardiff Trilogy John Williams. Geoff Cox talked about meeting Raymond in his “office” and the subsequent recording of the album. John Williams followed with an emotional reading concerning the last months of Raymond’s life – the tiny northwest London flat, the way he could enliven any room with his accent and his natural exuberance, the end days in the Central Middlesex hospital, and the final moment with John Williams and Raymond’s third wife at his bedside as Raymond died. The man revealed in the readings, film, and discussion was not the person one would imagine from his novels – here was a man loved by all, an old Etonian, Kray associate, mini-cab driver and labourer – far removed from the Sergeant Detective and the killer, the nameless and cynical men of his fiction. Throughout the documentary, the static of the film merged in the air with the crackle of Raymond’s presence.

To wrap up the evening, Gallon Drunk multi-instrumentalists James Johnston and Terry Edwards performed a piece from the soundtrack. The music – brooding, discordant, throbbing – invoked the violent rush of reading I Was Dora Suarez. The long instrumental build up to Richard Strange’s reading notched up the tension and created a nightmarish soundtrack to Strange’s powerful voice. The novel’s claustrophobic atmosphere seeped into the performance space, the dissonant music hovering on the brink of insanity, the audience voyeurs at the scene – variants of the waiting detectives in René Magritte’s The Menaced Assassin.

Derek Raymond’s work is undergoing a resurgence. Serpent’s Tail have republished many volumes in handsome editions – I hope they plan to re-issue Raymond’s memoirs The Hidden Files – encouraging a new generation of writers to follow Ken Bruen, John Williams, James Sallis, Will Self, and Cathi Unsworth. The Suarez Séance confirmed that multimedia pieces can work – the overlapping of text, film, and music gelled, as it so often doesn’t. The Sohemian Society, The Horse Hospital, Cathi Unsworth, John Williams, Geoff Cox, Gallon Drunk, Richard Strange and the spirit of Derek Raymond/Robin Cook – was it him kicking over the beer bottles as he made his spectral way to the bar? – produced an evening to remember.

And that’s where it gets weird. The previous evening I went to the Chris Petit night at The Wheatsheaf in Fitzrovia. The Wheatsheaf is the North Soho equivalent of The Coach and Horses. Chris Petit is the author of Robinson – a novel whose main protagonist is based on Robin Cook, the name Robinson derived from a character in Céline’s Death on the Instalment Plan. Along with Iain Sinclair, Chris Petit also made the film The Cardinal and the Corpse featuring Robin Cook and his “morries.” In 1982, fleeing the world of new-romanticism and nouveau alcoholism, I moved to Liverpool and a few years later, while doing research on William Burroughs, I bought rare Burroughs’ books from Iain Sinclair. I then worked for Allen Ginsberg. Robin Cook lived in the Beat Hotel in Paris along with Ginsberg and Burroughs. When I moved back from NYC, I became friends with Mike Hart of Compendium who, in turn, was a friend of Robin Cook. The ’80s club scene I escaped from included the Wag Club and Richard Strange’s Cabaret Futura, Derek Raymond’s beloved Pogues played both. The pub we used to go to before a night out at Billy’s or St Moritz was The Coach and Horses. Last July, I gave a reading with David Peace and Cathi Unsworth at The Boogaloo (a Shane McGowan hangout) and David Peace introduced me to John Williams. I thought of this on my way home. I live in King’s Cross, and I walked past Burton Street, where Shane McGowan lived 30 years ago, and on to the Hillview Estate where The Pogues filmed their first video for Streams Of Whiskey, I started humming Dark Streets of London and thought how aptly that title applied to Derek Raymond’s work. The Suarez Séance invoked correspondences and connections I never knew existed. Spooky.

Steve Finbow lives in London. Allen Ginsberg was once brave enough to employ him. His work appears in many forms and in many places: including McSweeney’s, The Guardian, The Beat, Beat the Dust, Dogmatika, and Stop Smiling. His short stories have been included in a number of anthologies, the most recent being See You Next Tuesday – The Second Coming.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, July 20th, 2008.