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Spirit of Place


We came to live in Islington twenty years ago, moving east from Maida Vale. It had been a perfect base for two young travel-writers to write guide-books from, plot film scripts and entertain. Our sitting room-attic was lined with mattresses and cushions which could become beds at the drop of a backpack. But when we moved east, we were also leaving the over-entitled world of West London for a living neighbourhood which had schools, pubs, cafes and shops that you could push a pram too. Having spent years exploring the city centres of North Africa, Turkey, Russia and the Middle East, and identifying the most intriguing places to stay, we also wanted to find something that was charged with some history and character in our own city.

An artist, Hugo Grenville, had first shown us just how beautiful parts of south Islington could be, when we came and shared a picnic with him while he painted a terrace of houses that rippled down the hill of Amwell Street. The house that we bought is close to where he had set up his easel that day. We both fell in love with the mood of our house the moment we walked through its battered door. From our bedroom window you could look at a noisy corner pub in one direction (then packed with Irish musicians with Feinian loyalties that included the young Pete Docherty) and a Regency version of a Gothic church in the other (run by a charming, gay, incense-scented, High-Church vicar). The owner adored his freehold house and had spent years unpicking the layers of paint and restoring the plaster-work by hand. He had also created a vast map of London, copied from a 1745 etching, which filled the hall. This he left to us as a gift, alongside a fresh bar of soap on the basin. He had also invited us to his leaving party so that we could meet our new neighbours. We came and shook hands, but decided not to stay too long. We did not want to ruin his evening by looking too eagerly possessive. He had to sell in order to be closer to his engineering business in the Midlands, but was also clearly sad to be selling this sliver of a London terrace.

But it was a considerate thing to have done. Once we moved in, various neighbours felt free to reintroduce themselves. One of the oddest of these was a man who lived just around the corner, in a flat which allowed him to overlook the gardens of Myddleton Square from his desk at the window. He was a published poet and a novelist with a beard and a full head of grey unkempt hair that framed a crinkly parchment face, lined with the sort of Auden creases that you only earn from a lifetime of devoted smoking. His name was Barry Cole, and later I would identify many of his London-incubated poems in anthologies before gradually acquiring his back list. He customarily wore a grey hat and had fine hands that were seldom seen without either a cigarette, a pen or a paper in them. At the time we first met he was tutoring a young neighbour through his English A level. I think this young man, like myself, had been expelled from his boarding school. I liked Barry the moment we first talked, for he happily confessed that there was very little that he could teach this bright, questing mind, but that he liked the conspiratorial way he was paid cash by the father and that all writers benefit from the discipline of a schedule and an editorial blue pen.

Barry was always a distinctive figure on the street, for he never appeared to be in hurry, but always had a sense of purpose. He never seemed to be looking about him, but I soon learnt that he was absorbing every nuance of the streets around him. I found out that he knew every story of every shop in the neighbourhood, chronicled not as a gossip, but with a magisterial detachment, as if he was a geologist observing the layers of the past. He had the soul of a cat, not of a dog. He was almost always alone, and never the first to offer a greeting or make eye contact, but delighted to engage in talk when accosted. He also had good manners, never looked over your shoulder or glanced at his watch, but always gave you the dignity of his attention.

Our meetings were always accidental, but they were frequent for Barry Cole, like myself, loved to cut up his day with seemingly purposeful walks, which actually led towards a café. We were both afficionados of independent, family-run businesses which took their coffee seriously. We also both liked to make use of the quiet, mid-morning pause in business after the flurry of breakfast meetings had finished, as well as the other, three o’clock, slump in their daily trade. At those moments you could spread your papers on the table around you, work your way through the TLS or work on some proofs. If you work at home, most especially if you are a writer, it is useful to shake some fresh thoughts into your head by walking, and it is vital for our sanity to be observed and acknowledged, even if it is only in the rituals of counting out your change. By moving between cafés, we remained regulars but not habitués and hid from any particular establishment just how much of our week was spent as flaneurs, walking and stopping and reading. But walking towards a distant table is work. It allows the different halves of the brain to swop over the levers of control, so the assertive, risk-taking, creative self can be replaced by the calmer, rule-abiding editorial side.

I found out that Barry was very alive to these two internal roles. As a poet, he had long accustomed himself to transmuting emotion into language in some volcanic internal forge and then patiently fine-chiseling this language down to its core. I remember his disdain for some free verse that I was once admiring, which he (following Robert Frost) likened to playing tennis without lines or cricket without a wicket. He was certainly an immaculate editor, and for decades (once we set up as publishers) we employed him to proofread, which he did with precision. Indeed sometimes he would do it unaided, and unpaid, to an article of mine, especially after it had been published. It was always useful to see how much more work can be done to a piece of writing, and I think it amused him to see how slack the various sub-editors of national broadsheets had become, not to mention myself.

He was a fine and precise reader, crisscrossing the various papers that he approved of, and in his heyday there was seldom a fortnight in which he did not post a clipping through our letter box with an annotation, or some notice that I had missed, some writer that we had talked about, or something to do with early Islam, which he knew I was working on. He also approved of what we were doing in the way of a business, which was to revive forgotten travel writers and reissue their works in smart new editions with freshly designed type. But I also remember the day when my wife, who is in charge of all Editorial matters in our small publishing house, realized that Barry had lost his immaculate gift for proofing. It was after his first and very successful treatment for his cancer, where the doctors managed to give him another eight years of vigorous life. At about the same time, he told me that being cured of cancer had unblocked years of poetic reticence, and that he had never felt so certain of his voice or so thrilled to be writing. I liked that, and was amused that the very powerful and concise editor within him had been eclipsed by this surge of creativity. Years before he had already told me, without a flicker of embarrassment or a whimper of self-pity, about his relationship with alcohol. I think it had been the theatre for some of his most important early literary friendships (most especially with the charismatic B.S. Johnson who lived and died like a Roman just the other side of Myddelton Square from Barry’s desk) but at some point it had overwhelmed him. It had threatened his work, (both as a writer and the university fellowship he had acquired teaching creative English) but also threatened his role as a father and a husband. But typically he had become neither an alcoholic nor a dried-out tea-totalling abstainer, but created his own path which allowed him to conduct long, drawn-out trench warfare with the bottle. It was permitted on weekends, on the holidays that were always taken in Rome (travelling by train, staying in the same old hotel, walking the city) but otherwise it was successfully mastered, and replaced midweek by cigarettes, work and coffee. However I am afraid I found him wonderful company when, just now and then, he slipped off the wagon, for his professional reticence, his note-dropping caution, his steady editorial hand was replaced by a mad hand-waving empowered fluency of conversation, social confidence coupled with free-wheeling indiscretions.

Barry’s influence was tangible. I began to try and reach beyond the witty mandarin travel-writers and sieve the world of books for something rarer. He encouraged my interest in micro-history, especially the pioneering works of Gillian Tindall and Rowland Parker, which succeed in giving the people their quiet voice, stilling for once the sophisticated clamour of the gentry, be they landlords, clerics or our great 19th-century novelists. He was also a great champion of the humanity and veracity of Dervla Murphy, the self-willed Irish travel writer whom we would later publish, and was crucial to our range of poetry of place titles, though he refused to take up an editorial role. One of the keys to our friendship was our differences. The first was a question of age, for I was exactly a generation younger than him, and when we first met I was caught up in a productive period of writing (and being published) that must have reminded him of his own past, before the commissions dried up. The other great difference was class. Barry would gently, but time and time again, correct my assumptions, and remind me of the realities of a normal Londoner. They did not own photograph albums which stretched back six generations (though they might own a single snap of a grandfather in uniform or from a wedding day) ; they did not think that a wall was bare if it was not hung with original art ; they did not think that going to university was in the normal progression of life ; or that every week of your life might be expected to include a number of candle-lit dinner parties. He was never aggressive, but it was very useful to be reminded how many of my assumptions and expectations were embedded in the privilege of my generation and upbringing. And to be gently reminded of the men who had toiled as clerks by day and worked the nights in order to win their education.

But Barry was also mocking of his own ascent into the rarified world of literary London. He remembered with documentary accuracy what an indifferent, if not bored and shirty, student he had been as both boy and young man, only interested in music, films, cigarettes, booze and girls. According to the tale he told me (which may have been entirely fictitious) it was his natural eye for bat and ball that led to being hand-picked for the regimental cricket team during his years of National Service. And it was only then, in the chance company of one passionately literate officer, that he discovered the enchantment of books and verse. Two other men of Barry’s generation whom I also got to know at this time, the Irish-American writer John Freely and the photographer Don McCullin, shared this back story. A delicate filament of chance took them out of the working class, through the happenstance of an educational opportunity during their years of national service. I think it was that continued delight in where his life had led him that made him such a determined chronicler, such a diligent diarist. But at other times, I also wondered if words had become almost too important for Barry, how things couldn’t exist until they had been properly recorded. But our differences in age and class, much relished and cherished and commented on by both of us, were surprisingly resolved by tennis. One of Barry’s three daughters married a friend of my younger brother, and they had both been on the tennis team of their expensive Scottish boarding school, then patronized by the Royal Family. This odd link tickled us both. It was one of those filaments of inter-connection that the middle classes thrive on (based on the mapping of the Venn diagram like circles of prep school, public school, university, regiment and profession). Another link appeared through the pink uniform of an early-evening ballet class which brought one of my daughters, Molly, and one of his granddaughters, Matilda, together once a week. So I got to know one of Barry’s daughters, then by osmosis his whole family through an exchange of birthday tea parties. The Cole family were true natives of our parish, descended through their mother Rita from one of the 19th-century Italian migrants (I think they came from Lucca,) who turned this part of London into a creative little Italy, still complete with its own church, annual parade, Italian foodshops and the genius of Grimaldi, who invented the role, costume and aura of the modern circus clown at the Drury Lane Theatre. Barry (though not of this clan by blood, for he was an Anglo-Saxon born in the south of London) became deeply immersed in the traditions of London’s Little Italy, and became their chronicler and occasional poet. I was right impressed.

But there were lines in the sand. We would talk whenever we met, which over any one week could be at Phil’s Metropolitan Books on Exmouth Market, at publisher’s launch parties, or at any one of our rat-run of café tables, but I don’t remember either of us crossing the threshold of each other’s door, unless it was to return a parcel of borrowed books or some proofs. It certainly never occurred to either of us that our lone wanderings through the back streets of London would be improved by the company of another person. Nor do I recall that we ever telephoned each other, let alone set a date in which to meet. The proper manner of discourse, which suited both of us, was handwritten notes dropped through each other’s letter boxes, photocopies of works in progress or chance conversation. When I look back over the years, I realise that we must have made some advance arrangements. How else did I meet such friends of his, such as John Wright, an expert on Libya, Chad and the Sahara, and Italian colonial history, with whom Barry had worked with back in his Ministry of Information days? Or Mohammad Ben Madani, that passionate scholar of Moroccan and North African history, who ran both a bookshop, a hospitable table for passing scholars from SOAS, and an academic journal? Was that another Ministry connection? I doubt it, for Mohammad always had a very healthy disrespect for the machinery of state. Or that maverick professor of English literature who is based in Nottingham, who could drink you under the table, play jazz, run a literary publishing house, stay true to the left, create poetry, love Greece, and casually give us a book that we would publish to great acclaim. You couldn’t have invented any of these three men, who are united by their independent minds, the active way in which they cherished their freedom, but who are also driven by a passion to understand and a duty to speak their minds, free of cant or the place-seekers’ caution. They were all proud of their friendship with Barry Cole, as am I.

Barnaby Rogerson runs Eland Publishing from the street market that lies three blocks south of Barry Cole’s home. It is now the home to over a hundred classic titles of travel and spirit of place books, www.travelbooks.co.uk. For other publishers Barnaby has written a biography of the Prophet Muhammad, an account of the first four caliphs, a history of North Africa and the story of the last crusade, 1415-1578, as well as guide books and editing various anthologies -

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