C.A.R. Hills

I was going to hold this chapter back, but that would have been like Allan Massie holding back his Ian Rankin story - a missed opportunity. Besides, just as the majority of contributors might usefully be considered in relation to Ian Rankin’s commercial success, they need to be considered in relation to the drama of C.A.R. Hills’s life.

This drama starts with ‘A Mugging’ by David Welsh, in the pages of
PEN New Fiction 2. And it ends up with C.A.R. Hills (aka David Welsh) sitting in Rochester Prison, Kent, where I will be writing to him shortly.

In the biographical entry for the PEN book, Welsh tells us that he was born in 1955, educated at comprehensive school and Oxford, and that ‘A Mugging’ was his first accepted story at the age of 31.

The first-person protagonist in ‘A Mugging’ tells us that he lives in a flat in Clapham, South London. He goes out one night and is mugged by two young men. He fancies one of his assailants, just as he does one of the two policemen who come round when he reports the crime. Later, in bed, he has a sexual fantasy about the blonde boy who attacked him, but this finishes when he realizes how close to being seriously hurt he’d come. He wonders if he’ll be able to walk the streets of London in quite the same way as has been his custom. And that’s it. A simple story about a complex life, tantalizingly told.


I couldn’t trace a ‘David Welsh’ on the web, until I put his name in quotes together with ‘PEN New Fiction’. This took me to an extraordinary article in the Observer in February 2008, written by Jason Cowley, editor of Granta at the time.

Cowley met C.A.R. Hills for the first time in 1998 at a party given by the editor of
Prospect, who had by then published a single essay by Hills. Charles Hills had used a pseudonym in the PEN anthology because he didn’t want his mother (who is mentioned in passing in the story) to realize he was gay, even though by 1987, as I’ve already said, he was 31.

Cowley had read a piece that Hills had written on a Portuguese writer, Fernando Pessoa, and had liked it. They talked and the editor learned that Hills lived on his own in Clapham, and that he spent his time knocking on literary doors that by and large remained closed to him.

Born in London, Hills was an only child. He was extremely clever at school and got three ‘A’s at ‘A’ Level. To put that into perspective, the rest of his year only mustered three ‘A’s between them. At Hertford College, Oxford, he read Geography but felt ill at ease socially and sought the company of fellow gay students. For one reason or another, his early promise began to fade.

Throughout his twenties (1975-1985) he did a lot of reading and began to write, influenced by his favourite author Somerset Maugham, whose stated aims of writing were lucidity, simplicity and euphony.

Cowley states: ‘By the time I met him [ten years on from the PEN anthology], he was unemployed, mired in poverty, living on benefits and making what extra money he could as editor of
PEN News and from the scraps of journalism he was having published in small magazines. His was an unsettling, shambolic, twilight existence. He inhabited a peculiar literary demimonde, mixing with struggling, mostly unpublished or disappointed writers, a world of shabby clothing, intellectual striving, snobbery, drunkenness and, above all, of poverty.’


Perhaps I shouldn’t have directly quoted so much of that last paragraph, because the next is even more quotable: ‘I pitied him, but also believed in his talent and wanted to encourage him. I occasionally bought him lunch but, sitting opposite him at a table, I felt as if I was staring into a mirror, which revealed the kind of life that could have been mine had I dropped out in my twenties to pursue the writing life. What sustained him? I wondered. Why did he keep on trying to find a publisher for his fiction? How did he cope with all the rejection, with the continuous hustling for work, for the next poorly paid review, the next commission? The answer, I guess, is that he, too, believed in his talent. “I really am an excellent writer,” he told me whenever we met.’

Jason Cowley too, is an excellent writer, now the editor of the
New Statesman. Cowley felt that Hills had learned from Maugham, that he had ‘a graceful, limpid style and a fine ear for cadence.’ Cowley especially admired the other’s Prospect pieces ‘in which he wrote of his lonely wanderings in and around the blighted, rundown estates of Clapham and Peckham, and the encounters he had there. He transformed his particular part of south London into a place of shadows and loss, of restless questing and melancholy longing, achieving a peculiar kind of urban pastoral.’

Prospect pieces are online and I too recommend them. Careful though, Prospect allows you to access seven articles and then you’re locked out unless you’ve got £32 to invest in a subscription. So choose carefully which pieces to open from the 26 by C.A.R. Hills that are available.

OK, here’s where the narrative pace quickens. In 2000 Hills’s Portuguese mother came to visit her son from the Algarve where she’d lived for some time. In Charles’s London flat, she told him that she had altered her will in favour of the man – a gardener-cum-handyman - she now lived with. This man, Flávio Rosa, was about the same age as Charles Hills.

Charles, aged 45, was no longer on good terms with the man who’d raised him, Arthur Ernest Hills, who had left Charles’s mother for another woman, after which step-father and son had little contact. Arthur disapproved of Charles, of his eccentricity and literary ambition. So his mother’s house was the main asset that Charles expected to inherit. Putting up with poverty in his twenties, thirties and forties may have been partly a calculation that he would inherit the house sooner or later. So he was extremely upset by this handyman/lover development.


In a sense this was a second mugging, following the real life event that his PEN story was based on. And while Charles had been able to cope with that first one, when he’d been beaten up by the two youths, this time the perceived mugging really would cut the ground out from underneath him.

His mother was suffering from dementia when she took to living with Flávio Rosa. For the next two years, until his mother died in 2002, Charles travelled between London and Lisbon, beginning an action in the Portuguese courts in a bid to inherit his mother’s house. His Clapham Omnibus essays in
Prospect lapsed.

Jason Cowley met Charles Hills again for lunch in March 2005. The latter, now 50, seemed very disturbed: obsessed with Flávio Rosa and the theft of his rightful inheritance. Hills said that he would be spending the spring in the Far East and Australia.

Later that year, back in England from further journeys to Portugal and Brazil and India, indeed back in London following several years of world travels that had commenced shortly after his mother's death, Charles felt he was winding down to die. He suffered from what was diagnosed as a psychotic episode. Very disturbed and hysterical behaviour began in late 2005 and continued until February 2006. The deep depression that followed culminated in a suicide attempt on July 21, 2006. In August, Cowley learned that Hills was being looked after in the Maudsley Hospital and visited him there. The next thing Cowley knew was that Hills was in Belmarsh Prison, south-east London, awaiting trial on the charge of conspiracy to murder. Again Cowley went to see him there, in December 2007, and tried to put together what had happened.

A year before ending up in the Maudsley, Hills had tried to engage a hit man to kill Flávio Rosa. But the man concerned, someone who had lived on Charles’s estate but had been evicted from his flat and was drifting around the area
, disappeared after spending the £2,200 he was given to do the job.

On his release from the Maudsley, still depressed and confused, Hills had asked a neighbour on the Clapham estate where he still lived how he could find a professional hit-man. He was put in touch with an intermediary who introduced him to two contract killers. Alas for Hills, they turned out to be undercover policemen.


The police obtained all the taped evidence they needed for a conviction and Hills was sentenced to seven years, reduced by two years on appeal.

As I say, this story appeared in the
Observer in 2008. While in prison his writing for Prospect resumed, with the support of deputy editor Will Skidelsky, under the title of ‘The Prisoner’. Ten essays appeared between May, 2007 and September 2009, despite the prison service taking a dim view of them and preventing the publication of some.

Charles found a certain amount of camaraderie amongst the inmates of Belmarsh. Brixton was much more difficult, though thankfully he wasn’t there for long, and he finished his sentence at Belmarsh after a spell at Lowdham Grange, near Nottingham. In his last
Prospect essay he wrote: ‘Jail teaches you patience and tolerance, calm and good sense. You cannot hide. What you are comes through.’

An update on Hills’ status was provided in January of this year, 2015, by Len Port, writing in Portugal Resident, the headline being: ‘Fugitive writer C.A.R. Hills back in jail.’

This tells us that Charles Hills served only two and a half years of his five year sentence. Though his early release was not for good behaviour. Charles was regarded by many people in jail as a highly aggressive inmate and from first to last was in endless trouble. Getting out in June 2009, he then took a calculated gamble and broke the terms of his parole by travelling abroad.

He moved into the four-bedroomed house in the Algarve village of Altura that had been at the root of his decision to have his mother’s lover killed. That is, he’d won his case in the Portuguese courts and didn’t think he’d ever want to come back to England. He began to write again, though not for
Prospect. Instead he began a personal blog, which had eight entries in 2011 and infrequent, but longer, additions each year until 2014. These cover his travelling in Europe, his day-to-day life in Altura, and the whole pattern of his life and search for the truth about his ancestors.


But Hills did eventually want to come back to his homeland. After a few years in the Algarve, Hills returned to England for a five-week visit in December 2013. He arrived via an overnight ferry from the Hook of Holland to Harwich in Essex… and he got away with it. A second visit saw him spend three months, the summer of 2014, in London.

However, the third time he tried to come into the UK, in November of 2014, he wasn’t so lucky (though it may be that part of Charles connived with his re-arrest because he was running out of money). The police boarded his plane and arrested him on arrival at Gatwick Airport.

He was taken to Lewes Prison in Sussex. From there he reported to a writer friend, Geoffrey Elborn, that he was quite settled. Hills has since been transferred to Rochester Prison in Kent. Elborn says he and other friends have not been able to arrange any visits because slots in the visiting rooms have been fully booked.

According to Elborn, who has had a phone call from Hills: “Charles is more or less resigned to being inside until 2016 and I think that he was advised not to appeal. If he did appeal, there would be a chance that his sentence would be increased and, if reduced, he would be given conditions that would probably deprive him of any chance to go abroad and he would be forced to remain in the UK until any new parole term expired. As he has nowhere to live in the UK, he might as well see it through in prison.”

So here goes:

Dear Charles,
I came across your remarkable story while researching a book I've been commissioned to write about the subsequent writing lives of those who contributed to PEN New Fiction 2
I enjoyed reading your sensitive and perceptive piece, A Mugging, but was astounded to learn about ‘David Welsh’ and his history.
I’m not sure if it’s altogether appropriate to ask you what follows when your circumstances are what I believe they are, but here goes:


What were your hopes, fears and ambitions in regard to PEN New Fiction 2? Did you go to the opening in January, 1987? If so, can you recall anything about that evening?
Back then I liked William New's disjointed and Beckett-influenced piece, ‘Six Heated Tales’, but he seems to have disappeared without trace. Was there any story or stories in the volume that you recall particularly liking? Perhaps that's difficult to answer without access to the book. Could I send you a copy?

Have you written any books since the mid-eighties? Are there manuscripts in cupboards somewhere? Do you still have the ambition to have your longer writings published? Will you be resuming your blog when you get out of prison? 
We share one or two bits of background. Decades ago, I too did well at a state school, went on to study Geography at an Oxbridge college and felt socially ill-at-ease. At least you were at Hertford where Evelyn Waugh once cavorted. My last book was about Waugh and if it would be of the slightest interest I would be glad to send you a copy of that as well. That is, if it wouldn’t be too like what happens in 
Decline and Fall, where, thanks to the influence of someone on the outside, Paul Penny-feather receives copies of the latest books in his cell, gifts bearing the label of a Piccadilly bookseller. Pennyfeather quite enjoys his time in both the prisons he’s sent to, which is no doubt a complete fantasy and I hope that by referring to it I don’t dampen your spirits in any way.
‘Stone walls do not a prison make’, one chapter is called. ‘Nor iron bars a cage’, another. Would that it were true!
Please write to me if you feel like it. I would be delighted to read your thoughts about anything I’ve alluded to.
Best wishes, Duncan McLaren

I’m conscious that I’ve written this letter in my father’s house. A house that my brother and I will be inheriting before too long, given my father’s perilous state of health. Though that will be a sad day indeed as our father, still in hospital where I visit him every day, has lived a kind, wise and constructive life. He has already been very good to both his sons in any number of ways.


Like C.A.R. Hills, I too in my twenties to forties put up with not having much money, knowing that in due course I was likely to inherit from my industrious parents. Not a fortune, but enough so that for the rest of my life I wouldn’t have to work at anything I didn’t consider to be my real work.

My first full-length book was accepted for publication in my 39th year. Question: what enabled me to be so patient? Answer: the existence of a house I was going to inherit 50% of. This house that I’m occupying right now.

Approaching sixty, I have no pension other than a state one to look forward to. But I now have several books published and am close to coming into possession of this house, my share of which is likely to be worth over £100,000.

What would I think if someone came along and charmed the pants off Dad, causing him to change his will?

First, that would not happen. Our bond is a strong one, all the more so since I gave such solid support to both my parents over the last ten years as they became frail. My father and I helped make my mother’s passage out of life a relatively easy one, which is something we’re always going to be proud of.

But if the unthinkable did happen, I would be mortified. Would I hatch a plan to murder the object of my father’s
largesse? Of course not.

But can I truly say that? Over time, would the frustration, anger and fear not eat away at my humanity? If I was deluded enough to think I could get away with it, would I not consider hiring a hit-man to take care of my problem? I like to think the answer is still: ‘of course not’. But who knows?

In other words, I can just about empathize with the worst of C.A.R. Hills’ actions, the downside of his character. And obviously I feel I have a lot in common with other aspects of his personality. I mean in particular, the literary ambition and the desire for clarity, simplicity and euphony.



A stamped, addressed envelope has been pushed through the letter-box of my father’s house here in Blairgowrie today. Not a rejection slip from a literary agent or publisher, I don’t work that way these days. Rather, a communiqué from Rochester Prison.

Dear Duncan,
How strange, yet how welcome, that you should recall to my mind that agreeable but (it seemed) utterly obscure literary party that is now almost 29 years ago! It is strange too that you mention Alexander New, because I believe I may have met him. I recall a vivid, academic, voluble young man – plus another young contributor, and that we may have gone together to a nearby pub after the event, and I remember reading ‘Six Heated Tales’, although perhaps without much understanding, my literary tastes were quite conventional at that time. I had approached the party from my flat in Clapham with immense excitement, believing ‘A Mugging’ would make my name, that there would be many reviews, that a publisher would approach me. I was so frightened that my mother would find out about my story that I allowed a friend to persuade me to use the name David Welsh (chosen because I had been much influenced by my reading of Denton Welch and sought to emulate his honest but sympathetic style) rather than my already cherished writing name of C.A.R. Hills. ‘A Mugging’ had been my first piece of imaginative writing, set down in my flat one wet August night in 1984. But for many years no other acceptances came.

But as you know, some limited success for my shorter work did eventually arrive (
Prospect, Quadrant, Chroma), and that the crisis in my life came which has left me notorious as a person but with not much greater success as a writer. Yes, I wrote two novels and a novella in the 1990s and early 2000s, and many shorter works, so there is a vast collection of unpublished manuscripts in the charge of Bill Hicks, who keeps them in a series of Sainsbury’s bags in his eyrie.-like flat, which was very close to mine. When I left England in 2009, I more or less gave up the struggle to interest agents and publishers, and after a while began to concentrate on my blog, which, yes, I intend to resume when full “freedom” arrives on June 24th, 2016. I have been rewriting the most recent post, which vanished from the screen in a hotel in Lisbon shortly before my arrest. I am not very competent with modern computers, to put it mildly.


Prison is not so bad. I have Paul Pennyfeather’s insanely cheerful view. But don’t send me any books here. I recently had an oral hearing for parole, and may be getting out or going to an open prison very shortly. I will write to you again when I know what is happening, and will accept the books with pleasure. I do wish you all the best with what sounds like a fascinating project, and will do my best to co-operate. I do hope the curse of Geography does not continue to fall on us both!

Thank you so much for writing to me.

Best wishes, Charles

I have to admit it was very exciting to get this letter, as I’d become aware that the success of this project depends on the other contributors to the PEN anthology taking an interest. If they don’t care about The Class of ’87 then nobody else will.

I spent the evening of Thursday, December 3, mulling over Charles’s letter. This involved drinking the best part of a bottle of wine. But not the whole bottle. And in the morning I felt in fine enough fettle to write back.

Dear Charles,

I think the next time someone asks me what my earliest memory is, I’m going to answer: ‘The PEN party when I was 29 and a quarter.” I say that because, like any genuinely old memory, at best it’s actually the memory of a memory and it’s frustratingly incomplete.

But I’m piecing things together. I had a copy of the anthology with me that night, or I marked up a copy when I got home. Kathrine Talbot, Peter Parker, Frances Fyfield, Suzi Robinson, William New, Ralph Goldswain, Thomas McCarthy and Mansel Stimpson have all been underlined in pencil. Meaning I talked to them that night. I have since learned that Connie Bensley and Dan Corry were chatting together. And that Wendy Brandmark was talking to one of the name-badged PEN people.


I got excited when I read ‘Alexander New’ in your letter because I thought that meant you knew his real name and that this would explain why I hadn’t managed to trace anything via ‘William New’ as it appears in the book. Alas, there is no trace of an ‘Alexander New’ either, and I suspect you just got the name wrong.

I don’t think you and I met, or I would have underlined your name in pencil. Though it’s possible I was that ‘other young contributor’ you mention, since William New was definitely in the party that I asked along to a nearby pub after the launch at PEN. Part of my fragmented memory is of William, who wasn’t (or should I say ‘isn’t’?) very tall, dressed in a long coat and waving an umbrella, saying: “Verily we will hence forward to a hostelry where the festivities will reach a crescendo.”

You seem sure that you read William New’s story, less sure that you met him. Perhaps the ‘vivid, academic, voluble’ young man was another of the contributors? Let me dig down a bit into the above list. Mansel Stimpson was and is a film critic. In 2014 he published what I think is his only book, a memoir,
No Drum to Beat, which was about being gay in the late 70s and early 80s, which he actually wrote in the mid-80s. Presumably that would be a book that would interest you. I’ve now got a copy and it’s sitting in my ‘to read or send to Charles’ pile.

Peter Parker has written two long biographies of very creative, gay men, Christopher Isherwood (2004) and J.R. Ackerley (1989). He was there on the night of the party (see, I’m calling it ‘the night of the party’ now as if I have a clear, nostalgic memory of it, as if it wasn’t the utterly obscure literary event that you refer to) with Christopher Potter. I recall the latter because he told me that he worked for a publisher. So I told him that my story, ‘A Business Meeting’, was the first chapter in a novel, and he asked to have look at the manuscript. That didn’t come to anything. But it was the first bit of networking I ever did, so what could I expect?

Christopher Potter went on to be literary director of Fourth Estate. And once he retired from that job, Fourth Estate published a couple of his books.
You are Here: A Portable History of the Universe (2009). And How to Make a Human Being: A Body of Evidence (2014). Catchy titles, eh? So far I’ve resisted buying the books just to see if they’re dedicated to Peter Parker. Ackerley and Isherwood (a huge tome) are definitely in my aforementioned pile of books, possibly for you, but having said that I will probably end up getting engrossed in Peter Parker’s world.


I had thought I went to the party on my own. But I have this clear recollection of a friend asking why I thought Christopher Potter was there, and then answering his own question by saying he was there with his boyfriend. I did not frequent gay circles and was gently bemused by this interpretation. I wonder why? It seems I lived a sheltered life despite my all-male Cambridge college and my London pub crawling.

Suzi Robinson did a very clever thing that night of the launch. She went round and got her copy signed by all the contributors present. I’ve asked her if she could possibly send me a list of names. She’s written back saying that she’s recovering from a serious operation but that when she feels up to it she’ll go down into her cellar and find ‘the book with all the author signatures’.

If that book has any monetary value it’ll be because it’s signed by Ian Rankin. He did a talk and a signing in Dundee last week to which I went along. I got there early enough to get a seat in the main theatre. Apart from the lucky 350 who were there, another 400 were watching live transmissions in adjacent theatres. After the event he signed copies of his new book, ‘Even Dogs in the Wild’, for a solid hour. Almost last in the queue was me. He graciously signed his story in the PEN book, recalling that he hadn’t been paid for the piece of writing.

Amazing that he could still remember that detail so many millions of pounds down the line! Do you recall that? It’s sobering to think that he will have sold more books than the rest of us put together. Possibly a hundred times more than the rest of us put together. Which brings to mind that horrific statistic that the average FTSE boss earns 150 times more than the average worker. I’m going to have to think that through though. Cos I ain’t no average worker. And neither are you.


Could you tell me in a line or two what your two completed novels and novellas are about? (I know it’s painful to do that, but it is a useful skill to be able to summarize your work in a sentence, a paragraph and a page.) I too have old manuscripts in Sainsbury’s plastic bags. In most cases, I’ve also got typed versions in A4 files, but I’ve no particular hope of getting this material out into the world, even though currently I have both a literary agent and a publisher. All my ambitions are pinned on this work-in-progress. Actually, that is a joke. My Evelyn Waugh book was reviewed very favourably by the Telegraph, and the Independent, while The Mail made it their Book of the Week (Headline: ‘Sex with Evelyn? I’d rather go to the dentist.’). Yet in the six months since publication, sales have not reached 400. Ian Rankin must have sold more copies of ‘Even Dogs in the Wild’ in the last week. I should have called it ‘Evelyn: Dog in the Wild’. Too late for that; too late. But is it too late to call the current book ‘Even Dogs in the PEN’?

I am glad to know that you’ll be getting out within a few months. Perhaps even sooner from what you say. Do let me know when you are released into the wild (I really am obsessed with that book title) or are transferred to an open prison
, so that I can offload some of the books that I’m presently surrounded by.

This has been a very chatty letter that I’ve very much enjoyed writing. I hope it doesn’t come over as too frivolous for you in your current situation. If it stimulates more thoughts of a PEN nature, do let me know them, if you can.

Thanks so much for going to the trouble of answering my last letter.

All best wishes, Duncan


It’s a couple of weeks before I get a reply from Charles. By which time he’s been transferred to Brixton Prison in south London and I’ve been working simultaneously on the chapters focusing on Wendy Brandmark , D.J. Taylor and Bill Thompson.

But as soon as I’ve transcribed the eight scrawled-on sheets, I’m right back into the present chapter.

HMP Brixton
27 December ‘15


Dear Duncan,
I think I can remember reading William New’s story because I did meet him. Now you clarify the situation a bit more in your last letter, I too seem to remember that there was a fairly large party at the pub, but that I had attached myself particularly to the two young men I had first met at the party. Now you mention it as well, the flamboyant rather archaic sentences you quote seem to chime in with my memories of William New. My calling him ‘Alexander’ was obviously just a slip, although I no longer have your first letter to check it, because my personal papers were confiscated from me by the rather bossy and prejudiced prison officer on this wing on my arrival (I had another run-in with her this morning – endless trouble follows me in prison although I do not believe I seek it) and have gone to stored property, so I must rely purely on memory, which as you say, is often just the memories of memories, and can be false or overly suggested at that. But it occurs to me that, if you do not know William New’s real name, there is nothing really to say that he has vanished. He may have gone on to publish under his real name, as I have chosen to do.

However, although I can tell you nothing more about William New, oddly enough I know something about all the people that you mention as having met, with the exception of Suzi Robinson, whom you mention that you are already in touch with. So I will give at least a summary of what I know and then come to the subject matter of my writing impulse, my novels and novellas, which I certainly don’t mind describing briefly.

Charles writes a long paragraph about each of Mansel Stimpson, Peter Parker, Kathrine Talbot, Thomas McCarthy, Ralph Goldswain and Frances Fyfield. He knew some of these individuals before the launch while others he met on the night of the party. It is all valuable stuff, but I’ll hold back on revealing it until I’m focusing on those individuals.

How strange that so much information about fellow PEN contributors comes from Brixton Prison rather than Thirladean House, where Allan Massie lives in the Borders. I will take Charles up on his offer to give me the contact details of Mansel Stimpson and Peter Parker, but not just yet as I’ve already got my hands full with the present lot. OK, back to Charles’s letter:


About my writing and my creative impulse. I wrote as a teenager, as so many people do, and hoped I would become a writer. But then my twenties were so disordered and so unhappy that writing went totally by the board. I think I was released by two things. First was the very experience of being mugged, which I think happened in October 1982. I am a masochist, and I think all my writing deals in some way, sometimes rather remotely, with the attraction of violence. Jason Cowley used often to say that in my work there was always a mixture of tenderness and brutality. But then he spoilt it by saying that the piece about being buggered in Bangkok had no tenderness in it. This is such a libel. I hope you will read this very brief piece one of these days, "The Child called Sorrow". It is one of my works that means the most to me.

The other experience that released me was reading Denton Welch who I have already mentioned. He was a writer of very arcane and even precious subject matter who wrote with extreme directness and simplicity, and the attraction of his work comes from this strange contrast. I read some of his pieces, particularly 'When I was Thirteen', a piece in which Denton, very bravely considering that the work was published in the 1940s, explores his own adolescent masochism, and I thought suddenly, surely I could do this sort of thing, and about that mugging which so strangely attracted me. So one wet August night I set to work. The words came so easily and they made me so happy that I did not want to stop writing and went on with it for twenty-five years, with what success you know.

That reminds me of my own first experience of writing imaginative fiction. My mugging had been a slow one that took place over three years while I trained with an accountancy firm. Having finally left the job and career, sitting down and writing about my unhappy experience was absolute catharsis. As I wrote the story I was happy. As I read it over and revised it, I was happy. As I read it over again and again, revising it constantly, the happiness became a day-to-day reality. So why would I stop writing? I haven’t stopped writing since. Anyway, back to Charles:


People often told me that my work had deeply moved or affected them, and I wanted to give them this deep and perhaps hurtful experience. I do not fundamentally have a friendly, benevolent or cooperative vision of the world. I want people to know the truth. My friend Bill once said that I tended to rub my readers' noses in whatever I was writing about. I hope the beauty of the way I do this redeems the fundamental malevolence of my motives.

My Novels and Novellas
1) David’s Music
My first novel, written from the early 1990s, is a large-scale semi-autobiographical portrait of a useless, vaguely foreign youngish man facing the approach of middle-age. and surrounded by a distant and vaguely hostile artistic and media set in London. At that time, I seemed to know a vast number of unpleasant classical music writers and I put them all together in one of the novels worst characters, Charters!

2) Lorne Park (alternative title: Fennell’s Bastard.)
This, written from the mid-90s, shorter than
David’s Music, and based on a period working for the BBC Monitoring Service at Caversham Park near Reading, sees 7 trainees taken on by a grim and mysterious project at a sinister country house and explores how the central character and narrator, who at first appears normal and pleasant, becomes a figure of corruption and evil.

3) The Track
My third novel, now so short it is really a novella, and written in the late 1990s, when I was very solitary and unemployed and used to walk vast distances over south east-London, is set in the future and written in the third person of another young man who hangs around a church where various old ladies facing euthanasia are gathered and tries to save one of them in a secret annexe in his house. He is mainly interested in the work of Muriel Spark but is pursued by a terrifying authority figure called The Master Caner who presides over The Track of the title, which is a symbol of the necessary experience we must all go through.

4) Tony and Linda (alternative title: The Childhood of My Son)
This was written in early 1986, when I was doing the grim job earlier referred to, and concerns a pathetic divorced man in middle-age and with a young son who takes an unpleasant couple of tenants at his large and dilapidated house in Streatham. It is based on myself and the man who brought me up.


What a concise summary of Charles’s book projects, most of which seem to have been written in the 1990s. Interesting that one of them concerns Muriel Spark as that was the author that Ian Rankin was writing a thesis on before his own muse took over. Muriel Spark, gateway to both stardom and oblivion, then.

Not that manuscripts in Sainsbury’s bags
necessarily means failure to find a publisher. However, I don’t think I want to play Max Brod to Charles’s Kafka. Perhaps Bill Hicks, who Charles told me in his first letter is holding these manuscripts in his flat in Clapham, will take on that role some day, in the unfortunate case of such a role needing to be played.

I will not even be asking to read the manuscripts, because if I did the present project would never get finished. I will, however, continue to feast on this letter:

Perspective from the eve of 2016
Now I am 60 years old, and the Goldswains and Fyfields of PEN New Fiction 2 seem to belong to an impossibly distant past, as do my novels and novellas, and the Parkers and the Potters will never be friends, but you and your project have once again stirred up the old dreams which, as I am sure you will agree, never entirely die. I sometimes wonder whether the young of the internet age, now as we go into 2016, still dream of being writers. Sometimes I believe that having grown up with clicking, dragging and dropping must make that dream seem impossibly old hat, and yet the dream goes back to the ancient Greeks. It is buried deep in the human race.
Best, Charles.

Charles needn’t fear that the present generation is giving up on the idea of being a writer. The web increases the chance of a writer finding a small audience. Facebook is full of individuals showing promise with their wittily crafted paragraphs. And through the ‘like’ button those budding writers get a taste for receiving approval from readers. From Facebook to self-publishing, or a publishing house, is a big step, but many people are making it.


Anyway, what an incredibly useful letter. And with its layers of revelation in mind I will turn towards the other contributors whom I’ve already contacted successfully.

But before I do that, I want to see if I can tie C.A.R. Hills and myself closer together - other than by writing to him yet again. So here goes…

Charles wrote his Clapham Omnibus pieces between February 2000 and November 2001, when he was 45. This is more or less when I was writing reviews of contemporary art for the
Independent on Sunday. Just as Charles would set out to explore his chosen world from the Clapham flat he’d lived in for ages, I would set off to explore my chosen world from the bed-sit in Forest Hill that I’d lived in since 1990.

In the piece that Jason Cowley wrote about Charles in 2008, the latter mentions that he’d been ‘brutally dropped’ by his editor, David Goodhart. I was first given a column in the
Sindie thanks to Isabel Lloyd and Jenny Turner. It was called ‘Public View’, and sub-titled ‘Adventures in Contemporary Art’. But a few months later there was a change of overall editor and my column was ‘brutally dropped’ after just 19 articles.

Months later, when Janet Street Porter was made chief editor of the paper, I wrote to her, facetiously asking for my column back. Instead I was invited to review shows for the paper, three or four each week. I took up the offer to do it every fortnight, which meant that between July 1999 and October 2001, I reviewed 150-odd shows. I had ten trips to Scotland, five to Birmingham, two to Southampton and one each to Bristol, Sway, Liverpool and Bournville. But mostly it was London: seven shows at Mobile Home, six at Interim Art and White Cube, five at Lisson, Matt’s and the Tate. I got paid - yes, paid - for my writing, perhaps £18,000 over the two-and-a-bit years. Not a single moment of embarrassment or adverse criticism from artist or reader that I can recall. But in the end, like Charles, I was again ‘brutally dropped’. That is, when Janet Street Porter resigned from the top job and an editor with a sports background replaced her.


Despite being dumped by David Goodhart, Charles was taken on again by the magazine, courtesy of its deputy editor, Will Skidelsky, to write a column while he was in prison. Charles has written to me about the prison column in detail. Prospect never dropped him while he was in prison and Will Skidelsky was keen to use him throughout. But the fact that Charles named prisoners in two successive pieces led to him being banned from sending out more by Belmarsh, a policy deplored by Prospect in its pages. But persistent Charles got one more out by sending it to a junior editor at Prospect whose name the prison authorities had never heard of, and with just the address not the name of the magazine.

Then crafty Charles was transferred to Lowdham Grange in February 2008 and his first months there were very difficult, as his last couple of months were to be, and he initially did not write much there, but then resumed, and
Prospect were glad to publish. Two or three pieces were written and despatched there before Lowdham Grange in its turn banned Charles from sending out more. He tried to smuggle one very sensational piece out from there to The New Statesman, but it did not get through.

Charles was returned to Belmarsh in February 2009 after a couple of months of terrible persecution at Lowdham Grange and he wrote a highly coded piece about what he had suffered there which hardly mentioned Belmarsh. He sent it as clandestinely as he could, hardly thinking it would get through. A few weeks later an officer mentioned with a nod and a wink the fact that he'd heard
Prospect were enjoying that piece! Oh happy prisoner!


Charles wrote his final Prisoner piece a few days after being released from Belmarsh in June 2009, in his flat in London, and it was published by
Prospect a month or two later. Will Skidelsky had left Prospect by that time and Charles had to fight to get the piece properly edited, and after publishing it Prospect once again dropped him without a word.

My next column appeared on Saga’s website in May 2010. It was called ‘Visiting Mabel’ and concerned my mother who was living in a care home. That fortnightly blog went on for nearly four years. It was well paid. It was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Blogs in 2011. And, most important of all, it meant the time I was spending with Mum didn’t seem like a sacrifice, but a double blessing. Blessing one: I was helping the person who’d brought me into the world to remain in it a while longer. Blessing two: I was further developing my craft.

Actually, the reason it was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize was surely because it was helping other people to come to terms with their own elderly parents’ decline. In other words, the blog was doing its bit to help society understand what people suffering from dementia needed in the way of day-to-day input from their loved ones and from the institution they lived in.

Now, while Charles did not get the opportunity to write a regular blog about his mother for
Prospect or anyone else. One of the Clapham Omnibus columns does focus on their relationship. It’s from January 2001. Here it is, starting with a quote:

‘It was only a month or two ago that I told my mother I was gay, although I am 45. She now lives in Portugal, her native country, but she was staying with me in London. She had just revealed to me that although her huge seaside villa would remain mine after her death, as it must under Portuguese law, she had given a lifelong tenancy of the upstairs flat to her much younger live-in lover. When I heard this, I went berserk for two days.


‘She didn’t react much when I broke my unwelcome news about being gay, but returned to the subject several times in a way which seemed clever to her (she’s going slightly funny). She said once, “What would you think if I told you I was a fressureira?”

“If I knew what that meant, I might be able to answer.”

“What do you think it means?”

“Isn’t it an ember or something?”

“An ember? What’s that?” she said.

“Something you put on a fire.”

“That’s nothing to do with it. I’ll tell you what it means. It means a woman who likes other women.”

“Oh, that’s interesting. I’ll look it up in the dictionary.”

“Never mind the dictionary,” she said. “What would you say if I told you I was a fressureira?”

“Are you one?”

“Of course not!”

“Well, what on earth are you talking about then?” I said, leaving her abruptly, as I did very often over the course of her three-week stay.’

Charles goes on to write how her visit was intensely disturbing. After two days of madness, during which he endlessly walked and rode the streets of London before returning to hurl insults at her, and once actually to attack her, they were able to establish an uneasy peace.

When, a decade before, he saw
The Seagull, Charles was struck by how similar the relationship between Madame Arkadina and her son was to his own relationship with his mother. How clearly he recognised the strategy of alternate smother-love and disparagement. He didn’t want to share Konstantin’s fate, so he began to kill the exaggerated love that his mother had shown him. Now, of course, she had retaliated in her own way by disinheriting him as far as she could.


When she left him at Gatwick airport, his mother had to have a special escort to take her to her seat in the plane, because she could no longer follow the indicator boards. She didn’t look back as she went, and seemed utterly confused about where she was.

Charles was overjoyed to see her leave. But her visit hadn’t been all bad. He couldn’t help admiring her when, outside his front door, she taught the little girls who played in the square to dance the cha-cha-cha. Charles had to join in, although he didn’t do it well. The girls hadn’t forgotten her, just as Charles hadn’t forgotten how she used to move and amaze him, long ago.

So there you go. It’s a nicely written piece. Clarity, check. Simplicity, check. Euphony, check. And it reminds me of A Confederacy of Dunces, that superb book by John Kennedy Toole about an adult son and his widowed mother. I suppose Charles Albert Reis Hills somehow brings to mind Ignatius J. Reilly.

I’m putting that Penguin paperback right on top of my ‘send to Charles’ pile.


I’ve just found out that in March 2014, the Government placed a ban on prisoners receiving books in jail.

The ruling prevented inmates from receiving parcels from the outside unless they have ‘exceptional circumstances’ such as a medical condition. Books, subscription magazines and clothing such as spare socks and underwear were all prohibited.

A letter was sent to the government signed by authors protesting at the new rule. The letter was published in the
Telegraph and read:

‘We are extremely concerned at new rules that ban family and friends sending in books to prisoners. Whilst we understand that prisons must be able to apply incentives to reward good behaviour by prisoners, we do not believe that education and reading should be part of that policy.


‘Books represent a lifeline behind bars, a way of nourishing the mind and filling the many hours that prisoners spend locked in their cells. In an environment with no internet access and only limited library facilities, books become all the more important.

‘We urge the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, to reconsider the Prison Service Instruction that limits books and other essentials being sent to prisoners from family and friends.’

The letter was signed by a number of top writers including Ian Rankin.

I dare say I would have signed that letter, and I have little doubt that Charles would have signed it too. But, not being ‘top writers’, we weren’t asked.

In July 2015 it was announced by PEN, which had been at the forefront of the campaign to get back prisoners right to be sent books, that the Secretary for State had relaxed all restrictions preventing prisoners from receiving books.

Well done, Ian Rankin! And his books, his published books, just keep on selling.


I was on the point of sending Evelyn! and PEN New Fiction 2 to Charles at Brixton when I got a telephone call from his friend, Geoffrey Elborn, advising me not to.

He explained that although the legislation preventing books being sent to prisoners had been overturned, in practice, prisoners’ rights to books were not being upheld. The books would not get to Charles.

Something for PEN to look into? In any case, I put the precious books, each one already inscribed to Charles, under the table on which my
PEN New Fiction 2 library is rapidly mounting.


However, I do want to end this chapter on a positive note, so let me finish with a picture of Charles, enjoying life in his mother’s house in Portugal back in 2011. A blog entry reads:

‘I can report that I am increasingly happy in Altura, with its million barking dogs in the otherwise ghostly streets. My house is the usual white Algarvian box with red roof tiles and decorative chimney, but I keep it cool inside by never opening the shutters, and I love to sit naked at the stone table in the back garden writing my private diary, looking at the peach and rose and jacaranda and lemon trees, and sipping at a Spanish apple liqueur.’

If ever life gets bleak on Brixton’s G-Wing - and how could it not? - I trust Charles will be able to conjure up the peach and rose and jacaranda and lemon trees and Spanish apple liqueur and stone table and back garden and private diary. And in the private diary, he might scrawl in barely legible handwriting, something along the lines of: ‘When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the wild dogs are all in confederacy against him.’

Actually, why make up words when I can use Charles’s own? These from his most recent letter to me, summing up where he has got to in life:
‘In recent years, I have been able to hurt people in practical life, and particularly Flávio, by being able to take the house off him. My impatience of and dislike for the literary world has become extreme. I have seen something of what fame can bring. And the deep wish to please my mother, and make her proud of me, no longer operates. All these factors, and an overpowering laziness and lethargy which affects me very often, have tended since the year 2002, to reduce my wish to write. But it is still my vocation, my delight and my urgent need, and I will do it when I can.’


I may want to end this chapter on a positive note about Charles’s writing mission and his house in Portugal, but it’s sentimental to do so.


Charles is locked up in a prison cell. With no access to a computer or to such deeply human resources as light, heat, wine, olives, literature, companionship, love.

pen pals - Version 3

If anyone is sipping Spanish liqueurs in the back garden of a Portuguese house on the Algarve right now, it is Ian Rankin. Texts and emails from his agent and his publisher make beeping noises on his phone barely distinguishable from the chirping of cicadas. However, there is no chance of the chirping becoming an overpowering hum because his affairs are so well organized. Most things come to him through Angela at Orion. For example, she will have forwarded my email to Ian, but there is no way she would forward a series of reminder or supplementary emails, which is why I’m not sending any. One solitary chirrup a couple of months ago. Which he has not responded to and may never will.

That’s it: I’ve reached the stage where I feel envious of Rankin just as I feel sorry for Hills. Yet I remain my own man, neither a lionized author nor a jailbird. Which is exactly what I needed to achieve in order to take this investigation forward.

At least I think it is.

Next chapter