Wendy Brandmark
DJ Taylor, Ian Rankin
CAR Hills, JW New,
Connie Bensley, Elaine Feinstein

I’ve just written to Wendy Brandmark:

I think it's about now that you said your book of short stories comes out. And I think you said there would be a launch for He Runs the Moon. I hope it all goes well - if it's not already happened.

It’s got me remembering the night thirty years ago when the launch of
PEN New Fiction 2 took place. The highlight of the evening came when Ralph Goldswain signed three copies of the book for fellow contributors, including for C.A.R. Hills who hadn’t wanted his book signed by anyone.

If anything like the situation that Ralph found himself in crops up at your launch, do please let me know about it. Well, no, please tell me anything you would like to about the launch of your book. Although I haven't written up the London interviews as such, I'm getting very close to the end of PEN PALS now and it would feel right to hear from you once more.

Best wishes, Duncan


Having sent this off, I realize I might as well send similar emails to the other PEN pals that have had books out relatively recently. To D. J. Taylor, Peter Parker and to Ian Rankin. And it’s David who writes back first, the same morning:

Dear Duncan,
The project sounds more fascinating the more I hear about it. Look forward to seeing the finished product, and I am sure I can help in some way when it comes to promotion etc. Might make a piece in the
Trying to think of something that happened recently at a book signing but can't at the moment. All very decorous and normal. But if I think of anything I shall let you know.
I had a letter from C
.A.R. in response to mine - can't remember if I told you this - so will write to him again.
Best David

This prompts me to look through my pile of Private Eyes until I find the following piece, possibly penned by David Taylor, certainly it’s on the page he contributes the majority of copy to:

‘Excited crowds formed at a book-signing for Martin Amis’s latest masterpiece,
The Information. One awestruck man asked if Mr Amis could possibly write “To George” on his book before making his signature. The Great One gave the man a withering look and said: “No I won’t. There are 200 people waiting here and I just don’t have time.” There’s generosity for you.’

And what have we here? Charles is next up in the queue. He asks if Mr Amis could possibly write “To C.A.R. Hills” on his book but on no account to sign it with his own name. Ha-ha.

Ian Rankin also replies the same day:


Re signing anecdotes, none that spring to mind from latest book. But one time I did sign a book for a fan. She turned up at a signing a year or two later having had my autograph tattooed onto the back of her neck. Wow... Ian

I know from Ian Rankin’s twitter feed that he recently organised a contest to guess the title of his forthcoming book. Which turned out to be Rather Be the Devil. And so I reply:

The fan's tattoo. Did it include the hangman motif? That would give a dark edge. But I know you wouldn't really Rather Be the Devil.

Great marketing to get your readership thinking about the title of your next book, months before publication. But it will be a while before it has etched itself into my mind as sharply as Even Dogs in the Wild has. No doubt I’ll be hooked on the new title by November. If you’re up in Dundee again giving a talk, I’ll be first in the queue looking for a signature.

Good luck with the finishing of it, Duncan

And a day or two later this comes from Wendy:

It’s good to hear from you. It has been an exhausting week so only now have got back to normal and have a chance to write to you. I had the launch party on Wednesday plus two readings (World Book night on Monday and a City Lit reading at Waterstones yesterday) from the collection and somehow kept my voice. I think all went very well. I read from four different stories over the week, but not 'Irony'. No strange mishaps (like the ones you describe from PEN) though interesting and emotional nonetheless. We had a great turnout at the launch; friends and students turned up whom I hadn't seen in years, including a colleague and friend from the 1980s. Just amazing to see him. People came from all periods of my life in London stretching back to my first years here.


I will get a copy of
He Runs the Moon to you, either my publisher will send a review copy or I will post one. When you do get it, check out  'My Red Mustang' (which I read last night at Waterstones) because Phil from 'Irony' appears as a minor character at one point (the surly professor who 'writes about having poignant sex with young women'). It is interesting that the Mustang story was written and published four years ago, so a big gap in time between the two stories. Also you might want to look at how 'Irony' fits in with all the other Denver stories. Just a thought.

How are you getting on with
PEN Pals? Let me know if you have any more questions. I hope you like He Runs the Moon.

Best wishes, Wendy

That’s friendly and interesting. These three communications from David, Ian and Wendy are just as crucial to the success of my enterprise as those more extraordinary epistles from Jeff and Charles.

Is that true? I should have a go at thinking it through, but I’m too eager to transcribe my latest letter from Brixton:

Dear Duncan,

Thank you for your long and, as always, interesting letter, and I am delighted by your comment that the two of us are “right at the heart of things”. Once again, my (superficially considered) disastrous life has turned out to have at least the makings of the strangest sort of good fortune. I knew from the minute that I received your very first letter that you would be very good news for me, and while it is almost inevitable that certain things you eventually say in your book I will believe to be false or unfair, I feel sure that the basically positive picture will not be altered.


I am glad that you have read "Lorne Park", and was happy with your positive if rather elliptical comments. As you said, I have spread myself over three of the principal male characters, which I think helped me to write something that is genuinely fiction, in contrast to my first novel, "David's Music", which, although more heartfelt and broader in scope, was very much the sort of semi-autobiographical novel that first novelists often produce. My third, very brief and strange effort, "The Track", is a sort of mixture of the two techniques - it is written in the third person and therefore distances itself from the hero, but is even more personal than the first novel. Anyway, I hope that your rather brief comments mean that you are still thinking about my second book, and thank you also for quoting a line which I had entirely forgotten but which resonated anew with me when I read it.

It’s sad that none of these books have been published. I feel I have been excluded from the literary world because so much of my writing details with gay masochism rather than with just vanilla gayness, if I may put it that way. So many people said they thought my sadie-maisie pieces were brilliant but only two ever got published in Chroma, and the second of these got the editor, Sean Levin, into frightful trouble because I mentioned I admired the Stephen Lawrence murderers for their "cocky masculinity" or something like that. Jason Cowley wanted to publish one about a spanking club in The New Statesman but fellow-editor Christina Odone barred it. He had himself been "shocked beyond words" by one of the two that got into Chroma. And so on and so on.

I was mainly written off for being too sweet and old-fashioned, but these were just the opposite. Something similar happened to Erik Kästner in the 1920s whose children's books were derided for their sentimentality but whose
Fabian got burnt at the behest of Dr. Goebbels.

How's that for the exclusion stakes? By the way, I still say I am not middle-class. I am outsider foreign bohemian.


I feel slightly saddened that you are thinking of going back to the title PEN PALS rather than Bitter Sweet, and I am going once again to try and persuade you that the latter is the right title, using more fundamental arguments than the point about the existence of PEN New Fiction One. I suppose it all depends on whether you want to paint the basically optimistic picture (which I would argue would be false) or a more equivocal one (because the sweetness exists just as much as the bitterness). I do not believe writers can very often truly be pals. We are all in competition for a limited audience.

To take some examples from the illustrious figures of history, were Tolstoy and Dostoievsky pals? No, they refused to meet, although they were the two greatest novelists of all time. But they were like chalk and cheese, and their mutually distinctive
weltanschaungen meant that they were necessarily opposed. Their wives once met and discussed the marketing of their respective husbands work to great profit.

Or there is the well-known quote from Dr Johnson (I quote from memory): “The mutual civility of authors is one of the most risible scenes in the comedy of life.” Or there is Gore Vidal: “It is not enough that oneself should succeed, others must fail.” Norman Mailer once punched him, and that was certainly not an example of mutual civility. Oh, I know there are counter-examples (John Lehmann once wrote a book about three authorial friendships: Byron and Shelley; Rimbaud and Verlaine; Robert Frost and Edward Thomas), but even here, it was Rimbaud who was mainly responsible for sending “la vierge folle” to prison.

Or let us come nearer to home, to our group of 32 writers. For instance, will D.J.Taylor and myself ever be pals? Of course, I like and esteem him, and I believe he does me, but my abiding image of him will always be of him smiling and waving as he vanishes through a doorway on his way to meet more important people. How typical that on the evening of the party he did not join our hopeful group but already went where his bread was buttered. Yes, he is a nice guy. Yes, he is a good writer. But he will never be a ‘pal’: it is sentimentality to claim it.


Life is full of the strangest unexpected consequences simply because people are not pals and delight in hurting each other in the most ingenious ways. Life is BITTER SWEET, Duncan! – the sweeter you try to make it, the bitterer it will become. All people who try to write learn this truth and by acknowledging their insight (and perhaps leaving out the word ‘thirty’ in my suggested strapline, because it contrasts awkwardly with the ‘32’) you may have found the ‘touchstone in the gem’ that makes your book a success. And – clinching argument! - would a certain parallel volume have done well if it had been called
Corvo My Pal?

Vaguely linked in to all this, every line of the writing, interesting but utterly unattractive, that you have shown me by Jeff New, shows what anguish his life has been. Don’t insult him by calling him a pal!

Anyway, enough of my lecturing. I guess I may have over-egged the pudding a bit with this point, got carried away with my own anti-optimistic rhetoric, and proved myself more bitter than sweet. Don’t worry that you can’t read all my longer works immediately – I am so pleased that you have read
Lorne Park. In a strange way I don’t even really want you to read them all, having so fallen out of love with the whole writing life that I fear the eye, particularly of other authors, on work that may not be fully achieved. Perhaps it’s best to leave the old man his dreams. And we are going to be old so very soon, Duncan. Of course, I hope our lives could be fun now and you will help to make them so, of course I hope that and am grateful that you have come into my life, let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

I chortled myself about the line about the “horn of Africa” by the way. I might just be able to stand sharing the lounge at ‘The Beeches’ with Peter in your imaginary residency if the curtains were thick enough, but I would probably be too basically paranoid ever to enjoy being a house-guest of someone else. In contrast I love hotels, where one’s only responsibility is to clear the room in the morning.


Oh, my life has been so BITTER SWEET, I see the bitter sweetness of everything, and I suppose that’s why I thought of that title and like it so much, although the book is yours, Duncan, and you will decide the title. But I hear them now coming round to unlock the doors and I will post this letter without checking it for my appalling handwriting before collecting my Saturday fry-up lunch and that, Duncan, like so much that concerns you, is ABSOLUTELY SWEET!

xxxxxxx Love, Charles.

I’ve no sooner read the above than I try and do justice to it.

Dear Charles,

Lovely letter again from you today. I see that you wrote it nearly a week ago. You are at a disadvantage relative to my email correspondents, though I don’t think it will come across that way in

The slightly amended structure for my sweet-bitter-sweet book is: Part One: Many are Called. Part Two: Few are Chosen. Part Three: One Reigns Supreme. Who is the one? Well, that’s still being decided as you’ll see.

Yesterday, Ian Rankin told me that a fan once got him to sign one of his books and then turned up at a signing a year or two later with the autograph tattooed onto the back of her neck.

So I want to finish
PEN PALS by getting one of the original contributors’ signatures tattooed onto the back of my neck. As a statement of humility? Or solidarity? Or clever-cleverness? All three, perhaps. If so, forgive the last.

The options are as follows:

From the evening of Jan 21 1987, signatures in Suzi Robinson’s copy of PEN New Fiction 2, or my copy:


Elsa Corbluth,
Frances Fyfield,
Kathrine Talbot,
Suzi Robinson,
Ralph Goldswain,
C.A.R Hills,
Stare Crow (me),
A. McAdam Clark,
D.J. Taylor,
G.E. Armitage,
Mansel Stimpson,
Peter Parker

I know what you’re thinking, Charles: “It’s got to be Peter Parker. What with the much tattooed Spider Man overtones.” But please, let us take our time over this. After all I’ll have to live with your decision. Though as you rightly say, I am nearly an old man by conventional calculation. So I may not have to live so very long with it.

In addition to the above, I’ve collected a few signatures since commencing PEN PALS research, namely:

Ian Rankin (on his story in
PEN New Fiction 2)
Thomas McCarthy (in his book of short stories
Finals Day)
J. W. New (at the back of D.J. Taylor’s
The Prose Factory)
Val Warner (at the front of her
Charlotte Mew)
Elaine Feinstein (in
Portraits and on her story in PEN New Fiction 2)
Connie Bensley (in
Finding a Leg to Stand On)
Jonathan Steffen (in

At the risk of being patronizing to a whole gender, my instinct is to suggest it should be a woman’s autograph. In the original book there was a 50/50 balance between male and female contributors thanks to Allan Massie’s even-handedness. In part one of my book, 16 men and 16 women are discussed. But it’s men who tend to dominate chapters, and five women are lumped together into a single chapter, the one you referred to as ‘The Missing’. Now I don’t have the signatures of Edith Cope, Kara Lind, Margaret Hodge or Mary Hadingham, and have no way of them. But Alex McAdam Clark did sign Suzi’s book, so below is one option:


PEN_0009 - Version 2

Would a tattooist be able to capture the distinct biro effect? I don’t doubt the artistry of a good contemporary tattooist for one moment. Besides, the technique used may be, in effect, direct transfer rather than skilled copy. What do you think?

This is a good chance to say something about Elaine Feinstein, especially now that I’m not writing up my London interviews as such. I was really impressed by her. She’s 85 and had broken her leg at the turn of the year, but she gave off an aura of strength this March. I think she’s been ill with cancer, she didn’t have much hair when I saw her (immaculately presented though she was) and as a result does not look very like the large portrait painted by Paula Rego that adorns the wall of her living room, in which Elaine’s long curly hair is a distinctive feature, as it seems to have been for much of her life. But Elaine was clearly comfortable in her own skin this March
. She looked great with long hair. She looks great without it.

I’d sent her a copy of the PEN2 anthology so that she could remind herself of her own short story, ‘A Late Spring’, which is set in Cambridge. Elaine was happy enough to talk about the connections between her life and her art. She told me that the frigid Maurice of ‘A Late Spring’ was a composite of two or three people, and that Tom was essentially Arnold, though she’d given him sporty characteristics that were not her husband at all. She thought that the story emphasized the importance of relations with a sexual partner. The huge thing that Maurice was missing out on was this level of intimacy. Not that relationships with friends weren’t important as well. They had been very important to Elaine and would continue to be.


Elaine signed her story in my copy of PEN New Fiction 2 in this way:


We were talking in the terraced house that Elaine and Arnold moved to shortly before his death. They’d moved there from Belsize Park because Arnold couldn’t cope with the steps that were outside their home and lead up to most of the houses in that part of London. And so now Elaine lives in a part of London where she doesn’t know as many people.

At one stage when we were talking, Elaine pointed out a lemon tree. I wasn’t sure if she meant an indoor plant or a tree in the garden, but when I was in the tube I took out the book,
Portraits, published in 2015, that she’d given me in exchange for a copy of Evelyn! The final poem in the collection is called ‘Death and the Lemon Tree’ and begins with the lines:

My Foolish indoor tree, this sudden exuberance
of sweet-smelling flowers troubles me.

The poem goes on to say how the writer kept her appointment to read her poems in Greece where she came across hillsides of lemon trees, learning that:

They flourish in terraces,
their progeny immortal
even when neglected
surviving centuries.


The thoughtful and poignant poem ends with its author back in her terraced home to find her indoor lemon tree thriving.

So you’re not finished yet,
my resilient tree. Good let us age further.

Elaine signed this book for me as well. And I think this autograph would make for a noble and fitting tattoo:


On the same day that I saw Elaine, I’d already walked a long way south of the river to meet Connie Bensley in her SW14 home.

Again she is in her mid-eighties and lives alone. Though, like Elaine, she has children and grand children who regularly visit. Just like Emily in her story of thirty years ago. We talked for a bit while she made us tea in her kitchen. Later, Connie returned to the kitchen to photocopy – at my request – one of her latest poems in the
Spectator. I wondered why she didn’t have a copy of the magazine itself and in her self-deprecating way she told me that since the regular poetry editor had been ill, the magazine had omitted to send her copy, and that she hadn’t liked to bother the new person who was doing a stalwart job in the regular editor’s absence.

Connie is modest. When I asked her if she thought of herself as ‘freelance’, she said she didn’t see herself as any sort of writer, that her writing was too occasional. Yet there we sat with several volumes of her poetry to hand and in the knowledge that she published a poem most weeks in
The Spectator. The next day, Frances Fyfield said something equally self-effacing. Frankie doesn’t feel like she’s a writer because she’s not writing a book at the moment, even though she’s written so many well thought of books in the past. You and I, Charles, are always asserting that we are writers. It was good to be reminded that there are other more low-key ways of feeling about oneself.


While Connie returned to the kitchen to photocopy me something else, I read her
Spectator poem, which is called: ‘Don’t Look Back’.

No, let's not look at the old photographs any more:
our hair was so full and shiny then, and anyway
we can't tell all those babies apart now.

And who was the woman in the lace blouse
sitting on our sofa, with that basilisk stare?
I don't remember ever seeing her before.

Let’s put the albums back on the shelf
and settle down with that serial killer thing on TV.
That always cheers us up.

Immediately I felt I liked and understood it, at least on one level. Indeed, I went so far as to change a word here or there so that when Connie returned to the lounge I was able to read her own poem back to her, slightly amended. In retrospect, I can hardly believe my own impudence. Anyway, here’s what she had to listen to:

No, let’s not look at
PEN New Fiction 2 any more.
our writing was so avant garde then, and anyway
we can’t tell all those contributors apart now.

Let’s put the anthology back on the shelf
and settle down with that Ian Rankin thing on TV.
That always cheers us up.

I don’t think Connie can have been too upset by my nerve because at the end of our hour-long chat she gave me a copy of her poems and she wrote on the title page:



I think that ‘Connie’ would look just as good on the back of my neck as that last ‘Elaine’ would. But I want the choice to be yours, Charles. I suspect that if given completely free rein you would choose the words ‘Bitter Sweet’ for me. But, sticking to the names of the aforementioned pen pals, what’s it to be?

Alexandra McAdam Clark? (A bit of a neckful?)
Elaine Feinstein?
Connie Bensley?
J.W. New?

Ian Rankin (the people’s choice)
Or someone else?

Hoping to hear from you soon so that I can bring this book to a fitting close.

Love, Duncan

Immediately having posted this, once again knowing that I’ll have to wait a week to get a reply, I write to Jonathan and Jeff about my prospective tattoo. This to Jeff:


Hi Jeff,

My interest in one of your satires has been piqued by an email I received a couple of days ago from fellow PEN contributor Ian Rankin.

But first let me remind you of your own piece and why it forcibly struck me the first time I read it. Two weeks after seeing you, I was going down to London to interview seven of our fellow PEN2 contributors in the knowledge that I was working on a book that I felt had had an extremely promising start. So when I read your ’On Beheadings’, I strongly identified with the guy who had made the amazing recordings that 'you' had been so struck by:

On Beheadings

You must confess, to open a basket and find it’s full of heads, that disconcerts.

If it was your job, for instance, to fasten the remains of traitors onto city gates (and someone has to do it), manhandling chin and cheek and brow to face them right way round, that most of us are not prepared to touch.

Once the seat of personality, now all potency spent, tumbled together nose to neck and eye to jowl, so comprehensive a demonstration of sudden irrevocable absence makes even the hardened axeman pause in his work (for thought).

Though there’s a satisfaction in contrasting fates helps bear him up, that he’s here still connected, while on the floor, sheer it.



It’s the gales of Opinion blow down such fruit, instead of people doing what they’re told. And I knew a man once invented a machine that gathered noises from the past, who asked me round to listen to a playback—

But hold on to your hat!

Switch thrown, I heard what seemed the shriek of shellfire, followed by a thud knocked the wind out my belly a good halfway cross the room.

After which ocean’s roaring, the cry of endless banks of shingle, its shrillness increasing until panes cracked, tiles split, the street-level heaved as though established on the flood and I said—

What the hell?


Who told me—

Every blade ever, falling then fallen.

All the clapping hands.


Wow, I thought. That's what I'm about to do. Make a stunning record.

The email I mention above told me of the time that a fan showed Ian Rankin a tattoo of his own autograph on the back of her neck.

On reading this, I decided I would have the back of my own neck tattooed with the autograph of one of my fellow contributors to
PEN New Fiction 2, as I am a genuine admirer of pretty well all these writers. I have asked C.A.R. Hills to choose whose name be tattooed onto my neck. The choice to be made from the 11 that signed Suzi Robinson's copy of the anthology back in 1987, or from any of the signatures I've obtained in the last few months, including yours on the last page of D.J. Taylor's The Prose Factory.


My hope is that when the executioner is standing over my neck stretched on the block, the tattoo will suggest to him that I am not just one more failed individual, but part of a meaningful team, an easily replaceable cog in an ever-turning wheel. And that the wheel and the team would go on regardless of him cutting my head off. And so he would spare me.

Any thoughts on the above scenario?

Best wishes, Duncan (eagerly awaiting his tattoo)

As soon as I get up in the morning, this is waiting for me.

Dear Duncan

That's an odd email to meet first thing on a Sunday morning.

I'm not a fan of tattoos. My grandfather had several, but he was a merchant seaman and they were allowed, even obliged, to have them. I've spent a lot of time, effort, and eloquence over the last few years persuading my younger daughter not to have herself inscribed in any way whatever, and my advice to you would be the same. (Certainly, if you used my name I would have to consider you my property and would then sell you into slavery abroad, and you wouldn't want that.)

Similarly, if you use the name of your pal in Brixton, by the laws of the prison-house this will make you what I believe is referred to as his 'bitch', which could lead to all sorts of unpleasantness.

As you emailed this 11 hours ago, i.e. late on a Saturday night in Scotland, can I ask if you'd been havin' a wee dram or twae?

So there you are. Thoughts? I think it's a daft idea.

But as I've said before, your emails are always full of surprises...

Best wishes Jeff.

That day I return to Jeff’s manuscript with a vengeance. Reading pieces here and there. Finally, it’s ‘A Lycanthrope’ that grabs my full attention. I consider changing the real name ‘Donald’ to ‘Duncan’ but decide it’s subtler to leave Jeff’s text unadulterated. Here it is.


A Lycanthrope

Man is a wolf to man, but watching the friend of your youth pad the carpet (all fours), sniff after scraps then halt and squat and seem inclined to howl, that disconcerts.

His jaws kept busy with a pack of chicken nuggets from the freezer, I pondered how to set him right (a man again) back on his own two feet, but could see no way.

Still, it was my problem too because, though strangers now, we’d once shared schooldays’ tedium and playground secrets. And how, besides, could I leave the room unscathed when the least hint of movement from the chair I sat in made him drop the giblet he was mumbling then stare up quick, shoulders hunched ready for the pounce?

(This is what comes of trying to keep in touch.)

— Are you alright Donald?
— Fine. Fine. I’m fine.
— How’s the work going?
— I’m eating.
He frowned and licked the softening mess between his paws.
— Can I get you a bowl of water?

But once the food was gone, what hope for me? Unless, belly full, he rolled on his side to sleep it off, the way the wild beasts do.

Keen enough a feeder now though, straining his long grey back to help the meat go down, while I in growing fear prayed for some visitor might call and save me—

A glazing salesman, the second post, a brace of Mormons, the man who reads the meter, the boy who brings the papers.

Or best of all a woodsman, shouldering his axe.

Later in the day I’m surprised to receive another email from Jeff. It makes me uncomfortable from the start. Then its logic and reasonableness win me over. Then it goes for the jugular. Or do I mean the back of the neck?


But read it for yourself:

Dear Duncan

I've been thinking over your last few emails, and your project as a whole. The fact is I'm becoming increasingly uncomfortable about the role it seems I'm supposed to play in this.

One of the things I most work for in writing is a high degree of impersonality -- the more impersonal the better. For better or worse I want there to be a distance between the readers and what they are looking at, and that's not going to happen if at the same time I'm trying to engage their attention with stuff about personalized (signed) copies, and publicity gatherings, and who I met where, and what I said when, and whatever else. 

Now, clearly this approach is at the opposite extreme from yours, where the reactions and responses of yourself and the people you make contact with form the absolute substance of your books -- and that's fine, but it's not my way and it's not something I want to involve myself with. 

Obviously I don't expect you to scrap the work you've been doing (I mean the section of your book involving me), though that's what I'd most like to happen. But I don't think that any further contact between us concerning the book is going to be useful, so I'd like to cut it off right here, if you don't mind. If you do go ahead with that section and could add something along the lines of 'Sadly, the author felt he was unable to...' bla bla bla, or even this email, edited or otherwise, that would be good too, but clearly I can't insist on it.

I hope the book meets with some success (preferably without me in it), and I'm sure you'll find the other contributors to the original anthology more amenable than I am. Your idea's an interesting one, and your approach is likely to be well received in general I imagine. But not, I'm afraid, by me. So let's call it a day.


Best wishes Jeff. 

How do I respond to this message? Well, on several levels. First, by writing back to Jeff. This a short email respecting his wishes and thanking him for his inspiring inputs up to this point.

Second, by hoping that Charles does not choose the name ‘J. W. New’ for my tattoo. It would be embarrassing. More than that, I don’t fancy being sold abroad into slavery.

And, third, by taking a thoughtful walk in the garden. When I get to that bit of the lawn that is not overseen by any other neighbouring window, I crouch down and consider the hole that I have dug there. The hole, at one foot by one foot across, and two feet deep, is of a size that could comfortably contain the box in which my father’s ashes are kept. But I’m thinking it’s also just about right for containing my head, if said head was cut off exactly along the line of my prospective tattoo.

“Cut off my head at the line of the written name,” is what I’d say to the executioner. “And fill the rest of the hole with earth.”

“Whose name is it?”

“It doesn’t matter whose name it is,” I’d say, testily. Then I’d add in an even tone: “There is only one tattoo on my neck, is there not? Make that your mark.”

But it kind of does matter what the name is. Or at least I don’t mind giving myself a stay of execution of a few days.

Those days pass. Of course they do. Stopping time is just not an option. Not a skill I’ve ever been able to master, anyway.


And then a letter arrives from Charles. In the seconds before I read it, I fantasise that its last sentence will say:
'I want you to kill Jeff New, otherwise known as J.W New, William New and J New. Hang all those New men by the neck until they are caput. The fee will be 20 times the advance that you are due to receive for PEN PALS. Sod it, 100 times.'

OK, calm down. Let's give Charles a break.

Dear Duncan,

It is a morning of bang-up because Catholic Fellowship, which I usually attend, has been cancelled to make way for a Jobs Fair, which I have abjured, and I can hear the cleaners on the 4s landing outside, but here I sit in my Essex-boy white t-shirt and with tea beside me in the blue prison mug, and I am thinking about how best to answer the rather extraordinary letter I received yesterday in which you give me the responsibility for deciding whose name should be tattoed on the back of your neck, the name of the Chosen One of PEN PALS which apparently I can choose. My dear Duncan what a fearful responsibility! It seems particularly so to me because I would hate to have anything written on the back of my neck, or anywhere on this skin which has stayed strangely young for so many years of apparent failure, disappointment and disaster, and least of all would I like to have the name of another writer written there, be it Homer or Dante or Shakespeare or Milton or Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Goethe or anyone. Oh, Duncan, I will not hold you to that promise!

But of course I live in a prison where the vast majority of the younger and the older men are tattooed, and very often on what seems the vulnerable spot of the neck (although one fine young Irishman has the word EIRE inscribed on his leg, which I have often seen, because he habitually wears shorts to show off his fetching legs) – but, to return to the subject, on their necks they may well have a date inscribed, which may be the date their first child was born, or sometimes something like GERRY & CAROL, which must surely be his own name and that of his sweetheart. With these familial and affective loyalties one can understand it. If I had ever wanted to have a tattoo on my own neck, the only choice when I was younger would have been Mum. But to tattoo the name of someone you have perhaps interviewed once (and, apart from that, met once long ago), a fellow writer, that really seems beyond the call of duty! What would Gore Vidal have thought about having NORMAN MAILER tattooed on his neck? Or Samuel Johnson LORD CHESTERFIELD! And Dostoevsky, I am sure, would rather have succumbed to the firing squad in his youth and never have written
The Brothers Karazmazov than see LEO TOLSTOY on any organ of his!


Yet tattoos are clearly a thing of the moment, along with smart phones and the ethical duty to take in endless refugees – I have just had a big break in my train of thought, because my prison visitor Martyn Ellis has been in to see me. I showed him your letter, and he expressed wonderment, although he also congratulated me, at having been entrusted with this responsibility – and as you, unlike myself, are quite a smart and up-to-the-minute sort of author, perhaps you even like the idea of a tattoo. But, in that case, why not have simply
PEN PALS written on the relevant spot? It would emphasise your commitment to all 32 authors, including yourself (perhaps with STARE CROW written in smaller letters underneath) and would function as a most novel and effective form of publicity for your current publication. It would be the writer’s stigmata, the physical demonstration that the composition of a particular work meant so much to its composer that it must be physically written on him. Shades of that Franz Kafka story “In the Penal Colony” where the convict’s crime is written into him by an infernal machine, which not only causes his death but also inconveniently breaks down!

And beyond the actual physical imprinting of the Chosen One’s name goes all the glory, and even – dare one even think of it? – the possibility of monetary reward in being thus chosen, among 32 writers, some of whom have at least a certain reputation in the world, although not a single one graced the pages of
The Prose Factory, where so many names, no doubt soon to be forgotten, will have been adumbrated. £ signs are already beginning to glitter in my eyes! But one has to think back to the slightly forlorn little volume, PEN New Fiction 2, which appeared so many years ago, and which would have languished forever in total obscurity had you not so ingeniously revived its name and reputation. Was there among those 32 stories, most of which nobody ever read, least of all me, one clear but still unacknowledged masterpiece, which would stand out among all the other stories, should anyone ever read them, like the Koh-i-Noor Diamond among so many lesser gems? Surely, in that case, it should be the name of the author of that masterpiece that should grace your humble neck, because the title of the said story might well not fit there!


But I have to be begin coming round to taking on the mantle of awful responsibility that you have laid on my shoulders, and already I seem to see the tattooist’s knife poised quite close to your slightly quivering but willing and even proud neck. So willing and submissive! Among the candidates other than myself and yourself, you build up the best case that the name of Elaine Feinstein or Connie Bensley should be tattooed on your nape. Connie Bensley, in her quiet, unassuming but sharp way, is a highly successful author. Elaine is certainly a writer of some renown who has worked tremendously hard at writing in the course of a long life, has maintained a loving relationship against the odds, and who, at the age of 85, is still writing what is clearly quite good poetry and who may well go on delighting and enlightening us for some years yet. The same applies to Connie, more or less. What a contrast with yours truly, with his Essex-boy t-shirt, his stained blue mug and his red and deliciously comfortable prison slippers! He may be utterly notorious, or at least fairly much so, but was “A Mugging” ever followed up by the solid work of literature that could entitle him to the attention of posterity? Or to be written on another’s flesh?

And, after all, you are a heterosexual man, and, as you have pointed out, you could have the name tattooed in the very acceptable form ELAINE, which, as you said, would be a “fine and noble tattoo” and which would make you seem perfectly acceptable should you ever end up in jug as I have done.

But stop! I am a total egotist! I have never read a word of Elaine Feinstein or Connie Bensley except those very pleasant extracts you have quoted. I care only for myself! SO I NOMINATE MYSELF WITHOUT ANY HESITATION (although with a great deal of preliminary flim-flam) as THE CHOSEN ONE!!! Tattoo me all over your body if you like, at least the mentionable parts. And, thank you so much, dear Duncan, for giving a bit more life and spirit to one of countless thousands who over thousands of years have tried to write.

xxxxxxx Love Charles


I walk out into the garden and kneel down on the grass. It feels like Jeff, Charles and I have been playing a game of scissors, paper, stone, playing it over and over again. Or in our case: axe, neck, tattoo. I prefer the times it’s ended up me holding the axe and Jeff or Charles kneeling down with Jeff’s/Charles’s name tattooed onto the back of Charles’s/Jeff’s neck. We’ve all been winners in our day, and for sure we all lose everything in the end.

How does that verse from
The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam go again? The poem that Connie was introduced to by her father when she was a child. I know that Jeff will be familiar with its tragic humour. I suspect that Charles could quote me the lines from his prison cell just as surely as he could quote Housman:

Every now and then someone comes along saying, “It is I.”
He arrives with favours, silver and gold, saying, “It is I.”
When his little affair is sorted out for a day,
Death suddenly jumps out of ambush saying, “It is I.”

I go through the verse three times, applying it to Charles (a perfect fit), then Jeff (if anything even more fitting) and then myself (intellectual arrogance personified).

Death doesn’t need to jump out of a bush waving an axe. By bending my back to the task I have managed to place my head into the hole in the turf all by myself.

And the worms buzz from one ear to another, and back again, declaring as one: “
It zzzzzz I .”

pen pals - Version 3pen pals - Version 5


Part Four