UPDATE 2024



One

I hadn't given PEN PALS any thought for some time. Then this appeared in my Inbox:

Dear Mr McLaren,

I have been reading and enjoying your Pen Pals book online—what an undertaking! Thank you for doing all of that tremendous work to keep track of the various threads that came out of that volume.

Anyhow, the reason I am writing is because I was so intrigued by Charles Hills that I went down a not entirely satisfactory internet rabbit hole (you know how it is). I found that he has a blog but no way to contact him. I’m very curious to know about his writing, both published and not. I wondered if you might forward my email to him?

I realize this is so out of the blue and ridiculous but I’m completely fascinated by Hills.

Thanks, in any event, for considering this request. And I’ve just ordered your Enid Blyton book!

Regards,

Andrew Corbin

PS: I used to work in publishing—for 11 years I was an editor at Doubleday in New York, which is how I wind up reading books like yours and becoming fascinated by people like Charles Hills!

I soon realised that this was an opportunity I didn't know I'd been looking for to research and write some kind of
PEN PALS update.

Hi Andrew,

Great to get your email. In the several years PEN PALS has been online, I don’t recall a single other response. But as you will know from your career in publishing, publicity is all.

I will give you Charles’s email (as I knew it) if you ask me for it, rather than forwarding him your mail. When he found out that my publisher of 2017 wasn’t going to publish PEN PALS, and nor was anyone else, he completely dropped me. I have to say this came as a huge relief as I suspected the positivity of our year-long communication could not have gone on for much longer.

So I have not been in touch with Charles for seven years and I wonder if he is still alive. He had - and may still have - a good friend, Geoffrey Elborn, who I came to be friendly with also, and I will include him in this exchange. He knows much of Charles’s back story and has been a great help to Charles in the past. Not for much thanks, of course. But we don’t expect thanks from life-blasted originals.

I hope you have ordered a copy of the hardback Enid book. It is a lovely production whereas the paperback is run-of-the-mill. Geoffrey was kind enough to review it on Amazon. If you fancy resurrecting your career in publishing then I would gladly give you the rights to PEN PALS. I have come to realise how fragile anything that exists solely online is. For sure penpals.co.uk will disappear before too long, and so I am on the lookout for some enlightened individual to make a printed edition. No advance or royalties required: I needeth them not. All I have is my remaining time. And that I do need. By the way, please consider checking out my latest project while you are waiting for Enid to arrive:
onkawara.co.uk Yes, I have come across an artist that is as balanced as Charles is/was unbalanced. Life-blasted originals, both.

It sounds as if you just might be able to help Charles get more of his work published. That’s what writers like he and I need. Publishers/editors as committed to the exploration of existence as we front-line ‘creatives’.

I am away for Easter but will be able to check what writing by Charles I have in my shed when I get back next week, should you be interested. Long letters from Brixton Prison for a start.

Best wishes,
Duncan


Having sent this off, I do nothing else on the PEN PALS front. Maybe I'm not going to follow this up after all. The act of creation requires a certain momentum, which I have exclusively for my On Kawara project at the moment. Well, we'll see.

Hello Duncan,

Thanks for writing me back. Now I am a bit anxious about corresponding with Charles--he sounds rather intense? It's just these sorts of figures--"life-blasted" as you so perfectly describe them--are so fascinating to me. The stories that never quite pan out...But may I ask for his email? In any event, I may have actually discovered it on his blog: carlopazzomalucco@yahoo.com? His blog is sort of wild. I feel like he occasionally engages with bots in the comments, thinking they're real people? Slightly worrying. And it hasn't been updated since I think 2021 so maybe he has died.

And this is embarrassing...I can't find my copy of the PEN volume and it's scarcer than hens teeth in the US! I now live in a small town in CT and lament my lack of access to the NY Public Library. I'd like to reread some of the stories in it though, including Charles's and yours!

I will also say, out of curiosity I googled Geoffrey Elborn and found an obituary for him in the Guardian, I'm sad to say. So I haven't cc'd him on this email in the event--unlikely?--that there are two people by the name of Geoffrey Elborn? I do hate to be the bearer of bad news...

I wish I could help revive Pen Pals but my life in publishing ended more than 15 years ago and the industry has undergone a sea change since then--much to the worse, in some respects, at least for the major houses. It's been encouraging to see smaller presses thrive, however. And thank you for the On Kawara link. I look forward to investigating.

Anyhow, I hope you enjoy your break. It was lovely hearing from you--I admire your creativity and commitment. I retreated from the publishing fray--first to librarianship then to a bizarre career in advertising. Ah well.

Take good care,

Andrew

Poor Geoffrey. He was a good man. His
Guardian obituary reminds me that fellow PEN New Fiction 2 contributor, Val Warner, died a few years ago, and that she also was the subject of a Guardian obit. A very sad one written by Patricia Craig. Let me quote from it:

'During the last years of her life, Warner became increasingly eccentric and reclusive. She moved into a terraced house in Hackney where she lived without heating, hot water, adequate furnishings or cooking facilities. She gave up poetry and devoted herself to writing, simultaneously, 10 or so novels, none of which was ever completed. They went through many draft versions and revisions and generated a vast array of notes, which were printed out and dispersed in piles all over the house. She was utterly indifferent to ordinary home comforts or her own well-being.

Warner had no relatives, or anyone in the neighbourhood to keep an eye on her. She died alone, probably from malnutrition combined with various untreated ailments. Her death was discovered only when a friend, getting no response to repeated phone calls and emails, alerted the police. It was a tragic end to a life of high principle, endeavour and achievement.

We might think of the last lines of Mew’s poem A Quiet House: “The lamps just lighted down the long, dim street, / No one for me - / I think it is myself I go to meet: / I do not care; some day I shall not think; I shall not be!”

Is a version of this what's happened to dear Charles? What happens to unsuccessful writers? They lie alone and unfulfilled on their death-bed, their one consolation being that an endless oblivion is fast approaching.

Geoffrey and Val's deaths spur me into action. I email Charles and the email bounces back. The email address is no longer operational. Shit. I must have received about 100 emails from that address back in 2016 and 2017.

I Google C.A.R. Hills and see that
PEN PALS is the first thing that comes up. One of the very last things Charles told me was that the PEN PALS website was only on about the seventh page of Google results when he entered his name, much to his distress.

Charles's blog is also on the first page of Google results. The last two posts are dated 2017 and 2021. This is deceptive though, as the 2017 post, called 'The Mother I loved and Hated' is novel-length and was clearly added to on many occasions. The last entry, a comment made by Charles in reply to a bot, is dated July 16, 2022. Val's corpse was found on October 10, 2020. Charles outlived Val then, which I'm sad to say would have given him pleasure.

The third last post by C.A.R. Hills is a long one as well. Perhaps only novella length. It ends with a single comment from a 'reader':

I would like to say that this blog really convinced me to do it! Thanks, very good post. best inversion table for back pain

To which Charles replied in this way:

1 December 2019 at 04:54

Dear Unknown Reader,

I have just noticed your kind comment on my penultimate post, "The beginning of the good years", and hasten to answer you now that I have seen it. I wonder how you know I have back pain. This makes me think you are perhaps known to me who, for reasons of his or her own, is maintaining their identity a secret.

I am afraid I have reached rather a stalemate in the writing of my blog. I get very tired and discouraged these days, particularly because I have had so little success in unearthing the strange secrets I reveal in that post. Also, my blog seems to have vanished from the top pages of the Internet for quite some time now, although a certain number of people are obviously still accessing it.

However, with my writing, I believe in waiting for the right mood to go on, and perhaps this will come to me in the not too distant future. Certainly, a comment such as your own is an inestimable help because it encourages me to believe I am not writing into a total void. Thank you very much again.

Yours faithfully,

Charles Albert Reis Hills

The final blogpost was begun nearly two years later, on Friday November 19, 2021. It's called 'The 19th Post' and is much shorter than the previous two. It seems to be a diatribe against a one-time close friend of his called Mark.

Nothing at all from the public pen of C.A.R. Hills since July 2022. Dear, oh dear, oh dear. Where is this going and do I want to be taken there?



Two

Let me distract myself. What have the other PEN 'pals' been up to? Well, most of them have stopped publishing. Perhaps that's to be expected. Elaine Feinstein died in 2019, aged 88, and is another subject of a Guardian obituary. Connie Bensley is 95 now, and every contributor is at least in their early-60s. But to put this in a more positive way, and to spare fellow PEN pals' feelings, I am going to focus on the books that have appeared since 2017. There's ten of them:

2018
Robert Edric.
Mercury Falling.
Peter Parker.
A Little Book of Latin for Gardeners.
Ian Rankin.
In A House of Lies.
D.J. Taylor.
Rock and Roll and Life.

2019
D.J. Taylor.
Lost Girls

2020
Robert Edric.
My Own Worst Enemy
Ian Rankin.
A Song for the Dark Times

2021
Robert Mullen.
Mustard Seed Itinerary

2022
Ian Rankin.
A Heart Full of Headstones
DJ Taylor.
Stewkey Blues

Let's deal with these in an order that would seem to make sense. My copy of Robert Mullen's
Mustard Seed Itinerary is dedicated with a slightly shaky hand: 'To Duncan (PENpals United) with thanks for your help with this. Bob.'

My 'help' was to try and promote the book on my modest Twitter account and to advise Bob to get in touch with Ian Rankin so that he could mention it on his enormous one. I'm not sure whether or not that happened.

I met Bob for a second time in Edinburgh and we lunched together. He was pleased that his first novel had seen the light of day but the ill health of his wife meant that he'd had no opportunity to promote it, and suspected he would never have the leisure to write a second novel.

Mustard Seed Itinerary is set in pre-industrial China. The sub-title is lively:

'MEN OF TALENT SOUGHT!
ONLY SUPERIOR PERSONS NEED APPLY!'

So it should be right up my reading street, but I didn't find it an easy read in 2021 while being immersed in On Kawara. I intend to come back to Bob's ambitious book later.

What can I say about Peter Parker's
A Little Book of Latin for Gardeners? I wonder what proportion of the British population know enough Latin to get something out of this work? A tiny proportion, I suspect. And they could probably pick up a substitute for the volume, published in the Nineteenth Century, from a crumbling vicarage library in any old village in England, other than Royston Vasey. The next time I write something that gets described by a sharp, young editor as 'niche' I need only send it to Peter Parker's editor at Little Brown.

Parker also has a couple of books that he has edited coming out (May and September, 2024).
Some Men in London, volume one, Queer Life, 1945-1959, mentioning John Geilguid and E.M. Forster, amongst many others. And a second volume covering the years 1960 to 1967, which features Francis Bacon, Joe Orton and Kenneth Williams, etc. These thick anthologies sound far more 21st-Century-friendly than Parker's little laburnum book. I wonder if C.A.R. Hills or Mansel Stimpson will get a mention in the second volume of Queer Life. I may have to buy it to find out.

As you might have noticed from the above list, Ian Rankin's name is on three novels. All of them feature his famous detective, Rebus. One of them has got over 2000 reader reviews on Amazon at an average of 4.4 stars. That's a hell of a lot of satisfied customers. Each of the three books probably reached number one in the fiction list for a week or two. I've read one of them and have noted on the title page: 'Enjoying this gritty, Scottish book written by someone in their late sixties, November, 2023.' But that wasn't quite accurate. I am 66. Ian Rankin is not. Let me reach for the biographical note in
PEN New Fiction 2… He was born in 1960, so he's three years younger than me: 63.

This listing exercise has made me realise I don't have a copy of
A House Full of Lies. So I have just ordered a hardback online that has been signed by Rankin with the addition of the hangman doodle. But on this occasion (the listing shows a photo) it looks to me that the person being hanged has slipped the noose by doing a backward somersault. C.A.R. Hills if I'm not mistaken! I think that is a good omen. And why not? Charles was born in 1955 so is only two years older than me. It's ridiculous to think he might have died of neglect or anything else at such a young age. But a part of my mind can nevertheless see him lying in a house of lies, with a heart full of headstones. A song for the dark times, indeed.

I'm finding this quite disturbing. To realise I'm immediately playing with the idea that someone who I thought I'd become a close friend of, has or has not died. I suspect as that the actual situation sinks in (if I can establish what that is), my mood about all this will deepen and change.

D.J Taylor also has three books on the list.
Stewkey Blues is a book of short stories which are all set in Norfolk. I enjoyed every one of these sophisticated, adult tales. Each lays bare the obsessions and inadequacies of a range of well-drawn individuals. One story is called 'The Boy at the Door'. I could identify with the well-mannered boy who has to deal with the weird kid from the poor neighbourhood, a near-stranger, who just turned up one day and wanted to be his friend. Reminded me of Charles, of course. No, no, of course it didn't.

Lost Girls is non-fiction about the young women who found themselves caught in the literary orbit of Cyril Connolly, in London between 1939 and 1951. Connolly was the editor of the literary magazine, Horizon, bringing him into contact with George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh etc, but it's the women that Cyril was an unlikely magnet for, and it's them that the book hones in on. How Connolly used the 'girls' as secretaries, cooks, researchers and lovers. Was literary London back then a woman's world? It was not. Though of course I knew already that literary London wasn't exactly a woman's world from 1987 to 2017. Researching PEN PALS has told me that.

In intriguing contrast, Taylor's
Rock and Roll and Life is fiction and has a musical theme. The protagonist was brought up in Norwich and was educated at Oxford (as so many of Taylor's protagonists are; it must be a private joke). His guy, Nick, stumbles into the position of being the publicist for a rock band called The Helium Kids, who were roughly contemporary with the Beatles and the Stones on the one hand, though by the end of their recording career they bring to mind bands as different as Oasis and Pink Floyd. The Helium Kids' recording career was from 1963 to 1978. The five male band members are about as inadequate a working class bunch as you could imagine, though the one who dies early had a different background and a more classical musical education. It's the promoters and money-men who make things happen in this book, whose action takes place on both sides of the Atlantic. The band members haven't a clue, and the publicist just looks on in benign bewilderment. Though having said that, Nick, as narrator of most of the book, does seem to come to understand everything that happens, sooner or later.

I wonder if David was writing about the Helium Kids while I was writing
PEN PALS. If so, I wonder if he ever dwelt on the connection between the two projects, though one is fictional and the other not. Not that the distinction between fiction and fact is at all absolute these days.

When I read Taylor's 'After Bathing at Baxter's' (from
PEN New Fiction 2) he told me that he'd never been to America where the story was set. I'm almost sure he'd spent time there by the time he wrote Rock and Roll is Life. But I might be wrong. Some authors have truly powerful imaginations. I'll ask him.

The book on the list that has proven revelatory to me is
My Own Worst Enemy by Robert Edric. It's a memoir that tells about the author's Sheffield childhood, stopping when he enters university at the age of 18. A more repressive, culture-less upbringing it would hardly be possible to conceive. Edric (Gary Armitage) shared a bedroom with his brother and had two sisters as well. There were no books in the house other than a few Readers' Digest volumes and some Catherine Cookson titles. Instead, a television dominated the family's sitting room where hardly any visitors ventured. His mother lived a life of drudgery, trying to please her husband, Gary's father, who was a self-regarding, dogmatic, selfish, brittle man. Gary's dad wore a wig, and expected to be reassured that you couldn't possibly tell he was wearing one. Talk about a childhood spent as if walking on eggshells. Poor Gary Armitage.

It was the UK's investment in post-war education that saved the lad. He passed the 11-plus which brought him into the orbit of teachers who cared about knowledge and truth. And although he failed his English Literature and English language A levels, he passed Geography and Art, and that was enough - once he'd re-sat English - to get him into Hull University. Why Hull? To get him well away from his Sheffield home. The day that his father drove him to Hull, they had a few pints together in the town before the father made the long return journey alone, having given Gary a few quid, a bottle of whisky and a carton of 200 cigarettes. Some paternal legacy, eh?

Robert Edric drops in one telling detail that helps explain how this eighteen-year-old boy, who had never read
a book, managed to turn things around so that a decade later he would be writing a highly imaginative novel every year. Let me quote it at length:

'I took down my Aircraft of the World posters and put up posters of David Bowie and others. My father told me that if I wasn't careful I'd find myself turning into a man just like him, and whatever else I might think I wanted in Life, I didn't want
that. I found a sheep's skull and painted it with a red and silver blaze, just like Bowie had on the Aladdin Sane album. Now what was I up to? For somebody who was supposed to be clever, I didn't show much sign of it. I put up a poster in which Bowie's tightly clad genitals featured prominently. I needed watching, I really did. Just imagine the shame if I did turn out to be one of them. I even found myself wishing I was one of them just to punish my father. The indignity and loss of face would be unbearable to him. He'd read all the stories in his News of the World, he knew all the signs, knew what to look out for, so not much got past him. And besides which, no son of his was setting off down that particular path, not if he had anything to do with it, which he did, and whether I liked it or not. And if I didn't like it, then I could lump it and get used to it. I might have been fifteen or sixteen or seventeen, but he still knew best, and certainly what was best for me, what was best for us all. And if there was anything I still didn't like about his way of doing things, then I always knew where the door was. There was always that.'

My own father was not an overbearing bully. So by the time I was left by myself in a room in a university town I had already read a few books, including the black comedies of Evelyn Waugh. But for me too, David Bowie was the first to present the front door to an alternative world, just as he seems to have been fundamental to Gary Armitage's transformation into Robert Edric.

I would dearly like to read a follow-up memoir which would take us through Armitage's university years, his dawning enlightenment and rapidly expanding consciousness. I think that book would have to be written in a totally different way from the relatively simple, short chapters that fill
My Own Worst Enemy. Gary's own worst enemy? His fucking father and the environment that made him.

Well, I say 'fucking father' but perhaps it was just the luck of the generation game. Being born when he was, meant that Gary's dad had to wear a crowd-pleasing wig instead of painting his face with Bowie's red and silver lightning flash. Picture this. Gary's bewigged father down the boozer as he was every night: "Adaddin Sane". Doesn't have the same ring about it, does it? Indeed, everyone bursts out laughing when they finally and fully get the whisper that's going around. When they can see the join, as it were. No wonder Gary's father tried to save face while sitting watching telly within his own four walls. His castle keep.



Three

What about moi? In 2018 I wrote a second book about Enid Blyton, focussing on the year when she transitioned from being a teacher to a full-time author, a true writing phenomenon. During lockdown, I wrote a second book about Evelyn Waugh, whereby friends and fellow writers from his era, though long dead, were invited to a Brideshead celebration at Castle Howard. Neither work got taken up by a traditional publisher, so I added the books to my existing Blyton and Waugh websites. And I moved on.

In 2021 I began researching and writing about On Kawara. No more messing about with hugely talented but unbalanced authors, I wanted to engage with a brilliant artist of original vision and grounded wisdom.

One of Kawara's fundamental ideas was to paint the date on the day itself, a meditative process that facilitates consciousness and reminds the artist that to live one day at a time is the only truly satisfying way to do things. He began this project in 1966 and by the end of that distant year he had 243 Date Paintings spread about the walls of his huge New York loft. He didn't paint every day, I grant you, but I urge you for a second time, gentle reader, to check out the home page of my
onkawara.co.uk

At the end of my old, old story published in
PEN NEW Fiction 2, the character Stare Crow returns to the Scottish town he was born in. The suggestion is that he has rejected the values of bustling, work-obsessed, money-making London, and is returning to a life of 'self-analysis, self-control and self-development'. And I added: 'For such he required little. A little isolation, the odd meeting, and the occasional word exchanged in trust or humour or friendship.' I didn't say anything back then about Date Painting. Even though, as I look about my house in Blairgowrie today, the most obvious thing about it is the Date Paintings that cover almost all the walls. Each one consists of white lettering against blue, black or red painted backgrounds, on one of four different sizes of deep-edged canvas. These paintings began in 2021 and take you through the days and the years that lead to today: MAY 24, 2024.

I am about to check if On Kawara painted one of his Dates on January 21, 1987. To do this I need to refer to his
One Hundred Years Calendar for the Twentieth Century. This is a grid, created with ten horizontal lines and twelve vertical lines, subdivided again both vertically and horizontally so that there is a cell for every day of the 100 years from 1900 to 2000. In each cell there is a yellow dot if On Kawara was alive that day. The yellow dots start on December 24, 1932, and go all the way through to the end of the grid, I'm pleased to say. Where the yellow dot has been made into a blue dot, it means that the artist made a Date Painting that day. The blue-dot days begin in 1966, as I've said. By 1987 there are not so many blue dots on the 100 Years Calendar, indeed there are only three in the month of January, 1987. But one of them is indeed on January 21, 1987.

So while those aspiring authors who attended the PEN New Fiction 2 party were disporting themselves around the streets and pubs of London, worried about their status as writers and wondering where their next publication party was coming from, On Kawara was having a quiet day in New York, slowly and meticulously painting the date: JAN. 21, 1987.

By then he was a very successful 'conceptual artist'. But he never attended his own openings. That would have distracted from the quiet consciousness, the meticulous and relentless vision, that he had decided was the most important thing in his life.

On Kawara made sure he never went a whole month without painting one of his Dates, and that's what I've been doing since May, 2021. So for sure I will pull myself away from my updating of
PEN PALS in order to make a Date Painting on one of the next seven days. Though it may not be tomorrow or the next day, as there is something I want to try out involving all the emails that Charles Hills sent me back in 2016/2017. If the appearance of those fabulous emails on this website doesn't bring C.A.R. Hills or Charles or the Chunkiest of Chunks out of the woodwork, then he may really have gone forever.

Another cracking idea of On Kawara's was to produce a work called
One Million Years (Future). It consists of twelve black hardback volumes. Each volume contains 500 pages and on every page 200 annual dates are typed out in neat rows and columns.

Well, actually, to make things easy for himself, when he was doing the photocopying, the very first page contains only two lines of ten, making 20 years. That's '1981 AD'. (it was 1980 when On Kawara made this work) to '2000 AD'.

If we turn over to page two of this twelve-volume work. We see that the years go from '2001 AD' to '2500 AD' How many of the PEN contributors will still be having their work read by '2,500 AD'? Possibly none of us. But it depends on what happens to books, libraries and the internet. How soon before human creativity is swamped by AI? I dare say Ian Rankin is already being approached by hi-tech companies who can promise that if he forwards an electronic signature then the Rebus books can go on forever, with no loss of energy or social relevance and without the iconic detective ever repeating himself. ("Siobahn, Siobhan, Siobhan.")

Million Years (Future) by On Kawara. Turn over a few more pages of the first volume and where are we? Page 9. It begins with '5501 AD' and ends with '6000 AD' Whose work would still be read by then? Just Jeff New's, perhaps. Keep turning the pages until, gentle human reader, you reach page 21 of the first volume. You see the years '11501 AD' to '12000 AD'. Whose work would be read at that distant time? Just Jeff New's, I hear you say again. But how will we know that the vast amount of work available by Jeff New, William New, J.W. New and Joseph New was written by anyone other than an infinitely generative computer algorithm? We don't.

Then we close the first volume of
One Million Years (Future), having not even glanced at the vast majority of the pages. And we make no move to open any of the further volumes from two to twelve. So dispirited are we.

And we turn back to the Date Paintings. One day at a time. Feel all the tension that has been building up over the last few paragraphs quickly slip away. One day at a time. The timescale at which we can live our lives, and make said lives seem to mean something. And to last.

Now where was I?