James Thomas : Writing samples.
Edgar Allan Poe Goes to a Music Festival
SOME years ago, with a heavy heart, I undertook to attend the most spectacular event of the season—a Festival of Music, a coruscating panorama of the most exquisite delights—in the countryside, at the end of a particularly fetid July. I had, I hasten now to add, not ventured outside in some eight months, and the light in my study had cast a semipermanent shadow over my soul and, regarding my haunted mien in the mirror, I had resolved to grow re-accustomed to the daylight, for fear this eternal isolation would prove fatal. In the oppressive heat of a sleepless summer, such thoughts as visited me that year were not uncommon—though the manner in which the events that followed unfolded implanted in me the unshakeable feeling that they were nothing more than feverish hallucinations, the accoutrements of an overworked mind. I bade a silent farewell to my house, casting a sorrowful glance at the door, and departed without a word—for I could not say when I would return, nor could I know in what haggard state I would next arrive at my front door.
As I approached the place, it appeared that I was being reeled in by an invisible thread, past the gaudy attire of the stewards, past the corridors of looming flags plunged into the reeking earth, beyond those withered wretches who had encumbered themselves with some penitential freight, and into the center of an odious mausoleum of noise, an unearthly cathedral in the fields. Every step seemed to me to be preordained, unavoidable. I was a powerless witness to my own inexorable march toward what I could only surmise would be a tortuous and horrifying descent into the most unnameable madness. It was a waking nightmare; no other conclusion presented itself. The calls of birds— rasping and unwell, warped perhaps by some atmospheric effect, or perhaps by the creatures themselves—rang out across the fields. There they were, all the while, chattering in the undulating treetops— those agents of sorrow and discord, a Greek chorus conferring madly in an incomprehensible tongue, the sky their colossal watchtower. As I proceeded through the entrance—an approximation of Hell’s own gates worthy of Bosch himself—the very air I breathed seemed acrid and ancient; I clasped a handkerchief to my mouth and ventured onward, onward, deeper into the maw, as though I was led by lamplight down a staircase to some unknowable fate. I soon found myself in a clearing, strewn with the detritus of struggle and combat—or fierce congress. Who could say? An endless parade of strangers careered along the thoroughfare, at once delirious with youth, teeming with energy, rapt and wild, thus they considered me an arterial blockage of sorts, so I thought it best to fall in step with these disordered individuals. Absorbed into the crowd, I sensed a nigh-imperceptible acceleration of the dread which had traveled, uninvited, in my wake; I felt I was soon to be witness to the dissolution of something fundamental—and on we went—and still the disquiet failed to subside—and thence we traveled to a place known in the vernacular as the “Arena.”
It was here—a vast, glittering panoply engineered, it would seem, to bring about a profound and emphatic derangement in all who came near—that, for the first time since my arrival, I felt privy to some unspoken arrangement; for, as we crossed the threshold— marked, it would seem, by a line of micturating savages arranged along the boundary— the mass dispersed, its form split, and various strands of the throng peeled apart, as though a host of ravenous starlings had gone to ground in an instant. Still clutching my briefcase to my breast, I moved with whatever purpose I could muster. Suddenly, there appeared to be a tremendous thrust in the direction of a looming structure in the distance. I followed in the furrow they were carving in the softening ground, past the soup-merchants, past the makeshift taverns that were spilling their grievances at our feet, past uncategorizable monstrosities, past catastrophes of the flesh and the soul, until we were delivered into the belly of the beast.
They were gathered here in their thousands, stretched across the land as a mortician might lay a shroud upon a cadaver. It was here that I first beheld the structure, an ossuary of twisted metal and canvas rising into the sky, furnished with battlements and draped with banners bearing slogans which were far beyond the realm of my comprehension. I recoiled, seized by a hitherto uncharacterized repulsion. There was too much of the unknown in it, in this vast, troubling arch, and I sought to escape by any means; for whatever lay in store for this doomed assemblage, I could not bear to remain. As I turned to seek a viable route of egress—examining the carnival wagons massed along the darkening horizon and training my gaze on the trees beyond—there immediately arose a cacophonous outcry so resounding and immense that it threatened to engulf the very air through which it passed. It signaled the arrival of some dreadful force in our midst—of that there could be no question. For, to a man, the revelers began to chant its name, hands aloft, braying in subservience. I could scarcely breathe, scarcely propel my cowering body through the congregation, but I continued apace, carrying my briefcase as a shield, praying that the birds would intervene and bear me away. No matter that I could neither abide their clamorous shrieks nor the brute cries of this intoxicated herd; I would sooner that than this. Yet no such relief was forthcoming, for upon that accursed stage there was sounded a clarion call of such preposterous hideousness that it may have reverberated through the catacombs of Paris and shaken loose the souls of the damned. It was then, Reader, that I shat myself.
(first published in my book Why the Long Joke?, 2016)
In Memoriam: Articulated Hydromechanical Processing Interface ZM-200X
Friends, family, loved ones, we are gathered here today to remember a companion, a friend, a one-of-a-kind. I would like to share a few words with you on this sad day.
We had a holiday ritual, the six of us. Each summer, our group of friends would get together for a few weeks, no excuses, and just get away from it all. I couldn’t recall whose idea it was, but once the pact had been made, we were so excited that it didn’t matter anyway. It’s so nice to know there’s always something to look forward to, something to take your mind off things. And so we began.
I remember with fondness that endless summer in the Sicilian countryside—Lily, Simon, Joseph, Nick, Articulated Hydromechanical Processing Interface ZM-200X, and me—ambling around the countryside near Taormina, sipping Nero d’Avola in the dappled sunlight in a quiet orchard. It was perfect. Well, close to perfect. That was the summer when we lost Lily. Who could say what happened that evening at the villa? Did she sleepwalk through the window, or just lean out too far? We chased these questions around our heads for months on end, hoping we’d get closer to the truth. But we could never find an answer, and instead we resolved to keep her memory alive, and to continue our holiday tradition in her name.
Every year, we were faced with difficult memories, sure, but great ones too—the summer when we crisscrossed Texas, eating all we could to keep our energy up between the long drives, telling stories into the wee hours as we trundled across the desert and the night gathered itself around us, the sky darkening imperceptibly with each passing road sign.
That year, again, saw the tragic disappearance of another of our group. He ventured out into the desert night on a whim, never to return. None of us knew why he’d gone; none of us had seen him leave. Joseph and Nick had been fast asleep. I was knocking back beers with a local bartender. Articulated Hydromechanical Pro cessing Interface ZM-200X was elsewhere and saw nothing. So we had lost another. Christmas came and went with no sign of our pal Simon. But together we were strong, and we strove to salvage a glimmer of hope as the months apart ticked by. We would not be beaten down by the cruel hand of fate.
The next summer, we rattled around Germany in an old VW camper— remember the lime one with the flame decals on the sides? We thought it’d last for years after we did it up. There we were, not a care in the world, listening to krautrock as we cruised on the Autobahn: Joseph, Nick, Articulated Hydromechanical Processing Interface ZM-200X, and me.
Two weeks went by, and the sky was always blue. We’d go from campsite to campsite, eating, drinking, laughing, making memories. And then, we lost Joseph. I’m not going to dwell on this, because we’ve been through it so many times. But what were we thinking? We could have been hiking in the mountains! We could have gone fishing! We should have gone fishing. But we thought: Why not? I can look at it now as an inevitable disaster, but hindsight is 20/20, and it was summer. The mood carried us; we were in high spirits. Whenever something was suggested, we all just went along with it. So we headed to the quarry. That quarry. I don’t like to think about it too much.
One year on, just twelve months ago, we were in the Lake District, battered by the wind and rain. Our little group huddled together in the hills, watching in silence from the chalet doorway as clouds rolled over clouds and the lakes shimmered in the dusk light with the cold breath of rainfall: Nick, Articulated Hydromechanical Processing Interface ZM-200X, and me. We looked on as the rainwater loosened rocks from the hillsides. We trained our ears on the wind, catching the faint traces of sheep bleating from the fields beyond, listening to tractors heave their way along distant lanes. The whiskey got us through the first night, the cider through the second. By the third, I suspect Nick had had enough of the chalet. I can picture him now, restless and determined, zipping up his raincoat, telling us he was going out to clear his head. I’m sure I warned him not to go out on his own, I’m sure I did. But I couldn’t stay awake, and by morning, he was gone. Perhaps the dark got the better of him. Maybe he lost his footing, or wandered into a cave, or—I didn’t know. It felt as though we had been cursed. Searches proved futile. Our friend Nick, whom we’d known since our days on the badminton squad. Vanished.
And so to this summer. Old friends, new adventures: Articulated Hydromechanical Processing Interface ZM-200X and me. Still together, as promised. Ready as usual on the first day of August, headed this time to Hungary, we set out with little more than our tickets and a book of memories. On the train to Budapest, leafing through our photo album, we thought about those golden times together, reading what we could into the smiles in those old pictures, the body language, the frozen moments. The journey, late in the day, was melancholy and sweet, long enough to allow the mind to wander and the quiet to bloom. Nearing the city, I marveled at our dwindling numbers, glancing once more at those holiday snaps, shaking my head in disbelief. When I eventually looked up, it seemed Articulated Hydromechanical Processing Interface ZM-200X was lost in a dream. We didn’t speak a word. But it was a time for reflection, not merriment.
Arriving in Budapest, we made our way to the hotel, around the corner from Kerepesi Cemetery, and checked in to our connecting rooms. I left my window ajar. A breeze lifted the soft trills of night into the room, the muffled street noises floating gently around my bed as my mind lingered on those photographs. Last year in England. Our final jaunt with Nick. Gray hairs around my temples. Straining to smile. Germany, where Joseph—well, where we lost Joseph in that horrible quarry. My heart felt heavy. The year before, in Texas, when Simon had left us forever. I could hear myself breathing above the din of the traffic. I remembered dear Lily, sister to us all. All gone before their time. Four years, four friends.
I stood up, suddenly alert. I could hear a noise from the next room. A low hum. There was something wrong, but I didn’t know what. I approached our connecting door, intending to check on my friend—how was I to know? But as the noise grew louder, the doorknob began to rattle. Now the door. I backed away, petrified. I should have known. How could I not have realized? But it all hit me at once. They were no accidents! All along, we were such fools! Don’t they say it’s always the quiet ones? And I was next! I had to fight for my life! Just as the door shattered, I managed to wrench the trouser press from the wall. There I was, for the last time, face-to-face with my oldest friend, my stalwart companion, my betrayer: Articulated Hydromechanical Processing Interface ZM-200X.
Please understand. I did what I had to do. I had no choice. Please understand.
(first published in my book Why the Long Joke?, 2016)
Richard Attenborough and ‘10 Rillington Place’
10 Rillington Place, the London address, no longer exists. It was expunged, scrubbed away, deleted, plastered over, realigned, removed. It has undergone a process of damnatio memoriae, in the hope that its environs might thrive anew, free from association, rebranded and nondescript. But if you poke about for a minute, there’s nothing stopping you from pinpointing its former location. There are maps upon maps: digitised blueprints superimposed on ghastly graphs, the brazen frame of a house of death printed there in stark relief, inviting the curious to pay a visit and wonder where the old walls once stood.
10 Rillington Place was a world unto itself, a microcosm in which life functioned in its barest terms. Tenants arrived, families departed, people lived and people died. But the fulcrum around which these unacknowledged lives pivoted was John Reginald Christie. I don’t know why we emphasise the middle name. It’s almost as though the plainness of ‘John Christie’ requires a crutch, a buttress that imposes an awkward rhythm, a name with its own bizarre topography - an unwieldy gait that binds itself to his hideous persona. ‘John Reginald Christie’ and ‘10 Rillington Place’ are forever entwined, their syllabic patterns aligning, their similarities remarkable and undeniable: the place and the man were both possessed of an unsettling stillness and grubbiness, and filled with violence and secrets. For while most people bury things in the mind, John Christie buried people in his home.
10 Rillington Place is where Christie murdered at least eight people and hid their bodies, all the while acting as landlord. This was a man who saw down the well and cast his abject lamplight into the distant recesses, a man who wanted to kill and needed to kill, a man who lied and murdered and lied to hide his murders and perpetuated this self-made cycle, compelled by some internal mechanism to gain control by whatever means necessary. Up to a point, he hid in plain sight; however, as the mountain of evidence grew and the facade became more difficult to maintain, the mask began to slip.
He had done things we must never do. Where others have dreamed, Christie went; he acted out that which so many have suppressed and dismissed in the heady churn of subconscious thought. But killing is real. Terror is real. Here were things that men have done.
There is a dream, perhaps an archetype, in which the protagonist, whether by means seen or unseen, whether as engineer or bystander, becomes the sole proprietor of a burial plot, or at least a site of some decrepitude and unease, wherein something hidden has taken root, hijacked the pattern of life, disengaged the narrative from the prescribed. Only the protagonist knows; to speak of it would be fatal. The secret, the knowing, the horrifying uncertainty when the dream ends - these are the things we cannot bear.
In the case of John Christie, 10 Rillington Place became the outward manifestation of his loathsome compulsions - a place where the ornaments of his misdeeds would physically accumulate, where his arrogance and single-mindedness could forge new paths and scorch the very earth beyond his kitchen window. He lured strangers in need with the promise of medical assistance; he assured them a better place in the world, free from the burden of despair; he gassed them, defiled them and removed them from the picture. These helpless people, entrusting themselves corporeally in their time of greatest need, suffered deaths of the lowest order in the name of this man’s basest desires. He justified his murders as “mercy killings”, yet what he was actually doing was working through his fear of women, calculating and acting, creating opportunities, preying on trust. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the period following the murder of his wife Ethel: alone for the first time, he brought three women back to Rillington Place in three months. His victims were buried in the garden, kept under the floorboards, wrapped in the wash-house and stacked in the alcove. He essentially swept them under the carpet, untroubled by the potential repercussions.
What makes stories like this so remarkable is not how ordinary the circumstances seem, or how unassuming the protagonist. It’s the stark reality that, when something such as this rears its head, we’re faced with something for which we are entirely unprepared: we’re living inside someone else’s mind. Had John Christie not perpetrated his heinous crimes, we would never have heard of him. These innocent lives would not have been swept into oblivion. But there is only one reality, and only one timeline. Christie did these things and, in doing so, turned the inside of his mind outward, showering us in the minutiae of his transgressions.
The conviction and execution of Timothy Evans, a lodger of Christie’s whose wife and infant child were murdered - their bodies discovered wrapped in tablecloths in the wash-house - is known as one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice in the legal system. However - difficult as this may seem to reconcile - the death penalty may not have been reviewed with such vigour had Evans not been wrongly executed and the story reexamined in the ensuing years. Justice had not been swift in the wake of Christie’s trial and hanging. A subsequent reevaluation of the case, and of Evans’ wrongful execution, played a large part in the abolition of the death penalty in the following decade. As it stands, it took the courts 15 years to pardon the man - 15 years too late.
Decades later, we recognise the cycle of tragedy and voyeurism in cases like this: headline, speculation, encampment, rolling news, dissemination, analysis, et cetera. The spectacle is an ouroboros devouring itself - the news cycle feeding speculative grist into its own dreadful mill. The question of what is newsworthy is one that plagues news outlets with decreasing frequency as the years trundle on, but the uncovering of an unsanctioned burial site, a disordered allotment, a pixelated forensics tent in a suburban backyard: these are the things on which nightmares are built. Surely, we think, I deserve a peek behind the curtain?
Christie’s reality was a universal nightmare: the prospect of having murdered someone and concealed their body somewhere about one’s property. His downfall seems to have come about due to the simple desire to surrender - to the authorities, certainly, but also to his fate. It strikes me that he had given up by the time the police apprehended him. Given the opportunity - certainly the time - to leave London, at least under cover of darkness, by whatever means, he opted to wander its streets, floating about, grubby and desolate, perhaps no longer either able or willing to run. In a house full of lodgers, he made cursory efforts - bundling bodies into a flimsily boarded-up alcove, leaving them in shallow graves, or simply wrapping them in cloth - to cover up his crimes. There was an arrogance in his concealement; perhaps even laziness. A femur propped up a garden fence. Christie’s dog pawed at a human skull.
The story of 10 Rillington Place was made into a film in 1971, 20 years after those murderous events and 12 years after the publication of Ludovic Kennedy’s book about the trial. The film, starring the late Richard Atenborough, was shot in 1970 on Rillington Place itself, using number 7 for interiors.
Richard Attenborough’s perfomance in 10 Rillington Place was so triumphantly, shockingly convincing that those who see it must surely appreciate his total commitment to this story. His initial reluctance to inhabit the role was tempered by the passion he felt for the film’s message, declaring it “a most devastating statement on capital punishment”. As a study of postwar London, dangerous and unmade, it is peerless. As a horror story, unblemished by hyperbole or sensationalism, it has few equals. As a statement about the death penalty, it is indelible and haunting.
Here is a man who offered to help. Here is a man who saw women who were adrift, in a hopeless situation, beyond help; women who had given up, with nowhere to turn. Here is a man who took people in, who showed them compassion and then cut them loose. Here is a man who served his country and shattered his community. Here is a man who gained the confidences of his lodgers and tore them asunder with violence and deceit.
Attenborough portrayed Christie as a desperate, manipulative man. Christie was intensely and horrifyingly quiet - ostensibly as a result of a wartime gas attack - and we see onscreen how the critical focus of his shameful activities brings him to a shuddering, asthmatic climax each time he extinguishes another life, almost apologetically quiet and soft in the thick air of his crumbling home, the moment acrid and dismal. This is a performance of towering and unprecedented humanity, and one which nonetheless eviscerates this awful man’s brutal reality. John Christie was a dreadful soul, entombed within his appetites, neither capable of nor hoping for redemption. For his victims, of course, there was no hope at all. Here are their names: Ruth Fuerst, Muriel Eady, Beryl Evans, Geraldine Evans, Ethel Christie, Rita Nelson, Kathleen Maloney and Hectorina MacLennan.
The story of 10 Rillington Place is a very sad one, but it served to illuminate certain aspects of the legal system and society as a whole, and the book and film are credited with bringing about a fundamental and sweeping change in the law. In this case, a man who would otherwise have drifted through the system, a simple man who worked hard and bragged on occasion and got drunk and argued with his wife about petty things - whose child was born into adversity but would have been raised in good faith by her young mother - was framed for a hideous double murder, losing not only his young family but his own life, unable to devise a way out of his Kafkaesque situation, manipulated by a man whose true nature he could never have hoped to fathom. Tim Evans lost his wife Beryl and his daughter Geraldine in that house. In bringing this character to life, John Hurt produced one of his greatest performances, a work of considerable genius, drenched in grief and bewilderment.
Evans was pardoned 16 years after his execution. Christie casts a long and terrible shadow over the landscape of postwar London, and indeed suburban England, always concealing its truths, something unknown always lurking in the periphery. Richard Attenborough’s performance in 10 Rillington Place has become inextricably linked with the story, such is the diligence with which he applied himself to the role - one he rightly found abhorrent. It is now impossible to view the character of John Reginald Christie, that destroyer of worlds, that soft-spoken butcher of the back-streets, without imagining the endless desolation and self-loathing in Attenborough’s expression; the insidious scheming of this wretched degenerate plain to see in his petrified aspect. His appearance - the permanently anxious countenance, hovering between states of artificial calm and frenzied longing - spoke of impotence and fear, and a lust with no provenance.
Richard Attenborough created a deceitful creature, panicked by the monster within. His Christie exists in a world of heavy shadow and faint light, a hell indoors. He produced a performance characterised not only by its poise and the solemnity of his delivery, but by the most unsettling of characteristics: breathing. For Attenborough’s Christie breathed like an animal hunched in the throes of a carnal act. He grunted and strained with the burden of his freight. The shallowness of his breaths signalled his - and our - proximity to the next killing. The intimacy is frightening and all too real. We’re brought close to the crime, practically implicated by virtue of our claustrophobic closeness. Christie is tangible and loathsome. He is unquestionably the perpetrator. Evans has neither the evidence to bring Christie down nor the wherewithal to determine the truth; we, on the other hand, are left in no doubt that there was only one murderer here. We’re struck repeatedly by the mundane reality that formed a cocoon around his private acts.
(first published in the Huffington Post, 2014)