An extract from Lalya Lloyd’s memoir-cum-biography, A Girl of Slender Means, about the life of the author Tom Stacey, with whom she lived for twelve years at 128 Kensington Church Street (‘128’).
He wants to know if the British ambassador has been beheaded yet.
A thin rain mists the windscreen as I oblige the old man and fiddle with the dial on the radio. Bach’s Missa Brevis in A is playing, and I don’t want to change stations; the rising and falling of the flute parts are sad and uplifting with their mystical, faintly Celtic air, and seem appropriate for our journey up into the Welsh hills.
It’s the end of the academic year and I’ve returned from Greece to fine-tune my biography of Tom. We’d planned this trip to his isolated holiday cottage on the edge of Snowdonia with the intention of both getting some writing done. He would work on his latest novel, and I would interview him on the long drive up and on slow evenings by the huge open fire. I want to double check a few facts as well as try to distil some of his familiar phrases and mannerisms; the small, careless fragments of human expression that seem like nothing, but are everything when it comes to portraying someone’s character.
‘Am I repeating myself? I tend to repeat myself, which is the privilege of old men.’
The morning of our drive, though, he announces that he has lost his left hearing aid and, sitting behind the wheel, cannot hear a word I bellow in his ear. There is no use my asking him any questions at all. We sit in silence for the first twenty minutes while he eats a couple of pre-packaged sandwiches and opens a bar of dark chocolate, a manoeuvre that makes the car swerve slightly. Staring intently at the road, he drives with one hand, picking up slabs of chicken mayo and BLT (‘tasteless’) with the other. As we pass the Uxbridge turn the traffic speeds up and Tom asks me to warn him if he’s going too fast. What’s too fast? He doesn’t answer. About an hour up the M40, I peer at the speedometer. I wonder if he isn’t trying to match his age in miles per hour.
He just turned ninety-one.
Tom’s Wikipedia page is as much a biographical sketch as it is a manifesto of sorts—a robust claim to the title ‘man of letters.’ He has never, I should say, referred to himself in such terms within my earshot, but the evidence of his intellectual accomplishments should be enough to convince sceptics that he has lived a life devoted to the pen. He started early (editing the Eton College Chronicle), spent the 1950s and ’60s traversing the globe for a number of influential newspapers and magazines, set up his own publishing company (twice) and is, to this day, still engaged in the writing of short stories and novels. His personal website, in gorgeous full-colour, displays the jackets of all his published works, seventeen in total. Some of these were released by mainstream publishers—Heinemann, Macmillan—others by the eponymous publishing imprint that Tom founded in 1972. Their titles offer an enticing glimpse of the man behind the words, with subjects ranging from Conservative politics (‘Here Come the Tories!’) to African history (‘Tribe’) to novels and collections of short stories on far-Eastern adventuring (‘The Hostile Sun’) and the state of the landed classes in Britain in the twentieth century (‘Decline’). These books could have been written in no other century and by no other man than Tom. Their literary merits can be debated, but as historical records they are priceless—and poignant—windows into a country and society if not in decline, then already fully extinct.
The bookshelves at 128 Kensington Church Street totter under the weight of Tom’s literary output, as well as thousands of books written by others: leather-bound tomes, cheap paperbacks, guide books to far-off corners of the globe, classic works of literature, books written by friends. For many years it was hard to locate specific volumes, but then Tom had a brainwave. He tracked down a bookseller from Waterstones Notting Hill, up the road from us, who’d been sacked in a recent restructuring jag, and hired her as his house archivist and librarian. An artist by training, she adorned the meticulously organised bookshelves with her inviting calligraphic labels. ‘BELLE-LETTRES’ (hyphen included) was my favourite and accounted for an entire shelf in the back parlour-cum-TV-room. She also added to the overall sense of good order, humour and wholesomeness in the house. Creative and practical, wry and no-nonsense, she was a perfect foil for Tom who, inclined to bouts of impatience or helplessness when he’s under pressure, became noticeably steadier under her influence.
According to the new system, Tom’s own published works are situated on a tall bookshelf next to the front door. This allows departing house guests to admire the array of colourful hardback spines and their wildly evocative titles: ‘Bodies and Souls’ and ‘The Pandemonium’ always excited me particularly. Many of these books are arranged with multiple copies, as in a bookshop, which expedites the sale (or Very Careful Lending) of any given title. When I first moved into 128 and was eager to show off my extraordinary new digs, Tom would join me at dinner to inspect my guests. (He was Always Charming; but I knew deep down it was a sort of Quality Control.) Sometimes, finding them particularly receptive to his ideas, he would leave the kitchen and return, tentatively, with a Tom Stacey book in his hands. Placing it in front of the new arrival, Tom would suggest that they might want to take a look through, even take it home with them, to find a fuller exploration of the topics they had been discussing. Very often, the unsuspecting diner would fall into the trap. ‘Oh, Tom, how lovely, is this for me?’ ‘I’d be delighted if you wanted to take it home, old chap, let me just…’ Turning the book over in his hands, he would inspect the barcode and ISBN. ‘Seven ninety-nine in all good bookshops, but you can have it for five pounds, as a valued friend,’ (Huge Smile) ‘of this charming girl.’ If the startled recipient only has a twenty, no matter, Tom always has change.
I have read some—but by no means all—of Tom’s novels, and the character who speaks to me most powerfully is Granville Jones. Jones (his name is a near portmanteau of Tom’s two closest friends, Wilfrid Grenville-Grey and Roddy Jones) was a once-prodigious and now world-weary Fleet Street journalist living in one of the Gulf States. He had been a famous foreign correspondent, and had reported on every great story that issued from the changing pre- and post-war world in which empires started to crumble and oil became the world’s flashiest and bloodiest currency. Yes, he had been mighty. And he had loved mightily. The novel tells us, in flashback, the story of his greatest love affair, with a woman called Romy, which ends in tragedy. Now old and tired, Granville Jones lives a quiet life in a large, simple house on the outskirts of the city’s Old Quarter (the setting of the novella is based on Tom’s first-hand knowledge of Bahrain). He is well known to his neighbours and the other western men at the English club where he dines every day. He also has a close and enduring friendship with the old Emir, whose power and refinement are an elixir to the uprooted Englishman.
The novel turns—and then unravels—on one dramatic moment: the sudden usurpation of power by the old Emir’s son, and Jones’ realisation that he is the only one who can get news of the coup to the outside world. In richly atmospheric prose, we witness the aging hack navigate gorgeous Arabian backdrops as he struggles through the backstreets, harbours and palace-corridors of the ancient city, first to make contact with his old friend the Emir, who is in grave danger, and then to reach the telegraph post where he can wire the story to London. There is the threat of violence in the streets and Jones’ health is failing. At the same time, he remembers his first love, and we are treated to another layer of this man’s life: cue some sumptuous descriptions of shimmering light on the Persian Gulf; of kisses exchanged in sandy barren coves; of binding promises made, and then unmade, by death. I think it is no coincidence that the last heroic act of Granville Jones’ life (his attempt to save the regime of his beloved old friend) is juxtaposed with this other, first and only, love.
The novella’s original title was ‘Deadline,’ and was adapted (Tom wrote the screenplay) into a 1988 BBC film starring John Hurt and Imogen Stubbs. Tom was unhappy with the final result, and fell out with the director whom he felt made radical and unnecessary changes to the story. He tried to withdraw any association of his name with the movie, but it was too late. And so, to ensure a permanent divorce, he changed the title of the book to ‘The Man Who Knew Everything,’ a tongue-in-cheek epigraph which is almost impossibly clumsy, but which has, with time, grown on me. And as Tom has gotten older, it has grown on him too (or perhaps I am imagining that: it is more that I feel he has grown into it). It is the one book of Tom’s that I will shamelessly press into my friends’ hands. And I won’t just charge them a fiver either; I’ll tell them to give the author the full eight quid. Hell, if they’ve only got ten, tell him to keep the change. For not only is the book beautifully written, it is a window onto history: it conjures up a vanishing world, a vanishing sort of person: the sort of person Tom has become, really. And somehow, he manages the impossible: to capture character and plot within restrained yet beautiful prose, to tell a tale both quixotic and dramatic, as much about the politics of the Middle East as it is about lost love and last acts.
How did Tom come to know so much about this part of the world? If you ask him, you will receive a typically self-effacing and enigmatic answer: ‘I had to pay the school fees, of course.’ I chortle whenever he says this. Not because school fees weren’t a pressing concern to a father-of-five in the 1960s and ’70s, but rather because his preferred money-making scheme happened to be publishing. Not any old publishing, mind you. Tom, along with his original imprint, curated books on Middle-eastern culture and geography that were part- or fully-funded by the oil-rich dynasties of the Arabian Peninsula. They were illustrated with full-colour photographs and beautiful hand-drawn illustrations; and they were of interest, not just to the billionaires who paid for them, but to travellers and scholars of the region. When I first met Tom, he was still making these books, still doing impossibly shady deals. (One project was paid for, in part, by ten return plane tickets from London to Sanaa on Yemen Air. Tom’s editorial director offered me some as a birthday present. It was 2010. I wish I’d accepted them.)
It was in Saudi Arabia that Tom first encountered Roddy Jones, retired British army major, fluent Arabic speaker, and later Tom’s long-time housemate and boon companion. ‘I was buccaneering in Arabia,’ he says, ‘and Roddy offered me somewhere to stay.’ (Tom’s family were at home in London, and to save money he would sleep in the car or in cheap hotels while driving to and fro across the desert cutting deals and delivering books.) “Somewhere to stay” was a simple camp bed under canvas near Roddy’s place of work. But Roddy was generous: he gave unthinkingly, without expecting anything in return; he didn’t care how long Tom stayed or what his movements were. Roddy’s bemused tolerance for the extremes of human behaviour, his unblinking acceptance of fortune, were qualities for which Tom would gently tease him in later years, but I am sure that underneath these jokes was an understanding of, and an acute admiration for, his friend’s kindness and forbearance.
If Tom didn’t actually compose his Wikipedia page himself, then he’s certainly had a hand in it. One sentence jumps out as being uniquely Tom, undoubtedly his voice, amongst the chronologies and footnotes. It is the following line: ‘Tom Stacey writes his literary work in response to the inner clamour of each work to be written. The flow of such work is consequently irregular.’ The term “inner clamour” jars, but allowing for that, it is a sentiment both self-effacing, apologetic (the work is irregular) and peculiarly mystical (the work is inside him, and it clamours). I do not believe that there is any false modesty in the sheepish confession that his work is “irregular,” although no one could accuse him of laziness, or of not spending enough time writing; for many hours of his day, he is engaged in some kind of literary activity. But it’s true that unlike many contemporary authors he does not write according to a publisher’s schedule, according to another man’s demands or deadline. And I believe that Tom really does believe that he is prompted to write by something more insistent than his own vanity, whims, or passions. When he describes his inner clamour, he is not talking about something that is innate, but rather, something that has been placed inside him against his will. Despite the appearance of respectability, of being part of the establishment (did I mention he ran for parliament twice?), he is inside every bit the tortured artist, grappling with internal contradictions and infernal demons.
‘Oh God, oh God.’
I look up from my porridge.
‘It’s the dreaded Catherine Wheel again, Lals.’
My heart sinks. I am sitting at the kitchen table on my day off. It is late morning, and I do not adhere to Tom’s rigid and high standards of dress. I’ve only ever seen him in pyjamas in daylight hours when he has the flu. (Which happens, by the way, once a year. He drinks gallons of Robinson’s lemon barley water and goes to bed for forty-eight hours, after which he’s back to full strength.) I am wearing a dressing gown and sleepily turning the royal pages in the Daily Mail.
‘Do you think… when you have a moment… you could come and have a look at my computer?’
I am hesitant to have a look because one simply never knows how long the task of ‘having a look at the computer’ will take. Sometimes it’s a case of restarting the thing (as when the Catherine Wheel appears), occasionally a sent email has gone astray and needs to be tracked down in an unorthodox folder—Trash or Drafts or the Outbox; all locations of which I believe Tom has little conceptual, or indeed actual, awareness.. Sometimes the problem is far graver: a document—a short story or a novella—closed in a hurry without saving changes, eliciting justifiable confusion and misery in Tom and the need, subsequently, to reconstruct the last, vanished, three thousand words. Of course, the resignation of defeat only comes after I have spent at least half a day checking every autosave folder on the desktop for the missing draft.
But sometimes it’s just the Catherine Wheel. And as usual with Tom, it’s an appropriate metaphor. It is bright, colourful, fun for spectators but was conceived with torture and destruction in mind. Which is how Tom feels—tortured—every time it appears on screen.
When I first moved into the house, Tom was still running his publishing operation: no longer the eponymous Tom Stacey but rebranded as Stacey International. There was a glittering brass sign on the front porch, which the “daily” was instructed to clean with rags and polish twice a week. All the double-height rooms occupying the first-floor mezzanine (formerly the artist William Horsley’s studio) were given over to the business, with Tom occupying a glazed cubby-hole in the garden-side rooms. It was light and bright, and for me, as a wide-eyed twenty-six-year-old, a place of wonder. The double-height rooms had two minstrels’ galleries and bookshelves so tall you needed a ladder to reach the titles on the top shelf. The Stacey logo was a simple black and white outline of a magic lamp, and it stood out on the spines of the books which were about places I had heard of and could only dream of going to: Iran, Yemen, Oman… It is a logo that still catches my eye. Although the business was sold a few years after I arrived at 128, I occasionally find Tom’s generously illustrated books in charity shops and once, most unexpectedly, on a bookshelf in T.E. Lawrence’s library at Cloud’s Hill. When I first met Tom, I was working at a large trade publisher on the Strand, and loved the fact that he and I were in the same trade.
In those days Tom worked on an old PC, and if he ever had any trouble he got one of his minions to fix it. He didn’t concern himself with technology. He could just about manage the walkabout telephone but forget about mobile phones. The washing machine remained a mystery until the first Covid-19 lockdown when, in the absence of any domestic help, Tom had to learn how to put on a load himself.
After the publishing operation was disbanded Tom moved his office to the street-side studio and let out the garden-side to a gallery business. He also bought himself a new computer, a huge, unwieldy Apple desktop machine. This should have made his life easier, but in reality, it was the start of his technological woes.
‘I know how to fix it, Lals,’ Tom murmurs as if suddenly inspired.
‘How’s that, Tom?’
‘I’m going to Throw it Out of the Fucking Window!’
I do feel very sorry for him. The device is not malfunctioning because he is not using it right. There is a malign spirit in it, which is not exorcised even after repeated trips to the Mac repair man.
‘I think, Tom, you know… computers are a bit like, um, humans,’ I say, trying my best to search for an appropriate analogy to soothe his rage and stop him from stabbing, violently, at the keys.
‘I mean, I don’t think this one wants to be rushed. You know what some people are like when you put pressure on them to… perform? The more you press Quit like that, Tom (yes, stop it) the more stubborn it’ll become. Trust me. Let’s just all breathe for a moment…’
Tom understands and enjoys the metaphor, but it is, understandably, hard for him to keep his temper when dealing with such a badly-behaved employee.
You might think these experiences would dissuade Tom from adopting any new technology. Far from it. In the years after acquiring the Mac, he bought an iPhone and signed up to Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. He joined Facebook to bring attention to good causes; the other two were business decisions, so that he could promote his recently-republished “long short” stories and his audio recordings of the same. On those early forays into social media, his accounts were closely monitored and, largely, operated by his assistant, F., but more recently Tom has begun to operate as a renegade, taking charge of his own social media accounts, posting material that sometimes excites, sometimes baffles us.
‘Did you see Tom’s video on Instagram?’ my sister asks.
‘Yes, I think it was of his trousers, or was it of his slippers?’
‘Do you think it might have been a mistake?’
He very quickly got the hang of Facebook and wrote several inflammatory posts agitating against president Museveni of Uganda. On the 26 November 2016, just two weeks after returning from a trip to the Ruwenzori mountains, Tom heard from his friends in Kasese—via urgent telephone calls and hastily composed emails—that the royal palace had been burned to the ground and dozens of people had been shot and hacked to death with machetes. The perpetrators were the Ugandan army, operating on a tip off that separatist militants were operating out of Kasese. Tom first visited the region in his early twenties, whilst completing his Africa brief for the Daily Express in 1954. When he discovered the Bakonzo people of western Uganda fighting for autonomy, he became their unofficial representative and secured their recognition by both Uganda and the Congo, a story he relates in ‘Tribe.’ This book (published in 2003) has rightly become a classic, regarded by experts on the region as a timeless piece of literary reportage. The people and the royal household became lifelong supporters of Tom, and he has returned every few years to visit his loyal friends. His eldest grandson has accompanied him on several of these trips and he describes Tom’s connection to the place even more colourfully. ‘They fucking love him out there. They worship him like he’s a god.’
But since publishing graphic photographs of the massacre, and writing defamatory pieces about the president on Facebook, Tom fears he will never again be welcome in Museveni’s Uganda. ‘I think,’ he says simply, ‘I think… that if I go back, someone will murder me.’ I don’t know how likely it is that he would have returned after his most recent visit in 2016. He was already finding the trips arduous, despite his extraordinary pluckiness (he climbed the glacier at the top of Mount Stanley when he was seventy-one, surviving a life-threatening bout of altitude sickness). Perhaps it is better that this is the reason he cannot go back—railing, with chutzpah, against the authorities—rather than simply finding the body unfit for purpose. Sometimes I wonder if he didn’t, perhaps, do it on purpose.
When I return to 128 following a year in Athens, I discover that the old, bulky, recalcitrant Apple Mac has gone, and in its place is a neat, steel-grey laptop. Tom looks very content, tapping away, and he seems lighter, unburdened by this new piece of equipment. I’ve never seen him more productive; he has just started work on his eighteenth full-length book.
Tom is still able to surprise me. His approach to life, while disciplined and self-sufficient in its structure, is spontaneous and adventurous in its details. He can be intransigent, but sometimes, unexpectedly, he will change his mind, his tastes. He recently read Muriel Spark for the first time and has become a vocal admirer (‘extremely funny’) of a writer he first encountered in person fifty years ago at the London offices of Lilliput magazine. He is eager to know if I have read her, too; I smile at him. Does he realise he has become the inheritor of a boarding house for women of slender means?
In the summer Tom has an entirely different type of laptop. It is a large offcut of sandy-coloured, textured plywood, like an artist’s palette, which he places across the tops of his thighs or rests on the arms of a chair. On the board goes whatever manuscript he happens to be editing, or book he’s reading. He makes notes with a knife-sharpened pencil in a smallish, slanting hand. Often, I catch a glimpse of him, seated beneath the magnolia tree for hours on end, head bowed, sunlight filtering through wisps of hair. His love of the outdoors is one of the reasons why he always has colour in his cheeks: if he’s not on one of his runs, or sowing grass seed and pruning things with a massive set of secateurs, or on one of his errands, then he’s out here with his writing-board. He might be the only person I know who can actually concentrate on their work while sitting out of doors. I feel content when I see him in this position. I know he’s not going to need me to find or fix anything; there will be no lost files, no spinning Catherine Wheels. Just the faint whir of the cogs in his brain, as a thousand thoughts orbit a thousand other thoughts, and Tom writes, like a man in a hurry, to get them all down before it’s too late.