An Excerpt from the novel, THE NEW BOHEMIANS
It’s the 1980s, an era of smart suits and saxophones. Typewriters are plentiful, David Bowie and Prince are at the heights of their stardom, and the decade’s hottest place for music, fashion and politics is London. It’s here that a group of expats from North America try to build their dreams into reality.
Calvin Trent wants to found a magazine that can rival Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, and he just might pull it off. Their British friend, Jeremy, tries to duck the racism of cops patrolling the Brixton neighbourhood and be the voice of sensible business values behind the others’ grand design. Beth, a quirky, talented musician and photographer is trying to get over her past creative failures, but she just may escape her depression in the arms of Ram Talbott. Ram the narrator, who loves too much, who feels too much and who needs to make sense of it all after the dream falls apart.
THE NEW BOHEMIANS is a story about an era that was more vibrant, more complicated and more exciting than today’s nostalgic references. By turns lyrical and comic, it’s a love letter to the writers and artists who are the also-rans, the ones who don’t get movies made out of their lives or who have courses taught on their forgotten works. But for a short while, they had their brilliant moments…
A scene from an early section of the novel:
All the colour’s been leached out of the place. Jeremy told me he had a similar thought as he sat in one of his favourite wine bars on a Thursday night. His father had died only a few days before, and the “miserable old exile” as Jeremy often referred to him had only bequeathed to his son a broken antique desk. Jeremy had sold it cheap, and now he was determined to spend part of the modest profit on a couple of glasses of Californian white. “I was thinking, Damn the Exile. And damn this wet country.”
A group of Yank tourists in the bar was getting increasingly rambunctious, and the only safe harbour was a stool next to a man dressed in what Jeremy says was a Crombie suit. The guy looked about thirty. The suit was impeccable. His chestnut hair was elegantly brushed in one of the latest styles, and even his eyebrows looked exquisitely trimmed. With his chiselled features, he could have been an actor or model.
One of the Americans screamed at the top of his lungs, “Reagan’s the greatest fuckin’ president ever! Fuckin’ solid, man!”
“Yes, he is,” muttered Jeremy. “Hewn from the finest lumberyard.”
“Petrified and patriotic,” said the model.
It could have been left at that, a couple of quips, but they were also each other’s best prospect for decent conversation. The model extended a hand to shake. “Tristan Foxworth.”
He had confided to me how he had been toying with the idea of a convenient surname switch when he needed it, and now was as good a time as any to test it out.
Pretty soon, they were talking about the news, and this and that, and picking on Sloanies (it was the heyday of the empty-headed Sloane Rangers making all the society pages). They agreed that yes, the striking coal miners should not have had their heads bashed in, but they were still living with those same heads stuck in the 1840s anyway and why couldn’t they recognize their industry was dying? They agreed that the Falklands had been a shitty little place to start a war, but Argentina had started it and had had it coming, so fuck the bastards. They agreed that Labour had cocked it up and had brought the Winter of Discontent down on everyone, and that the Liberal Democrats had ensured their own irrelevancy. They surprisingly agreed on a lot.
“You know,” remarked Foxworth after about half an hour. “This place is getting rather tiresome and stuffy. I was going to skip this party, but you’ve put me in a better mood. Feel like going?”
“What kind of party?”
“It’ll be great fun. People who think like us. Not too far, just a drive over to Knightsbridge.”
Jeremy thought why not, since it wouldn’t hurt to know some people with dosh — those who could turn into clients or at least helpful friends. He asked his brand new friend if he could bring along some friends of his own. If he invited me along, he knew I might want to bring Peter, and if Peter came, why not Beth? Beth, who had taken an instant shine to Nadine when I’d introduced them to each other, and Beth, who wouldn’t want to be the only girl in this caravan anyway. Foxworth said of course, the more, the merrier, and so Jeremy had rung me up. “You have to see this fellow,” Jeremy whispered on the bar phone. “Positively leonine in features.” Leonine — he used the word twice. Dress sharp, he ordered, and gather the troops.
I didn’t have much to dress sharp with, but I still had a French-cut, wool blazer Cal had passed along on permanent loan, and an old, slim, genuine 1940s tie I’d rescued from a costume shop in Winnipeg’s Market district. I rounded up Peter while Beth promised to collect Nadine, and we all gathered at my flat. With Jeremy riding shotgun, Tristan Foxworth picked us up in a vintage Jaguar Mark 2, and most of us tried our best to play it cool until Beth squealed, “Oh, my gawd, your car’s nicer than my apartment!”
None of us had any idea where we were going, or what we were in for. Tristan Foxworth — Mister Leonine Model — just said the party was a “regular thing” and that “the boys like to call these things Boss nights.” Oh, said Peter after a moment with his usual deadpan timing, so I guess that means S & M games and lots of riding crop spankings? Tristan guffawed like a good sport and said something like, Well, he wouldn’t be surprised if some of that went on with these posh types, but probably not tonight. He was doing a pretty good job, affecting this pose of wiser, more sophisticated Hip Guy to our giggling band of twenty-somethings, and I hoped we weren’t embarrassing Jeremy too much. Then we pulled up and parked somewhere near Herbert Crescent, and we stepped into the eerily quiet network of rust-red houses. Tristan led us into one, and we ran into a wall of cigarette smoke and ear-splitting music.
“No worries,” he said over his shoulder. “Place was completely sound-proofed five years ago by the owners. People round here like to party hard, but they are mindful of the little courtesies.”
Fine. We ventured in, and there was something…off. Everyone was sharply dressed, but I don’t mean like us. Smart suits, fashionable dresses. Tristan was the oldest one there, the rest of them our age, and they were supposed to be partying. But all of them looked like they had to race off in an hour for the most sombre family reunion with the most fucking uptight relatives who would hiss at them “not to make a scene.” Too many guys for girls in the mix, but you can often have parties like that. There were guys in the kitchen, talking and laughing loud, smoking thick cigars and looking like ten-year-old boys raiding their daddys’ closets. We finally figured it out. We’d wound up at a party of Young Conservatives.
“Most of these boys are here for the beer,” joked Tristan, and he led us around, introducing us to his mates, who smacked their lips over the girls and were cordial enough to Peter, Jeremy and me. Jeremy thought he saw William Hague float by, still a legend to the younger members of the party with a full head of hair and steam, and Tristan Foxworth gazed across the room but couldn’t confirm the sighting. Instead, he muttered back to Jeremy and with me within earshot, “Clever as shit, but he’s been passed over. The Lady thought having him as a special advisor or something would look like a stunt — you know, because of his youth.”
We discovered that the reason why they called these things “Boss Nights” is because they cranked select tunes of Springsteen every so often in their music mix. I stood in the kitchen with Peter, and we watched a girl with horsey teeth and a rare plunging neckline sing along off key to “The Promised Land.” Someone flipped the LP and put on “Badlands,” and the whole joint went nuts. It was a pub anthem to this crowd, all of them singing along even to the mm-mms after the saxophone and guitar solos. Springsteen belted at the top of his lungs about working in the fields, and these posh types in their tailored kit, armed with double-barrelled names and legacy memberships for private clubs, jumped and down as if they were at a Manchester United rally.
I looked in horror to Peter, who offered his best, world-weary private eye expression. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
“This is how a Stephen King novel would start if he were British,” I put in.
Jeremy drifted up to us in that moment as if he couldn’t believe what he had gotten us into. He whispered how it was bloody surreal, but before he could go on, Tristan Foxworth was at his elbow, introducing him to his sister, Penelope, whom he added quickly, would be running in the constituency of Fuck-knows-on-Thames in the next election. We all got a really weird vibe. Tristan’s sister looked like him — model-pretty, with brunette hair dyed purple, which was probably daring for her crowd. But she also had this unsettling, predatory sexuality, and she was clearly interested in whisking Jeremy off to a private room. Whether he had his head bitten off after her eggs were fertilized was of primary concern to us. A scene from Caligula, wardrobe by Hugo Boss.
He managed to extricate himself after the right amount of conversation, but I think he spent the rest of the night dodging her, and that also meant dodging Tristan, which looked bad, because he had brought us. Meanwhile, Nadine was getting her quota of assholes who really loved her accent, and somehow, word got around that Peter was an artist. That’s brilliant, said a cluster of sloppier, drunker types. Do caricatures of us! Peter shrugged and said he didn’t have his pencils and gear. No, no, they insisted, surely you can use a pen? And someone brushed the bottles, crisp packets and plates from a side table and said, Do it here, right here! Jesus, bet you’re good! Bet we can frame the fucking tablecloth and sell it for 200 quid one day! Come on!
“No,” Peter said gently.
“Awww, come on, why not?”
“Same reason I don’t balance a beach ball on my nose or dive out of the water and do somersaults in the air.” He turned to me. “Leaving, right?”
“Oh, hell, yeah,” I said.
But it took us another hour to find the girls and then Jeremy, whom I later learned had taken a politically confused but decisively gay young member of the elite into a guest room, and we think the guy might have had a role in the Cabinet of David Cameron decades later. Anyway, the tryst put Jeremy back in a good mood, so that he really didn’t want to leave with the rest of us. But then a few other guests approached him, saying they needed his help with girls.
“Well, just get some confidence,” replied Jeremy, trying to be polite, “and go talk to them. There are some nice ones here, I’m sure.”
They conceded his point, and yes, they could do that, but it was a bloody pain with the supposedly “nice” ones, because a proper date would cost dinner, booze, parking, etc. and of course, it really meant an estimated minimum of three dates before they put out, and he must know the other type. Good ones. Ones that wouldn’t prove too expensive, yes? Real fit types, yes?
Jeremy stared at them. “Am I understanding you correctly? You think that I can get you…?”
“Professionals,” chirped one of them, nodding his head vigorously. “Yeah.”
I wish I could say there was an awkward silence. But I had strolled over and caught this last part, so I know it wasn’t awkward. It was an angry silence. It was an ignorant silence. I could only imagine the outrage behind my friend’s eyes. They had sought him out. They had asked him — not Peter or me. Him. And we all knew why.
“You fucking assholes,” I said, because I felt I had to say something. In retrospect, I know I didn’t have to show off my liberal conscience.
Before they could respond, Tristan ambled over, saying, “Oh, marvellous, you’re talking! The boys thought you might be able to help them out, or have you got to that bit yet?”
“It’s why I’m here, isn’t it?” asked Jeremy.
Tristan made one of those annoying laughs you get where there’s no sound, just a series of faint wheezes. And then he said, “Well, it’s one reason. We’re not that mercenary, are we, boys?”
“No, of course, not,” Jeremy answered. “I think I can set you up. But I need to borrow your car. Make some preparations. Is that all right?”
This got the idiots all-a-tingle with excitement and lecherous hope, and Tristan, looking awkward but not wanting to be a killjoy said yes. A single look from Jeremy told us we ought to squeeze him into the back seat between Peter and Beth so that he couldn’t easily change his mind and jump out. Jeremy gunned the engine, switched on the radio, and we roared off to the cymbal crashing and garage band dudda-dudda, dudda-dudda of Joe Jackson’s “I’m the Man” at full blast. We knew that pretty soon now, we were going to take our host all the way to Brixton for a real party.
I think the guy went as white as his bed silks when he stepped out on the pavement, even more so when we steered him into a club with vintage reggae pounding out of the speakers. It was all rum and one drop rhythm, artists like Yellowman and the Maytals playing, and guys checking out Beth and Nadine, dancing together with abandon. Jeremy introduced us around to a few people he knew — folks working on stencil and street art, others working on poetry, friends creating scenes that we didn’t have a clue about. If Tristan Foxworth got a lesson that night, he wasn’t the only one. Peter didn’t mind, because he was having a blast. I teased him later, asking him if he’d become a convert to the insipidly patronizing notion that there was a sublime Negro wisdom higher than our own, the same sort of bullshit that certain deluded hippie types liked to give Cree or Mohawks, wanting to connect with Nature.
Peter made his hyaw-hyaw-hyaw laugh and replied, “You are a saintly, cynical son of a bitch, born and raised, aren’t you?” Being Welsh in descent, he knew how to make a put-down sound like poetry. “I don’t give a shit how much melanin they got, some of these guys are doing cool stuff. You can see a couple of their pictures out in the lobby. Really vibrant colours. Some of it’s didactic, sure, but… maybe Dale was on to something after all. Maybe if you’re ground down and hard up, it forces you to be more inspired.”
“Hey, gimme twenty pounds,” I said.
“Just give it to me.”
He handed me a twenty-pound note, and I said, “Any new ideas yet?”
He laughed and called me an asshole and snatched his money back. We danced for a bit with Nadine and Beth, and then tired and sweaty, I parked myself into a corner by Jeremy, sipping a rum and Coke. Peter was working on a tall pale ale.
“I like it here,” I shouted over the music.
“You sound surprised,” he said.
“No, no,” I said defensively. I pointed to a bewildered Foxworth, afraid to stay and talk to anyone, afraid to walk out into the street. The Tube had long closed by now, and it’s not like he’d be able to catch even a gypsy cab.
Jeremy and I laughed together, and Peter said to him, “We’re a bunch of expat, cracker, privileged snots to you, aren’t we?”
His tone wasn’t hostile. I think Peter was seriously trying to figure out our places in the world. How he ought to properly behave, especially in a milieu like this, which really meant how could he relax. Whether he should be a good person or just not give a shit and make art. The deep stuff.
Jeremy looked vaguely hurt, and then he smiled. He used to like to quote an aphorism of one of his better teachers, which I borrowed and still do: Never ascribe to malice what can be written off to ignorance.
“Peter, I don’t take expat, cracker, privileged snots to places like this.”
“You brought him,” I said. I meant Foxworth.
“Oh, that’s a mercy job. He’s luggage. I will let our host off with a — let’s call it an educational exercise. He’s probably wet himself, and tomorrow he’ll feel bad because he’ll realize it was for nothing. But I was this close to driving his car out to Epsom and leaving him there.”
Peter grinned, satisfied with his answer. He wandered off with his pint.
Then Jeremy turned to me. “Now. See that lovely girl with the cornrows? She’s checking you out, I think. You or maybe Peter. But he’s not paying attention. Go wander over there and claim you’re American.”
“But I’m not American.”
He rolled his eyes at me. “Your friends are correct. It is a small miracle that you manage to get laid at all, do you know that?”
© Copyright Jeff Pearce and Gallivant Books
THE NEW BOHEMIANS is available to buy in Kindle and paperback from Amazon here.