I was ready for David Seabrook because I knew the territory he was writing about, one of the few places outside London with which I was really familiar. When you’re a transplanted Irishman you tend to be wary of the coastal towns: UKIP and Brexit were festering there for decades before the madness spread. Your accent immediately marks you out, for one thing, and the IRA had done its best for communal understanding by planting bombs where they thought they might catch a few soldiers in the nets of collateral damage.
But the Isle of Thanet I knew. In the early nineties I lived with a woman I was still grieving for when I met Seabrook. Her mother and grandparents had settled in seedy respectable Westgate, separated from Margate by a short walk along the seafront past the great pleasure hulk of Dreamland and the old Sea-Bathing Hotel. Her mother’s boyfriend Jack was a local man, an electrical engineer who could fix or build anything and made the most beautiful shelves I’d ever seen. He would point out the houses where the semi-retired London villains lived, large detached houses with enormous satellite dishes on the gables and military-grade SUVs in the driveways.
The unemployment rate was staggering, even then. An ad for a single post in the fire brigade attracted six hundred applicants; Jack’s children and their wives and boyfriends worked in Tesco or Sainsbury’s, all except one young man who lived with Jack’s younger daughter and two pit bulls in an apartment that contained a single book, the Antiques Handbook & Price Guide, and very temporary collections of objects and electronic gear. I never met anyone who wasn’t white, and they were all just about getting by; the Wantsum channel had been filled in since about 1800, but the place still felt cut off, neglected and defensive. I was treated with a polite puzzlement that a drink or two would usually soften, but I was going back where I’d come from, unlike the depressed east Europeans dumped in hostels behind the seafront, many of them refugees from the Balkan wars, and no one had a good word for them.
Iain Sinclair first mentioned Seabrook to me (I’d just published Sinclair’s great mapping of east London, Lights Out for the Territory). He’s crazy, he said, barely house-trained, living on the edge. I wrote to the address Iain gave me and a short manuscript arrived a week later, densely typed, single-spaced. The first section described T.S. Eliot hiding out in Margate in October 1921, broken down and full of doubts about the long poem he was trying to finish and reworking it in a shelter overlooking Margate Sands. And Seabrook wrote about Margate as it was at the turn of this century. It probably hasn’t changed much:
‘There are hunched sedated souls lingering in cafes and souped-up milk bars. There are groups of squabbling Albanians outside. There are the young men of the front, this front, all bare arms, body art and fast-working furious faces, faces that ought to be spouting water from the walls of Gothic buildings.’
I was hooked. The chapter (essay? Deranged prose poem?) on Richard Dadd and Charles Dickens and the Medway towns was even better, and Seabrook’s excavation of the weird fascist underbelly of the North Foreland, that vertiginous collision of Lord Curzon, Buchan, Audrey Hepburn’s Mosleyite father, Arnold Tester, the Anglo-German Nazi who bought Curzon’s palatial villa near Broadstairs, William Joyce and Frank Richards (‘the most prolific writer in recorded history’) made the thing irresistible. It had to become a book.
Seabrook’s writing was ‘difficult’ in the publishing sense, not the prose, which knifed and ripped its way into the mind, but because it was so impure in a formal sense. It was not ‘narrative non fiction’, though it contained narratives, and it also included investigative reportage, topography, speculative history, fiercely engaged literary allusion and dangerously confessional memoir. The book ends with the author in a scene full of menacing tension trying to pick up, because he’s broke, a middle-aged punter in a Deal pub.
David came up from Canterbury after I wrote to him again to say I wanted to publish his work. He looked the part: staring eyes, jittery, head shaved, gaunt. He wore a neat old Crombie and thrift shop clothes. He was nervous, as if he’d gotten out of the habit of being around people, talking in loud derisive gusts and laughing wildly at the absurdity of anyone taking Martin Amis or Ian McEwan seriously. My office at Granta, in a building behind the Island Queen pub in Islington, was small, with partitions too thin to muffle his manic laugh and well-aimed denunciations. Some of my colleagues, more used to the traffic of well-bred Cambridge alumni – the sea on which English publishing floats – were very uneasy around him. If they’d seen him come in on his own they’d have called the cops. I thought he was wonderful. He was aware of the impression he made, but he’d given up caring very much. He was also funny, sensitive and good company, and enjoyed yarning in the Queen over a few pints. He seemed to have read everything, and had a ferocious sense of literary value, which was utterly derisive of the metropolitan great and good. After the book was published and widely praised by surprised and gratified reviewers, David was summoned for an audience by a wannabe grand London agent, who spoke de haut en bas and assumed that showing him a list of the firm’s distinguished writers would be enough to dazzle his guest. David went through the list, he told me later, in loud satirical astonishment that such a crew of overrated hacks could be assembled in one place. He soon found himself back on the streets of Covent Garden, gleefully unagented. His own canon included Don DeLillo, Gordon Lish and Samuel Beckett. He was passionate about neglected and out-of-print writers like Robert Aickman, whose genuinely disturbing stories David later helped me republish at Faber.
All the Devils Are Here was cursed with the status of a cult classic. It’s a book that people who’ve read it, especially writers, can never forget. David seemed to become calmer after it was published. He didn’t talk much about how he’d been living since his university days in Kent, but at the book launch my image of the wild loner was complicated by a circle of friends, well-wishers and affectionate ex-girlfriends. He told me once that for a while he’d gotten by stealing and fencing books from the Canterbury branch of Waterstones when it was managed by the future bestselling novelist David Mitchell.
I took on Jack of Jumps, his deeper exploration of the ‘stripper murders’ he’d alluded to in All the Devils Are Here. That book was edited by my successor at Granta, George Miller, but David and I kept in touch. He came into a little money – some bequest or other – and became quite dapper. He bought a flat. He was still fascinated by the mire of louche characters who’d made the sixties so interesting. He intended to write a book for me about David Jacobs, the show business lawyer who was a friend of Brian Epstein, brokered a disastrous contract for Beatles merchandise that is said to have lost the boys a hundred million, and acted for a long list of men who didn’t want their sexuality discussed in public in the days when hiding in plain sight was a risky business: he won damages for Liberace after the Daily Mirror suggested he was gay (no mean feat), and defended John Vassall, the central figure in the Profumo case, who’d been blackmailed into spying for the Russians because he liked men. Jacobs hanged himself – or did he? – in his house in Hove in December 1968. This was a mystery made for David Seabrook: dodgy deals, links with the secret world, illicit and ambiguous sex and the faded glamour of the English seaside towns, places of escape where the haunted go to die.
And then he was gone, suddenly and inexplicably in his flat in Canterbury, at the age of forty-nine. His formal funeral was a grim affair, officiated by a travelling fundamentalist hired by his devout parents. What a childhood that must have been. The preacher had never met David and uttered a series of grotesque vague pieties. We had drinks later in a pub, and at least the circle of ex-lovers and now bereft friends was there to wonder what he might have written and remember his great first book.
Order your copy of David Seabrook’s All the Devils Are Here.