Saturday, 7 June 2008

Primrose Hill: drugs and polymorphous perversity

I live just down the road from where Freud first lived when he fled to London. He landed at Dover on the morning of June 6, 1938, took the train to Victoria Station, then a taxi to 39 Elsworthy Road, via the tourist sights of London which he requested to see — Buckingham Palace, Houses of Parliament etc.

Six years later, to the day, British and Allied troops landed on the beaches of Omaha, Gold, Sword etc. (I don’t think the identicality of date was deliberate, or significant even.)

On the ferry, Freud slept and dreamed that he would land not at Dover but at Pevensey — ie where William the Bastard disembarked and, after a battle up the road, recreated himself as William The Conqueror. Freud claimed that all dreams were, at heart, fantasy wish-fulfilments. This dream is the best example I’ve found so far.

It’s a nice, big house, 39 Elsworthy Road. Red-brick, quoined, with a stone portico and the slightly anthropomorphised front elevation that’s usual on most houses of its age, shape and kind — ie it looks like a face, deliberately, welcomingly so. Please step in through my mouth, madam.

It’s quite grand actually by modern standards. I should imagine there’s more than one servant’s room. It was probably quite new when Freud moved in. A home for a society doctor or a well-connected barrister perhaps. It would now cost you, oh, £4.5 million, say — more if it had been renovated to today’s local standards. Cyril Burt, the great proponent of IQ tests, lived a dozen or so doors away — though I’m not sure if he was there in Freud’s time.

Freud’s office was on the ground floor at the rear, giving on to a garden which leads, through a private gate, on to the football fields part of Primrose Hill. When he was looking out of the window, there would have been a cafĂ© on the lee of the hill. But that’s long gone, swept aside during the war, I should imagine, when the whole of the hill was turned into an anti-aircraft gun battery. You can still see where the concrete emplacements were — their boundaries and shape are often marked out by carpets of daisies.

I’ve no idea who lives there now. There’s no blue plaque on it as Freud and his family moved on within months, up the hill towards Hampstead, to 20 Maresfield Gardens. (My wife’s great aunt, who drove a sports car into her eighties, lived over the road at number 45 Maresfield. She told me she saw Anna Freud quite regularly but never quite got round to talking to her.)

Every time I pass the Elsworthy Road house, I think about one of two things.

1. Freud being paid a visit there by Salvador Dali. It went very badly. Dali saw himself as an equal. Freud’s taste in art stopped several centuries before impressionism, let alone Dada and surrealism. Still, two men of the unconscious sitting there miscommunicating: surely one of history’s great meetings.

2. It’s just over the road and down a bit from where Liam Gallagher lived. I find myself thinking about Freud and the Primrose Hill set of recent years. What would he and they have found to say to each other?

Despite having written Three Essays on Sexuality (by general agreement, one of the least sexy books ever), Freud would not have wanted to have anything to do with their wife-swapping and nanny-jumping. It’s true he came up with the concept of polymorphous perversity but he thought that was a thing of childhood and to be put away with childish things rather than used as a way to ensure regular appearances in Grazia or OK! (Though he did allow the press in and was photographed by his desk, I don’t think he sold the exclusive rights.)

Anyway, I think I’m right in saying that he hadn’t had sex for more than forty years — since his last daughter, Anna was born, in 1895. Anna herself, she hadn’t had sex at all. Freud worried about this in his letters. He knew it was wrong. He knew it was because of her intense relationship with him. He analysed her himself, something that would now have him drummed out of the trade. Yet he — and she — couldn’t — or wouldn’t — change. Therapeutic resistance. The two Viennese lightbulbs that didn’t want to change.

As far as anyone knows, Anna never had sex at all — she had a lifelong relationship with an American woman Dorothy Burlingham but it’s said to have been platonic. It’s odd, isn’t it, that something that is popularly (if not correctly) seen as being all about sex should have been created by someone who stopped having sex the year he created it. And carried forward by someone who never had sex at all, who went to her grave a virgin.

So what about that other Primrose Hill set hobby, drug-taking? How would Freud have kept his end up in that matter? Well, by 1938, he tried to avoid taking drugs, even though he was in serious pain from the oral cancer which would kill him the following year.

But in his younger years . . . I don’t share my cousin’s view that he was a coke-head whose addictive personality caused him to come up with a coke-warped set of theories. But I do agree he had his moments.

Here’s what he wrote, on June 2, 1884, to the woman who would become his wife two years later: ‘Woe to you, my Princess, when I come. I will kiss you quite red and feed you till you are plump. And if you are forward you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle little girl who doesn't eat enough or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body. In my last severe depression I took coca again and a small dose lifted me to the heights in a wonderful fashion. I am just now busy collecting the literature for a song of praise to this magical substance.’

Now, if Freud had pitched up in Primrose Hill with that kind of attitude . . .

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

The Bourgeois and the Wilde

I was wrong. My family, my friends, my fellow students, the course administrator: they were all right and I was all wrong. I worried about my essay, at great length and in obsessive depth (see my blog of April 24, The student on the couch). I worried that it wouldn’t be academic enough. I worried that it had too many jokes in it — there were two, possibly three, in the first paragraph. I just worried.

But my worries, it seems, were all in vain. I came back from a few days away, in Cornwall, to an email with the words ‘Essay feedback’ in the subject field. And the feedback was that my essay was fine. I passed. I’m pleased. And everyone I’ve been worrying at is relieved.

If you want to know what the essay title was, look here. It’s the second question of the second section, the one that starts ‘In the light of what you have learned . . .’

I wrote about Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest and Louis Bourgeois’ Passage Dangereux in terms of the Oedipus complex. I’ll send you the whole thing if you want. Just email me.

Monday, 2 June 2008


Ten days ago, at exactly 1pm, in a carpeted room just off Tottenham Court Rd, I sat down, a cup of coffee in one hand, a Pilot G-1 Grip in the other, and did something that, nearly thirty-five years ago, I promised myself I’d never do again.

I did an exam. Well, a mock exam. Well, part of a mock exam: one question rather than the full four, 45 minutes rather than three hours.

Still, it was an exam and therefore something I’d promised myself I’d never put myself through again. Exams, from the age of nine to twenty-one, term after term, year after year: enough! Yet there I was, in a room with eight or so others. Some of them looked more worried than me. Some didn’t.

So? So . . .

1. Just like everybody told me, my years of professional writing experience meant that I was used to putting thoughts into words quickly — and that my spelling and grammar are close to spot-on first time through. (Why I found it hard to believe them is, I guess, less a matter of scientific reasoning than for psychoanalytic investigation.)

2. Forty-five minutes is not very much time, even if you know a bit about the subject. It’s like writing an extended caption. A few hundred words and you’re there. There’s little room for shape, certainly none for anything but the briefest digression — or gag. It’s intro, substance, outro, re-read, pen down. No time for breath or second thoughts.

3. Last-minute revision still works for me. I did no real preparation, mostly because I was busy on other things. But, if I’m honest, it was also a deliberate thing. I worried that it would be truly, horribly, dispiriting if I did a reasonable amount of revision and then found myself stumbling for words and thoughts in the exam room.

So I did a little revision, a very little. I started at noon for a 1pm exam — 20 minutes at my desk, 15 minutes on the tube. I remembered from before that if you do that little revision, there is no point trying to cover everything or even very much. You have to place your bets carefully but boldly. There is no point in betting on red or black. You’ll know extremely little about everything — which you probably already knew anyway. You have to put the lot on one number. So I bet the farm on one number. I went over one thing only. (The changes in Freud’s drive theory 1915-1923, if you’re interested.)

It came up, too. (I may have bet boldly but it was hardly a stupid bet. It’s come up in every past exam paper I looked at.) I made a fair fist of answering it. I didn’t make too many stupid mistakes, I think — though I did realise later that I inadvertently killed off one of Freud’s sons, in the mud and gore of the Great War.

I’m promised feedback on it from the course tutor. We’ll see.

RIP Bo Diddley 1928-2008

I spent a little time in Chicago with Mr Diddley — as the New York Times always referred to him, with style-book formality, unfortunately, rather than genuine deference to his otherworldly grandeur.

Or rather, I spent a little time looking at Mr Diddley. He quite ignored me. His concern was his guitar and his Rock And Rye — a sticky mix of fruit syrup and whisky. I was just leaving a Clash tour to fly home. He was just joining it. It was at the Aragon ballroom. A wild, old place, all dolled up with all manner of inter-war art nouveau. The dressing room looked out on the El. The promoter, figuring punks liked dirt, supplied a couple of really worn-down, ageing, fishnetted prostitutes. I got fined for drinking a beer in a moving vehicle — I wasn't driving, just drinking.

I'm told by those who stayed with the tour that Bo never failed to give up his tour bus seat to his guitar and that every night he slept sitting up with his Rock And Rye in his arms.

Bye, Bo.