• Jake Russell

Marlborough Mansions

Hi everyone,

A short one today because I’m in bed moping, feeling ropey. The only plausible explanation for this is that someone obviously came into my flat during the night while I was asleep and filled my head with school dinner grade mashed potatoes.

So, since I’m somewhat slow and stodgy I thought I’d keep things simple and write a little thing about my dad.

He moved about a lot, my dad. He wasn’t one to settle down in a particular spot for long. But one spot he settled into for longer than most was a flat in the basement of a Victorian block in West Hampstead called Marlborough Mansions. If you were to imagine a cross between the lower deck of a large pirate ship and a lunatic asylum, rather than an apartment (and certainly rather than a mansion), you might get an accurate picture in your mind.

The ship’s Captain/Landlady was Vanessa, a kind but formidable woman who ran her madcap vessel with candour and unquestionable authority. The first mate was a French blackjack croupier named Laurent whom my dad simply called Le Monsieur. And Le Monsieur’s secondary was Vanessa’s son, Sam, who was my age and for a time one of my best friends. Le Monsieur kept Sam on his toes, literally, by throwing darts across the room at his bare feet and Sam was happy and nimble enough to meet the challenge. A small cabin down the long, dark corridor from my dad’s room up in the bow provided port-side passing refuge for one storm-sodden stray after another over the years.

My dad filled his bow-end berth with the smoke of incense, smudge sticks and spliffs, loud drumbeats and guitar riffs, and a futon we’d all sleep on when we stayed. Then, on a Saturday afternoon he’d roll it up against the wall to make space for an acupuncture table upon which he’d prick a recurring cast of psychically scarred characters who’d begin ringing on the doorbell just before our time with him was up. Opening the door and asking them to wait on the solitary wicker chair in the hall was something I dreaded and was second only to making my dad a cup of tea in the ship’s gloomy galley on the list of jobs to avoid. To layer metaphor upon metaphor upon metaphor, the ship’s kitchen was like a dark and dangerous saloon bar in the wild west. You never knew who you’d run into in there.

More than likely, Buster, the huge and unruly resident poodle dog. He patrolled the place in the early years like a loopy centurion before giving way to Walter, a crossbreed beast whose inner wolf was just a little too close to the surface for my liking and whose years of eager rule coincided with the prime chunk of my memories from this period. My dad loved Walter and Walter loved him back. Then finally, Bez, an utterly unreasonable Manchester Terrier took on the role of resident dog and my dad convinced himself he could hypnotise the incessant snapper into silence, but he really couldn’t. And so, whenever Vanessa left him behind, Bez would begin to whine with all his might, and my dad would resort to a more didactic approach and ask the small canine why he couldn’t be more philosophical in his suffering. Bez rarely, if ever, engaged my dad on that level and consequently their relationship never found the same depth of meaning as he had with Walter.

It was in Marlborough Mansions he did most of his writing. My dad, that is, not Bez.

He wrote Handbook For The Urban Warrior and its follow ups and most of the columns for The Observer here. He’d spend hours hammering away at his laptop – his wasn’t a light touch on the keyboard by any means, but the words he forged through his two-fingered pounding were delicate, dexterous and delightful. He had a way of finding sense and humour that I learnt to admire when he read aloud a passage he’d just written, and he did so often. He’d turn to us, my brother Joe and I, and Michael when he was over from Miami, and rhetorically ask if he could read us the page or chapter he’d just written. I say rhetorical because we all knew it wasn’t really a question. When I was young, I only pretended to understand what he was saying, and then with time I began to realise he had a talent. I learnt, aside from anything else, that you could have fun with words from listening to my dad.

And then, after what always felt like an eternity sitting, waiting for him to be done, we’d head out, starving hungry, to one of the cafes down the street, usually Dominique’s, for eggs on toast. What should’ve been a four-minute walk would invariably take half an hour or more. Partly because his slow lollop was easily the slowest on the block – as if savouring every inch of movement, experiencing the full sensation of each individual section of undulating foot on concrete – and partly because he’d stop and speak to literally every single fucking person we passed.

Everyone would come up to him and say hello. Every shop or café owner would wave. Every passer-by, every woman sitting at a table on the pavement he liked the look of. Everyone. Everyone seemed to know him. And he made time for them all. He’d smile and he’d listen, he’d encourage. He’d be their friend. And he was never pretending. He was a friend to everyone he met.

Which isn’t to say he remained friends with everyone he met. Not at all. But I do believe my dad’s first position, his first intention, with every person he met, was to be a friend—a quality of the rarest sort.

And then after the eggs on toast we’d slowly lollop back to the lower deck, stopping to talk to another hundred and one people, and all too soon our time with him was up.

Strangely, this wasn’t at all what I’d planned on writing when I started, and it wasn’t even that short, was it, but as I said, I have mashed potatoes in my head.

So I’ll leave it there.

With love, Jake x

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