Living in England my whole adult life has given me a feel for some of the characteristic quirks of Englishness. It’s not a mistake that some national identities get associated with certain stereotypes and emotional repression is definitely a badge commonly worn in this great nation. Reading this reissue of David Seabrook’s “All The Devils Are Here” it felt to me like this book exemplifies this condition better than any book I can recall - except for maybe the recent novel “First Love” where it felt Gwendoline Riley was determined to show the reader every stain in her dirty laundry without letting us know how she really felt about this filthy heap. Seabrook’s book treads the line somewhere between memoir and journalism as it records his wanderings through several seaside towns in Kent and discloses some of the seedier stories connected with this landscape. He flits between many subjects such as T.S. Eliot’s nervous breakdown, an institutionalized artist who committed patricide and the furtive entanglements of several gay writers, actors and athletes. However, he discloses virtually no detail about his reasons for treading so desolately through these haunted streets despite hints of being in a state of personal crisis. As a raconteur of scarcely-remembered odd personalities and tragic events, Seabrook is often compelling and makes intriguing connections. But, as a chronicler of the dynamics of his own heart, he’s an utter failure.
Reading this book felt akin to listening to someone’s odd collection of stories at the pub after he’s had a few pints. And, after he alights upon a subject to capture your attention while breathing boozily into your face, he wrangles you into joining him down an alleyway to stare at a stained wall where some atrocious event occurred fifty years ago. There are flashes of significance and curious wonder to his tales which will no doubt have a different impact upon readers depending on your interest in the subject. Personally I was smitten by the bizarre story of artist Richard Dadd whose family seemed plagued by mental illness and whose confinement in a psychiatric hospital resulted in a proliferation of bizarrely symbolic paintings. And Seabrook’s theory that this murderous artist’s life story might have been an influence for Charles Dickens’ incomplete final novel is alluring. I was equally drawn to the odd status of Robin Maugham and his ambition to follow in his uncle William’s footsteps. But sometimes the stories he told were convoluted and switched so suddenly I found them difficult to follow. And, to be frank, some stories which might have been sensational news items in their day have now faded so much as to feel like they’re barely smouldering anymore.
One thing that drew me into reading this genre-defying book is the hints of alienation Seabrook seems to feel as he wanders down a passage or stairwell to happen upon some grand old estate which has now been divvied into sensible flats. He seems almost hypersensitive to the locals he happens to pass, conversing little with anyone and gloomily lingering at points of interest not found on any tourist map. I was wondering if he would eventually divulge the real state of his mind and heart at any point especially when he settles down with his friend Gordon. But, instead of engaging in any meaningful exchange, we’re privy to this aging windbag’s ramblings about the penis sizes of various men (and even the girth of a statue’s cock) and other gay gossip about people who are notorious only within an incestuously small social circle. Gordon reminds me of some men I’ve met in old-fashioned English private members clubs who possess an odious level of self-regard while pining for the good old days of British imperialism when men of his ilk used underage foreign boys as sexual playthings. Just when the book becomes overwhelmingly tedious, Seabrook breaks away from Gordon to go cruising in a local pub. Here he admits “Let's face it, there are things I haven't mentioned. Private matters. They're on me all day long.” Yet, instead of divulging any more he mildly hopes for a quickie with a man who brings the story back to the semi-tragic figure of a camp film star.
In a way it feels fitting and especially haunting that Seabrook’s book should entirely withhold the complex deeper emotions that are evidently wrapped up in his wanderings. It’s like he’s a figure who embodies much of the unofficial history of this area, but he’s doomed to linger on the outskirts of the present day’s lively party like some rapidly-fading ghost. But it’s so difficult to connect with or care about him or the past which he’s evidently desperate to memorialize without having been given a window into his heart. You could argue that the sketchy outline of his own character that we’re left with is more powerful than a detailed figure – like the narrator of Rachel Cusk’s ultimately frustrating novel “Outline”. But, as a reader, I long to feel some closeness to really understand where an author’s coming from and what makes him worth listening to.