Soho’s Liver Function Test
by Tomoé Hill
I’d Like to Thank Manchester Air Rifles,
by Scarlet West,
Grey Tiger Books, 456 pp.
Waked in the morning with my head in a sad taking through the last night’s drink, which I am very sorry for.
It all started again, that drinking thing. Yesterday I spent all day in The Coach and Horses. I’d slept downstairs again. I dunno, it’s not good, is it? I wish I wouldn’t.
A good diarist, like the diaries they write, is always greater than the sum of their parts. That is to say, the dissection of a life day-to-day, looked at randomly, can seem uninteresting, lifeless, not worthwhile. Even those who go down in history as having charmed, exciting lives go through the same moments that the rest of us do, it’s just that the grander events have pushed aside interest in such daily banalities over the years.
Perhaps therein lies the attraction of diaries—they are the great equaliser, capable of both bestowing the average person with a mythology and making the famous appear, if not normal, then almost so. Seeing the word on the page (or screen) in this form, we ascribe a certain, if not absolute, truth to it. The writer who lies in the diary is committing a double sin: that of lying to themselves, as well as posterity, both in their head and on the page. It seems impossible that anyone would have the energy to be duplicitous in that extreme. But paradoxically, we read what is written as if it were not reality, swept up in the character of the writer and the narrative of their life. This is the mark of a great diarist—the one that makes you believe real life is fiction.
And so to the memoir of one Scarlet West, author-diarist of I’d Like to Thank Manchester Air Rifles, written mainly in dodgy internet cafés at unwholesome hours, often while thoroughly under the influence of alcohol consumed in Soho establishments. West was (and still is) a DJ at the Soho Arts Club, a place of some repute as a haunt of the famous. Somewhat unintentionally, she not so much lifts the veneer of gilt as rips it off, spending more time recounting the rats beneath the floorboards— something the patrons of the AC always seem to be completely oblivious to—instead of namedropping. It could be down to some celebrity omertà, but most likely it’s because West simply isn’t interested in a name for the sake of it:
My friend Jeremy who’s partial to cocaine introduced me to one of his friends.
“My name’s Jude.”
And then I bothered to look at him. Oh yeah, it was Jude Law. So I rolled up my cut-off tights and showed him my scar.
What she does like are characters, mainly ones who frequent pubs, which are where she spends most of her time outside of DJing—often just going into a succession of them for a half-pint in each, striking up conversations with strangers. It’s reminiscent of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London—the average person that is invisible to the world outside of the small one they inhabit, until their personalities are brought to life on the page by the writer. And, in a way, West herself is not unlike something out of Down and Out. She drinks hard, lives a high-low life, one minute typing a diary entry in a come-scented internet café in Leytonstone, the next drinking in Claridge’s. It’s just about as vagabond life as one can live without being homeless. It stops short of being completely carefree, because she is prone to bouts of worry about debt, alcoholism or liver cancer (ironically West possesses a perfectly healthy one). Her asides can be almost quasi-suicidal at times, but these are what feels like the natural, if extreme, dips that could be experienced by anyone. It’s an honesty that always seems to be avoided in most memoirs—where they are polished up for maximum relatability, or drawn out for a similar sympathy.
Occasionally, she ventures back to her hometown of Oldham—although more from necessity than desire. At one point, after breaking her leg, she spends a few months practically housebound at her mother’s, except for wheeled trips to the pub to watch the horse racing. In despair at her lack of a job and mounting debt, but even more so at being trapped and unable to return to Soho, she ruminates increasingly about death, and how small and racist Oldham, with its ‘awful stench of failure’, seems when compared to the openness and freedom of London. The longing, bordering on desperation, will be a familiar one to anyone who’s ever felt that they didn’t belong to the place where they grew up: as a longtime London transplant, I still have genuine nightmares that I will wake up one morning, only to discover that I never actually left my hometown. That’s what it feels like to not relate to where you come from, regardless of loved ones still living there. There is a fear that lurks constantly around the peripheries of your mind, that the place you feel at home in will be taken from you. When West finally returns to London, the grimy Leytonstone internet café, her occasional office job at Tower Bridge, back to DJing at the Arts, you feel the sheer relief and dizzying happiness at being surrounded by her urban touchstones.
Cities like London, Paris or New York all have the curious quality of being both vast and impersonal, but at the same time, intimate. Like a planet that revolves around only you. A mutual possession takes place—you belong to the city, but it also feels as if it is yours, exclusively. Her Soho feels both reassuringly familiar to me and completely alien—The French House, The Coach and Horses, and my adventures in them feel as if they were a separate layer of London’s atmosphere. West’s relationship with that geography—the various bars, clubs and pubs, and the people she knows through them—casts her as, if not the queen of it, then certainly as a kind of epicentre. Things happen when she’s around, and although they are just everyday occurrences noted in the diary, once committed to record, they take on that mythical quality that is the common feature of engaging diarists, the most famous of them all being Pepys. You can imagine the sights, sounds and smells of their day-to-night lives, compare entries and nod at the things that have changed in London, but more importantly, those that haven’t: West revels in her Subway sandwiches, Pepys at a good leg of mutton; both have arguments with spouses and partners; go to plays (him: Hamlet, her: Hairspray); and perhaps most amusingly, a night of excessive drinking feels just as terrible in the 2000s as it did in the 1660s.
The everyday things that fit in-between the poles of DJing and drinking for the author range from going to church groups and singing in her MySpace-formed band, Iraq, to the more surreal—an ongoing correspondence with her pen pal, a Texas death-row inmate who drops her once his sentence is commuted, ‘I think he’s got himself a girlfriend’, and ringing The Samaritans regularly for a chat. But whether she’s playing bingo in Elephant and Castle or musing on why Broadmoor discourages inmates from having pen pals, the London she writes about is uniquely hers, making a large part of I’d Like to Thank Manchester Air Rifles appeal that of wanting to go to all of these places—even if you’ve been to them before—and see them through her eyes.
I think I’ll just give that come-scented internet café in Leytonstone a miss, though.
Photographs by Russell Bennetts.
About the Author:
Tomoe Hill is a writer and reviews editor of minor literature[s]. She lives in London.