In the spring of 1991, I started renting the third floor flat at 9 Arundel Terrace in Brighton. It was a bright and airy flat on the seafront, overlooking the Marina. A couple of days before I moved in, I went to the landlord’s house to sign the contract and pick up the keys. Just as I was about to leave, he said. “I should just mention that there’s an elderly lady who lives in the basement flat: Kay Dick. She’s a novelist. The thing is, she can be very irritable. So it’s best to make sure you keep well out of her way”.
“That’s okay.” I replied. “My flat’s three floors above her. I don’t think I’ll have much opportunity to irritate her.” “Hmm.” Said the landlord. “She tends to find most people irritating. So be careful. And whatever you do, don’t chain your bike against her railings. She’s very strict about that.”
As fate would have it, I met Kay Dick on the day I moved into Arundel Terrace. I was just about to carry a large, heavy wooden drawer full of 12” vinyl up the first flight of stairs when she entered through the building’s front door accompanied by a gentleman in his late 60’s. At this point, Kay herself was 76, with another ten years of life still ahead of her. She was smartly dressed with a thick mane of neatly styled grey hair. I smiled at her and her friend. Kay surveyed me with her penetrating gaze. I was 27. Her gaze made me feel like a toddler. “What are you doing?” She asked. “I’m moving in.” I explained. “The flat on the 3rd floor. I’m Graham.” She eyed the thick wedge of records with a sour expression, and spoke in a cool tone. “Marvellous.” In that moment, I realised that to try and prolong the conversation any further would be to make myself ‘irritating’. So I simply smiled, as Kay and her friend disappeared downstairs to the basement.
About a week later, I was in my flat, reframing a small picture, when I cut my thumb on the edge of the sheet of glass. It was quite a long cut and there was suddenly blood dripping everywhere. It bled for ages and I realised I didn’t have any plasters, or cot-ton wool, or any kind of first aid in the flat. I knocked on the flat downstairs but there was nobody in. I knocked at each flat, working my way down the building to Kay Dick’s flat. She came to the door. I immediately got the feeling she was an-noyed to have been interrupted, but when she saw my hand and the blood stains on my shirt, she seemed to soften. “I wonder if you could help me. I’ve only just moved in and I don’t have a first aid kit.” “That’s very short sighted of you.” She pointed out. Making me feel like a toddler again.
The walls of her flat were bookshelves floor to ceiling. Kay took me through to her kitchen and gave me some cotton wool and some plasters and I sat at the table and bandaged up my thumb. “The landlord told me you’re a writer.” I ventured. “Oh, did he?” She said. I pressed on. “I’m a writer as well. I’ve mainly done theatrical scripts for fringe productions, but I’m trying to get into writing for radio at the mo-ment.” “Really?” But I was not to be deterred. “I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t want to be a writer.” I gushed. “Nothing gives me more pleasure than writ-ing.” “Really?” She smiled warmly. “That’s how it should be.” Then she looked away and stared out of the window. I realised I had inadvertently become irritating, so I thanked her for her first aid and walked back up to my flat.
Unfortunately, that was to be the friendliest conversation I would ever have with Kay Dick. Sometimes we would pass in the vestibule or in the street. I always made a point of saying ‘hello’. Sometimes she’d respond. Sometimes she’d pointedly turn her head away. She always gave the impression that she had better things to do than talk to me. And to be fair, she probably did.
Then, one afternoon in May, I was standing on the pavement outside Arundel Terrace, waiting for a cab to arrive. Suddenly Kay burst out of her basement flat into her front yard. She clutched a dark blue towelling dressing gown around herself, and was screaming up at me that I had been trying to watch her get undressed through her basement windows.
Naturally I protested my innocence, pointing out that not only was there not enough light to be able to see into the flat, but also that I had in fact been facing the opposite direction, looking out at the sea. But Kay was having none of it. She shouted that she was going to telephone the police, and the landlord and tell them exactly what I had been up to. I felt a wave of anxiety. This situation could seriously escalate. Then it occurred to me; it was highly unlikely that this would be the first time the police or the landlord would have received such an agitated ‘phone call. My cab turned up whilst Kay was still shouting, so I quickly fled. An innocent coward.
Unfortunately, that was not to be the most confrontational conversation I would ever have with Kay Dick. On another occasion, an illustrator friend called Tim Farman came around to visit me. Knowing nothing of Kay, he made the cardinal error of chaining his bicycle to her railings. At this point, my intercom was out of order, so when Tim rang my bell I had to walk down four flights of stairs to let him in. By the time I got down there, Tim was being loudly harangued by Kay for his rude and self-ish act. She was more than angry, she was outraged and full of adrenaline. She also had a bread knife in her hand. Now admittedly, she did also have half a loaf of bread in her other hand. But I think I speak for both Tim and myself, when I say that this only slightly took the edge off the situation. As she started to climb her basement steps towards us, pointing the knife in a threatening manner, Tim and I apologised profusely and hurriedly carried his bike inside. I only lived at Arundel Terrace for 6 months, but Kay Dick made a huge impression on me.
Kay Dick wrote several books. Both fiction and non-fiction. Her best known non-fiction works are ‘Pierrot’ a comprehensive study of the Comedia Del Arté and ‘Stuck in A Book’ which is a series of interviews with Ivy Compton-Burnett and Stevie Smith. Kay was friendly with both women, and the book is a collection of interviews she carried out with them and Kay’s reflections on their work.
And of course she also wrote several novels. But there is nothing in her work which compares with the dark, unearthly tone of ‘They’, her dystopian novella published in 1977. ‘They’ is a genuinely unique and riveting book. A neglected classic of British science fiction. It’s poetic and lyrical, but it also has a hard, dispassionate edge.
‘They’ follows the story of an unnamed woman – a writer and artist, whose work and very life are under threat from gangs who travel the country: ’They’. These people are systematically destroying all art: books, paintings, musical scores, poems, instru-ments and sculptures. And on occasion disabling and killing artists themselves.
The structure of ‘They’ isn’t clearly defined. We kind of slide into the narrative without quite realising what we’re getting ourselves into. It’s a novella. Or is it? Maybe it’s a series of short stories. Or maybe not. ‘They’ was published in 1977. However, the final Chapter, Chapter 9 – ‘Hallo Love’ – had already been published as a stand alone piece in 1975. So ‘They’ may be a book of interconnected stories.
Another interesting aspect to ‘They’ is we’re not immediately sure of the sex of the lead character. And it’s not always clear if we’re following the same lead character from chapter to chapter. Is it one story? One person’s experience? Or is it a se-quence of characters experiencing the same cultural shift?
Yet, for all it’s ambiguity, ‘They’ doesn’t feel like experimental literature. The prose is crisp and urgent. It has something of the feel of Ian MacEwan’s contemporaneous early short stories. There’s so much tension and incident and travel and yet Kay has pared down the writing to it’s essence.
The easiest reference point is obviously Ray Bradbury’s classic 1953 dystopian sci-fi novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’. But there are, in truth many differences. ‘Fahrenheit 451’ follows the story of Montag – a man who works within the system, as a fireman, car-rying out the burning of books. He has a crisis of confidence and determines to turn against the repressive regime.
In ‘Fahrenheit 451’ the destruction of books is being carried out by a government agency. In ‘They’, we get the impression that the destroyers are a more informal group or aggregation of groups who some reckon to number around two million. Whilst they would appear to be working without government sanction, nobody seems to be able to stand in their way. To the extent that they have been able to ransack the National Gallery unchallenged. But the true extent of the artistic purge is far more frightening, painters are blinded, composers are deafened. What ‘They’ seem to be trying to do, is not just censor artistic expression, ‘They’ want to utterly extinguish the artistic spirit.
Certainly it feels as if the book is less a clearly defined narrative and more a series of clues and cameos. The short, fragmentary nature of the story could well be interpret-ed as a deliberate evocation of the book’s central dilemma. That is to say that this disjointed series of events is in fact all that remains of a larger book which has been partially destroyed by the ruthless ‘They’.
Another crucial difference between the two books is ‘Fahrenheit 451’ has a relatively happy ending. The firemen are determined to build a better society. At the conclu-sion of ‘They’, we get the impression that things are going to get much worse. Anni-hilation has only been briefly postponed.
Another interesting aspect of ‘They’ is how it foregrounds the background. That is to say her evocations of the Sussex countryside are vivid and amongst the most poetic prose in the book.
“Downlands radiated colour. Brownish defoliated areas glinted purple tones. Leaf-less bramble and thicket sparkled with renewal of bud. Sodden lumps of green turf felt like moss under my tread.” (Chapter 4 – Pebble of Unease)
“We stood quite still. Everything hummed with summer. We had turned off at the Victorian Viaduct, into the woods, mounting slowly, until a decline brought us in sight of the valley. Acres of wheat glowed amber in the August afternoon.”
(Chapter 7 – The Fine Valley)
Here I think Kay is using nature and the countryside as an analogue for art and crea-tivity. Here is natural, unmediated beauty and visual display. Most of the destruc-tion, torture and fighting is given as reported speech. The lead characters – the artists – have retreated from the city, from the conflict into hidden away places in the coun-tryside. One can easily read this as a desire to return to an Edenic state in the face of possible destruction.
Another way ‘They’ can be read, is as Kay’s mythic interpretation of her own person-al struggles. Her struggles not just with the muses, but also her well documented con-flicts within the wider world of publishers, editors and, to put it bluntly, other people.
And it’s easy to see within the narrative strands of ‘They’, the smouldering anxieties of an artist who simply wishes to create in their own way and be appreciated for their art. And yet finds themselves surrounded by people who would either prevent her from doing so, or want to interfere with and alter her work and thereby destroy it. To quote H.G. Wells “No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.”
But in the end, I believe ‘They’ deliberately resists an easy interpretation. In fact, I don’t think it wants to be fully interpreted. Because part of what Kay is doing is say-ing true art has to have some ambiguity, something unknowable. And that ambiguity, that resistance to being pinned down, is part of what makes art dangerous to They. And dangerous to repressive regimes everywhere.
Graham Duff November 2014