In 1962 Random House published a first novel by a thirty-two-year-old American living in Paris named Harry Mathews. The Conversions is an adventure story about a man trying to decipher the meaning of carvings on an ancient weapon, and it unfolds in a succession of bizarre anecdotes and obscure quotations, with an appendix in German. One particularly trying passage is written in a language once popular with schoolchildren that involves adding arag before most vowels. Furthermore is faragurtharaggermaragore and indulgences is araggindaragulgearaggencearagges.

The book was considered groundbreaking by a certain literary set. Terry Southern called it a “startling piece of work,” and George Plimpton published a seventy-page excerpt in The Paris Review. Mathews’s agent Maxine Groffsky, then in her first job after college in the editorial department at Random House, says that reading The Conversions was like “seeing Merce Cunningham for the first time.” But it baffled most of the reading public, including the poor Time critic who complained that the symbolism “spreads through the novel like crab grass.”

Mathews is one of American literature’s great idiosyncratic figures. His friend Georges Perec, who once wrote a novel without using the letter e, has accused him of following “rules from another planet.” He is usually identified as the sole American member of the Oulipo, a French writers’ group whose stated purpose is to devise mathematical structures that can be used to create literature. He has also been associated with the New York School of avant-garde writers, which included his friends John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. After forty-five years of congenital allergy to convention, he rightfully belongs to the experimentalist tradition of Kafka, Beckett, and Joyce, even though his classical, witty style has won him comparisons to Nabokov, Jane Austen, and Evelyn Waugh. Yet while he enjoys the attention of thousands of cultishly enthusiastic French readers, Mathews remains relatively unknown in his native land and language. “When I go into an English bookstore, I always ask the same question,” a Frenchman told me with the sly smile that infects all Mathews fans. “‘Do you have Tlooth?’”

Tlooth, Mathews’s second novel, came out in 1966. It begins with a baseball game at a Siberian prison camp. His next book, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1975), is considered by many to be his masterpiece. Twenty-five publishers rejected it, which isn’t entirely surprising given that half of it is written in an invented pidgin English. Mathews used an Oulipian mathematical scheme to create the plot of his fourth novel,Cigarettes (1987). His last two novels are deceptively straightforward. The Journalist (1994) is the diary of a man obsessed by his diary. My Life in CIA (2005), an “autobiographical novel,” begins reassuringly as a memoir only to devolve into the preposterous, ending with the protagonist Harry Mathews tending sheep in the Alps after attempting murder by ski pole.

In reality, the self-described refugee from the Upper East Side has lived in Paris on and off since the fifties, though he does spend summers in the Alps and he says “there are sheep nearby.” Mathews was born in Manhattan in 1930, the only child of an architect and a cold-water-flats heiress. After dutifully attending Princeton for two years, he dropped out and joined the navy, then eloped at nineteen with the artist Niki de Saint Phalle. He finished his studies at Harvard, majoring in music, and in 1952 moved to Paris where he briefly studied conducting before deciding to write poetry full time. In 1956 Mathews met Ashbery, who was in France on a Fulbright scholarship. The poet introduced him to the works of Raymond Roussel, the early-twentieth-century French avant-gardist. After reading Roussel, Mathews turned to prose.

A novelist, poet, essayist, and translator, Mathews is also the author of many short works, including Twenty Lines a Day (1988), the result of more than a year spent following Stendhal’s dictum to write “twenty lines a day, genius or not,” and Singular Pleasures (1983), a series of sixty-one vignettes describing masturbation scenes. A volume of his collected short stories, The Human Country, was published in 2002.

Susannah Hunnewell
Harry Mathews, The Art of Fiction
Interview in Paris Review, Spring 2007

Even stones have eyes

January 27, 2017


Diary 25th January

Beautiful day: clear blue dome of sky, carnivorously blue, not a cloud in sight. But very cold.

Later in the day cloud rolling in off the coast: cumulus cloud, fat, cauliflower-shaped; in the west, with the sun going down, the cloud turned brilliant orange; then the light spread, become a bar of startling redness across the cloud tops, making it seem like the sun had a wide ring around it, an orange Saturn.

We walked, like the grand old duke of York, up the hill – as far as the mast. Acid grassland all around: common bent and mat-grass, grazed by sheep, cattle and ponies into spiky stubble; tussocky beside the old quarry workings. Gorse, much of it flowering, and bracken everywhere.

Bitingly cold, though. Our noses bright red with cold. Frequent stops to blow my nose.

She said: ‘Oh, for summer’s return! Not too long now, I s’pose. I love to listen to the larks overhead, soaring and diving…’

Here during the summer you’ll encounter Linnet, Yellowhammer, Song Thrush as well as the Skylarks. And, of course, the magnificent Buzzards all year round!

Also in the summer you’ll spot wildflowers in amongst the grass: Sheep’s Sorrel, Common Cat’s Ear, Brighteye all occur here. Tussocks of Purple Moor Grass and Western Gorse provide a home for a variety of small mammals. Early one spring morning I encountered an Adder basking in the sun.

On our return we went to the pub. Sat near the fire. We drank Merlot and eat salted peanuts and pork scratchings. Then home again to glasses of brandy (It’s Burns Night but we’re out of whiskey).


Writing yesterday about youthful goings-on in Mallard Street, brought to mind the tragic death of Dr Stephan Ward, and his entanglement in the sex and espionage scandal known as the Profumo Affair. He died (or was murdered?) in a flat on Mallard Street not a stone’s throw from the site of my own teenage transgressions.

The Marionettes

January 25, 2017


Let the foul scene proceed:
There’s laughter in the wings:
‘Tis sawdust that they bleed,
But a box Death brings.

Gigantic dins uprise!
Even the gods must feel
A smarting of the eyes
As these fumes upsweal.

Strange, such a Piece is free,
While we Spectators sit
Aghast at its agony,
Yet absorbed in it.

Dark is the outer air,
Cold the night draughts blow,
Mutely we stare, and stare
At the frenzied show.

Yet heaven has its quiet shroud
Of deep and starry blue –
We cry “An end!” we are bowed
By the dread “‘Tis true!”

While the Shape who hoofs applause
Behind our deafened ear
Hoots – angel-wise -“the Cause!”
And affrights even fear.



Diary 24th January

My life has been one long slow descent into respectability…just like that of the late Mandy Rice-Davies.

I have this memory of my aunt Ester wearing a slinky black evening dress – an impossibly long cigarette holder in her right hand, like a smouldering conductor’s baton, ready to ‘lead’ the London Philharmonic Orchestra – talking of my misspent youth.

She mentioned a certain club, The Night Express, ‘haunt of perverts and deviants’ – or so she suggested to her small audience…

Yes, I knew the place; had on occasion been in there for a drink, or dance, but nothing more than that. The Gents was at the back of the dance floor, four urinals in a row and a pair of cubicles, but the cubicles were always occupied by blokes getting to know each other better. The drinks, I recall, were hellishly expensive. They didn’t sell crisps at the bar, only nuts. And many of the girls were lipstick lesbians.

One Friday night a bloke approached me there. He was smart-looking but a bit older than the club’s usual cliental, asked me if I’d pose for some photographs. ‘Photography is my hobby,’ he said. He offered me a rather large sum of money to pose nude.

I declined. While he looked like an aging Matinée idol, I felt him to be a bit of an oddball. Certainly, he was more than a little intoxicated.

He persisted, said I shouldn’t be shy. ‘You can pose with my little slutet…’ And almost as if conjured from nowhere this bright young thing appeared at his elbow. Petite and blonde, she asked, ‘Is he on for it, James?’ And James said, ‘He’s being difficult, playing hard to get, darling.’ She pouted, looked sulky, said, ‘Oh, offer him more money, why don’t you?’

I ended up in a mews flat south of the river. Jimmy’s ‘slutet’ (I never did learn her name) had changed into a silk velvet caftan. We were in a bedroom full of expensive photographic gear, and I stood stark bollock naked. Jimmy took a condom from a bowl on the bedside table. I noted that the bowl was full of condoms and two tubes of KY jelly. ‘Best put this on you,’ he said. ‘But you’ll need to get the old man to stand to attention…’

An embarrassing moment. Teasing myself erect while they both watched. Jimmy rolled the condom on me. He took his time, was very gentle, and had a good feel round as he did it.

‘Up on the bed,’ he said, and I obeyed. The girl removed her caftan and joined me. From that point on Jimmy directed the action. ‘Put it up her, dear,’ he said to me. ‘That’s the ticket!’ The camera clicked and whirred like a mad thing. ‘Sit yourself on his face now, sweetie…Oh, good, good girl!’

It was bizarre.

‘What’s your view, dear, on same-sex affectional-expression,’ he asked me. ‘Have you ever had one up you?’

And so it went on. James now stripped down to a pair of red silk boxer shorts, moving about like a demented wasp with his camera. Click, click, clicking away.

‘Oh, you are a natural, dear boy, you really are…’

Jimmy claimed to be an advertising film producer. He said he could get me parts in TV commercials easily. ‘There’s good money to be made,’ he told me.

Later, getting dressed while Jimmy was off pouring fresh drinks, the girl told me Jimmy only ever likes to watch. ‘He doesn’t do anything himself, like. Just watches others. Girls, boys, it doesn’t matter.’

‘Have you been with him long?’ I asked.

‘I’m not ‘with him’,’ she said. ‘He pays me for this, like he paid you. He often has girls and boys over. Cash upfront. Takes his photos, provides a few drinks. Probably wanks off afterwards, I don’t know…’

It was four weeks later when James finally telephoned me. Shortly afterwards I found myself in a house near Shoot up hill, NW2, with three little punkettes Jimmy had recruited from somewhere. God knows where. I was to star in this video film with them: a blue film, of course; definitely not a television commercial!

It was an experience that came close to scaring me for life, I can tell you: left me feeling washed out; limp as a rag. And it took me a whole four days to recover from that three hour video shoot…

But, on the plus side, the money I made paid my rent for the next three months. And I did get to fuck all three punkettes multiple times.


I think I shall start a travel business. Specialist tours to the world’s sleaziest places. To spots famed for scandal. I will work with my two little cocottes as tour guides, with destinations to both shock and titillate around the world. For example:

Visits to the office where President Clinton splashed out on a new dress for Monica Lewinsky. To the adulterous Parisian love-nest of Marie Curie and Paul Langevin. The palatial rooms of Catherine the great where she ‘entertained’ her hundreds of lovers – they say she died while having sex with a horse, but in reality she had a stroke while sitting straining on the toilet! We can see that toilet with its solid gold fittings. Visit also certain Hollywood homes, scenes of sex orgies involving screen sex-symbol Clara Bow, whose secretary once accused her of bestiality with a dog. And trips to those rooms in Paris where Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette made love to various women including the legendary Josephine Baker.

What do you think?

We can call the company: “Peedeel’s Salacious Rumpy-Pumpy Tours!”

Yeah, the company that put the lag into slag!


So very cold this morning. Frost on the roofs and over the lawn. Frost, too, in the hedgerows, glittering like miniature gemstones. I sit ruminating beside the window, my thoughts dashing here and there.

I remember with affection Maureen R. We were at school together, but in different classes. Poor Maureen. She was always uncertain of her sexuality, veered erratically from tomboy to boy-hungry siren, but was at heart a lesbian.

I met her one day in London. I hadn’t seen her for some years. I heard this voice from behind say, ‘Peedeel, is that you?’

I turned round and there she was. At first I didn’t recognise her – it was the nun’s habit she wore that threw me. Then gazing into her face, recognition dawned. ‘Maureen! Christ, you’re a nun!’

‘No I’m not,’ she said smiling. ‘This is an outfit I wear from time to time. I find people in shops are much more respectful when I’m wearing it. I don’t have to shove and push my way anywhere. I get really tip-top service in restaurants, and black cabs always pull over for me.

‘There are additional benefits, too,’ she went on. ‘Going up to Birmingham last week on the train, there was this attractive young woman. I got chatting to her. She was recently married. When we were getting off at Birmingham New Street, I groped her arse like there was no tomorrow. Really went for it, you know? She didn’t utter a word. Just became very red in the face.’

‘You’re kidding me?’

‘No, seriously, I’m not. You should give it a try yourself. Get yourself a dog-collar, become the Reverend Peedeel.’

The mind boggles.

I have this mental image of Maureen in nun’s habit riding the rail network and carrying out multitudinous sexual assaults on female commuters.

But what she was saying was at least partially true. We entered a well known public house during the lunch hour; it was busy as hell, but Maureen went straight to the head of the queue.

‘What can I get you, Sister?’ asked the barman.

‘Large gin and tonic,’ Said Maureen. ‘And a pint of John Smith’s…’

Minutes later a pair of Irishman gave up their seats to us, with a hearty ‘There you go Sister, for you and your friend, take the weight off your feet.’


January 22, 2017



Under Garments…

January 22, 2017


Villages were cut off

January 22, 2017


It lay in ditches and in hollows in the fields, where only birds walked. In some lanes the wind had swept it up faultlessly to the very tops of the hedges. Villages were cut off until gangs of men could clear a passage on the roads; the labourers could not go out to work, and on the aerodromes near these villages all flying remained cancelled. People who lay ill in bed could see the shine off the ceilings of their rooms, and a puppy confronted with it for the first time howled and crept under the water-butt. The outhouses were roughly powdered down the windward side, the fences were half submerged like breakwaters; the whole landscape was so white and still it might have been a formal painting. People were unwilling to get up. To look at the snow too long had a hypnotic effect, drawing away all power of concentration, and the cold seemed to cramp the bones, making work harder and unpleasant. Nevertheless, the candles had to be lit, and the ice in the jugs smashed, and the milk unfrozen; the men had to be given their breakfasts and got off to work into the yards. Life had to be carried on, in no matter what circumscribed way; even though one went no further than the window-seat, there was plenty to be done indoors, saved for such time as this.

Philip Larkin
A girl in winter



Leah Sublime,
Goddess above me!
Snake of the slime
Alostrael, love me!
Our master, the devil
Prospers the revel.

Tread with your foot
My heart til it hurt!
Tread on it, put
The smear of your dirt
On my love, on my shame
Scribble your name!

Straddle your Beast
My Masterful Bitch
With the thighs of you greased
With the Sweat of your Itch!
Spit on me, scarlet
Mouth of my harlot!

Now from your wide
Raw cunt, the abyss,
Spend spouting the tide
Of your sizzling piss
In my mouth; oh my Whore
Let it pour, let it pour!

You stale like a mare
And fart as you stale;
Through straggled wet hair
You spout like a whale.
Splash the manure
And piss from the sewer.

Down to me quick
With your tooth on my lip
And your hand on my prick
With feverish grip
My life as it drinks –
How your breath stinks!

Your hand, oh unclean
Your hand that has wasted
Your love, in obscene
Black masses, that tasted
Your soul, it’s your hand!
Feel my prick stand!

Your life times from lewd
Little girl, to mature
Worn whore that has chewed
Your own pile of manure.
Your hand was the key to –
And now your frig me, too!

Rub all the much
Of your cunt on me, Leah
Cunt, let me suck
All your glued gonorrhoea!
Cunt without end!
Amen! til you spend!

Cunt! you have harboured
All dirt and disease
In your slimy unbarbered
Loose hole, with its cheese
And its monthlies, and pox
You chewer of cocks!

Cunt, you have sucked
Up pricks, you squirted
Out foetuses, fucked
Til bastards you blurted
Out into space –
Spend on my face!

Rub all your gleet away!
Envenom the arrow.
May your pox eat away
Me to the marrow.
Cunt you have got me;
I love you to rot me!

Spend again, lash me!
Leah, one spasm
Scream to splash me.
Slime of the chasm
Choke me with spilth
Of your sow-belly’s filth.

Stab your demonical
Smile to my brain!
Soak me in cognac
Cunt and cocaine;
Sprawl on me! Sit
On my mouth, Leah, shit!

Shit on me, slut!
Creamy the curds
That drip from your gut!
Greasy the turds!
Dribble your dung
On the tip of my tongue!

Churn on me, Leah!
Twist on your thighs!
Smear diarrhoea
Into my eyes!
Splutter out shit
From the bottomless pit.

Turn to me, chew it
With me, Leah, whore!
Vomit it, spew it
And lick it once more.
We can make lust
Drunk on disgust.

Splay out your gut,
Your ass hole, my lover!
You buggering slut,
I know where to shove her!
There she goes, plumb
Up the foul Bitch’s bum!

Sackful of skin
And bone, as I speak
I’ll bugger your grin
Into a shriek.
Bugger you, slut
Bugger your gut!

Wriggle, you hog!
Wrench at the pin!
Wrench at it, drag
It half out, suck it in!
Scream, you hog dirt, you!
I want it to hurt you!

Beast-Lioness, squirt
From your Cocksucker’s hole!
Belch out the dirt
From your Syphilis soul.
Splutter foul words
Through your supper of turds!

May the Devil our lord, your
Soul scribble over
With sayings of ordure!
Call me your lover!
Slave of the gut
Of the arse of a slut!

Call me your sewer
Of spilth and snot
Your fart-sniffer, chewer
Of the shit in your slot.
Call me that as you rave
In the rape of your slave.

Fuck! Shit! Let me come
Alostrael – Fuck!
I’ve spent in your bum.
Shit! Give me the muck
From my whore’s arse, slick
Dirt of my prick!

Eat it, you sow!
I’m your dog, fuck, shit!
Swallow it now!
Rest for a bit!
Satan, you gave
A crown to a slave.

I am your fate, on
Your belly, above you.
I swear it by Satan
Leah, I love you.
I’m going insane
Do it again!

Aleister Crowley

From Crowley’s diary:

Cefalú, Italy
5.25pm to 5.15am

Against all principals, and in breach of two promises, I have sat up all night in the

snows, writing a poem to Leah.

One long poem – an occasional publishable line thrown in when I weakened.

7.00 am: I think I’ll collect all my filth in one poem and mark H Leah in plain figures.

10.00 am: 1 think 1 did.


At the time of this poem’s composition, Crowley was living in the Villa Santa Banhera Fust outside Cefalu in Sicily with two mistresses, a small group of “disciples” and enough drugs and hallucinogenic substances to sink a battleship.

Comprising 156 lines and 666 words, the numbers of the Whore and the Beast, it was often recited to those aspiring to join Crowley’s group. If the excesses it describes were too much for the newcomer – then they would be turned away (unless they had plenty of cash!).

Needless to say publication of the poem was banned in the UK.

Ultimately, Crowley was deported from Sicily (following the unfortunate death of Raoul Loveday) in 1923.

The Leah of the poem’s title was Leah Hirsig, Crowley’s mistress who helped him set up his “Abbey of Thelema” in Cefalu. She was Crowley’s Babalon, his Scarlett Woman, who took the name Alostrael – the womb or grail of God! In 1921 she confided to her diary:

“I dedicate myself wholly to The Great Work. I will work for wickedness, I will kill my heart, I will be shameless before all men, I will freely prostitute my body to all creatures”.

A common room in the tiny villa became dedicated to ritual practices and held a scarlet “magick” circle marked with the sign of the major Thelemic deities. Crowley’s own bedroom, which he called “la chambre des cauchemars” (or “the room of nightmares”) was entirely hand-painted by the occultist with explicitly erotic frescos, hermaphroditic goblins, and vividly coloured monsters. This private room was used for specific night initiations involving psychoactive drugs which gave terrifying cinematic life to these Bosch-like visions of hellish debauchery.

Crowley would feed himself and his “disciples” doses of opium, hashish and peyote which enabled them to “see” beyond our “mundane reality”. Crowley’s Magick was often little more than drug induced hallucination, of course.

While living in the villa Leah became pregnant by Crowley, as did his second mistress, Ninette Shumway. Leah miscarried but Ninette gave birth to a daughter on the 11th December 1920, at two in the morning in Palermo. They named her Astarte Lulu Panthea, but unfortunately she died in 1928.

It is hard for us to imagine today, but there were children living in the Villa Santa Banhera Fust at this time! During January 1920, Crowley, then living in Fontainebleau with Leah, was joined in a ménage à trois by Ninette, and also by Leah’s newborn daughter, Anne “Poupee” Leah. When they relocated to the villa in Sicily, Leah’s son, Hans Hammond accompanied them, as did Ninette’s three year old son, Howard.

While living in the villa Crowley continued to write, to paint, to perform rituals. He also offered a libertine education to the children, allowing them to play all day and witness acts of sex magic at night. He occasionally interrupted this routine to travel to Palermo. There he’d purchase more drugs and visit assorted rent-boys. By this time Crowley was addicted to Heroin and his cocaine usage was eroding his nasal passages.

In a diary entry for 12th August 1920, Crowley wrote the following:

“Her breasts itch with lust of Incest. She hath given Her two-year bastard boy to Her lewd lover’s whim of sodomy, hath taught him speech and act, things infinitely abhorred, with Her own beastly carcass. She hath tongued Her five-month girl, and asked its father to deflower it.”

This terrible entry seems to suggest Leah and Crowley, both under the influence of cocaine, and peyote, molested Leah’s son, Hansi and that Crowley deflowered his five month old daughter?

Is the entry true or false?

We don’t know. However we do know Poupee died two months later, October 14th 1920. We also know the death was so traumatic to Leah that she suffered her miscarriage six days later.

Shoulder the sky my lad

January 22, 2017


Diary 20th January

Cold clear morning. The sunlit landscape looks almost surreal stretched out to infinity beneath this vast sky. Brown Willie is a purple haze on the horizon. Small puddles of water at the edge of the drive have frozen overnight.

Inauguration day today for Donald Trump.

But I must go shopping. Lots to do.


Supermarkets are unusually busy today. Geriatric drivers everywhere, their heads full of deathwatch beetles. Memo to self: clean the gull shit off the passenger side door handle of the car!


Apparently police officers in Bristol have tasered their own race relations adviser. They mistook him for a suspect, or so it’s been suggested(?). When approached by officers he declined to give his name, so they fired a taser into his face!

Trigger happy or what?