28 thoughts on “The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times – Xan Brooks

  1. Beware inadvertent spoilers that sometimes accrue when one is real-time reviewing…




    IMG_3132“Wotcha, cocks,” Toto says.

    That quote seems to expedite this book eponymously!
    I have just finished reviewing a novel entitled “Number 11” that started with a teenage girl staying with her grandparents and visiting the Black Tower in the forest, I recall.
    Here, Lucy Marsh, with other teenagers, is taken by Coach in his Truck, a book’s book, I guess, to see the funny men who match characters in Wizard of Oz. Here a version of Epping Forest? I love the trees in Epping Forest. The tree with a face next to this review is not one of them, being from Beth Chatto’s last weekend. I am already captivated. Perhaps captured. The funny men remind me of a representational painting by Picasso. There are also stars in the sky of this text to gather.
    This chapter also mentions a charabanc trip to Frinton on Sea, a place within walking distance of where I live today. So perhaps not captured at all?

    “a place of possibilities”

  2. I have now glanced at the cover of this book and while trying to avoid what the book says about itself, I did glimpse a reference, for whatever unknown reason, to a book I real-time reviewed just over two years ago here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2015/03/04/the-buried-giant-kazuo-ishiguro/

    2 – 4
    “The real magic blooms in the space between the performer and his client, between the truth and the lie.”

    This made me think of the process entailed in my gestalt real-time reviewing, and a perhaps wrongly serendipitous memory of such reviews I carried out recently of ‘The Lie Tree‘ and ‘The Essex Serpent‘.
    Here, I now gather we are in 1923 and I sense that era’s ambiance via the Ermine Street pub where Lucy grandparents live, and the horse that she cares about passing by, whether or not that is the same horse which finger-flaming Arthur Elms takes over from the charlatan spiritualist he worked for.
    We learn, too, of the hide and seek Lucy plays in Epping Forest. Carted there by a Crisis as well as a Coach, and the funny men are now fleshing out for us. And the British Empire spreading globally around her – the one to which Brexit hopes to return?
    My mother was born in London in 1926 … and my father in Wales in 1922 as grand-sired by those stricken ancestors who died of Spanish flu. (No reason I can remember why I mentioned Picasso earlier.)

  3. 5 – 7

    “People find omens when they look for them. Peer hard enough and you can read anything into anything.”

    I learn my lesson, after 9 years of studying and of real-time reviewing quality Weird Literature, which this XB book certainly is, I have already gathered, but under the guise of a modern magic realism with literary Salmanitis. A portrait of 1923 Britain through this filter of fiction, upon a palimpsest, for me, of visualised black and white photos, now of a pep jazz band of lively octaroons, or a masturbation of monkeys, and a theatre box of drugged gentlemen in interface with a pecking order within themselves as well as outside, and a lady masturbator who receives the pep-up omen of a chance message on a balloon set into the sky further west than London, and further east in Kent, we meet Elms again and his backstory of trenches in the last war. Vivid leanings of plot to match the earlier Terrible Unmentionables. And not forgetting Lucy herself witnessing street demolition near the Griffin pub where she helps her Granddad.
    Queer medicine. And a map of diffuse memories being gestalted or gestated that are not my memories, but now beginning to be instilled as mine. Or distilled. Don’t rush to die. Not yet, anyway.

    “All hail the power of the bouncing balloon.”

  4. 8

    “One, because swimmers held their breath for a minute at a time and never suffered any lasting effects. And two, because didn’t babies survive without air for nine months in the womb before the birthing bit began?”

    I thought this novel had already taken off, but now it REALLY takes off and it’s a din and stench humdinger of a 1923 London, and its increasingly post-war poverished peoples, more characters to savour, and its innuendos (we learn, through pub talk, more of the Coach trips with 14 year old Lucy to Epping Forest, and the funny men there), and more about Lucy and her special needs brother Tom, and how she looks after him. I reckon this book itself was dropped on its head as a baby, but it knocked a lot of great nonsense into it. Or it was starved of air at a crucial time in its post-gestation of a gestalt hindsight, perhaps a hindsight never to be clinched? Until I realise Tom and, then, Lucy watch breathless fishes in a shop’s tank … and are given glasses of milk by a seemingly kind proprietor.
    The Collapsed Catholics, notwithstanding.

  5. 9

    “One day soon,” Toto is saying. “One day soon you’ll be able to freeze the back of that lorry. You’ll be able to seal off the back and keep the temperature down.”

    I think I like Toto. And the other funny men on their only trips out from their home, trips to to the forest. Is Lucy getting older than the actual years passing through her, I also wonder? Amid the wonder of this cusp of time between empty lanes and car exhausts, an endless summer of melted ice cream and tantalising invitations to gambol in the forest, gambols that hopefully don’t cross any lines of behaviour. Premonitions that are ominous amid the warm ‘tween-wars that have remained no doubt special. Now frozen here. Any car collisions, notwithstanding, or car crash accidents of Brexit today?

    “The world reaches the funny men in little glimmers, in Chinese whispers.”

  6. 10

    “He turns to starboard and notes that the propeller has slowed to the point where he can identify each blade.”

    Sometimes still fast-spinning propellers seem to have discrete blades slowing – when viewed through the hindsight frame-by-frame camera of time?
    This viewpoint, too, back from us today – via the 1920s where the main body of this novel is so far set – of the thoughts (beautifully conveyed) of a slow-motion crashing Sopwith Camel pilot, shot down upon the cusp of friendly and enemy territory during the Great War. And of those who find him, but WHAT exactly do they find?
    This also aligns with the most famous Zeno’s Paradox, as never-ending travel through felt history in the concurrent piecemeal slow-motion real-time review I linked above.

    “Their sloshing genitalia make him think of kelp.”

  7. 11

    “It just goes to show, like Nan says, that you never know what people are like after dark.”

    The no. 11 where it’s all started to happen as I feared it might. Well, it has already BEEN happening, as I suspected it plainly was; it was just that we were not allowed to see it all happening to the children in Coach’s trips till now. Lucy is of the same age as when my own Mum left school only a few years later in the early 1930s and went to work in the near identical London, so perhaps it’s not so bad that Lucy has this job to do. Better than cleaning the filthy Gents for her Granddad in the Griffin, as she herself ponders. But just as Lucy thinks of the characters in the contemporaneous Baum book of Oz, these children are only fiction characters themselves, too? So what’s it matter? But matter it surely does. With some characters missing who might have made a difference, as in the characters missing in Lucy’s version of Oz in the Forest…

    “‘No,’ says Lucy, ‘This story’s different.'”

  8. 12

    “She has Beth in every day (and often overnight) to ensure that the floors are waxed and the clocks wound,…”

    A new character, Henrietta Shaw, living in a comfortable house on the fringes of town. Her son recommends to her a mountebank or magus, or both, called Magus. I suspect we know him already, but that is beside the point when body bits from the battlefield become, according to him, a sort of human gestalt of trench rats migrated from mainland Europe (by free movement or preternaturally scryable forces?) to where Henrietta lives and elsewhere.
    As if this book is a creature itself with the human bits it deploys as a prehensile gestalt.
    This is genuinely disturbing stuff coming together!
    With the added al dente traction of not being initially word-smooth nor roundly meaningful, but ever more tantalisingly promising to be paradoxically smoother inside the head and increasingly less meaningless outside of it.

  9. 13

    “Off the road, in the dark, the dimensions telescope and collapse until the figure at your side can feel a hundred miles away while the invisible sources of faraway sounds seem near enough to touch,…”

    This remarkable text is incongruently rhapsodic, if that is not a contradictiion in terms. Back in the forest with the children or young adults attending to the funny men, while an obliquely defined scout group that is beyond Baden-Powell camps nearby. The fact that this group has a name with the initials KKK gives food for thought in today’s hindsight. And the events in the forest are heart-wrenching for us to watch, but perhaps they represent some underpinning for the natural needs of us human animals in any age, except in that day and age they allowed, with a blind eye and a nod and a wink, certain things to happen. We today rightly or wrongly obliterate such and other things with a surface condemnation bordering on a liberal-justice totalitarianism.

    “‘The Campswarden met the Tally keeper and the Gleeman had his say,’ sing the unseen children of the Kibbo Kift. ‘Then all set sail in a coracle and cried, “We won’t return ’til May.”‘”

  10. 14 – 15

    “What had seemed so urgent just a few minutes before has become no more than a series of black-and-white blocks, words on a page,…”

    This book’s own words change one moment, too, from urgency and poignancy, to a feisty Lucy standing up to her mercenary granddad, then a block of a sort of semi-Joycean ‘Molly’s monologue’ of ducks fucking etc., by the balloon-message woman who entertains men and soothsayers…
    I am sure I am now reaching this book’s own Secret Garden, an apotheosis or optimum of the sort of book l love, not one that necessarily worries us ONLY with nightmares from the bookshelf with the pages’ internal messages freeing themselves into the room around me, but one that has a GESTALT of that kind of Secret Gardens’s sickness syndrome (here the Spanish Flu again and the utter love spent by soldiers bringing it home, as it were) AND the delights of great literature and games that can be played in the archetypal Secret Garden that we often think we know.
    Can you tell that I am enjoying this book?

  11. 16

    “Vive la revolution! Wheel out the guillotine. Poor old Coach, don’t you see, the irony’s priceless.”

    These funny men come from a House, looked after as lost ciphers of a Great War, if any War can be such, taken to the forest for a body’s necessities, life as ‘a game of old soldiers’ perhaps, emblemised by fantasy’s false masks, and, as someone says here, when you have to shit in a forest, you don’t stay there to smell it.
    All good things come to an end. All bad things come to an end, too. Neither of them ever in a nice way. The end of the Forest was inevitable. Time breaks it. Time always holds the trump card. All endings are unbearable, but we all have to grow up, even those of us who live in books. Unbearable, if it were not for the priceless ironies. And wishing sometimes to return there to paint it in a new light.



    “Lord Hertford is awaiting his presence in the Italian garden. A butler takes Sir William’s coat and escorts him under the barrel-vaulted ceilings, past the garish abstract by that young brute, Picasso,…”

    Meanwhile, this scene hit both my funny bones — a scene with a genius loci of a stately House that houses war casualties, and previous events are brought to task regarding the forest antics and so-called “public decency”, and the meeting about it, with reference to a statue of Pluto and a camel in the house’s grounds — and it is a literary event to cherish.
    Made my funny bones feel sad, too.

  13. 18


    “He says, ‘I’m going to draw every single old machine in Mr Lewis’s garden.'”IMG_3217

    This book reminds me of watching the gradual evolution of my wife’s quilt-making as blended with various styles of Picasso.
    This chapter is about a train journey’s worries about a storm, in the carriage the Magus, and, later, more reprises of characters and new slants upon other characters. Grotesquely Dickensian with a Joycean flow, but accessible when seen as a whole, a panoply of a past era with the seeds of our own era, at times rhapsodic, absurdist, sharp-edged, feisty, painfully poignant.


  14. 19 – 22

    “And on this occasion the procedure felt strange; it was bothersome and uncomfortable in a way it had never been in the forest.”

    The ‘dirty business’, that is.
    Dirt is in the eye of the beholder, the Devil, too (in the guise of fat Elms Magus or an Etonian from an explicitly Whovian or Wellsian future or the FUTURE that is us) and those hillocks of white dust. The pattern of characters continues quilting (including the prospect of a group of negro musicians), as the palimpsest of the Great War trenches are layered upon London streets, just as Lucy’s earlier forest antics are layered upon the environs of the mansion where the funny men actually live.
    Nameless war casualties swinging from right to wrong and back again, with told remembrances of other men in those trenches. Some so limbless, they become bodiless like the Invisible Man? And the ghostly marquee and Tom’s face that threatens to slip off, as in that horizontal Picasso above? Beautiful, if sardonic, remembrances of a book and its war that I predict will carry over after I have finished reading it.

    “In the bars of Pigalle, he drank alongside the likes of Brancusi and Picasso, Modigliani and Picabia…”

  15. 23


    What is this intriguing painting?
    Lucy’s backstory at the Griffin pub fades. Now even the camel in the House’s grounds seems more real to her.
    Her new acquaintances nurture her, by fabricating with clothes her nature. And nightmares and monsters haunt from beyond the frame of her own painting of self.
    Our future does fountain from here, too? A sort of Bullingdon Club, a “discount Aleister Crowley”, a new fixed face of fiction often with flames at his own fingers, too. And the “avant-garde painter”, “anarchist poet”, gestalt real-time reviewer, et al.

  16. 24

    “To ensure there is free movement and proper fairness for all.”

    The sound bites of the future are relentless, I guess, and here we reach Lucy’s tearful epiphany, a long motion epiphany, if such can be such, because the clocks all tell different times? The house is a blend of Waugh’s Vile Bodies or Decline and Fall, and we are still falling, and of Reggie Oliver’s Virtue in Danger, the mansion with statues to old legends and myths, now alive via the white hillocks and other charades of rôle-play or genuine theatrical performance and pre-figurement of later eras. The game of soldiers. Another one without a face, so no nose, but he can hear the sound bites; he needs a new face of fiction in 2017? Ceilings dropping by a notch, or each eye with a different image, self-disgust, sheer effrontery of existence. Even, a rudimentary wooden cross among the richer statuary. “Crippled half-life” or “demigods”? Bright young things or portents of doom. Epic poems about a brave Icarus or Satanic verses about a downed airman?

  17. 25 – 27

    “He wants the things that you don’t.”

    History as some sort of rag and bone man?
    This book’s sometimes more fraught than Trump’s tweetstorms. Or Hogarth’s or Bosch’s paintings, Yet, the characters have not yet focussed into right or left, fascist fascist or fascist liberal, and I can even feel sorry for the diminuendo entropy of Lord Hertford. And for the others’ Vile Bodies. And such Bodies’ needs. The decline and fall of the House.
    All of us are ever in-media-res, a work-in-progress, even with the the deceptively endless clinching of hindsight’s gestalt.

    “The liberal course is almost – not quite – Sisyphean…”

    And we watch the characters evolve into the future, their mountainous view of a promised land, whatever the trinkets of fate they cling on to – like Elms’ amulet and now its undead previous owner – and Lucy’s view of “the Pick-Arsehole painting” or of the residue of her Tin Man. A hide-and-seek game now become a Monster Hunt. A terrible poignancy. A Trump with his “gondolier’s waddle.” A derelict marquee.

    “But a lie is a lie. A lie’s always wrong.”
    “Not always, though. That’s what I’m saying.”
    “And that trick with the flames. That’s not real either.”
    “No, that was always real, a reaction to the war. And then it burned out. I can’t do it anymore.”
    “Why not, if it’s real?”

    • I confirm that when I made an aside to a Picasso style in the very first post above in this review, I had no idea whatsoever how relevant it would later become! This is perhaps yet another striking example of the preternatural power derived by the gestalt real-time method when reviewing hyper-imaginative literature?

  18. 28

    “So it’s all good,” he says. “The future.”

    Catharsis for the House, as some escape, piecemeal, one with the Pick-Arsehole. Elms’ fingers did the work after all. One never knows whether this novel (so far) is a gestalt that was destined to have its hindsight clinched by the fate of having been obtained by a reader that COULD clinch it. We are all such a reader of our own lives, ever appraising the inclusion in our book-life of those we perceive around us and those we perceive by other means, by fiction or by whatever other media or so-called realities. The coming together of forces that still pan out, even while we begin to realise that they exist at all. And behind everything, what sort of Wizard do we find? One whose fingers still hold their power? A buried giant? Or something quite other?

    “It makes no distinction between the servant and his master. It takes ahold of each man…”

  19. THE SEA


    “He jokes that one day people might look at St Paul’s cathedral and wonder why that was built too.”

    The spinning on of fast and slow time, a Beauty and Beast coda to this book’s fine,
    sometimes splendidly atonal, Symphony of Psalms, a palimpsest of then upon now.
    Where the more rules that are broken mean fewer are broken? History as “a system of small, self-contained kingdoms” still reaching towards the sea where I live today. To be sunk there or to stay there ruminatively upon its margins. Except Beauty and Beast’s histories reach towards the West, and I am to their East. And Undead Bram sees his past and leaves it be – because better without him? None of us know where we truly fit in. The optimum and the pessimum that so slowly oscillate. Till they stop? At the edge, that last balcony?

  20. 30 – 32

    “The roads link the villages in much the same way as a corridor and a staircase will link the chambers of a house,…”

    Babies squawking into the light, then the vision of a bi-plane journey, later the beast of Coach’s truck become an imaginary Sopwith Camel, that House’s camel again, for those children, grown up from babies, to play on. An Adventure Playground. By the seaside.
    We follow caring, feisty, fallible Lucy till the end. The perfect ending, if with disparate quilting, echoing and enfolding back to people already met, people yet to meet.
    Is an author a sort of peripatetic spiritualist? Or his or her book’s reviewer the spiritualist? Charlatans or magicians? A preternatural sensitivity amid a painted maze of otherwise jagged words or an electric current that burns itself out within “the hull of industrial mangle”? If you use this book to fill in life’s moving gaps of time, you will remember the book more than you remember what came between those gaps. Some books you forget, this one you will never forget.

    “…and beyond that is France and the warm folds of Europe, a whole world of foreignness upon the horizon.”


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