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Authors: Paul Ableman


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Paul Ableman – playwright, experimental novelist and screenwriter – was one of the most recognisable and well-loved literary figures of Hampstead.

When I first knew him, he was living in a penthouse flat in Fellows Road, which went through many metamorphoses during his long residence. It started off as a small bachelor pad in the wild late sixties, but expanded mysteriously over the years to accommodate more and more books, computers, his second wife Sheila, his younger son Tom, talkative dinner parties, and large summer parties of guests who would crowd on to newly sprouting balconies amongst the pot plants, sit on top of one another on settees, and yell at one another happily in crowded corridors. It was like the Tardis. There was much more room in there than you would have thought possible.

Ableman, too, though small of stature, contained multitudes. He was born in Leeds in 1927 into an unorthodox Jewish family. His father, Jack, was a tailor. His mother, Gertrude, wanted to be an actress, left his father and moved to London, to Hampstead, where she fell in love with an American journalist, Thurston Macauley. (I liked his mother, a flamboyant woman who used to make lively contributions to my class at Morley College, but Paul was more critical of her, and I guess he knew her a lot better than I did.)

Paul was brought up in New York with his mother and stepfather and sent to Stuyvesant High School, returning to England aged eighteen. He did his National Service in the Education Corps, in Gibraltar and Scapa Flow, then went to King’s College London to read English, but did not finish his degree, hanging out in Paris instead, writing erotic fiction.

His novels include
I Hear Voices
(1957), published by the Olympia Press (a work of which Maurice Girodias was very proud),
As Near as I Can Get
The Twilight of the Vilp
(1969, his first book to be produced by Gollancz), and
Tornado Pratt
(1978): these works were praised for their inventive language, bawdy high spirits, and originality of form by Anthony Burgess, Philip Toynbee, Robert Nye and other friends of the avant-garde.

But his first publication had been a play, written with his mother,
Even His Enemy
(1948) – produced in London as
Letters to a Lady
in 1951.
Green Julia,
his first full-length play, in which two young men discuss an absent mistress, was a great success at the 1965 Edinburgh Festival, and other surreal and experimental plays (such as
, 1966) followed, with the encouragement of establishment critics like Harold Hobson, but Ableman also wrote screenplays of a more popular nature. He described himself, proudly, as a freelance writer, and could turn his hand to many different genres, including general science books.

He made something of a speciality of ‘novelising’ BBC series, such as
, 1979, and
Shoestring’s Finest Hour,
1980), Porridge (
Porridge: The Inside Story,
1979, and others under the pseudonym Paul Victor),
Dad’s Army
Dad’s Army: The Defence of a Front Line English Village,
Straight Up: The Autobiography of Arthur Daley,
1991) and
Last of the Summer Wine
Last of the Summer Wine: A Country Companion by Clegg, Foggy and Compo,

His embrace of the sexual revolution of the 1960s unwittingly exposed him to risks. In 1969 he published a book called
The Mouth,
a harmlessly entertaining and informative book about orality drawing on mythology, psychoanalysis, literature and art, and pleasantly illustrated with images from Magritte, Kitagawa Utamaro and other respectable sources. This provoked an obscenity case of some hilarity, which was very ably contested by Jeremy Hutchinson, and the book and its author were triumphantly acquitted. I appeared as witness for the defence and I hope made a good case for Ableman’s good heart, innocent intentions and literary merit.

Ableman’s first marriage to Tina Carrs-Brown ended in amicable divorce: they had one son, Martin. He married Sheila Hutton-Fox in 1978, with whom he had Tom. His emotional life went through periods of turbulence, but he was always an attentive and affectionate father. As he grew older, he grew milder and more benign (although his amazing shock of hair grew larger and wilder), and he remained an eccentric rather than a conformist.

He was a great walker, and liked to set off into the wilds with his compass, alone or with his wife and son, sometimes sleeping in the amazing expanding Dandy he attached to his car. He made a good gin and tonic in his Dandy, high on Exmoor. He loved the natural world as intensely as he loved the pubs of Soho. On my last walk with him, in the Chilterns, we sat in a field eating our sandwiches, watching a red kite, while he explained to me his theory of the mind, which he expounded in his last book. He was a wonderful talker, but never a deliverer of monologues: he was always eager for a response, and listened to the stories of others with keen curiosity.

The Secret of Consciousness
(1999) concerns the function of dreams and the archival capacity and processing mechanisms of the brain during sleep. His claims have yet to be tested, although he maintained it would be easy to do so in a sleep laboratory. His scientist friends (who included Lewis Wolpert) were not persuaded by them. He believed that during sleep the brain sorts and stores diurnal sensory impressions, on a Twin-Data system, one pathway leading to consciousness, the other to the archival memory, and that identity is no more (or less) than the unique set, or narrative, of sensory data of each individual. He saw the novelist’s use of ‘interior monologue’ as an attempt to describe this fluid and ever-changing process of creation.

In later years he began to keep an impressively detailed journal – a sort of forerunner, as he saw it, of the blog – in which he noted domestic and social events and his thoughts on such disparate matters as Judaism, technology, the restaurants of Swiss Cottage and the acting techniques of Peter Sellers: a record of an enquiring mind which found all human life of interest.

Ableman bore his last years of illness with an exemplary mixture of stoicism, good manners and good humour that made his company a pleasure. He never complained, and retained his affectionate delight in others to the last.


Margaret Drabble


(Margaret Drabble’s obituary for Paul Ableman was first printed in the Independent on 31 October 2006.)



by O. T. Zimmerman & Irvin Laine




warily from the magazine she had not been reading. He had returned to the attack. He glared at her from the bedroom door until she was compelled to glance round. Then he snapped:

— Well?

— Well what?

— Well, for fuck’s sake,
you mind?

She answered calmly:

— No. I said I didn’t mind.

— You
fucking mind!

She didn’t reply, pretended to read her magazine. He gazed at her bitterly. He knew she did mind. He could read it in her manner—resentment, jealousy. If she genuinely hadn’t minded, she would have said it differently, used different words, a
tone of voice. Couldn’t she at least be candid? In a calmer voice he urged:

— Lucy, you do mind. Admit it.

— I mind a little.

Instantly he snarled:

— Why?

— Well—

Well? Well? The tiny lightning of his nerves flickered in a torment of impatience. Well? She couldn’t even argue
maintain the pressure, sustain at least the exhilaration of flashing tongues. Very deliberately, ominously, he prompted:

— Yes—well—what?

— Well—I’ll miss you!

With a gasp he sank on to the bed as the projectile exploded in his mind. She had despatched the words with a little sullen
glance of defiance. God! Images danced through his brain, of love and joy and tenderness. Waves of yearning rolled from him. He wanted to rain assurances on her, drench her in a torrent of pledges, engulf her in an opium mist of security and devotion. He gazed at the shabby, red carpet and muttered:

— It would only be for the weekend.

— Well!

Once again she pierced him with a sullen, shy, meaningful glance. This time he could immediately amplify her remark. That ‘well’ meant: I miss you in the day, when you’re at work. I miss you if you go out for cigarettes. I live in and for you. I can’t help it. And you should be glad. You should cherish the rare gift. How many men are loved as you are?

And his silence replied: you are my truth and delight. He sighed and suggested:

— You come too.

— How?

True. She could hardly give up her job for a long weekend of pleasure. But that was it. It wasn’t pleasure, not exclusively pleasure. There would certainly be people there it might be useful for him to meet. Now that the verbal exchange had started again he began to sense her duplicity. It was true that she would miss him but it was not the whole truth. He

— I’m not planning—to do anything—

The sense he wished to convey, and accurately interpreted by her, was that he did not intend, even in the remote event of an opportunity arising, to be unfaithful to her during the weekend at the party in the country. But having to offer this assurance humiliated him. Why must he beg for leave like a child in an orphanage, make his request for the right to a brief separation contingent upon his adherence to moral values he did not, in any case, recognize? He said tightly:

— Mad. Really, it’s mad!

— All right.

Now a fresh cataract of images glittered through his mind,
images of freedom and adventure, of laughing bachelor friends, fragments of the night laden with voluptuous promise, rooms dense with drunken, merry, free-living people. Why must love be narrow and exclusive? He rose and crossed to the window, pulled back the curtain and gazed down at the leaf-netted street-lamps and at the gleams of light round the wings of cars. He muttered:

— I think I’ll go.

— All right go.

He smiled at the intensity of his own childishness and fury. This was the second or third time he had wrung from her reluctant consent. Damn it, he didn’t want to wade off through the sludge of her misery. He wanted to dance away on the wings of her loving approval. Why couldn’t she rejoice in his going, realizing that, whether she went physically or not, she could accompany him. If there were true communion between them everything could be shared.

— It could be shared!

— How?

Yes how? What did he mean? He felt the coherence of his argument beginning to crumble. Was he expressing a reasoned plea for greater flexibility in marital relations or merely
like a child for a toy? Was he trying to provide her with deeper insight into his own nature and that of his sex or simply rationalizing because he felt guilty? Was he saying what he believed? Did he believe what he had said? Was there even a fluctuating thread of consistency in his attitude? Once again he urged:

— You know I never deceived you. I told you what I felt when we first came together. You remember?

— Yes.

— I said that I promised to love you and look after you but not to be faithful to you. And you accepted it. Didn’t you?

— Yes.

He looked at her hopefully. He didn’t want to amplify further. To have made the reproach more explicit would have
involved reanimating his own profound but repressed
of the hypocrisy of the original agreement.

It was certainly true that he had claimed the right to sexual freedom almost from their first meeting. But it was also true that he had known from the start that the sort of relationship he sought with this vital and lovely peasant girl was
with any such freedom. He had realized at once that only exclusive loyalty and passion were in her gift. Thus integrity demanded that he should have made a choice, taking her in the only role consonant with her nature, that of
wife, or sacrificing her to the freedom he believed in and craved. But he had done neither. He had weakly compromised. He had taken her and at the same time told her, and
her to acknowledge, that it was only a partial deed. But the stipulation had been negated by the statement of his
her. By so doing he had ratified her terms, whatever reserve clause he had feebly stammered. And he had never
had the courage to admit this to himself because he had never been able to bear the thought of being closeted for life in marital fidelity. Better hemlock! What price the earth and its dusty, derivative pleasures if one could never again drink from the source, never again explore a woman?

Nevertheless he recognized the moral squalor of all this. He knew that he
with whatever craven and unconvincing reservations, made his choice. He should therefore have had the strength to transmute its consequences into something of value, to grow and deepen in the love of his splendid wife and bend the gipsy urges to creative ends.

All this was now latent in his mind as, governed by a new spurt of fury, he reached once more into a mental scabbard and withdrew the dagger he loathed but never ceased to hold at the throat of their union:

— Well, fuck it, you can’t just say yes. I mean, what did you think I meant when I said that?

She didn’t reply. She had no reply. She hadn’t command of the subtle levers of casuistry as he had. He wanted to seize
her and wring out of her an admission of his essential integrity:

— Lucy! Answer me! When I said I promise to love you but not to be faithful to you, what the fucking—fucking!—goddamn fucking hell did you think I mean!

Finally, sullenly, she murmured:

— Well—I thought when you found how sweet and fresh I was you wouldn’t want to.


Again he collapsed. Pricked by the needle of her candour the bladder of his egotism shrank again to a wisp. Oh it was true! He had craved those things; her sweetness, freshness and devotion. He had craved them and been unwilling to pay the price for them, the price of accepting the conventions that went with them: the hermetic life, the fortress-family, the monogamous ideal.

He gazed at her with a dazed look. Yes, yes it was that. In the terror of the world, it was her love and care which made life not merely bearable but, if only intermittently apprehended as such, a great chorus of praise to the loveliness of the earth. Parties? Girls? Freedom? He was like an idiot at a banquet gazing greedily at a sour apple tree beyond the window.

He smiled at her in bewilderment, at the effortless alchemy with which she could transmute his rage into reverence, his greed into tenderness and she, in return, threw him little questioning glances. Was it all right again now? Was he hers again? Had the switch been thrown and the powerful field of their love sprung into being again?

He shook his head with a dry cough of laughter. What was it? Some issue? He glanced about the room. He had no great affection for objects but these defined him. The bed from one relative, the chest of drawers from another, the carpet and bookcase they had actually bought, all of them shabby enough but, vitalized by long resonance to the rhythm of their life
a home. Where else could he be? How could he be
anywhere where she was not? A home is a gaol. And a cathedral. And a womb.

It was clear enough. Already his heart, or those centres of the brain which govern emotional response, was filling again with the bright serum of tenderness. He wouldn’t go to the party and he wouldn’t regret it. And tonight they would have tea together and talk, taking up again the lilt and ripple and melody of the long, laughing dialogue between them. And throughout the wheeling night, when the guilt of the stars at having violated space seeps down to infect the upstart power of planetary mind, they would lie together in total union of body and feeling. They would lie so close their hearts would beat in unison. And in the early hours, in an agony of need for physical confirmation of her presence, he would wake to find himself madly kissing her face and neck and arms and breasts.

So it would always be. Surely there was something morbid in the notion of two people in perfect accord? Anyway
would always quarrel and perhaps once or twice over the next twelve years, as had happened a few times in the last, black fury would so annex him, or perhaps her, that a blow would land. Well—and it was nothing. Passion converted
into lightning, if anything recharging their need for each other.

He sat down in the littered armchair and held out his arms to her. She moved towards him shyly. Like a girl-bride to a pasha she approached and knelt down in front of him. He leaned forwards and tugged her into his arms. Then, no longer conscious of what he was saying because all his awareness was concentrated on the fact of her yielding, beloved body in his arms again, he reaffirmed the old declaration:

— I love you—oh I love you so—

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