A View from a Hill

A ghost story.

The white horse hill fort at Uffington.
The white horse hill fort at Uffington in Berkshire. Photograph: Getty Images

“I arrested Mr Lee, at 7am this morning, as an accessory to multiple charges of arson, assault and grievous bodily harm. I have received confirmation from Scotland Yard that he will spend the festive season in the cells, with no possibility of bail. Mr Lee used his one phone call to contact his wife, who, he said, was furious that he was now unlikely to make it to his brother-in-law’s by the evening of the 24th. Amusingly, he claimed this was the only good thing to come out of the whole affair. I laughed, but I have just heard that he is a ‘comedian’, so I am no longer impressed by his ability to make light of the situation, and feel that what seemed a special moment between us was, for Mr Lee, just business as usual. Nonetheless, Mr Lee maintains, with some degree of certainty, that this is, on balance, his worst Christmas to date.”

Detective Inspector M R James, 24/12/12

My best Christmas was 1988, though it wasn’t strictly Christmas. It was 21 December, the winter solstice. But as my companion that evening, Julian Fullsome-Swathe, explained, the 21st had always been the date of Christmas until someone moved the calendar by four days. He couldn’t remember who exactly, but it was three in the morning and we were some distance into our second Thermos flask of magic mushroom tea, which made all notions of the measurement of time seem rather slippery. Julian and I were undergraduates in our final year at Oxford. He was top public school stock and stiff-uppered military background, going back centuries, and I a lower-middle-class forelock-tugger. But I liked Julian, and was genetically and socially predestined to serve him.

In recent months, Julian had become intent on pursuing various experiences which, he explained darkly, he would never be able to enjoy subsequently due to the secretive career path on which he had chosen to embark after graduation. This was Oxford in the Eighties, our elderly English professor was romantically rumoured to be a talent scout for the intelligence services, and Julian was perfect state-assassin material. And now, in the final months before the black cloud of unknowing he was entering finally and fully enveloped him, I was leading him along a wintry Wiltshire Ridgway by starlight, aglow on psilocybins I’d purchased from the didgeridoo player who lived in the converted ambulance in the public car park on Port Meadow.

High above the Ock Valley, we scrabbled through the Iron Age undulations of the White Horse hill fort, until we beheld through a light frosting of fresh fallen snow the elegant flanks of the prehistoric hill figure itself, four hundred feet of chalk, flourished outlines hugging the graceful curves of the upland, a view as close to a holy vision as a confirmed agnostic like myself might ever achieve, and one of the few sights that still stirs in me troubling twinges of the scoundrel patriotism.

Then, as now, I fancied myself a keen folklorist, and my study bedroom was littered with dusty tomes. I explained, breathlessly, to Julian that the horse might commemorate King Alfred’s 871AD victory over the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown; or date back 3,000 years to the later Bronze Age; or have been formed when the ground was stained by the very blood of the dragon Saint George was said to have slain. The state of mind we were in, all three explanations seemed equally probable. “They say that if England is threatened, the horse will rise up from the hill and take revenge,” I said. Julian, who had come prepared, was now cranking out his favourite childhood song, Jackie Lee’s theme from the 1965 Yugoslavian children’s TV series The White Horses, from a scratched 7” single on a vintage portable Dansette. “The White Horse is rising, Stewart,” he said. “Can’t you see it?”

Even before my arrest, Christmas 2012 hadn’t been going well. I’m a stand-up comedian for a living. I cope reasonably well with the job itself. It’s the promotional duties I find degrading. I have a new stand-up DVD available for purchase, Carpet Remnant World, which has sat as a non-mover at number twelve in the Amazon charts for two months now. Viewed as a niche art-comedy turn, I can’t afford to supply my product to supermarkets at a cheap enough price per unit to make them stock it; panelshow promotional opportunities don’t work for an act as lugubrious as mine; and whenever I am interviewed I manage to say something ill-considered which, when decontextualised by Jan Moir, makes for a minor Daily Mail horror story, to the understandable embarrassment of friends and relations.

To show willing to my financial backers, I usually spend the months surrounding the release dates of my work writing supposedly amusing think pieces, appended with DVD details, for liberal broadsheet newspapers. Their readerships comprise, for better or worse, my key audience, and I attempt assiduously to maintain their loyalty, and their respect, by flattering their intelligence, while simultaneously insulting their core moral and political values. So far this December, I have compared John Cage to Ant and Dec in the Guardian and, in the Observer, I have drawn spurious parallels between David Cameron’s News of the World text messages and Shakespeare, between I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! and Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and Michael Gove’s education policies. I have a simple and repetitive comic formula, which I despatch in the voice of a semi-fictional version of myself.

This year my publicist had been uncharacteristically keen that I write a piece for a magazine called Shortlist, which is given away free on the street to passers-by and offers expert advice on style and fitness, the latest in films, gaming, culture and technology to time-poor young professionals in search of an off-the-peg identity they haven’t earned. I doubted that anyone that liked my work would read it, and tried to wriggle out of her request, but our financial backers were keen for me to ensnare the lucrative male grooming market, and it was agreed that I would submit to Shortlist an amusing, 1,000-word, end-of-year round-up of ten things hated about 2012.

I arrogantly imagined I could complete this assignment in such a way as satisfied Shortlist’s editors while also maintaining the trademark subversion of media tropes my regular customer base has come to expect from me. The deadline was Thursday 13 December, and I was due to file a Christmas story for the New Statesman four days later, a deal which had been arranged by the comedian-scientist Robin Ince. Despite being chiefly responsible for our two small children due to my wife’s current professional ambitions, I imagined I could easily complete both in time. The Shortlist piece would take me five or six minutes, the New Statesman story a week at least.

That evening, Monday 10 December, my step - father rang me from the Worcestershire village where he lives, saying he thought he had seen my old university friend Julian sitting on the pavement outside the secondhand bookshop in Malvern, crying. I believed him. I had seen Julian in the same place, in the same state, nine years ago, dishevelled and grey, the haunted look that had first appeared on his face that night at the White Horse more pronounced than ever.

We went for a drink. Things had not gone well for Julian, evidently, but he wouldn’t say exactly why. Many different and admittedly melodramatic explanations suggested themselves in my subconscious. The SAS had originally been garrisoned at nearby Malvern Wells, GCHQ employed thousands of spooks down the road at Cheltenham, and in the Fifties and Sixties, Powick Hospital, not far away en route to Worcester, dosed thousands of unwitting patients with LSD. Local pub backroom folklore regularly tied these strands together, leading to the assumption that any wild-eyed vagrant drifting through the region was some former intelligence services insider whose brain had been wiped clean out of political necessity by ruthless government scientists. Was it melodramatic to assume that Julian himself had perhaps done something in the service of the Crown that was now deemed best forgotten?

Sadly, it would pain me too much to detail Julian’s paranoid ramblings in full. I’m sorry to say the White Horse, and especially its legendary and vengeful coming to life, loomed large in all of them. The fact that I must have felt a degree of responsibility for this is borne out by my taking him immediately to the cashpoint and giving him everything I had in my account, in those pre-DVD deal days of the early Noughties a sorry £260. Heartbreakingly, Julian then dragged me to a large puddle near the former Winter Gardens, insisted it was Malvern spring water, bubbling up out of the earth, and demanded that I join him in lapping it up. I drank as much of the muddy mixture as I could stand, but Julian no longer inspired in me the loyalty he once did, and I left him there licking alone.

The Shortlist piece proved more difficult to pull off than I had patronisingly imagined. I had hoped to pastiche punchy lad-mag style and twist it to my own ends, but there’s a headbutt economy about gadget porn that’s actually hard to approximate, and one learns a grudging respect for it when trying to mimic it. My idea was to list ten things that had disappointed me in 2012, avoiding the usual celebrity- and automobile-based value judgements a typical Shortlist contributor might usually finger, and to use instead specific incidents from the year to establish, point by point, a portrait of a general existential despair that would subversively stun Shortlist readers stumbling across it by accident. And I almost got away with it.

I began writing the Shortlist anti-review of the year on the morning of the 13th by complaining about the Irish bookmakers Paddy Power. In March, the gambling business had, without permission from the National Trust, who manage the site, mounted a massive picture of a jockey overnight on the back of the White Horse of Uffington, driving pegs into its prehistoric surface, in order to promote their betting outlets at the Cheltenham Festival race meeting. Paddy Power desecrated what is a religious site, or a work of art, or both, in the name of grubby commerce, and then treated anyone who objected as if they were a humourless curmudgeon. “I hope everyone who works for Paddy Power, or thought this was funny, is fucked to death by a giant white horse, the cold-hearted sport morons,” I concluded, lads’- mag-style.

Then I took aim at James Dyson, who I called the inventor of “the wanker’s Hoover”, for describing teenagers interested in arts and culture as fools “going off to study French lesbian poetry. I hope Dyson’s millionaire penis will be torn off in the suckpipe of one of his own Hoovers, a fate that would never befall a French lesbian poet.” But a call from my daughter’s nursery reporting sickness and loose bowels meant I had to collect her early, and I spent the rest of the day caring for her. My son returned from school in a similar state, and I was unable to resume writing until both had fallen finally and fitfully asleep at around 11pm.

From the initial two examples of crass, philistine attitudes – Paddy Power and Dyson – I then worked through various others, including the shared houses in my Hackney street with filthy front gardens piled with rubbish, all full of young, middle-class trustafarians temporarily holidaying in other people’s actual neighbourhoods, each with the face “of Jack Whitehall”; to a more specific disgust at the drug dealers who let their feral weapon dogs defecate outside my gate every night; and at the young man I watched urinating, at some length, into my doorway late one Saturday evening, when there are much more convenient walls and hedges all around; all of which seemed to me to be part of the same general contempt for basic human decency.

“It begins with Paddy Power shitting on the Uffington White Horse and ends with a man pissing on my house,” I concluded. “I have hated 2012. I expect next year will be worse.” I finally filed the piece twelve hours late, at 4am, my work delayed by stomach bugs my children had doubtless picked up from the human and animal urine and excrement smeared around the front door of their home. I bet my publicist a nominal wager the piece would be rejected by Shortlist.

The next morning, having got the children to school and nursery, I went back to bed until 11, intending to begin on the New Statesman Christmas story. But my publicist woke me with a call to tell me that Shortlist liked the piece so much they wanted an extra 200 words, comprising a further two entries, making a top twelve of things I’d hated in 2012. I set to work, not a little bemused, if inconvenienced, and then all my old alarm bells rang. Presumably, Shortlist could see the piece worked as a whole, and weren’t just trying to fillet it into fragments, with one section substituted for another? Or were they covertly trying to cut sections and getting me to write replacement paragraphs, without telling me? My publicist asked them directly, and the predictably disheartening reply arrived.

“Sorry I wasn’t clear. We were actually hoping for two replacement entries as a couple of the subjects Stewart has tackled will be problematic for us to get into the mag. We’ve got commercial business planned with both Paddy Power and Dyson, so these are the two we’d be looking to replace with a few of Stewart’s initial suggestions below to take it back up to 1,200 words. Also, given that he was on our cover a few weeks ago, is there another name we can use other than Jack Whitehall?”

But that night on the White Horse with Julian a quarter of a century ago had meant a lot to me. It had been an epiphany of sorts, and I genuinely believed the hill figure to be an expression of the triumph of the human spirit and imagination. So I said I wouldn’t be able to submit anything to Shortlist after all. I was not prepared to be held hostage by Dyson, Paddy Power and Jack Whitehall. But my writing time for this New Statesman story had been seriously eaten into by the Shortlist business; there was the not inconsiderable matter of two outstanding sets of infants’ excrement- and vomitstained sheets and blankets needing to be washed; and I had promised my stepfather I would go to Worcestershire that weekend to help him reposition an antique sundial.

It was late on the night of Friday 14 December when I finally began work on the New Statesman Christmas story, abandoning it only at 3am, after a misguided and drunken attempt to retell the Nativity from the view of a sceptical shepherd, from which we have only this extract: “Cows moo, sheep baa, baby, virgin, carpenter. A political manifesto in the form of a tableau. I know my Isaiah, that suffering servant shtick, and so does whoever went and stage-managed this.” It was going nowhere, and I needed the New Statesmangig to plug my DVD.

The next morning I bundled the sickly and protesting children into their car seats and set off for Worcestershire. A few miles short of my stepfather’s I stopped at the Caffè Nero in Malvern for a coffee. The three of us sat around a window table, mainlining caffeine and fruit smoothies, and across the road in the graveyard of the 11th-century Priory I suddenly saw Julian, a decade worn and ragged, but Julian nonetheless. And he saw me. I beckoned him to join us and negotiated him into accepting a hot tomato and pasta-based dish.

Julian and I made awkward small-talk while the children plastered stickers of Peppa Pig into Peppa Pig-shaped spaces in Peppa Pig comics. He told me about the Malvern Hills, the Herefordshire Beacon and the Iron Age hill fort, the Wyche Cutting, rich in salt, the winter sun over the frost, the view out towards Wales, and Clutter’s Cave, where you could shelter and drink spring water from the cliff face. I told him about my DVD promotional obligations, and Shortlist and Paddy Power, Dyson and Jack Whitehall. I remember that I said to him, “Every single story connected to the White Horse is about fables of national identity in one way or another. Imagine if we went over to Ireland and painted a picture of Oliver Cromwell on to the front of the Newgrange Burial Chamber and then tried to make out it was a bit of fun.” In the light of what was to happen, this idiotic imperialist joke was a flippant comment that I bitterly regret. Who knows where Julian had been serving, and what part of our now politically awkward British imperial history his actions may have been written out of? DidI trigger something?

My stepfather’s sundial could wait. Over a second festive gingerbread-flavoured caffè latte, Julian and I laughed about how our lives couldn’t have been more different. He said he appreciated how, when we last met, I had given him everything I had, and said he’d repay the favour one day. Even utterly destitute, he still gave off that refined sense of minoraristocratic decency, as if I was in his debt, as if he were the high-status figure. My almost twoyear- old daughter registered Julian’s innate superiority immediately and stared at him intently throughout our encounter, a little in love, and then watched him silently as he strode off back through the gravestones, his military bearing at odds with his dishevelled appearance.

As I drove on to my stepfather’s, I remembered that night on White Horse Hill, twentyfour years ago. Julian had said the White Horse was rising. And, as he watched, it was. Slowly, as snowflakes caught in the starlight, the equine figure shook itself free of the turf, and stood, and stamped its feet. Then it turned, snorted, and fixed Julian’s gaze for a full minute or so with its baleful opal eyes. “The White Horse,” he whispered, tugging at my sleeve. And I saw him as he saw it leap up through the snow and out into the stars, its hooves beating ripples into the black velvet fabric of the famished night. But I didn’t see the horse myself. Only Julian did. And as he watched the White Horse canter across the face of the moon, he turned and gripped me tightly by the shoulder, suddenly and irrevocably changed: “If, in the future, Stewart, you should ever need anyone eliminated, and without a paper trail that connects to you, come and find me. That’s all I can say.” Then he turned away. “Now watch that White Horse fly.”

I finally filed the New Statesman Christmas story dreadfully late in the day on 17 December, having taken the venerable magazine’s deadline to the wire. In the end, I decided to use my personal experience of the transfiguration of Julian Fullsome-Swathe and the solstice vision of the White Horse as a metaphor for all that is true and pure, and my struggles to write about Paddy Power and the White Horse for Shortlist as examples of all that is vulgar and base, with the implication that the “White Horse” of my own work, namely the Carpet Remnant World stand-up comedy DVD, was similarly contaminated by contact with the world of commerce. I don’t know if it really worked, but pin-eyed from late-night cycles of coffee and wine, I took the afternoon of the 18th off and then resolved to spend the next week planning for Christmas. That afternoon, Robin Ince told me the New Statesmanhad chosen not to run the story, and was going to fill the space with a hastily scribbled cartoon of the late Cyril Smith MP as Father Christmas that folded out over two double spreads. And, three days later, on 21 December, the atrocities began.

Eighty-eight branches of Paddy Power were firebombed during the small hours of the morning of 21 December, and the business’s chief executives Patrick Kennedy and Cormac McCarthy both woke to find the severed heads of white horses next to them in bed; eightyeight dead white horses, their genitals horribly mutilated, were left on the doorsteps of eightyeight branches of Debenhams, whose chairman, Nigel Northridge, is also a non-executive director of Paddy Power; James Dyson awoke to find himself bound with the flex of a Dyson cleaner, his home surrounded by dozens of Dysons, somehow modified to broadcast, through the apertures of their distinctive suck funnels, readings of the works of Renée Vivien and Natalie Barney: “My brunette with the golden eyes, your ivory body, your amber,/Has left bright reflections in the room/Above the garden./The clear midnight sky, under my closed lids,/Still shines . . . I am drunk from so many roses/Redder than wine.” And passersby, silenced by the beauty, cursed the coldhearted inventor. And somewhere in Knightsbridge, Jack Whitehall, newly crowned British Comedy Awards King of Comedy, opens his eyes to find his childhood pet hamster evis - cerated, and paper crowns smeared with dog excrement hung around the eaves of his penthouse apartment. When the news of these crimes broke, an efficient New Statesman subeditor remembered my rejected story and contacted the police.

“What I found difficult to understand, having checked Mr Lee’s college records, was that the Julian he wrote about appears not to have existed at all, as if he fabricated the character in his New Statesman Christmas story for some reason to which only he was privy. Apart from that, our investigations show that the details of every other part of Mr Lee’s story are entirely, even uncannily, accurate.”

Detective Inspector M R James, 26/12/12

 Stewart Lee’s new stand-up DVD, “Carpet Remnant World”, went on release on 12 November (Comedy Central)