February 15, 2013 8:04 pm

The Diary: James Lasdun

The British author discovers a distant ancestor who bought the Jockey Club in retaliation and turned it into his private stables
An illustration of a horse©James Ferguson

What to write next? Always the question when you’ve just finished a book. Unlike Trollope, who would send off a completed novel in the morning and start a new one the same afternoon, I’m a dithering agoniser. The editing and publishing process of my last book has given me a year’s worth of excuses for procrastination. But the time has come to make a decision.

One possibility I’ve been floating recently is a book I’m provisionally calling A Crime and a Place. The idea would be to go cross-country, attending trials at county courts and assembling a portrait of the US through the lens of small-town felonies. My premise is that the forces that have homogenised American towns in recent decades might not have penetrated the shadier realm of criminality, and that certain singularities of local tone and texture might still be preserved there. Responses so far have been guarded. “You mean a sort of artisanal crime book?” one friend commented sceptically.

All the same, I spent an exploratory week at my local county courthouse in Kingston, New York, last year, and I’ve been typing up my notes to see what I have. The trial I sat in on was a domestic violence case. The defendant, having just been charged with attempting to strangle his girlfriend with a phone cord, had returned to her home with the words: “I came to finish you off.” It had seemed pretty cut-and-dried at first. But as the days passed, the story got murkier and murkier.

The prosecution’s main witness turned out to have a history of false reporting. The woman’s injuries appeared to be on the wrong side of her neck. She herself had twice falsely accused a previous partner of attempted strangling. On the other hand, when that ex-partner was brought on to testify, the prosecution revealed that his present girlfriend had an order of protection out against him, which seriously undermined his credibility. Also it turned out the defendant had done time for a previous, proven assault on the plaintiff ... Having begun to doubt the woman, I was just lurching back into her corner again, when the defence attorney read a letter she’d written to the defendant in jail that plunged everything into deeper murk than ever: “I love you, and when you said you were cheating on me and leaving me, I wanted to hurt you like you hurt me ... ”

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Typing this up, I had to wonder if my concept wasn’t a bit glib. Was there really any connection between these chaotic lives and the town of Kingston itself? I tried to think of a way to map their story over the town’s own incoherence, with its two “historic” areas miles apart from each other, separated by a confused amalgam of malls and municipal offices, all haphazardly transected by overpasses, truck routes and freight train lines ... It seemed do-able, just, but I was left feeling suddenly a bit sceptical myself.

. . .

Meanwhile, I’ve been researching a distant ancestor of mine, a certain Baron de Hirsch, known as “Turkenhirsch”, a Jewish financier who made a fortune building the Turkish railways, and spent most of it on a project to resettle Jewish refugees from the Tsarist pogroms in Argentina. There’s a village of Jewish gauchos somewhere in the Pampas – all that survives of de Hirsch’s quixotic efforts – and I’ve been wanting to write about this somehow fantastical notion (and about de Hirsch himself), for a long time.

The question here has to do with my somewhat tenuous connection to the subject. Not much has come down to me from my illustrious forbear – actually just a tablecloth with his coat-of-arms embroidered on it – and I’m not sure that this gives me enough of a stake in his life to justify writing a whole book about it. Still, I’ve finally tracked down a rare copy of the nearest thing to a biography, Samuel Lee’s Moses of the New World, and I’ve been reading it with exasperated excitement. Exasperated, because there are no sources or bibliography, so it’s impossible to verify anything it says. Excitement, because what it does say begins to give a human face to a figure I’ve known only through the vaguest scraps of family lore, and I’m growing fond of him. He seems to have amused himself playing to the 19th-century stereotype of the rich, arriviste Jew. After building a mansion on the Rue d’Elysée in Paris, he applied for membership of the elite Jockey Club, was blackballed, and retaliated by buying the club and turning it into his private stables.

More interestingly, his philanthropic venture was an early instance of what became “territorialism”, the movement to found a Jewish homeland somewhere other than Palestine. Uganda, Alaska, Western Australia and Dutch Guiana were among later prospects held up for consideration: all of them disappearing, at various speeds, into the rich history of what-might-have-been. Which is a large part of what intrigues me about the whole subject ...

. . .

But I can’t quite let go of the crime idea, and when an acquaintance at our local sheriff’s department calls to tell me a detective there has agreed to meet me, I drive straight over.

 

The detective’s office is in an enormous new building that also houses the jail. A stocky man in his thirties with close-cropped hair and a copy of How to Break a Terrorist on his desk, he explains the local crime economy. It goes like this: gentrification in New York has pushed welfare housing upstate. Welfare housing has brought gangs in its wake. The gang members deal crack and occasionally shoot each other. The crack-heads burglarise weekender homes and pawn the goods. The pawn shops are so loosely regulated there’s almost nothing anyone can do about them. Meanwhile, the sheriff’s department itself does a brisk business boarding out-of-county prisoners in its new jail for $80 a night, and seizing drug dealers’ assets. It’s startling to hear the tight inter-dependence of it all spelt out with such remorseless clarity. I leave feeling edified, but once again a bit depressed by the whole topic, and wondering what this recent interest of mine in crime is really all about. No doubt the fact that I’ve spent the past five years enduring (and writing about) the attentions of a disturbed cyberstalker has something to do with it. But is plunging even deeper into the subject really the best way of getting it out of my system? Wouldn’t a few months of Argentine sunshine be a healthier option?

I see no alternative but further procrastination.

‘Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked’ (Jonathan Cape, £14.99), by James Lasdun, has just been published

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