Shivering Denizens of His Mad Realm

By Will NicollApril 2, 2014

Shivering Denizens of His Mad Realm

FOR MY GRANDPARENTS, Dr. Trevor W. G Kinnear (1921-1997) and Mrs. Sheila Margaret Kinnear (1918-2011).

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit

— From “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T. S. Eliot

Bristo Square is a vast Gothic courtyard outside Edinburgh University, adorned with dark granite gargoyles. I have only a few photographs of my grandfather, but one was taken here, so I inevitably think of him when I pass through. He was an old man and the other students were decades younger, but he stood among them, smiled and doffed his mortarboard. Beads of rain merged on the camera lens, and the sky grew stark and gloomy, as they cheered and hugged.

It’s Bonfire Night, and Bristo Square is busy. Three girls in cropped navy trench coats stumble past. They’re wearing stilettos and white suede cowboy hats, trimmed with pink fur. Slowly, one of them turns toward me. She stares and shifts her weight between her feet. Suddenly I hear faint explosions, and the girl looks lost and startled, as the fireworks make arcs and rainbows in the sky.

Street people pass over Bristo Square, crisscrossing the revelers. Some are young refugees, care-leavers or migrant workers; many are gnarled old rough-sleepers, who carry their belongings in plastic bags. A few scream abuse at passing students, but most walk on, fearful and quiet, with their eyes fixed on the buildings ahead. All belong to a silent underclass, who exist quietly and painfully in every city on earth.

As the sun falls behind the mosque’s turquoise dome, and the spilled cider from hemorrhaging cans mixes with gelato to form tealy pools, the street people make their way toward Magdalene House. Nearby, the dim lanes echo with laser-gun battles, fought in bright arcades, where ashen men with slow, keen eyes duel to the clatter of falling coins.

When I push open the heavy wooden door, with its weary hinges and reinforced glass panels, I smell tonic wine, lentil soup, and turpentine. They are redecorating, and the pine panels on the walls have peeled, revealing craters of pastel pink paint.

Inside, there are men with thick, dark beards and beetroot-red faces, and men who are jaundiced and yellow, with wide bloodshot eyes and lank, thinning hair. There are atrophied soldiers — drunk on white spirit — and frostbitten old sea captains, who wear their war wounds like ghost stories. Some scowl, or shudder, as they pick tobacco flakes from their gold-capped teeth; others flinch like mice, caught near the tracks of a runaway freight train, as the icy night air fills the room.

“We used to get them, back when they were on the methylated spirits,” a lady says, as she dispenses soup from behind the servery counter. She glances at me and smiles as she butters bread. “Now it’s white cider. It’s the same thing if you ask me.”

“It’s no different,” an old man says, furrowing his forehead and licking his fingertips as he arranges gingerbread men with wide smiles and pink iced buttons on a tray.

“It isn’t any different,” the old lady says. “It’s all the same. Why do you think they put white cider in blue bottles?” she laughs. “It’s almost as though they’re trying to disguise it as meths.”

“Blue bottles, blue bottles,” a drunk man hums. “Blue-bottles,” he laughs, swatting a fly away from my face. He wears a filthy red baseball cap, and has a yellow bruise under his left eye. The scars beneath his black stubble are deeper than shaving cuts. Scuffed tattoos of spiders’ webs and saltires cover his elbows and neck.

I sit at a table beside John — a musician who has just returned to Scotland from America. He tells me about touring Europe with a band and about his psychiatrist in Massachusetts. Simon sits beside him. He is very young, and wears a torn polyester jacket, which is zipped to his chin. He stares past me, to a frieze of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he pulls apart Empire biscuits and arranges the glacé cherries in glossy patterns on his tray.

Archie is a recovering alcoholic in his late 40s. He wears an immaculate pale blue shirt with a cutaway collar — donated by the charity Sue Ryder, he tells me, “But originally designed by Tom Ford.” The table becomes quiet as he begins to talk about his drinking, and the incarceration that always followed.

“I didn’t know about work,” Archie says, through genuine bewilderment, rather than by way of excuse. “I thought that when you hit a certain age, you went and stood in the pub. You all just stood in the pub with your mates. And the very few times you weren’t there, you were talking about what it was like being there. Or you were looking for a reason to go.”

For a moment, Archie squares his broad shoulders and feigns aggression. John says nothing; Simon wheezes, as his eyelids close, and he inhales butane gas through the sleeve of his shirt. Slowly, his eyelids flutter, and his fingers begin to wriggle in the pockets of his coat.

“I never had a good start in life, going in and out of kiddies’ homes,” Archie continues. “In fact I’ll tell you this,” he says. “I’ve seen a hell of a sight more violence in kiddies’ homes than I ever have in prisons. And I’ve been on landings with lifers.”

Archie spreads out his hands — toppling the plastic pepper pot — and Simon’s fingers roam quickly across the table like spiders, making tracks in the dusty black powder.

Suddenly he stands up, and his chair falls backward, screeching as it hits the floor. In the silence, an old man laughs, loudly and hysterically. The sound is hoarse and painful, like a wire brush scraping rust from metal. The man is Eastern European and speaks little English, so nobody knows his name. When I ask him, he stares at me.

“What’s my name?” he says, squinting. “You’re asking me my name? Fuck you.” He says, coughing and laughing again. “That’s my name.”

Addiction marks people with all the force of a hatchet, or a sculptor’s chisel; it carves contours in haunted faces, and tears seams in weathered skin. The men who come to Magdalene House have little interest in food, or warmth or company. They are weary, tortured, ghosts of people — with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain.


When I walk across Edinburgh to meet Archie’s friend Jack, work on the skyline has stalled. At the top of Leith Walk, they’ve torn down the tenements, and the abandoned diggers and cement mixers look otherworldly. A rusted wrecking ball swings like a bauble above a chasm in the city where a thousand people used to live and breathe.

Greenside Place is a stretch of grubby pavement in front of a quiet cinema complex beside one of central Edinburgh’s busiest roundabouts. As you traipse up Leith Walk, your eyes are drawn to the bright escalators that rise to the shopping center above.

From the dingy glass walkway that leads to the car park, you can look down at the traffic in the winter, and watch the trickle of people making their way up toward the city from the harbor. As your eyes grow used to the darkness, you can make out the street people, who seem drawn like ragged moths to the light.

Jack is a gentle older man with shorn gray hair and intense blue eyes. He wears a pair of dark jeans and a red sweatshirt that says “Nebraska.” He has a very soft Northern accent, an occasional stammer, and a tendency to apologize. His fingernails are broken, and there’s a hard, white groove where he once wore a wedding band, pressed like twine into pork fat on his right hand. At first, we say very little, but eventually Jack mutters, “Suppose you’re sitting in a bed-sit over there, and you’re on your own, and you’ve only got a little TV. If you’ve got a hundred pounds in your pocket, and you go out on a Friday night, put a nice shirt on.” He pauses. “Maybe put your hair up and put on a nice dress if you’re a girl. If you go out clubbing then you’re the same as the next man. You’re a millionaire for a night.”

Jack takes a plastic lighter from his pocket and taps it on the table.

“A lot of it’s in the mind. Alcoholism is, because alcohol, if you only do it every now and again, it will lift you. Boom,” he says, for emphasis, making the shape of gun in a gesture that feels unfortunate and sudden, as the toy-town Christmas lights which hang from the shabby shop fronts glow green, and his eyes narrow. “But if you’re doing it continuously, what alcohol will do is it will bring you up, and then it’ll bring you right back down.”

Jack hits his left palm off his right hand, and the resulting crack echoes like a gun.

“You won’t get the up again because you’re just on a continuous roll with it. That’s the difference.”

About half of the people who are passing through the British criminal justice system were drunk at the time of their offence. A slightly smaller group use alcohol in a way sufficiently chronic to be defined as a problem. Probation officers find that half their clients have a pattern of criminal behaviour associated with their drinking. Like Archie — and many of those who eat at Magdalene House — Jack is one of these men.

“I was in trouble through drink as a young man.” He takes an old cigarette tin from his pocket and places it on the table. “I used to do TDAs, you know, taking and driving aways,” he mumbles, referring to cars. “Then there was fraud. Check cards and checks. I did a couple of sentences, in the old prison system. Anyway, I was in Strangeways, which is an old Victorian prison. One night I got out over the hospital roof.”

Jack doesn’t explain what made him want to leave Strangeways. Instead he takes a mossy clump of tobacco from his tin.

“Then I went abroad, and that was where my drinking began,” Jack says, lighting the cigarette again. “My real drinking. I had an accident on a motorbike. I was in a wheelchair. Then I ended up in a hospital, suffering from a nervous breakdown and depression. I lost a house, I lost a job,” he says, briskly. “I had a daughter in Holland who I’ve not seen from that day to this day. She’s 22, nearly, now.”

I can’t help but wonder about the role which alcohol played in the circumstances; but Jack’s eyes are clear, loving, and strangely mournful, like those of a man who’d sooner skirt the truth than tell a lie.

We’re sitting near a busy theater. Children are gathering outside for the first run of a pantomime. A little boy rushes up to a table near us to pick up a plastic straw, which has been abandoned in a puddle of beer, and the metal chairs clatter on the pavement.

“Hey, be careful kid,” another old man slurs. “Just you be careful, now, son,” he calls softly as the little boy rushes off. “What would your mother say?” he whispers, as he drains the last of his pint. “Whatever on earth would she say?”

Across the road, beside a ruined phone box, an old man shields his wife with a raincoat, as she changes into a pair of flat shoes on cobblestones smattered with glass. Jack lights his cigarette, again, and frowns. The sunlight’s vanishing. The houses are lit up, and the streetlights glow a gaudy amber, in anticipation of the falling dark. Suddenly, without warning, Jack mentions the night of his arrest in Suffolk for the first time.

“It was mad. I was pissed,” he shrugs. “Every time, every crime, I’ve been pissed. When they were doing the reports on me, the barrister was saying, ‘If that report gets done the wrong way then you’ll get 12 years.’ But the report was very good. The judge took a bit of lenience on me. He give me nine years.” Jack counts aloud. “He give me four, four, and one.”

“But that isn’t very lenient,” I ask. “Or is it?”

“If you’ve had the life I’ve had, then nine years in jail is more than lenient. Jail isn’t a nice place. But it’s food to eat, when you need it. It’s a place to sleep — a place to keep your stuff. The guards treat you fine once they know you’re not there to thump anyone, or cause them any hassle, or lie. Liars just don’t last long in prison, because no one has any time for that. Jail has a funny way of making liars into honest people.”

Jack seems to contemplate this for a moment. “It’s only when they leave that they are taught how to lie again.”

We begin making our way back toward the Salvation Army where Jack is staying. Instead of walking up toward the bright, glass shopping center, beneath its walkway and over the bridges, we cut down toward Waverley Station and through the dingy, neon-lit arches. By a conservative estimate, half of those who sleep here are prison leavers. As many as 80 percent will have a problem with alcohol or drugs.

“I’m no longer allowed to carry, well, a firework. I can’t use a nail gun. I can’t use anything that fires a projectile,” Jack explains. He’s grinning. As part of his application to receive welfare payments, the Job Centre has insisted he begin a basic safety qualification to work in the building trade. Building sites are dangerous places, and nobody is going to employ him.

“I’ll get five years in prison if I’m caught with a water pistol or a banger,” he adds, impassively. “I’m on a lifetime ban for firearms, and anything that resembles firearms. That won’t leave you. That doesn’t leave you.”

I want to ask Jack about that night in Suffolk, but I don’t. I’m not looking properly as we walk along Calton Road, and a car swerves toward us.

“Watch yourself, son,” Jack says, firmly and gently, as he takes my arm. “Watch yourself now.”

The Royal Observatory glows above us, and our voices begin to echo slightly as we walk down a steep, narrow hill, along the railway tracks, and beneath the damp bridges.

“This year I experienced an event, which changed my perception in a big way. But I’ve also experienced the same kind of event on several occasions. I was on a lifer landing in Norwich Prison,” he says. “You know, with lots of other guys who were all doing life. One thing that I’ve noticed is regrets. Some people have got them, and some haven’t. Some people have got genuine remorse, and again some people haven’t. I can think of several guys in particular.”

Jack stops to take a cigarette from his tin.

“Just when I went back into Dorchester nick — around March time — a guy got sentenced. He was an ex-soldier; he’d been a soldier for 20-odd years, and he was an alcoholic. He drove a petrol tanker into his ex-missus’s house. She wasn’t in the house; the house was empty.”

As we walk under the railway bridge, there’s a sudden shrill, scraping noise above, which drowns out Jack’s voice. Once the train has gone I can hear him again, but he sounds harsh and operatic.

“One day this guy stops working on the servery, and an old pal of mine tells me that this guy’s got cancer. He didn’t know it and it’s terminal. The next thing I know, he’s going to a hospice. The Home Office granted permission to move him. He died in June. I got out July the fourth. That was the day he was buried.”

Jack lights his cigarette, and I try to speak, but it’s hard to know exactly what to say.

On the loud, dank passageway known as the Pleasance, which marks the periphery of Edinburgh’s Old Town, Jack introduces me to two men who stand outside the hostel, smoking. Buddha doesn’t speak, but shoots surly, outraged glances at passersby and spits furiously on the street. Michael scowls angrily at the traffic, and brushes the patterns shaved into his eyebrows with thin, white fingers, like a child’s.

Slowly, Michael describes leaving Birmingham because both of his parents were addicted to crack cocaine, and I realize that he’s only 19. When Buddha eventually speaks, with shyness rather than hostility, it becomes clear that he has a learning disability that is very marked.

“I’ve got three places I can live,” he says, slowly and precisely. “One room at my father’s house, and one at my old lady’s — but it’s less lonely here. And you can smoke in your room, too,” he shrugs. “They’d never let me do that at home.” Later in our conversation, Buddha mentions that he is 32.

The manager of the Salvation Army explains, over reheated Bolognese in a strip-lit, Formica dining hall, how 90 percent of the current residents will have had contact with Britain’s care system.

As he piles spaghetti onto his fork — in words thick with bitterness — he mentions how the majority will have been to prison, too. Many will use drugs, and most will drink excessively; despite constant contact with institutions of state, throughout their lives, charity is now their only support.

I sense that if Jack stays at the Salvation Army over Christmas, he’s going to drink. Few things are surer to trigger a relapse in a recovering alcoholic than a Christmas spent alone at a homeless shelter, with 27 men who are at very best chronic binge drinkers and at worst acute alcoholics.

The rest of the world will overindulge. The staff will joke about their hangovers. The adverts on the television will peddle fantasy images of alcohol, to the men whose lives it has helped destroy.

As I leave Jack, I find myself wondering about that night in Suffolk, why he had a gun, where he bought it, and what possessed him to rob a gas station. He wasn’t a violent criminal but a petty crook, and he knew enough from prison to realize that he would be caught immediately.

Alcohol gives us the illusion of power, when really we’re at our most powerless. I imagine the taste of the whisky in my mouth, and that gun in my hand, no heavier than a bag of sugar. In the distance the fireworks crackle; pink sparks rain onto the tenements from the empty sky, and I see a pistol flash like a camera, as the staccato punch of gunfire fills the night.

Evoking the language of the Old Testament, Alcoholics Anonymous describes people like Jack — and those who eat at Magdalene House — as the subjects of King Alcohol. They are dependent drinkers, beset by terror, frustration, bewilderment, and despair, whose lives will end in jails or institutions — the shivering denizens of his mad realm.

Walking home through West Granton, the pavement runs along the dirty beach — there is rubbish everywhere, caught in the chain links that join the cement bollards.

I glance backward to the lights of Musselburgh, which glow like tea lights on the dirty sea.


Will Nicoll is a British writer and journalist living in London and Edinburgh.

LARB Contributor

Will Nicoll is a British writer and journalist with eclectic tastes, who has contributed features to newspapers and magazines like The Spectator, The Telegraph, Esquire (UK/Weekly), Men’s Health, Women’s Health and Vice. His poetry was commended for the 2013 Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine, and his short-stories have appeared in journals like Michael Hulse’s Warwick Review. Will’s essays were short-listed for The Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize, in both 2012 and 2013. As the award is given not for “conventional” travel-writing, but “the most acute and profound observation of a culture alien to the writer,” both of Will’s entries have focused on journeys which he made with homeless people, whose lives intertwine on the fringes of society. Will’s first piece (‘What’s Waiting at Elm Tree Loan’) for The Spectator can be read here, while his second (‘The Shivering Denizens of His Mad Realm’) is published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Will lives in Edinburgh & London, and is represented by Rochelle Stevens & Co. Twitter: @williampnicoll; Email: will [at]; Website:




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