Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The name of this book is 'Our House, Your Home: The Past, Present & Future of Social Housing'...

In summary, then... The title of my new book is Our House, Your Home: The Past, Present & Future of Social Housing. It's available through the New Writing North website and also Amazon.

The book came about in late 2013 when I was invited by New Writing North and by Isos Housing, a leading social landlord in my native north east England, to investigate Isos's business and the broader story of social housing both as a modern-day 'sector' and a historical 'movement.' Illustrated with photographs by Sally Ann Norman, the book tells the 150-year history of subsidised housing in Britain, offers a case study of how a social landlord is required to operate today, and reflects, too, on what all of us could do to resolve our housing crisis.

It does affect us all - there's no escape. How the British people are going to access and afford the roofs they need over their heads will be a major socio-political problem for the foreseeable future. So for me as a writer it was a really vital, instructive experience to take a close look inside what Isos does, and to talk to its tenants about their experience of social housing – the form of provision that is feeling the keenest edge of our national housing crisis.

Probably the strongest feeling I came away with was that there are millions of people in the UK who will always need a socially rented home. Housing associations are the best-equipped vehicles to answer that need, yet what they do (and why they do it) is imperfectly understood, both by the public and politicians. Their virtues are not uniform across the sector or the length of the land; but I believe they deserve our support.

Me, in the Journal, defending social housing

Photographer Sally Ann Norman & RTK with our shared endeavour
Yesterday I continued to develop the arguments made in my new book Our House, Your Home: The Past, Present & Future of Social Housing, with an article for the Newcastle Journal, given a headline just as bald as me: 'Writer Richard T Kelly on the need for social housing in the North East'. I'm told that the print edition had a picture of me on the front page with the strapline 'Leave your snobbery at the door', the idea of which appeals enormously. The feature itself ran over two full pages in the Agenda section in the middle of the paper.

Here is a pair of paragraphs as a sample of the whole:
'... By this analysis, housing only takes its place in the larger set of socio-economic problems that have beset the North East for all my life. We still routinely have the highest unemployment rate of all the English regions, and the highest proportion of employees in the public sector. Not that there are too many public sector jobs in the North East – we want all the jobs we can get. But as Lord Adonis identified in his North East Independent Economic Review of 2013, we need more (better-paid and higher-skilled) private sector employment to begin to dream of significantly more new housing.

As we know, this region still makes things and exports them, manufacturing generating about 15.5% of the region’s total Gross Value Added. Nissan, though, comprises a notably big chunk of those figures. New businesses, especially hi-tech ones, are now getting born in the North East at an encouraging rate, and people who instinctively believe that ‘not enough is done’ for the region might yet be surprised by what people in the region can do for themselves. But that growth remains a work in progress.'

Me, in the Guardian, defending social housing

Lynemouth, Northumberland, where Isos rent 200 homes
Last Wednesday was a bit of a red letter day round mine - my first ever piece in the Guardian's 'Society' pages, headlined 'Why we should be shouting from the rooftops to defend housing associations', and marking my debut as a commentator on public sector finance and provision, so fulfilling a boyhood dream... The photos illustrating the piece, as above, are taken from my book Our House, Your Home: The Past, Present & Future of Social Housing, and all are the work of the estimable Sally Ann Norman. As to the argument therein, here are a couple of preview paragraphs: 

'Social housing, then, is a cause that needs defending. Whereas mortgaged home ownership is thought to be one of our national obsessions, social housing is dimly viewed as a “residual” tenure of last resort – a political stepchild, too, its constituents uncourted at election time, unlike all those owner-occupiers in key marginals.

While Ken Loach’s 1966 BBC play, Cathy Come Home, did much to strip the scales from Britain’s eyes about the calamity of homelessness, Cathy’s fictional plight seems unlikely to greatly detain audiences of today, more routinely tickled (if not feigning to be outraged) by Channel 4’s Benefits Street. Whether we have a national consensus that social housing is an essential service, or whether societal attitudes have hardened to the point where more of us believe people have to lump whatever shelter they can access – I must say I’m not certain...'

Debating the Future of Social Housing at the Durham Book Festival (Saturday October 18 2014)

Debating in Durham: from left, John Tomaney, James Meek, Lynsey Hanley, RTK

Saturday October 18 saw me back at the Durham Book Festival for the first time since 2011, the purpose being a discussion of the UK’s housing crisis – and the share of that pain facing the social housing sector – with a couple of excellent writers who have, like me, published on the subject. My contribution is a new book called Our House, Your Home: The Past, Present & Future of Social Housing, commissioned by New Writing North and the Gosforth-based Isos housing association - who basically invited me to root around their business for six months and draw my own conclusions about what they do and why they do it.

The Durham discussion was chaired by John Tomaney, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at UCL. My co-panellists were James Meek and Lynsey Hanley.

James Meek is an acclaimed novelist and contributing editor to the London Review of Books, whose new book Private Island is the outcome of a series of investigations he made, mainly for the LRB, into the steady selling-off of the UK's public resources since the Thatcher era. His chapter on housing is derived from an LRB article entitled Where Will We Live? and it recounts and laments what could be called the privatisation of council housing. Lynsey Hanley writes mainly for the Guardian and in 2007 she authored a fine book called Estates: An Intimate History, inspired by her experiences of growing up on the massive Wood estate in Birmingham and, later, making home on another problematic estate in East London.

Hanley's book also attempts – just as James Meek and I have attempted in our respective efforts – to recount a history of social housing in the UK, and in her version there is a melancholy and aggrieved feel, a sense that good intentions and high ideals behind the cause of subsidised housing were betrayed by a push for brute numbers, a subsequent plummet in quality, and a steadily etched stigma upon social housing as a ‘residualised’ tenure of last resort. In Durham Hanley spoke feelingly about how social housing has been looked down upon, how the injuries of class end up inscribed on the unkempt bricks and mortar of the stock, also in the minds of the tenants.

James Meek set out some of the arguments of his LRB piece, noting, inter alia: how the UK’s supply system of housing (a tripartite arrangement of developable land, planning permission and volume house-builders) is not set up or incentivised to meet real housing need; how central government funds for housing associations have steadily shrunk over the last forty years; and how housing associations have got much larger, though not necessarily better, since receiving large-scale stock transfers from councils - a process begun under the Thatcher government and accelerated under Tony Blair. Meek cited the recent calamity of the Cosmopolitan housing association as a warning of how a landlord's failure to meet its loan agreements could put its tenants' homes at risk; and he also raised the spectre of larger (mainly southern) associations perhaps seeing no bar to self-financing and so turning to pure for-profit development.

As for my contribution to the debate – well, it’s all there in my book, really: I reprised my own opinions and arguments. I ought to say, though, that in chatting to James Meek beforehand he told me that he felt I had misrepresented his argument, especially so in this passage from the book:
For Meek, one suspects, housing associations are the spawn of original sin. They just shouldn’t have got the position that they obtained. Having done so, one might, if sympathetic, call them the victims of their own success. But Meek seems to want them quietly put down.
It’s a fact that nowhere does Meek say he wants to see the back of housing associations; and since I don’t have the power of reading his mind, it was needlessly quarrelsome of me to imply otherwise. My error, probably, was to conflate some of his concerns and contentions with those of assorted other parties, without proper discrimination.

What I said to the Durham audience was that in my research for the book I quite quickly felt jaundiced by arguments emanating from some quarters of local government, certain journalists, and from within the Labour Party, to the effect that local councils make the best social landlords, and that housing associations are a poor second or substitute - essentially for the reason of their not being councils, tainted by association with the policies of Thatcher and Blair, and with borrowed money and bond issues.

In the last century local councils did create social housing in the UK as we know it. But post-war council housing did not solve the housing problems of Britain's poor: these were carefully allotted homes for working people in an age of full employment. Moreover, a council house was a state-furnished product that had no incentive for any sort of improvement, and unsurprisingly it didn’t get any. If you think council housing is better for being democratically accountable, somehow answerable to the people, you need to take at least an occasional dip into Private Eye’s 'Rotten Boroughs', also to remember that social rental is a minority tenure with strictly limited ballot-box clout.

You could say, in spite of the foregoing, that council housing is still a better idea than the public/private model of the housing association. One may second James Meek's argument in the LRB which builds to a defence of the principle of ‘public responsibility for meeting basic needs’ and 'the ideal of social housing supported from general taxation on the better-off, the ideal that it is not only the prosperous who matter.’ But if one adheres to that, one must then say what is to be done about  our current housing crisis, our absolute need for new homes, right now. Even Labour has promised no new funds for housing after 2015, only re-prioritising within capital budgets. And no party now seeking your vote intends once in government to borrow an extra £5 billion annually so that the state can build 500,000 houses with it.

The crux, really, is that a lot of wise heads want to see councils build houses for rent again. This time, though, unlike in 1945 or 1968, councils will need to borrow the funds to build, against their future rental incomes and assets. In other words, they will have to get up to speed with what housing associations have been doing for the last 25 years, using basically the same kinds of skills, savvy, and funding. It’s quite understandable that campaigners of today might want to see social housing reinstated in the public sector and flying free of what some consider the all-too-worldly pull of big developers and private finance. But if those campaigners honestly survey the work that needs doing then they ought to see that housing associations remain best placed to lead the effort – with, of course, local councils working in comradely partnership.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Talking to Teju Cole @ Faber Social (07.10.2014)

Your correspondent & Teju Cole at The Ace, Shoreditch
Last week at the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch I interviewed Teju Cole onstage before an enthused audience, under the banner of Faber Social, Faber’s excellent series of cross-pollinated cultural and conversational soirees. (I recall it was David Peace, Simon Reynolds and me on the bill at the inaugural Social back in June 2011.)

Talking to Teju Cole was a lively and engrossing discussion to be part of. Right at the top Cole previewed a sardonic piece that he had just written for the New Yorker (and which was duly posted online there the following day) about CNN’s coverage of the Ebola crisis. Cole is an assured and beguiling speaker, and his prefacing remark about feeling uncomfortably ‘like a slam poet’ in delivering this new text (off the screen of his smartphone, no less) turned out, you might guess, to be modesty in extremis.

Cole is Nigerian-American, or American-Nigerian – born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, raised in Lagos, educated in London and New York inter alia, and now a citizen of the world in the manner of all writers who attain his level of accomplishment and reputation. (Cole was the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award of 2012 for Open City, his debut publication in the US and UK.) Accordingly the conversation ranged freely. He was in the West Bank this summer past, so there was that for starters.

His most recently published work Every Day is For The Thief (actually his first discrete book, originated as a sequence of blog posts and then published by Cassava Republic Press in Nigeria around 2007, before Open City went out and made his name) concerns an unnamed protagonist returning to his native Lagos and encountering a society in which daily transactions seem to be endlessly debased by a climate of corruption: one that seems rather to emanate out of the yawning societal gulf between the powerful and crude-wealthy, and the mass of the people in the streets grafting for coppers and fighting among themselves.

Every Day is For The Thief is full of pained scenes and observations that stay with you: from the narrator’s desultory wander around a denuded, asset-tripped, historically dishonest national museum to his pilgrimage into a heaving marketplace where a pilfering child had been burned alive by a mob and the killing recorded on video. Reading this book certainly brought sensory elements of my visit to Lagos in September 2013 vividly back to the front of my mind, but nothing I saw was nearly so dreadful as that.

Every Day is a different sort of book to Open City, in that the latter can be read with a familiar gratified sense by anyone at home in the great city-centred literature of modernity that was born in the nineteenth century and probably attained its high watermark after the Second World War, before rolling back. Open City has been reviewed as a notable entry in the celebrated literature of the flâneur, and its narrator Julius is keen-eyed but as full of melancholy as Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, seemingly unable to affect the course of events he perceives so sharply. Cole is not his narrators, though, and the depth of his engagement with politics, coupled to his facility at speaking freely on political matters in his own voice, are noteworthy.

Cole told the audience in Shoreditch that for him the novel was very much about New York in the aftermath of September 11 2001. (He also professed his high regard for Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.) The legacy of traumatic events is certainly of great interest to him. Open City, though not a heavily plot-carpentered work, nonetheless builds to a revelation of personal trauma which shows Cole working in a plangent way on more than one register.

A significant element of Cole’s oeuvre has been made on Twitter, which he has made use of in a manner of ingenuity that far outstrips any other writer of fiction I can think of. If you don’t know of his Twitter projects – Hafiz, Small Fates, A Piece Of The Wall – you should investigate immediately. Cole has been a forceful advocate of the economy Twitter presses upon a writer (‘When you're tweeting, the sentences are isolated, naked, so there is that much more scrutiny on how they work’.) For the moment, though, he seems to have retired from the medium. I expect there’ll be another medium along shortly he will use just as adroitly.

Robert Aickman at the Freud Museum: Evidence

Above is a nicely shot and edited three-and-a-half minutes marking the event Faber held at the Freud Museum in June 2014 to honour Robert Aickman's centenary. Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson were our distinguished guest speakers and they read and spoke splendidly; and we were also treated to an excellent speech by Jean Richardson, a close personal friend of Aickman's in his latter years, whose acquaintance I was pleased to make in the course of this project. Mr Dyson is at the lectern in the image-capture above; mine is the convict-like profile in the lower-right corner.

Reece and Jean wrote new pieces about Aickman for the new Faber edition of Cold Hand in Mine. A new preface by me also appears in Dark Entries, The Unsettled Dust and The Wine Dark-Sea. Below is a bit of what I have to say therein:

So elegantly and comprehensively does Aickman encompass all the traditional strengths and available complexities of the supernatural story that, at times, it’s hard to see how any subsequent practitioner could stand anywhere but in his shadow. True, there is perhaps a typical Aickman protagonist – usually but not always a man, and one who does not fit so well with others, temperamentally inclined to his own company. But Aickman has a considerable gift for putting us stealthily behind the eyes of said protagonist. Having established such identification, the way in which he then builds up a sense of dread is masterly. His construction of sentences and of narrative is patient and finical. He seems always to proceed from a rather grey-toned realism where detail accumulates without fuss, and the recognisable material world appears wholly foursquare – until you realise that the narrative has been built as a cage, a kind of personal hell, and our protagonist is walking toward death as if in a dream.

This effect is especially pronounced – Aickman, as it were, preordains the final black flourish – in stories such as ‘Never Visit Venice‘ (the title gives the nod) and ‘The Fetch’, whose confessional protagonist rightly judges himself ‘a haunted man’, his pursuer a grim and faceless wraith who emerges from the sea periodically to augur a death in the family. Sometimes, though, to paraphrase John Donne, the Aickman protagonist runs to death just as fast as death can meet him: as in ‘The Stains’, an account of a scholarly widower’s falling in love with – and plunging to his undoing through – a winsome young woman who is, in fact, some kind of dryad.

On this latter score it should be said that, for all Aickman’s seeming astringence, many of his stories possess a powerful erotic charge. There is, again, something dreamlike to how quickly in Aickman an attraction can proceed to a physical expression; and yet he also creates a deep unease whenever skin touches skin – as if desire (and the feminine) are forms of snare, varieties of doom. If such a tendency smacks rather of neurosis, one has to say that this is where a great deal of horror comes from; and Aickman carries off his version of it with great panache, always.

On the flipside of the coin one should also acknowledge Aickman’s refined facility for writing female protagonists, and that the ambiance of such tales – the world they conjure, the character’s relations to people and things in that world – is highly distinctive and noteworthy within his oeuvre. Aickman’s women are generally spared the sort of grisly fates he reserves for his men, and yet still he routinely leaves us to wonder if they are headed to heaven or hell, if not confined to some purgatory. Among his most admired stories in this line are ‘The Inner Room’ and ‘Into the Wood’, works in which the mystery deepens upon the final sentence.

And lest we forget: Aickman can also be very witty, too, even in the midst of mounting horrors, and even if it’s laughter in the dark. English readers in particular tend to chuckle over ‘The Hospice’, the story of a travelling salesman trapped in his worst nightmare of a guesthouse, where the guests are kept in ankle-fetters and the evening meal is served in mountainous indigestible heaps (‘It’s turkey tonight.’) In the aforementioned ‘The Fetch’, when our haunted man finally finds himself caged in his Scottish family home, watching the wraith watching him from a perch outdoors up high on a broken wall – he still has time to reflect that ‘such levitations are said to be not uncommon in the remoter parts of Scotland.’ This is the sound of a refined intellect, amusing both himself and us.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Robert Aickman at the Freud Museum

Robert Aickman, photographed circa 1960

In his famous essay on ‘The Uncanny’ (1919) Freud was careful to let us know that he did not scare easily; that taking fright at strange things belonged, indeed, to the backward childhood of mankind, the natural fear of the body’s death and ‘the old, animistic conception of the universe’, of a world ‘peopled with the spirits of human beings.’ That said, Freud accepted that we all go through this phase and that ‘residues and traces’ of it may remain – old beliefs ‘ready to seize upon any confirmation’ of their survival and endurance. 

Freud paid special attention to the uncanny as evoked by literature because of its special appeal and privilege in terms of making the supernatural plausible to us– which is to say, ‘there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life.’ And Freud certainly understood that a great writer of the supernatural could shake us at our cores by the skilful pretence of moving ‘in the world of common reality… he deceives us by promising to give us the sober truth, and then after all overstepping it. We react to his inventions as we would have reacted to real experiences; by the time we have seen through his trick it is already too late…’

I note all of this in advance of a special event that I am compering tomorrow night, Thursday June 26, at the Freud Museum in Hampstead. The occasion is the centenary of the birth of Robert Aickman, the brilliant English author of ‘strange stories’ whose work I’ve been privileged to publish in Faber Finds and who is now being offered by the main Faber list in glorious-looking new editions. All tickets to the event are already sold, which is a tribute to Aickman’s ardent following but also, I imagine, to the drawing powers of the two gentlemen who will be reading from Aickman’s work and discussing his influence with me: Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson, formerly of Royston Vasey.

If you don’t know Aickman already, I can only say that you will not go wrong for one moment if you sample the oeuvre at any point. (The new edition of his Dark Entries, for instance, includes an introduction by me and an afterword by Ramsey Campbell.) Aickman's work is a wonder, and will always be so. He is an especially fine exemplar of the style Freud identified, as he seems always to proceed from a realism where detail accumulates without fuss, the recognisable material world seems wholly foursquare – until you realise that the narrative has been built as a cage, a kind of personal hell, and the protagonist is proceeding toward death as if in a dream.

Tomorrow night, in the house where Freud used to live, I hope we’ll throw some light into Aickman's shadows - and I hope to report back here, with pictures.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Notes on Lagos (British Council/Through My Eyes)

Your correspondent in Lagos. (Photo by Sue Parkhill)
At the end of September I spent a week overseas teaching creative writing under the aegis of the British Council’s Literature department – my third such excursion for them, following previous adventures in Buenos Aires and Seoul. This time I dropped into Lagos, Nigeria, for a project entitled Through My Eyes.

It was my first visit to Africa, and thus not a bad baptism to begin with the most teeming city on the continent – a place, moreover, with a fast-growing reputation for high accomplishment in contemporary literature, thanks to works by the likes of Helon Habila, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chris Abani, Teju Cole and others. Right now must be the most exciting ‘moment’ for Nigerian literature since the 1950s/60s heyday of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.

Before I set off, the rightly much-praised Teju Cole, with whom I share a publisher and indeed an editor, was kind enough to mark my card on things I might go and see locally. Other than that, I relied for guidance in Lagos through our hugely personable British Council host Fusi Olateru-Olagbegi and on my collaborator in the Through My Eyes project, the brilliant photographer Sue Parkhill, who was also new to Lagos if rather better travelled than me in Africa per se.

The idea behind Through My Eyes was that a group of young writers and photographers, selected on the strength of joint application, would work in their pairs to express through related text and image some poetic truths about the world around them. (Some of the texts and images they submitted in application to the course are collected in this link.) I must say that, having been thrilled to be invited to Lagos, I was fascinated by what I found there and really knocked out by the verve and accomplishment of the students. Their strong opinions and personalities will live with me.

Sue and I were based not on ‘the mainland’ of Lagos but rather, ‘the island’ – in Ikoyi, on the island’s eastern side, where one can observe some notably plush properties, among them the diplomatic quarters of the great nations. Said properties are notably well guarded from the street; but then large numbers of people in Ikoyi are living in compounds of one sort or another, even if the walls be made of concrete blocks, un-rendered and topped with razor wire, gated by reclaimed corrugated iron.

Conversely, as you drive about Lagos a lot of what you see has a somewhat ‘provisional’ feel: from shanty lean-tos to dilapidated structures that clearly didn’t work out, to hastily assembled things that someone thinks just might... Big new-build structures often overlook empty lots of barren land with makeshift barriers, as if a movie crew or some such travelling show were about to roll in and set up. But Ikoyi is, for sure, an aspirational part of Lagos to be living in. As for Banana Island in the nearby Lagos lagoon... Well, it need only be said that I carried the Lagos edition of Monopoly home to London as a gift for my children, who now understand that Banana Island is the spot in Lagos where you should build your hotels.

Shall we deal quickly with a few local-cultural stereotypes that I might have brought with me to Lagos, stuffed in my old kitbag, on the plane over?

1. I expect a lot of Europeans stepping out for the first time on an African evening take a moment to note the lushness of the skies, and feel the difference as thick, warm air settles on your shoulders and disparate aromas come and go in the space of a short walk. That air seems to bestow a botanical, vegetal quality on a lot of what you see: for an idle second you can imagine how easily nature – given six months or so – might reclaim any developed plot.

2. Traffic conditions in Lagos are to be viewed with concentration, good reflexes, and good humour as and when one can muster it. Anything else is a waste of time in a place where white lines are not considered to mean anything special.

3. ‘Welcome to Nigeria!’ was said to me by students sporting sardonic grins on more than one occasion – first, when I registered a shade too much surprise about an incidence of electrical power outage caused by generator failure. The locals have long since wearied of complaint on this matter. You have to buck up and get used to it in Lagos, so I did. (In fact I rather liked the low-level of generator hum you heard continuously in larger buildings. It even inspired me to tell my students – some of whom were curious about what might be the ‘ideal’ conditions for writing – about how Faulkner wrote much of As I Lay Dying while working as a night watchman in a power plant.)

4. The second ‘Welcome to Nigeria!’ came about after I’d had to press my hands to my old ears during a lunch break, since the lively exchange of views going on around me had risen very suddenly to a stunning cacophony. I gathered this was just one little distinctive facet of how Nigerians like to conduct an argument – robustly, in the best sense.

5. As a middle-aged guy with a bad back I really had to force myself not to look hard and repeatedly at all the young women swaying eloquently down the roadsides with large loads of goods balanced upon their heads. It is quite a thing, though. One of my students, who had a special interest in the issue of how Nigeria’s capital Abuja was constructed on the dispossession of tribal indigents, told the group of the Gbagys people, who buck this trend of head-carriage – indeed swear against it, using only their shoulders – since they consider the head to be exempt from such indignity as the seat of our higher faculties.

On our second day in writing class I ran an exercise that I always find useful, where the students and I spent 45 minutes or so perusing the morning paper from cover to cover, whereupon I asked them to tell me what, for each of them, was the authentic ‘front page story’ – i.e. which item in the paper, wherever it got printed, and whether large or small, felt to them like the best insight into what happened in Nigeria the previous day (and which could therefore offer good source material for a story...) The discussion we then fell into for an hour or more was probably the keenest of this sort that I’ve ever had the privilege to moderate.

If you follow the news in Lagos you are, for all sorts of reasons, quite likely to get angry – angrier even than those of us who routinely shout at Radio 4’s Today programme. One student in my group is the very capable host of a drive-time talk radio show, and national issues are certainly familiar and vexing to both her and her listeners: Nigerian democracy just does seem markedly at odds with the Nigerian demos. (Another clichĂ© I had in my kitbag, once read in some or other journal, was one about there being ‘no middle class in Nigeria.’ That’s not strictly true, but a lot of Nigerians graft for very little or just about enough while the phenomenal proceeds of oil seem to course around within a golden circle. University teachers and resident doctors, I learned from the paper, were both on strike while I was in town.)

Teju Cole had told me to go to Bogobiri House, and that’s where Fusi took Sue and I, unbidden, on our first night in Lagos. Bogobiri is a terrific little hotel and arts venue with a weekly open-mic performance evening, called Taruwa, which happened to be celebrating its 6th birthday on the night we visited. I was introduced to Lydia Idakula Sobogun, who devised the whole thing.

And in the midst of some rambunctious emceeing and music and impressive ‘slam’ poetry, I watched a fellow named Icee paint a canvas from scratch, in about five minutes, using his fingers and a plate smeared with oils. (That’s it depicted above.) It reminded me, I must say, of how I can't seem to live without the religious in art, if not in life. And the painting sold in auction, for about £400, I think. But if I'd had a better grasp of how to ship stuff out of Nigeria I reckon it would be hanging on my wall right now.

On our penultimate day we went on a class trip for a highly diverting coach ride ‘downtown’ to the marina part of the island – it’s not a place for mooring yachts, mind you, it’s more interesting than that. There I saw a bit of the densely-packed urban tumult for which Lagos is renowned. (For instance: pavement cyclists in London always make me feel narked and aggressive, but they’re charmers next to Lagos’s keen pavement motorcyclists, who growl down the middle of the walkway shooting glares at pedestrians with their footling complaints.) I saw one or two things at the marina that I’d maybe rather not have seen. But I was struck by the commotion, for sure, and by evidence of bits and pieces of civic-municipal renewal. Fusi explained to me how a lot of menacing spaces under bridges and flyovers had been cleaned up and landscaped to move the hustlers along - much as has been done in King’s Cross and Times Square during my lifetime.

We moved on through the Balogun market area, down Broad Street and Breadfruit Street: a proper street hassle, hectic with market-stall and store-front commerce, vendors hailing you at every turn. Vehicle traffic was hindered, mercifully for our purpose, by a JCB stiffly shovelling pieces of the broken road into a pile. But again I had that sense of things in Lagos being very often improvised, tried out, to see what might pay dividends. It certainly felt as if every square yard in Lagos was getting used for some purpose, every little thing that one might pick up was being employed somehow...

Inevitably, this being the Big City, not all of its trade is done by the letter of the law. I became very curious to see the number of buildings around Lagos that were paint-daubed with the same angry message: ‘419-Beware-NOT For Sale’. It was explained to me that ‘419’ is the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code concerning fraud; and that it is, regrettably, not uncommon for a truly bold fraudster to advertise, offer and present for sale a large building of which he is not, in fact, the owner.

These sorts of everyday tales of the city are why - as has been observed by smarter heads than me - Lagos is a place that offers rich pickings for thematically ambitious writers. I certainly got the feeling it's producing the right kind of talent to harvest the crop.