Welcome to the House of Journalists. Who are you and what is your story?
These are the questions that confront newcomers to the House of Journalists, the internationally renowned refuge for writers in exile at the center of this haunting Orwellian novel. Home to a select group of fellows, the House is located in a fashionable London terrace. But just how stable is this hallowed institution? Julian Snowman, the obsessive founder and chair, sees the threat of dissolution at every turn. Perhaps this explains why petty rules and restrictions abide: men live in one wing, women in the other; smoking is restricted to the central courtyard; tea is optional, but everyone attends.
As the fellows strive to remake their lives, they are urged to share their tales. Epic and intimate by turns, these stories―of courage, tragedy, and shame―become a mesmerizing chorus of voices in search of home. Among the fellows are Mustapha, who yearns for the family he tore himself from when he resisted a coup; Agnes, a photojournalist implicated in a brutal civil war; Sonny, a slight figure with don't-mess-with-me hair, who describes a harrowing escape across continents; Edson, who perilously confides his story to his writing mentor; and Mr. Stan, who draws on the noxious cigarettes of his home island, despite having been tortured there.
Only one man manages to guard his past: the mysterious new fellow AA, whose secrecy ratchets up Julian's paranoia. Julian suspects that AA is conspiring with a celebrated visiting writer to bring down the House. In fact, AA is planning something else entirely.
A world as beguiling as it is disturbing, Tim Finch's The House of Journalists is a novel of heartbreak, humanity, and wit, and announces the arrival of a striking new voice in fiction.
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Tim Finch works for a London think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research. He was a BBC political journalist and is a former director of communications for the Refugee Council. The House of Journalists is his first novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE SENSE OF BANISHMENT
Exile is like some herb which gives its distinct bitter flavour to many different forms of writing. Graham Greene.
To experience exile a man doesn’t necessarily have to leave his country. The sense of banishment can be felt on one’s own hearthstone. Graham Greene again.
Graham Greene is one of the best-known writers in this country where you are unknown as a writer.
WELCOME TO THE HOUSE OF JOURNALISTS
We assemble for the welcome ceremony in the library and Julian, our founder and Chair, leads you in. A small party of other visitors—friends and donors—follow. The mood among the fellowship is relaxed and informal. We are laughing and chatting. Then Julian claps his hands and calls for silence. Up to that point, Mr. Stan, our Father of Chapel, has been sitting quietly, unnoticed, in his corner. Now, as he is introduced by Julian, everyone turns towards him. He insists on standing on ceremony, despite the great strain this puts on his tiny, twisted body. The minute or two it takes him to get to his feet is almost beyond endurance. Then, having hauled himself into his crutches, he grinds his confounded bones into the centre of the room. His voice is a crushed peppercorn whisper.
“Welcome to the House of Journalists. We are pleased to receive you into our House and our fellowship. The fellows are most glad to greet you as our brother in exile. This is a place of sanctuary for all those who have used the power of the word to expose tyranny throughout the world.”
We know nothing of your condition or destiny but we see straightaway that you have a writer’s eye. There is that glint in it. You would not be a writer if you did not see stories under every stone, never mind this roof. But what an introduction! You have no sooner arrived than you are greeted by Mr. Stan, a piece of work beyond imagination. This special place has thrown open its doors to you, as it did for us. Welcome to the House of Journalists.
MR. STAN WAS NEVER TO UNCURL AND ASSUME A PROPER SHAPE
At first, not even Mother noticed: Little Stan was her scrunched-up bundle, squinting and bubbling; he was the apple of all the aunties; a late gift from a lamented God as she pushed hard at forty. For a few weeks the neat single-story breeze block house, with its roof of corrugated tin and its dusty, bare-earth garden, marked out with whitewashed stones, knew true heartbreaking happiness. The one photograph Mother kept on the mantelshelf through all their suffering was of Little Stan as a newborn in her arms.
As time went on, however, it became clear that her tiny miracle was never to uncurl and assume a proper shape. They tried callipers and corsets and leg irons; his baby-bird body was subjected to every form of correction and humiliation. Still he was all stunted hump and stoop and stump and spindle. And his humpty head had, it seemed, cracked open and bled a port wine map of Africa from crown to temple. At most, at best, a tuft or two of baby elephant hair sprouted in clumps on the mottled eggshell.
But Little Stan did have the most beautiful hands. When the other children threw stones at him out on his sticks in the street, Mother ran out to shield and protect those hands—so slender, articulated, and exquisitely veined. The baby sobs, the head bumps and body bruises, were taken in her stride. She waved them away. Her one concern was for his precious hands.
Mother put them to the piano at an early age—but Little Stan’s soup-spoon ears couldn’t pick up the music. He read the scores studiously; played them by the book. But there was no feel, no touch. The sound was mechanical: like a piano roll. His true instrument turned out to be the typewriter. His first one was bought for him as a toy and he took to it instantly. The journalist in him found his voice in its clatter and ring. He was never able to write as well in longhand; and this stopped him performing to his ability in the stifling stillness, the dust-mite-dancing, the sunlight-shafting of the high-windowed grammar school exam rooms. That ruled out the university—his mother’s dream; and led him instead to his home from home—the newsroom.
“Thank you, Mr. Stanislaus,” Julian says, as our much-respected Father is helped back into his customised chair, wheezing and triumphant. Julian—a very popular writer and broadcaster in this country—turns to you, the new fellow. “As you may know, Mr. Stanislaus was the editor of the main newspaper in his homeland, a small island in the Indian Ocean. A hero of the independence struggle, he became a fearless critic of the repressive regime of President…”
* * *
You nod, apparently attentive to Julian’s words. But we can see that your eyes are drawn to Mr. Stan’s hands, now cushioned on their protective armrests.
* * *
You will be imagining the tiny, pink, pearl-nailed fingers that his mother cherished; and the thumb he used to suck in his sleep; and the little knuckles that he pressed into his cheeks as he sobbed in the corner.
* * *
There are so many ways to cause pain—and to break the spirit. They used hammers.
* * *
Mother was called in to witness her gibbering, shiver-shuddering son as the prison doctor tended to the bloody mush stumps. “Oh, Stanley, your precious hands!” These guys—the interrogators, the torturers: call them what you will—are butchers certainly, but they usually have some intelligence. On this occasion it was spot-on. “What have they done to them!” Mother was dead from the shock within a week; Mr. Stan’s resistance, so spirited until then, was broken.
* * *
“The House of Journalists,” Julian says, turning his attention to the friends and donors, but not neglecting you, our new fellow, “was built in the eighteenth century as a fashionable London town house, but over the centuries it has housed Russian Jews, Irish immigrant families, Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazis, Bangladeshis, and, more recently, Somali asylum-seekers. Speculators did have plans to redevelop it as luxury flats, but we were able to block that. It is modelled on the Maison des Journalistes in Paris. Some of our leading writers and broadcasters went on a fact-finding mission; a committee was formed and funds were raised to buy the building. We got a Heritage Grant for the conversion, and we have won a number of architectural awards. As well as providing a residence for thirty exiled journalists and writers, we have a newsroom, conference facilities, and this magnificent library. One way or another, this building has been a place of refuge for new arrivals for more than two hundred years. Now this state-of-the-art centre provides a more fitting welcome for those seeking protection and—I like to think—stands out as a symbol of our commitment to uphold this country’s noble tradition of providing sanctuary.
“As I say,” Julian goes on. “At any one time we have some thirty journalists and writers in residence. Only a very few are long-term residents; for the others this is a halfway house. The fellows all have prima facie claims for asylum, but have not been given formal status. They are assigned to us from arrival camps and clearing centres or sometimes straight from ports of entry. If they get status—and most do—they move on. Assistance is provided to find housing in the community and jobs—in the profession, if possible. Among our funders is the government.” He stops for a moment and surveys the room. “We have criticisms of government policy, of course, but that does not stop us working in fruitful partnership with ministers and officials. As well as assisting individual exiled journalists and writers, we are helping through the project to advance public understanding of the complex issue of asylum. Our fellows are encouraged to write, to broadcast, and to make films about their experiences. We hold lots of workshops, study groups, and seminars.”
* * *
This is the signal for assigned fellows and volunteers to invite the friends and donors to see more of the House of Journalists. There is much good work and profitable industry to show off. We all have our tasks.
Julian turns his attention to you.
“So, let me introduce you personally to Mr. Stanislaus,” Julian says, all smiles. “Mr. Stanislaus, this is our new fellow, AA.”
You step forward. “Please, don’t get up, Mr. Stanislaus,” you say.
“You are welcome, AA,” he says to you. “I trust you will fit in well here.” His tone is warm.
Julian continues: “Mr. Stanislaus, as well as being our Father of Chapel, is our longest-serving fellow, a stalwart of our Committee, and a true symbol of this special place.”
There is a pause. Mr. Stan is offering you his hand.
* * *
Mr. Stan cannot use a pen, or a knife or a fork or a spoon. The only thing he has learnt to hold is one of the bidi cigarettes that are bought for him at the Asian corner shop on the High Road. He cannot light it. You will do that for him out in the Central Courtyard where we all stand, and Mr. Stan alone sits, smoking in the white breath of this cold foreign city. Mr. Stan sucks deep on the hot, noxious luxury of the home island and spits wet flakes of tobacco from his lips. He is ecstatic at the lung-burning pleasure of each infernal drag.
* * *
If you were to try to uncurl Mr. Stan’s crablike hand—go on, bend it back as far as it will go—you will see that the inside of the shell is blackened by smoke. Now let his hand go. You have caused Mr. Stan real pain, you must understand that.
Mr. Stan shows no hurt. His hand remains outstretched.
* * *
Crablike is not quite right, is it? A better description might be knotted tree root—suggesting, as it does, a certain gnarled damp fleshiness. At their zenith, when, fired by ideals betrayed, they were hammering out those blistering editorials, Mr. Stan’s hands were hard long-boned configurations. Mother hated to see them being hurled at the machine. This was not what she had dreamt for them. And now look: all her dreams shattered. Yes, look! Hideously reconfigured by those hammers, those claw hammers, all sense of elegant extremity is lost.
* * *
Finally, you take the proffered hand. We watch to see how you will handle it. (Forgive us, but as we pick up the language we cannot resist the odd pun.) In the end, you choose to encage the repellent flesh club, studded with half-fossilised fingers and thumbs, nails, and knuckles, as lightly as possible between your two hands, in a gesture that conveys a sense of touching warmth, while allowing you to avoid any real contact. You may feel that you have failed the first test of true fellowship. We notice that you keep your eyes downcast for a moment.
But when you look up you will see that Mr. Stan is nodding his head appreciatively. You have, as it happens, shown the restraint and civility due to these formalities. Mother would have approved. You have gone some way to reassure Mr. Stan. And if Mr. Stan is reassured, then Julian is reassured. A new fellow is always a cause for joy—but also some anxiety. You have been assigned to the House of Journalists by the authorities, but you are not carrying papers. Like many fellows you have arrived armed only with your story. Julian will be interested to hear it. We all will.
THE FIRST FEW PAGES OF A NOVEL
You will doubtless compare your arrival at the House of Journalists—as we did before you—with the first few pages of a novel. We are all writers after all, so it is only natural that we should make this comparison. There is the same sense of displacement; the same sense of being plunged into proceedings, while still standing apart. You are a stranger in a strange land. The old clichés. It will take some time for you to adapt to these unfamiliar surroundings and to get to know the people. It can be difficult to understand the peculiarities of the language and to distinguish between the different voices. It is natural to feel disorientated and anxious—but exhilarated too. You—like us—are here because of the irrepressible power of great stories, great characters—great truths. Whatever came before (there will be time enough for that), it was somehow written (more playing with words) that you should end up at the House of Journalists. What will unfold over the coming pages, none of us knows. And therein lies the strange beauty of this shared experience.
EVERY NEW FELLOW EXCITES SOME INTEREST
The Central Courtyard is where we gather to talk—and to smoke. Smoking is banned inside the House of Journalists, as in all public places in this country. PROHIBITED BY LAW, say the signs. We respect the laws of this country of course, but for us there are no private places—and most of us smoke. We are journalists and writers after all. We have all spent time in prison. We have all had many long hours to kill.
They have put an ashtray out here for us now—a small defeat for Julian and the Committee. But, as if to say that his vision for this place will prevail in all circumstances, Julian commissioned a leading young sculptor to design an ashtray in keeping with the grey flagstone courtyard with the modernist fountain at its centre. Thus it is that we stub out our stinking butts in a stainless steel, semi-spherical bowl filled with fine grey sand, sitting atop a fluted plinth. The irony is not lost on us. We are fastidious about disposing of our fag ends in the elegant receptacle provided. But we carry on smoking all the same.
The House of Journalists puts on courses to help us to give up smoking and classes which promote “healthy living.” But we are journalists and writers. We have been in prison and we have been tortured. We have spent days hiding out in cellars or warehouses or travelling in the back of containers. We have breathed foul air and eaten stinking food and been deprived of sleep for nights on end. Our health, in all sorts of ways, is precarious.
Have a look at our teeth. Mossy tombstones that move around in the soft earth of our gums. It is a bit late for “healthy living,” we all think with a laugh—that is something that goes with home and family and the expectation of a long and happy life. Still, there are small pleasures to be had in any life—and one of ours is the induction of a new fellow. It is always a talking point.
You need not look so anxious, AA. Every new fellow excites interest and speculation. Come and join us. You are a smoker, that’s good. There is great fellowship in that. Julian will not like it, but Julian doesn’t rule the place! Oh, it might seem that way sometimes. You know what these institutions are like: they always have their petty rules and restrictions, their tin-pot tyrants and traitors—and their pipsqueak rebellions. But we have all survived a lot worse, have we not?
By the way, feel free to smoke in silence. Not everyone wants to open up the moment they arrive. Keep your peace. We all feel that the House of Journalists sometimes makes too many demands on us. Yes, we have our stories to tell. But we have our secrets to keep too. Both have their power. Do not give too much away, AA. Hold back. Deploy your story to maximum advantage. That is our advice to you.
You have been assigned to Room 15, we notice. Is there any significance in that? you might ask. None at all. It happened to be vacant, just as Room 22 is vacant now. You might have been assigned to Room 22 if...
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