"A Damn Fine Cup of Coffee": Memories of Rob Kemp
Remembering one of the finest writers in the English language who was also a discerning connoisseur of fashion, literature, art, admiring
the female form, and strong coffee
"Christmas is hell."
-- text sent from Rob Kemp ca. 2001
whilst shopping for presents at 6pm
on Christmas Eve, having spent
most of the afternoon in a pub
The best ideas, I now believe, after 32 years’ residence in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, are hatched in pubs. And I can still see, if vaguely, the magnificent view from a balcony-side table in the pub that had once been the old Law Court’s branch of the previous Bank of England (1888 - 1975). The golden light, the crystal chandelier, the marble floor, the tables filled with happy chatting punters that, in 1998, seemed a lifetime away.
“What do you really want to do?” asked my companion.
“Leave him. But I’m scared.”
“Don’t be. You can come live with me, I could do with a flat-mate. I’m at home two weeks, at work two weeks—that's when you’ll have the place to yourself. And you will love the town, it’s medieval. Andrew Marvell once called it ‘a muddy swamp’.”
It was heady times, these days of the fag end of the 1990s when, in the first third of my fourth decade, life still held the promise of possible success as a writer, as I'd not yet fully comprehended the true nature of publishing. There were computers and online message boards but not the invasive tentacles of time-squandering social media we suffer today. Writers met up in person, still, I think, the best type of social there is. In person you are less likely to have misunderstandings and more likely to have beer.
It was also the days of the monthly horror writers’ meets at the Princess Louise pub in Holborn, where you could meet with like-minded people for real ale, idea exchanges and gossip; buying a round didn’t break the bank, though not everyone did buy theirs. Nothing seemed to matter as much as the free-flowing conversations or meeting small press publishers, up-and-coming writers, and Lovecraft scholars who later became good friends with whom the British Library and second-hand bookshops, post-pub lunch—the best of these the late Fantasy Centre, far more civilised than Forbidden Planet—were endlessly trawled. Sometimes the bigwigs showed to prop up the rarified air of the bar. You knew you’d had a good night when you fell asleep on the train home and missed your stop.
When exactly I met Robert Kemp aka R.J. Krijnen-Kemp (born Robert Kemp, for a time he took his second spouse’s Dutch name) is lost in the mists of time, house-moves, heart-break, and too many continents, people, and things. Not after reading his exquisite work which the man resembles in that both are difficult to find or pin down. In some ways this was better as there were no preconceived notions of who Rob was or might be.
There are many words that describe who he was. Generous to a fault: he would not take any money to pay the van driver who moved my belongings from Deptford, South London to Barton-upon-Humber in North Lincs, and insisted on giving me his copies of Year’s Best Horror & Fantasy that had honourable mentions of my stories in them. Intellectual without being snobbish: he once claimed that the best conversations about literature he’d ever had were with Belgian criminals. Well-travelled: ditto. Articulate, remaining so, even under amounts of alcohol that would turn anyone else into a gibbering wreck. Although an experience on New Year’s Eve whereupon, again after a long pub session, needing relief he failed to notice ours was an electric fire unlike his open hearth in Barton, showed that my friend had forgotten that water and electricity don’t mix. (Luckily our fire was unplugged at the time.)
Anyone who ever met Rob will remember his sense of style. He always returned to Barton from his two week work shift as a social worker in a black London cab, the skirts of his long leather coat swirling in the exhaust. Three piece suits with gold hunter on a chain completed his sartorial ensemble. Nearly; at times one expected a scabbard, sword, and feathered hat. (Parrot optional.)
We only lived together as flat-mates from June to September 2000. But without Rob I would never have evolved as I needed to, to survive. It had taken me almost two decades to find what I thought was a life partner; I had never been emotionally independent thanks to the societal imperative that all women must marry and give birth.
Rob not only gave me the courage to leave a controlling marriage but taught me the most important lesson of my life: how to be alone. Losing emotional dependence was not instant but Rob gave me the beginnings in a concrete way that all the feel the fear pop-self-help bumf couldn’t. Plus nights when he was in residence were spent in deep conversation over kebab or pizza and chips: the best man I’d ever known up until then did not insist on domestic arrangements, as so many of his contemporaries (and my ex) did.
Rob loved art as well as literature and had he had time, would have painted in fine oils, the Egon Schiele of Reading. His fourth great love—he adored women, if putting them on pedestals—was strong coffee. In our kitchen once he said, “Watch this. It makes a lot of people angry.” He picked up and peeled an orange then threw the orange in the rubbish bin, putting the peel in the jar holding his French Roast beans. My husband related this story to a group of women years later and was inundated with demands to know, why hadn’t Rob stored or saved or frozen the orange for later? He could have given it to someone who liked oranges. Their outrage at the perceived waste would have made his day.
In 2006 my husband and I went to visit Rob in Shrewsbury where, apropos, he lived on a street called Swan Hill. As with the cottage in Barton, his flat was sparsely furnished, each piece expensive and uncomfortable; who can really relax on a chaise-longue? There’s always that fear you could roll off.
Having retired after a choice afternoon in the nearby pub, I left K. with Rob who insisted K. (not a reader at the best of times) peruse his current work-in-progress, whilst Rob focussed a gimlet eye on his captive subject, prodding him when there was no response.
“Well, well? What do you think?”
“I’m still reading, Rob.”
“Can’t you read faster?”
“I’ve only got one eye working properly, and the sight in that’s blurry. Mate, we’ve downed a litre and a half of vodka.”
On top of the beer during that afternoon’s pub sesh. Rob then proceeded to crank up the CD player.
“Now listen to this, it’s brilliant, you’ll love it.”
Cue the opening dulcet tones of someone screaming AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH for a full minute as if being hanged, drawn, and quartered. Ah, the memories of nights in Barton by the open fire—summer nights in North Lincs can be cold—with glasses of Cabernet sauvignon, listening to Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir, and Graveworm. Rob's the only person I knew who could sing along.
But Rob also introduced me to Steeleye Span and world artists such as the Welsh band Bob Delyn A’r Ebillion, who we were fortunate enough to see for a fiver in Caernarfon where the lead singer, Twm Morys, flaunted his party trick of singing, playing harp, and paying for a round for the band all at the same time.
As memories of a life-changing friendship, all I have left is three letters and brilliant recollections. Rob’s total respect; I always felt completely safe in his company. Talks, long into the night, of great literature, specifically Robert Aickman, whose books Rob gave me when he purchased Tartarus Press’ The Collected Strange Stories Vols I and II. It was Rob who shared Aickman’s succinct summing-up of the overly-venerated Monty James: “But the Provost knew about schoolboys.”
We were going to attempt a collaboration on a work set in his fictional town of Bruckstadt, in the equally fictional East European country of Cacanian* for which he’d drawn up detailed maps, characters, and customs. But collaboration, save for the variety where one writer does the work and the second, more successful writer takes the credit, requires ways of working that are at the very least similar. Read Rob’s “Volk” and you will read words carefully chosen, honed and polished into a story you’ll never forget. Yet his work is not always easy, though the beauty of the prose
can make the shock when it comes ring home straight and true. I just wish there were more of Rob's stories, and available to all who enjoy good horror writing.
Perhaps it’s true that one can’t have everything, that one must choose. Perhaps because Rob was so there, fully-formed, a person who truly if he hadn’t existed would have had to be invented: perhaps that is why we’re denied a greater body of work. Rob had the courage Henry Miller wrote of to live as he wished; Miller said we only write because we daren’t live, daren’t do what we want.
Rob lived, in 3D and full colour. Once met, never forgotten; I am incredibly lucky to have known him.
*Rob's writing being a bit difficult to read this could actually be "Cacanion" or "Cacarian", "ca ca", as he wrote, "being a phonetic representation of KK in German" and his surname initials.
Sadly, the only photo I have of us together is very poor quality - talk about the mists of time! We are in The Square, Shrewsbury, 2006, having filled our bags with books.
toodle pip to a friend who always took the pith
“BC— at (small press publication) has just rejected my latest story, ‘Thoughts to Rive the Heart’, so I’m a bit nonplussed. It’s not so much that I want to be published, as that I want what I write to be published — if you see what I mean. This rather precludes my ‘tailoring’ any of my stuff to a particular market... So I’ll just have to try Mr. C— with my next one and hope he eventually ‘gets it’... the bitter irony is that Mr. C— publishes W— (small press author in love with themselves)!
“I’ll try to explain my (writing) aesthetic:
1. Character. Characters in stories are not real people (obviously); one isn’t supposed to identify or sympathise with them, one is supposed to analyse them. Characters are cyphers of theme.
2. Plot. Foregrounding plot is storytelling (a fine and honourable tradition), but, once one has characters, setting, and conflict, plot is inevitable. By backgrounding plot to the role of a ‘clothes-horse’ one can foreground symbols.
3. Symbols are the core of the writing. Werewolves do not exist; the werewolf is a symbol of a truth about the human psyche, and (in my fiction) is treated as such. Other horror tropes (ghost, zombie, vampire, golem, god, for example) are treated by me in the same manner — co-opted and replaced within the human psyche (represented by characters), where they belong.
There’s more of course, particularly an idea of mine that I think of as ‘x-ray realism’ (a bit similar to the Symbolist idea of ‘parting the veil’), but I won’t bore you.
I can see how a reader used to having their horror tropes depicted as real supernatural intrusions, the characters depicted as real people, and a foregrounded plot that moves forward by action rather than via symbolism, might be a bit confused by my stories. But I don’t think I’m any weirder than, for instance, William Burroughs, Samuel Beckett, or Anna Kavan. I’m aware that my prose is influenced by that of the ‘Yellow 'Nineties’ and might seem a little opaque to those accustomed to reading Kinglish — but Symbolist ultra-violet is the prose I most enjoy reading, and so I write in an updated version of it. I take care never to use a word that cannot be justified, and to always use what I consider to be the correct word, considering not just meaning, denotative and connotative, but all of its sound qualities.
Let me know what you think.”
— Letter dated 19/8/09
“Enjoy (writing)! The thing about writing within genre is that it’s chocka with clichés— they’re unavoidable. The point is to twist them to your own purpose, not to say something new about the cliché, but to use the cliché to say something that is unique to you.”
“Old hat is good... some hats are so old that no one remembers them.”
“Don’t worry too much about plot — it’s a framework, not a map. Let the characters find their way through their own story.”
“You don’t have to have an end in sight — you keep what you write with the idea that it’ll all come together in the end. Paint word portraits of stuff, record your feelings, look at landscapes and think, ‘How would I render that in words?’ Write.”
“I find that I get blocked when I start obsessing that writing should be about something, that it should have clear beginnings and endings, that it should be reader-friendly and publishable. In short, I get blocked when I forget to just pick up a pen and write what comes into my head.”
“Write. Just do it. Once you have a complete text, then you can think about revising it... if you just write, you’ll surprise yourself. Just let go and write.”
Rob's Bibliography on ISFDB, click here
"Farewell, Fantasy Centre" by Rob Hansen, click here
"Local Lore; Wild Edric" by R.J. Krijnen-Kemp on Folk Horror Revival, click here
Photo Credits: Danila Giancipoli and Rachel Claire at Pexels.com