The Segantini painting in the Walker Art Gallery that invaded my childhood dreams

When I was a child I used to lie awake at night, listening to a dead woman whispering men’s names. The woman floated outside my bedroom window, draped in veils and a tattered gown and she held her crooked fingers out, beckoning men to come to her and kiss her. She was breathtakingly beautiful and terrifying and it was only the closed curtains that kept me safe – if the curtains had been open she’d have hooked me in her claws and dragged me into the night, across the rooftops of Liverpool to some kind of ecstatic doom. I was 8 years old, scared of her but also somehow in love with her and she would haunt me all my life.

I don’t know if I realised it then but I was living in a story. Every night I would rewrite and elaborate on the basic plot; my imagination added details, made it scarier, made it more fantastic – and yet – at the same time more real, until, eventually I was living in a gothic nightmare. The more detail I added – a twitching curtain, a bony, beckoning finger, a terrifying version of her where she had two heads – the longer I stayed awake and my hiding place from this horror story was beneath the bed sheets with a story book. I replaced one imaginative realm with another; replaced The Floating Lady with The Little Tin Soldier or Johnny Suck-a-Thumb.

But every night The Floating Lady returned and, even though I was scared I found myself enjoying the story I was in and the materials from which I was creating this fairy tale. I think perhaps subconsciously I already knew how stories were made. I knew how to change the temperature and atmosphere of my imagination by adding a detail here or increasing the tension there. One of my favourite books was Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden Of Verses. I was often ill at that time and I would read The Land of Counterpane: (1)

‘When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.’

Soldiers walked through the shadows of my room, snipers hunkered down in the folds of my blankets. I once heard my mother telling a neighbour I had a vivid imagination and this led me to believe I had an exotic disease. One of the symptoms of this disease was the vivid pandemonium of pictures inside my skull. Whether I knew it or not I was teaching myself to transform the inky squiggles on the pages of a book into a mental theatre. I was also weaving my own stories out of the materials of my own thoughts. My vivid imagination was fevered and turbulent. When I recall my childhood now, I think of disturbed sleep, medical potions, illustrated books of fairy tales, and a kind of phantasmagorical lantern show that my mind projected onto the walls of my room.

I loved the city, haunted Stanley Park, climbed on city statues and spent hours in the Walker Art Gallery looking at the paintings. Philip, Son and Nephew book and art shop in Whitechapel was a treasure trove of children’s books and if I wasn’t buying books I was buying tubes of acrylic and squirrel hair paint brushes. We would go to the Pier Head on Sundays and watch the escapologist Hughie Smith in his beer stained vest escaping from his potato sack, and there was a strange, old, bearded man who used to sing to the Mersey. My dad told me the man’s name was Old Man River and he had river water in his veins.

Our house was next door to The Winslow Pub and opposite Everton Football ground. The pub fascinated me; it was a dangerous place, men smoked cigarettes there, spat in the doorway, made illegal bets on horses and dogs, smelled of boozy yeast. A young woman called Elsie worked behind the bar; she had a beehive hairdo and wore tight skirts like Elsie Tanner and lashings of mascara. She used to wink at me, ruffle my hair and tease me, lived in the pub attic, survived on salt and vinegar crisps and her dad was the rag and bone man.

One bonfire night I stayed out late and when I was coming home I could hear the voice of the dead woman drifting from the alley that separated our house from the pub. I went to bed scared; the voice echoed. It called a man’s name. I plucked up the courage to look through the curtains down at the back alley and there I saw Elsie the barmaid having sex with a drunk from the pub. I realised then that what I had been listening to, night after night, was the voice of Elsie Barmaid calling customers down the alley for a fumble. I watched the drunkard touching Elsie’s thighs and heard her whisper his name’


This was magical, erotic fuel for my imagination and hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of that story. In some ways I think this is what made me a writer.

At school I was invisible. The older I got the more I disappeared. Teachers were representatives of authority, conformity and cruel discipline and there was no place for a boy like me whose mind was chaotic and rebellious. I don’t mean to say that I was physically rebellious; what I mean is that my mind was in a state of almost constant movement and I nurtured this chaos with pigment and ink.

By the time I was in the 3rd year of secondary school I had been kicked out of every subject apart from geography, English and art. I spent hours in the art class daubing wild, stormy skies over city rooftops and the turbulent waters of Liverpool Bay. I joined the school book club and ordered a paperback called A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines. (2) I confess to buying it because I liked the photograph on the cover of a boy about my age flicking a V sign at the reader. Then, when I read the book I realised that the book was about me; this boy Billy Casper was a secondary school, invisible boy who discovered some new things about himself – dignity, native intelligence, love, hope, spirit – through an act of almost mystical engagement with a hawk. When I saw the film version of the book it almost exactly mirrored the boy and the world I had imagined. My life was being transformed an act of imaginative engagement with the creation of a writer.

I don’t think I’d ever even seen a hawk but in some way my passionate obsession with art and books was similar to Billy’s identification with a bird. It mattered, and that meant that I mattered and so did my desire to create.

Many years later when I actually earned my living as a writer I made a Radio 4 drama documentary called The Hunt for Billy Casper. I went on a journey around Britain and spoke to the author Barry Hines and the director of the film Ken Loach. I visited the school which Billy Casper reluctantly attended and it looked exactly like the school in which I spent my invisible five years. The final stop on my journey was to a semi detached house in Catford where I spent eight hours with David Bradley, the actor who played Billy Casper in the film. He was now a middle aged man, terribly damaged by his experience of being Billy Casper and he had never worked out a way of living his own life. I asked each person I interviewed where they thought Billy Casper went after the book ended; every single person said, ‘Nowhere. He’d have spent his whole life on the dole.’

I wanted to create; I wanted to write and paint and go to art school. Instead – because no one helped me, no one pointed me in the right direction – when I left school the first thing I did was sign on the dole and spend every spare penny on second hand books. I worked my way through the kitchen sink, Northern school of Hines and Stan Barstow, Keith Waterhouse and John Braine; I moved on to Penguin Modern Classics and Picador and by the age of 16 I was reading Camus, Sartre and Genet. I probably didn’t understand them but these books had a cache of dark glamour about them and this was enough to send me hitch hiking to Paris in search of the ghost of Arthur Rimbaud.

A few years ago I went back to Paris to make a drama documentary about my teenage Paris days. I went with the poet Simon Armitage and we hung out in low bars drinking absinthe, spent hours in Shakespeare and Co bookshop drinking sherry with the legendary George Whitman, and traipsed the streets of Montmartre and St Denis looking for the ghosts of Rimbaud and Verlaine. I interviewed the wild poet Gerard Mangan and he recited by heart his own versions of Rimbaud’s poems:

‘I have stretched ropes from steeple to steeple; garlands from window to window; golden chains from star to star, and I dance…’ (3)

Mangan was a hard drinking man of the world who thought my pursuit of some Romantic, creative, bohemian ideal was vaguely adolescent. He was probably right but I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Here I am on the Left Bank of Paris, drinking absinthe with Simon Armitage and Gerard Mangan having just been to George Whitman’s bedroom for a morning schooner of sherry!’

‘Most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying of oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention…does not exist in creating out of void but out of chaos.’ (4)

I have spent years of my life reading and re-reading stanzas of poems and paragraphs of novels, trying to fathom how the writer selected these words and arranged them in this order and in doing so made art. I have also spent years of my life discovering things about myself through the revelatory act of reading. Hermann Broch believed that a book is an optical instrument for the reader so that he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without that specific book. Great books are a kind of alchemist’s grimoire in which versions of ourselves are waiting to be released by the opening of pages. Out of great books great cities emerge and in the streets and cafes of those cities we can meet characters who share our difficulties and achievements. We can learn who we are by simply opening a book.

I spent my 20’s travelling and living in Europe, mostly in Paris, Barcelona and Amsterdam. I worked in bars and kitchens; I cleaned the streets and red light hotels, living in squats on the breadline, scribbling in notebooks, trying to write a novel. I used to drink in the red light bar featured in Camus’ novel The Fall and dream of being an underground poet. These were the Years of Bad Influences when I read Henry Miller and William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski and sat in derelict churches listening to Ginsberg reading Howl. I pissed on a monument alongside Gregory Corso and he flirted with my girlfriend in the Old Sailors Bar. I thought that by reading these writers I would find a way of writing about the life I was living. I felt like I was immersing myself – in literature and in my life – in an underworld of poetic ecstasy, intoxication and abandonment and trying to turn these gaudy materials into some kind of art. I realise now I was perhaps just an unwashed drop out wallowing in the aftermath of hippy-dom and if I stayed in Amsterdam I would never write a thing.

And so, when I’d got all this out of my system I came home to Liverpool to write – to actually write. Up to this point I had lived the life of a writer without actually writing.

I wanted to write about Liverpool – about the people in it including my family, my ancestors, my neighbours and strangers. I wanted to write about myself through a process of excavation; to get inside myself and find out how I worked, what I thought and believed, doubted and feared; how I responded emotionally to the world. I also wanted to bring the city to life as a character in its own right and to try and find out how to do this I read the great city books – Joyce’s Ulysses, Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment’ Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. And what I discovered through reading these books – which were as vast as cities themselves – was that they were a kind of guide book into the human condition. Great literature showed us who we are.

The soul, the psyche, the imagination, the pulmonary system that makes us human beings was being mapped out in words – in deep exploration of character. It turned out that in literature the city itself had a soul, a psyche, an imagination and a pulmonary system; the city was a character too.

One of the great city books is Angelo Maria Ripellino’s Magic Prague. (5) This book is so haunting and intense that I almost can’t bear to read it. It illuminates the city of Prague as a state of mind, as an echoing chamber of visionary ghosts. It begins: ‘To this day, every evening at five, Franz Kafka returns home to Celetna Street wearing a bowler hat and black suit.’ (REF 4)Kafka is so closely identified with Prague that he is still walking the streets over eighty years after his death.

In an essay I wrote a few years ago about my blind grandfather’s sightless journeys through derelict Liverpool I wrote this:

‘My grandfather had a map inside his heart of the city he had lived in all his life. He couldn’t see the bulldozers, couldn’t see the houses falling. He would walk along the desolate wasteland streets, his inner compass guiding him past the ghosts of dead architecture, through the city of his memory and imagination. And in his last, sightless days he was still walking through the city he had lived in for more than 80 years…even though it was no longer there.’ (6)

And in a play called Family Values written for Bristol Old Vic in 1995 I took my grandfather’s identification with the city one step further; he loved the city so much that he actually became it, in bed in his attic room he transformed into bricks and mortar and the lost buildings of Liverpool burst forth through his skin.

In a Kafka short story I thrillingly rediscovered Elsie Barmaid embodied in the form of Homer’s Sirens, refracted through Kafka’s imagination:

‘These are the seductive voices of the night; the Sirens, too, sang that way. It would be doing them an injustice to think that they wanted to seduce; they knew they had claws and sterile wombs, and they lamented this aloud. They could not help it if their laments sounded so beautiful.’ THE SILENCE OF THE SIRENS BY KAFKA. PENGUIN 1979 (7)

This was Elsie from the Winslow pub, opposite Everton football ground and next to the house where I was born. And here she was again in an Arthur Rimbaud poem:

Where the stars sleep in the calm black stream,
Like some great lily, pale Ophelia floats,
Slowly floats, wound in her veils like a dream…
A thousand years her soft distracted song
Has waked the answering evening air (8)

As a writer I moved from realm to realm, writing and performing poetry, moving into theatre and radio drama and then into TV and film. Because I had been invisible at school I was now putting myself through a curriculum of my own devising – and I’ve been doing that all my writing life. So much of what I do is based on instinctive curiosity – What would happen if I went there? What is the name of that tree, or that constellation? How will I find out? What will happen if I put this character I have invented into this situation? I’m trying to work something out about the complex patterns of the imagination, the magic lurking beneath the shadow, and the rough materials of our existence in this strange, beautiful, disturbing universe; particularly the cities in this universe – particularly Liverpool.

Material’s such as these became my subjects – cities and the human dramas played out against their backdrops. I think nearly everything I’ve written is a hybrid mongrel of memoir, reminiscence, historical fact and myth. It is also work that draws on its own influences – the books I fell in love with, the films I have studied, the paintings that fascinate me. I couldn’t perceive of being a writer without my writing room which is lined with hundreds and hundreds of books, drawings, newspaper cuttings, teetering piles of films…

I am currently writing the early pages of a novel about childhood, and the ghostly woman who floated outside my bedroom window when I was 8 years old is being written about in its pages.

Elsie Barmaid the Floating Woman is probably long dead. She’ll never know I still think of her and she’ll never know I’ve written about her many times over the years. On a recent visit to the Walker Art Gallery where I used to play as a child I stood in front of a painting called The Punishment of Lust by Giovanni Segantini. (9) In this remarkable, Symbolist painting the spirits of women are being punished for having committed the sin of abortion consciously or by neglect. Loose women, draped in veils and tattered gowns, floating in a strange world. I looked at the painting for a long time and then I had a glimpse of myself as a boy standing in front of the very same picture. I was looking, once again, at Elsie Barmaid in all her grotesque beauty.

(1) Stevenson, Robert Louis, A Child’s Garden of Verses. Longmans 1920
(2) Hines, Barry, A Kestrel For A Knave, Michael Joseph 1968
(3) Rimbaud, Athur, Trans Gerard Mangan, Wormwood, BBC Radio Drama 2004
(4) Lethem, Jonathan, The Ecstasy of Influence, p98, 2012
(5) Ripellino, Angelo Maria, Magic Prague, Penguin 1994
(6) Young, Jeff, Longing, Capsicum Press, 2008
(7) Kafka, Franz, The Silence of the Sirens, Penguin 1979
(8) Rimbaud, Arthur, Ophelia, Trans Paul Schmidt, Harper 1976
(9) Segantini, Giovanni, The Punishment of L

5 thoughts on “THE FLOATING LADY”

  1. Wonderful recollections.

    I first encountered ‘Punishment of Lust’ when it was individually showcased on the first floor of the Walker. Whilst Segantini might have objected to it being positioned outside the men’s toilet, he would, no doubt, have been delighted by it having been allotted preferential treatment.

    And boy does it merit reverence! Swirling, intertwined, salacious women suspended in a misty netherworld, awaiting the nirvana so tantalisingly positioned behind their sleeping form….what’s not to like!

    Now residing in the Victorian section (alongside with such notaries as the Gabrielle Dante Rossetti and William Holman Hunt), this picture is a must-see for those lucky enough to visit the historic City of Liverpool.

    • Hi

      It’s haunted me since I was a child and it haunts me still. I always knew it by its other name – Punishment of Luxury. In fact there was a post punk band named after it. But when you ‘read’ the painting as the punishment of lust it becomes a strange mixture of the disturbing and the erotic. A wonderful painting. Thanks for your comments.

  2. Curious how certain pictures have such a profound affect, isn’t it?

    One recalls, on the same traipse around the fabulous Walker, how Frederick Sandys’s ‘Helen of Troy’ also made me gasp – so good was the hair detail.

    PS Drinking absinthe in Paris and wandering around Montmartre might just have the edge on a stroll along Lower Breck Road me-thinks.

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