Authors: Brian Aldiss
for darling Wendy
first to hear of
in the back of a Volvo
like a bat out of Hell
âWell, I was shocked â¦'
My wife and I were driving home with our children. We had been staying in a bungalow on the north coast of Norfolk. Whilst there, she and I had had one of those matrimonial rows that blow up now and again.
Suddenly, a dream I had had during the previous night returned to mind. âA nightmare!' I exclaimed. Immediately, of course, my family wished to hear about it.
So I told them.
I had dreamt the story of two boys who were conjoined at the hip and could not be separated. But worse still, another head was growing from the shoulder of one of the twins: a silent alien head.
My daughter Wendy was particularly distressed â eventually I would dedicate the story to her.
The dream lingered. I believed it to be prodromic â foretelling illness â but I built on it all the same. An exploitive music company took up the conjoined twins; transforming them into a novelty number they called âThe Bang-Bang'. They performed with moderate success.
Looking up the reality of their deformity, I found there was a medical term for it: diprosopus tetrotus; a defect in human babies causing them to be born with two heads. Very sinister.
this extra head eventually speaks. After its years of imprisonment with the brothers, it has nothing good to say. It demands its freedom.
Yet it is a strangely poetic story, and the story of its publication is also.
Brothers of the Head
was the first book to be published by Pierrot Press. The Publisher there was new. He phoned me and asked me to meet him by a park bench in Red Lion Square. Was he a secret agent? An escaped prisoner? It was dusk when I went to meet him. He wanted me to write him a strange story.
The book was published early in 1977. It was originally accompanied by surreal sketches by Ian Pollock, which perfectly enhanced the story. Possibly five thousand copies were printed, two thousand of which were exported to America. The odd square shape of the book, the amazing illustrations, and my strange story helped the book to sell rapidly â so rapidly that the publisher (Philip â second name, alas, forgotten) flew out to New York to get his two thousand copies back.
They sold immediately, but nevertheless Philip went broke â such are the hazards of publishing.
This volume is a memorial to the unhappy life of my brothers â their strange, unrealized, dual life. Although it ended in murder, and many people who like to pronounce on such things have said that my brothers' entire existence was a form of slow murder, they did enjoy happier times. It is not an easy matter for any of us to weigh up the balance of joy and sadness in another life, even one as close as my brothers' was to mine. Perhaps when we grow up we should not be so concerned with judging such things, but simply get on with the job.
When Tom and Barry were young lads, they did not realize that they were marked out from all other children. One thing was as strange to them as another, all was accepted without questioning. Father took us to live on L'Estrange Head when mother died, at which age I was only a tot of three and the boys mere babies. In the wild surroundings of the Head, we children were thoroughly at home. We all loved this beautiful spot in which I still remain. I'm thankful they returned to the Head in the end, before the last act of their tragedy was played out.
We could name all the plants growing on the Head, thanks to the teaching of our father. Down in the salt marshes, where the land is still regularly washed by the tides, grows a plant called the grass wrack. The wrack is often immersed in the sea for long periods. It can even flower under the water, and nature so provides for it that its pollen is water-borne. I often think of that humble plant in connection with my dead brothers. They also had their flowering, however submerged it might have been.
Nobody can deny that our family, the Howes, and the neighbours on the mainland, with few exceptions, looked on poor Tom and Barry as a stigma, a freak of nature. The boys, poor innocent mites, were never properly forgiven because mother â who was greatly liked by everyone â died in giving birth to them. At the height of the boys' fame, when they were universally popular, the feelings against them changed to feelings of pride. But there was never any real concern for their terrible situation and, when the end came, back came the old disgrace. Ever since, I have known ostracism, useless to deny it.
Laura Ashworth, who played a positive part in the life of Tom and Barry, would perhaps say that the only shame lay in feeling shame, in these enlightened days. But it must be remembered that we live in a remote and backward part of the country, and that the Howes had their origins here. Little has changed on the coast of which L'Estrange Head forms part. Indeed, there has been recession rather than progress, for my Aunt Hetty has told me how Deepdale Staithe was a fine harbour in her young day, until the channel silted up. It would be impossible for a grain boat to navigate now.
Of course, with my brothers' lives always beside me, as it were, I am still torn with emotion when I let myself dwell on it. I was unable to write their story myself, not only because of strong feelings but through my incapacity as an author; so I have put together what has been said by others concerned in the drama.
Going through the pages that result, I can only reflect that Tom could have become a happy man but for the last twist of ill fate. Most of his life was still before him. As for Barry â there was so much more to him than the anger and violence on which many people have dwelt. Barry hated his fate even more than Tom; yet hatred was not the only feature of his nature, by any means.
As for âthe other' â¦ I'm long over my horror now, and think of it as one more grain ship that never sailed. âThe other's' channel to the sea was silted up even before it came into being. Pity seems to be more appropriate than fear or shame.
Here I wish to thank all who contributed to the narrative, with particular thanks to Laura Ashworth for her counsel and to Mr Henry Couling for financial aid. I thank Paul Day for permission to publish excerpts from his songs.
I also have to thank John James Loomis of the Canadian Broadcasting Authority for permission to include part of a taped interview made in connection with his TV biography,
Bang-Bang You're Deadly
I am a partner in Beauchamp-Fielding Associates, a London firm of solicitors who have built up a particularly valuable connection with what is commonly called âthe pop world', which is to say the legal and managerial problems connected with the exploitation of cheap music and young people. My first encounter with the Howe twins, Barry and Tom, came as a result of this aforesaid valuable connection. I was acting on behalf of Bedderwick Walker Entertainments.
Since the Howe twins represented a somewhat special case, I had agreed to see them, and more particularly their father and legal guardian, in person. I took an Inter-City train from King's Cross to Lynn, where a car awaited to take me to Deepdale Staithe, a hamlet on the North Norfolk coast. It is a desolate part of the country. Civilization has scarcely obtained a foothold there, in all the centuries these islands have been occupied. No doubt a permanently active east wind has much to do with this state of affairs; only a moron would hesitate before fleeing to the nearest city.
The bleakest point along this stretch of coast is arguably L'Estrange Head, a natural feature lying between the summer resorts of Hunstanton and Sheringham. It is neither a true headland nor a true island. To determine its geographical status under law, one would have to decide whether its baffling system of marshes, creaks and rivulets link it with or divide it from the mainland.
There was not at that time, and I imagine there is still not, any way whereby one could drive a car on to L'Estrange Head. The lanes which strike out towards the marshes from the Deepdale Staithe-Deepdale Norton road, to wind across Deepdale Marsh and Overy Marshes, peter out in bog, or at embankments built long ago to guard against the floods which perpetually harass this unfortunate coastline. One can imagine that the entrenched attitudes of the locals is such that their initiative may run to dykes but never to roadways.
Be that as it may, one chilly April day I found myself stuck in Deepdale Staithe for half an hour, while my chauffeur persuaded a local man called Stebbings to take me by boat out to the Head, where the Howe family had its residence.
Stebbings was what might be termed a character. He was a young man, still in his teens, not unprepossessing, with a sandy sprout of beard and a habit of not quite looking you in the eye. He handled his boat and its snorting engine nonchalantly. Throughout the whole trip, he insisted on talking to me in the local dialect. I scarcely listened, so busy was I huddling in my coat and endeavouring to keep warm. The wind came in chill off the North Sea.
We took a winding channel which, according to Stebbings, was called âThe Run'. The tide was low and we progressed between mud banks for the first part of the way. So we got into the harbour and then through more open stretches of water. The view all round was desolate in the extreme. I could make out a couple of ruinous windmills standing above the expanses of reed and grass, then my eyes watered, and I resigned myself to wait. The motion of the boat made me queasy.
At last, Stebbings â who had obliged me by naming every sort of bird which flew over â brought us to the Head, to a beach which he called Cockle Bight. A short plank walk served as a jetty. He helped me ashore.
âI hear you be a-going to buy they twins off of old Howe,' he said.
âI suppose half of Deepdale Staithe knows my business, since there can be nothing else to talk about here.'
âA rotten bit of business it is, if you ask me.'
âI was not asking you, Mr Stebbings, thank you all the same.'
He said nothing to that, looking away from me. I asked him the way to the Howes' house and he pointed to a low blob in the distance. A slight apprehension passed over me; I made him renew his promise to return for me in two hours, before the incoming tide could prove too formidable an obstacle for his engine. He then swung his boat about and headed back to the Staithe with a cheery wave to me. I was left standing on my own.
The Head was a solitary place, built of shingle and sand, sparsely covered by vegetation, open to whatever weather the heavens chose to deliver. It was hard to imagine why anyone should wish to live here â but imagining was not my trade. Business brought me here; business would take me away again.
Cockle Bight was an extensive half-moon bay of sand which gave place to low grey dunes. I looked at the pebbles and stones beneath my feet. Every one of them carried, on their westward side, a tiny fan of sand, where a few grains had found protection from the prevailing wind. That same wind whined about my ears. On all sides were water and low land, the two elements divided by strips of sand or reed. The reed was always in motion. Deepdale Staithe was just visible across land and water. Stebbings' boat had already disappeared round a bend in the channel. To one side and ahead lay open water, the unwelcoming North Sea. I took one look at this wilderness and set off towards Howe's place, holding my coat lapels about my throat.