Wednesday, 18 August 2010
Erik Houston, 1972–2010 and beyond
Erik has died. He was 37. The White Room was CBe01, in November 2007.
I first read that book in early 2006, when it was sent me by The Literary Consultancy – I ‘read’ for them, by which I mean I wrote reports on manuscripts under headings such as Structure, Characterisation, etc. The work was numbing. Apart from the earnest no-hopers, the work (I’m simplifying, but only a bit) divided into these two categories: the stuff that was competently written but knowingly aimed for a particular spot on the Waterstone’s shelves and deeply boring; and the writing that was raw, interesting, with flashes of genius, which stood not a hope in hell of being taken on by a mainstream publisher. So I wrote my report, which included some tentative suggestions; and Erik sent a revised manuscript back to me, through TLC, and I reported again and asked TLC for his contact details, which normally they don’t give out, but somehow I got them and we met. In a Caffe Nero in Notting Hill, near where he taught. The book of course was still unpublishable in mainstream terms. I loved it. And when, on the spur of a particular moment, I decided to publish four books, I emailed Erik.
Erik was ill when I met him. How many people in Europe, the world, had this particular strain of this particular illness? I can’t remember; it was something like two, maybe three. He was given so long to live, and lived on; another deadline, he passed that too. In Hammersmith hospital he was clinically dead for a terrible number of seconds, and came through. He cheated death. I blindly supposed he could go on doing this.
Erik was a violinist. This is from the Facebook memorial page: ‘Erik has played as a soloist and chamber musician throughout Europe, in the United States, Japan and Russia. Recommended by Yehudi Menuhin, he toured as soloist with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Saulius Sondeckis. This included concerts at the Vilnius Opera House, and at the Lucerne International Festival where he played Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso in the presence of the composer who praised the performance as ‘wonderful’. Erik has also appeared as soloist at St John’s Smith Square, London, and the Rachmaninov Hall in Moscow. He has played chamber music at the Purcell Room, London, at the Schleswig Holstein Festival, and in Japan with the Menuhin Ensemble.’ And more. But he was ill, and there are other things in life beside hotel rooms, the itinerary of a professional musician, and he stopped that; he married, became a father, became a teacher at the Royal College of Music.
‘Settled down’ is not the right phrase.
The White Room hardly has a ‘structure’. It’s a river; it meanders, and tributaries flow into it, and in places it putters and in other places it surges. It barely knows where it’s headed. The current in midstream is strong. There are two main men (one of whom sneaks a look at his medical records: ‘“Inexorable progress towards death.” A note added: “A year, tops.” “Damn, it’s Thursday, and I didn’t put out the bins,” thought Paul, with the bit of his brain that still worked.’); and there are two main women. Others too. I think Erik liked women, which is not a difficult thing to do, and I think he knew how to love, which is a different thing altogether and makes for confusion and difficulty as well as joy and a kind of, if you write about about it well, extreme comedy which he was completely up to.
We met for more coffees, and a lunch in Wapping. He came round to a friend’s flat for supper, someone who knows far more about music than I do. I know nothing about music. But I learned things from Erik, and I miss him terribly.