Mr Bin Laden of the Book TradeTue 29 May
If you had been drifting around the east of the city in the last days of the twentieth century, and you had an eye for the unusual, you would have come across a large, dark-looking man, his face deeply lined, his eyes bright but obscured by his brows. Since the millennium, many have considered him dead, a stalking horse from the past. They called him drif field, antiquarian book dealer and escapologist, a walking satire or satyr in the field of dead books, formerly of Hackney and Dalston, Southall and Soho, currently floating free of chronology.
drif’s age is unknown; his birthplace is obscure, very few can claim to know him. He could be quite simply who he claims to be: an auto-didact, cycling vegetarian with a girlfriend in Milton Keynes. Or he could be much more, far worse. I first came across drif in a short feature called The Corpse and the Cardinal in which a friend of mine appeared. Patricia Goldstein worked as a dealer in London’s second-hand book market. She was also a friend of Sid Vicious and that other charismatic ghoul, David Litvinoff. She liked to tell the story of how Litvinoff, a wannabe gangster and fixer for the Chelsea Popocracy, came round from an alcoholic black-out. He found himself hanging by his ankles from a tall window with his head shaved. This was the handiwork of the Kray brothers.
The Corpse and the Cardinal had originally been shown on TV in the late 90s when another friend, the novelist Christopher Peachment, had been working on Time Out alongside the film’s director, Chris Petit. It is the back of Christopher Peachment’s head that can be seen at the wheel of his Alfa Romeo as the camera motors around the city. Patricia lent me a copy of her video cassette so that I could watch the film. Its subject purports to be the lost journals of David Litvinoff. When Patricia met Litvinoff it was in his house in Kensington. She shuddered as she recalled his clingy charm. Litvinoff capitalised on knowing stuff about people. I was dying to see the Corpse and the Cardinal. But I was surprised to discover its real star was drif field.
drif embodies the philosophy of “Now-ism”. He bristles with life and the seething potential of the moment, the immediate present, the NOW. drif draws on his immediate surroundings to be himself. He consumes them.
I had got the bug. I googled “drif field” and found he had his own Wikipedia entry. Was it written by him? At any rate, it assured me that he was dead. I consulted the oracle: Iain Sinclair’s meditation on “the Bin Laden of the book trade”, in London: City of Disappearances. He too presumed him missing, or dead:
“They said, the men on the telephone, that he was dead; drowned, suffocated, stopped heart. I wasn’t convinced. That would be too easy. He’d climb out of the river one day, covered in mud, white mouth still moving, tongue too fat for his head.”
He was right. drif wasn't dead and he had more to say - and Sinclair is a subject best not to mention. Back in the Eighties Sinclair had served as drif’s apprentice trawling the M5 corridor on the trail of hot books. In his turn, drif, with his talent for evasion and reinvention, had served as Sinclair’s muse. I asked Chris Peachment who has far-reaching contacts to arcane subjects, if he could confirm or deny the reports of drif’s death. He told me that the gossip in the second-hand bookshops was that drif had disgraced himself with a young lady and fled to Calcutta to atone for his sins. At the same time he gave me options. It was either a sexual misdemeanour that had done for drif or he had been arrested for shoplifting and thus the disgrace was of a more professional nature. The final option was the best: “He has lost a lot of weight and retired from public life.”
Imagine my surprise when a few weeks later I was rummaging in the crockery of the Friday morning market on Golborne Road and I saw a man who was strategically placed to be called an eccentric. He was sitting outside L’Etoile café (once French, now Moroccan) with his legs outstretched and his jaw intent on crushing a croissant. At the same time he was throwing out glances at every corner as if he smelt a predator or a thief ready to seize him by the collar and demand his money or his life. He was comedically large and stocky in an impossibly bright flamingo jacket with clashing tie and wool trousers. His socks and hat were natty. I could not take my eyes off him. Was it really drif? In the film he jaunted about in a kilt. This version of drif was so absorbed in his newspaper that I could see the child in him fervently saying his prayers. But, yes! The snarl was still there as I introduced myself. Once he realised I wasn't after him for money or apologies, Bin Laden was all affability and invited me to join him.
Sinclair’s muse still has a frightening wardrobe, and a torrent of words at his disposal. He is now known by his West London friends as Mr Controversy in a Pink Suit. Or, as he prefers to call himself, “an antiquated dealer and waste paper merchant”.
For drif's guide to charity bookshops see