Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
We need to talk Netley.
It’s not me—not this time, no; it’s you Netley. Because I’ve tried so hard to make this work over the past eight years but then, just as I think we’re getting somewhere and starting to understand each other, you go and do something that makes me realize we don’t really understand each other at all. Actually even that isn’t right. After all, you have no real interest in understanding me, do you? Part of me has known that all along. That hasn’t stopped me becoming obsessed with you though. For all this time you have been on my mind as I fall asleep and from the moment I wake up; I try and escape for a few hours on the bike and still I find you playing on my mind in ways that mean there can be no escape; your photo—that photo, the one in which you’re oh-so debonair and respectable and butter-wouldn’t-melt yet knowing at the same time—is the screen saver on my iPad for fuck’s sake. Oh yes I think it’s safe to say that I’m obsessed with making sense of you. Somehow I think you get off on that.
And what do I get in return? You’re charming, and witty, and plausible, that’s for sure; you can be good company when you want to be—I can’t think of many people I would rather have a drink in the Ritz bar with; and when the mood takes you (and the money’s there) you’re certainly generous. Yes, you’re a right gentleman aren’t you? But that isn’t enough any more. Being witty and charming only goes so far when I don’t even know who you are. Is Netley even your name? I thought I knew that, at least, but then I found your birth certificate and your marriage certificates and your court records and newspaper articles and books and the names and stories multiplied one after the other. Why did your grandfather (I think it was your grandfather) change the name on your birth certificate? Why did you and Elsie both change your names on your marriage certificate the year after you got married? All this time I have chased after you across three continents and more libraries and archives than I can remember. And then, just when I thought I was finally getting somewhere—finally getting to know you Netley—you had to go and fuck it up. Inscrutable? That doesn’t come close you lying bastard.
I used to enjoy it; I used to like you. Those twists and turns when you slipped out of view were frustrating, of course, but they were also exciting—and your slipperiness made you somehow even more alluring. As I watched you teasing and deceiving a string of courtiers and publishers I found myself cheering you on and hoping that you would get away with it. When things started to go wrong and you began drinking so heavily I felt sorry for you. Hell—then I even saw something of myself in you, and that isn’t something that I particular enjoyed or care to admit. You know that too though, don’t you? You’ve seen what I’ve written about you in that book. Then something happened and I’m not so sure I can like you any more. Yes, you’re a right gentleman aren’t you? The sort that lies and cheats and doesn’t care about hurting those closest to him—those (like me, perhaps) who have guided and sustained him through the hard times as well as those phases of wild success. You’re that sort of gentleman—a self-absorbed narcissist, a foul-tempered washed up violent alcoholic who was that far away from being arrested for murder. All of those different careers and scams you tried? None of them really came to anything did they? You’re a failure, Netley. Why did I ever become obsessed with you?
But still it is me and it is you, Netley. And after all this time I have too much invested in you. And still I fucking love you and want to know you Netley. Work with me, just this once?