The Martian Invasion: A Love Story: (Ch. 1) An Incident in an Alley

By Brian Fawcett | June 12, 2023

The Martians are always coming.

— Philip K. Dick


Chapter One: An Incident in an Alley

“Where the hell are those guys?”

In Brighton.

We’ve just walked out the side door of a dreary pub into a half-dark alley, John Wright and I. It’s raining because that’s what it does in England in late February. The pub is dreary because this is working class red brick Brighton. The alley is drab because it’s poorly lit and strewn with garbage, and night is falling. The year is 1963, and we’re here because we’re young and stupid, and because we’ve been reading books.

We’ve been in Brighton for three days now, staying in a hotel just short of bedbug territory, eating the worst food on the planet, drinking the warm, murky beer the English find palatable and, like I said, reading books. The one I’m reading is Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, and John’s working his way through Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Before I started reading Brighton Rock, I assumed that the book’s title signified the presence of a large rock somewhere in or near Brighton. But in fact, Greene was referring to a hard candy that usually comes in the shape of a fat pencil, mostly red and white in colour, sweet, but otherwise without flavour. I’m not sure what John thinks The Idiot is about, but that’s okay. I never know what he’s thinking unless he’s thinking about what an idiot I am. Then, there’s an exasperated expression on his face that’s become hard not to recognize.

John and I aren’t in the alley looking for candy. We’ve been cruising one pub after another trying to buy marijuana, or as the local jargon has it, reefers, or spliffs. After a dozen pubs, enduring almost as many horrible English breakfasts, lunches, and dinners we felt obliged to force down our throats—not to mention the pints of warm, bitter beer we’ve drunk—no one seemed to know what we were talking about. But here, in this thirteenth establishment, we’ve managed to score with a trio of rough-looking characters—not Teddyboys but Rockers—definitely Rockers, only a little older than us.

“Oh, yeah, sure, snicker, snicker, we’ve got what you want, mate, but not here, eh? Meet us outside, in the alley, in twenty minutes.”

Out in the alley, we’re close enough to the street for there to be at least a little more light than that provided by a string of dim incandescent bulbs high up along the barely visible walls further along. Beyond that, there’s nothing but murky darkness until the next street. I cup my hands, strike a match to light a cigarette, take a puff, and hand it to John. For a few seconds, I feel as if I’m in a cool noir movie. But before I can enjoy that sensation, five figures appear at the end of the alley. They turn into silhouettes for a split-second before dissolving into the murk. I’m not sure they’re our connection, because there are five of them—not the three we negotiated with. As they disappear into the gloom, I see that four of them are dangling something from their hands. Are they the straight razors everyone in Greene’s novel uses as weapons? Rope? Rosary beads?

When they reappear, now closer to us, illuminated for a few seconds by one of the incandescents, I discover several important things that dispel both the cool and the noir: It’s our three Rockers, sure enough, but now they’re flanked by two ominously larger men. And they’re not carrying ropes, rosaries, or razors, either. Four of them are carrying lengths of bicycle chain. John and I are in big trouble.

Of course we are. This is the early 1960s, we’re in a country where marijuana is every bit as illegal as it is where we come from—Canada—and evidently more rare and socially prohibited than we’ve counted on. It doesn’t matter that we’ve almost certainly been reading different books than the five men advancing toward us—if, in fact, they’ve been reading any books at all. Along with the Graham Greene novel I’ve been using as my local tourist guide, John and I have both been reading Vance Bourjaily’s Confessions of a Spent Youth and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, books that are responsible for us thinking that marijuana is a substance we ought to be getting our hands on. I have a feeling that the men coming toward us in the alley haven’t heard of Kerouac or Bourjaily, and I’m hoping they haven’t been reading Graham Greene. John and I have no idea where they’re coming from, except out of the darkness, walking at a good clip, as if they are going somewhere, going places.

I’m most worried, actually, that the same dumbass scramble of things is going through their heads that went through the heads of Pinky and his friends in Brighton Rock. If these men, in 1963, are channeling Greene’s sense of sin and its punishments, consciously or not, then it’s fair to assume that they’re about to administer some violent ass-kicks and head-whacks to two Canadian boys trying to buy drugs they shouldn’t even know about. And because I don’t have any sense of sin whatever, I’m asking myself, ‘Why couldn’t they have just told us to bugger off, the way the patrons of the other Brighton pubs did?’

In a dark alley.

The men striding toward us aren’t showing any interest in either asking or answering any of my questions. One of them—the biggest one, actually—is slapping the tip of his chain into his open palm, clearly contemplating what he’ll be using the chain to slap next. This doesn’t seem the occasion for a theological discussion and there’s no time for us to try to renegotiate our dope deal, or even to grovel. We’ve been idiots, and now we’re in for it.

But as stupid as we may be to have been asking where to get illegal drugs in tough Brighton pubs, we aren’t defenseless. The first thing we’d done when we got to England months before was buy the biggest, longest switchblade knives we could locate. They weren’t hard to find, and so both of us are packing six-inch blades. They aren’t high quality knives, but they did gleam, even in poor light. (Please don’t ask me why the first thing we did in England was to buy illegal knives we’d only seen in Hollywood movies. You’d have to be from Northern British Columbia to get it: we were trying to be cool and urbane. If men had been running around in ballet tutus in the movies we got to see while we were growing up, we’d have been looking to buy those in England too.)

As these five men advance toward us I can’t say if John has used his switchblade since he bought it, but mine has already gotten me kicked out of Yugoslavia at its border near Graz, Austria. After I locked myself out of a car in front of a border guard, I’d pulled out the knife and performed the blade-up flourish I’d seen in some B movie, and then nonchalantly used it to pry open the car’s no-draft window (something cars don’t have anymore). So here in the Brighton alley in which we’ve been promised dope but are about to get beaten to a pulp with bicycle chains instead, my switchblade flips open, and John’s does, too.

I wave mine at the oncoming Rockers. John not only brandishes his switchblade at them, he sticks it through the hand of one of the hoodlums as he begins his chain-swing. Then we run for it.

That John stabbed one of the Brighton bike chain swingers is only a theory of mine, given credibility by the fact that when we ran for it, the hoodlums didn’t chase us with any enthusiasm. Years later John will claim to remember nothing about this encounter, so really, who knows what he did? He may only have brandished his switchblade more convincingly than I did, buying enough time for both of us to escape. That makes sense to me, because most everything John did in those days was more convincing than what I did.

An equally plausible explanation is that the three original Rockers and their two large friends didn’t chase us because they were laughing too hard.

Graham Greene, “Brighton Rock.”

Then there’s the third possibility: nothing like this happened, and I’ve made up the whole event to explain why John Wright and I so suddenly fled Brighton for London early the next morning, which is the one fact I am completely certain about. It’s entirely possible that we left because we were short of money and wanted to skip out on our hotel bill, or, slightly less likely, that one of us woke up to just how dangerous it was to be poking around in tough English pubs looking for illegal drugs. Or perhaps John borrowed my copy of Brighton Rock, spent the night reading it, formed the opinion that Brighton hoodlums were still as homicidal as they’d been in the 1930s, and decided we’d better get the hell out of town. All of those explanations could be true. But they’re not as much fun as my version of events, and as you’ll discover as we go along, this is a story in which fun matters.

Anyway, in my quite possibly fabricated recall of what took place in that alley, John and I run from the Rockers, switchblades still open in our hands, swifting our way through the alleys and back streets of Brighton. Too winded to run further, by coincidence we find ourselves near our seedy hotel. We dash up the stairs to our room, unlock the door, and quiet as Mohican warriors and as invisible, fall over one another trying to be the first inside. By a miraculous abrogation of the slapstick that has thus far governed this episode, neither of us accidentally stabs the other or ourselves with our still-exposed blades as we stumble through the door, although we do slam the door shut behind us loudly enough to alert anyone within half a block.

One of us flips off the light switch, and both of us hope the pursuing Rockers haven’t followed us closely enough to have heard our Keystone Kops entry, and/or don’t know where we are staying. John argues, as we cower in the darkness, that they can’t possibly know where we are because we only met them less than an hour before. It’s not much of an argument because I’m too frightened to have an opinion. We close our switchblades, my hands still trembling (it’s too dark for me to see if John is as afraid as I am) and tuck them back in our pockets.

It occurs to me as I try to get my breathing back to normal, that the reason our switchblades aren’t still gleaming in the dark is because this isn’t a noir movie at all. I’d have preferred to be in a noir movie with an all-powerful lighting director, but we’re in the real world, and there isn’t any light in here to create shadows, not even from the small window we are crouched beneath. It’ll be more than an hour before we’re confident enough to turn on the single lightbulb.

Palace Pier, Brighton

I don’t have many other memories of Brighton. Walking along the Palace Pier is one, and buying a cylinder of Brighton Rock, which was hard to avoid in its concession stands, is another. The Pier was okay, in a seedy sort of way. The dome hadn’t been built yet, and it was chilly the day we went there: most of the concessions were still closed for the winter season, so it was hard to get an informed impression of the place one way or the other.

What I can say about the Pier with certainty is that the wind was blowing from west to east along the English Channel that day, because I wrote it in my journal. It had made me wonder which way the winds had been blowing on D-Day, and if the wind always blew west to east—questions also duly recorded in the journal. I was at that age where my brain was perpetually connecting one thing with another out of a need on my part that the world have some sort of discoverable continuity and system. It was a brain more interested in connections than on making judgments about the tastefulness or moral value of one thing as it collided with another, which explains, possibly, why I’m writing a story about what happened in an alley more than fifty years after the event: that part of my brain hasn’t changed.

Of my other recollections of Brighton, none is as vivid as the memory just recorded, where we’re crouched beneath a window in the dark, wondering if the Rockers are going to break down the door of our room and whack us with bicycle chains. I never did get to the Pavilion or the racetrack, probably because until I started researching and writing this book I thought the Pavilion and the Palace Pier were one and the same, and no one races horses in the middle of an English winter. Do they?

The Creative Writing Handbook.

Okay, okay. Yeah, I can hear the Creative Writing Department yelling at me. It’s the same bloody message as always: show, don’t tell. Stop talking and frame the action properly, move it forward, fill the page with overly-vivid objects and violent activities. Stick with the Manual: it understands the fiction market better than you do.

I’ve tried to work with the Creative Writing Department’s Manual—here maybe a little harder than usual. But you know what? It’s so damned slow it doesn’t keep up with what’s in my head, and with what I hope is in yours.

According to the Manual, a story is supposed to move forward (or, if it’s a literary narrative, it can make brief, strategic leaps backward in time or sideways in space, but only if the writer’s protagonist or the writer him/herself has been traumatized in some currently fashionable way, preferably during childhood, none of which conditions I qualify for). Either way, the narrative is supposed to proceed—as in go, go, go nowhere.

You’ll note that though I tried to follow the Manual, it didn’t work because in the moment of the real world on which I based the scene in the alley, no one got stabbed in the throat or whacked across the side of the head with a bicycle chain, and so no blood-drenched catharsis was to be had.

But my true problem with the Manual is that there’s no such thing as fiction in the real world, not, at least, the kind the Manual advocates, and mercifully little of it is resolved by violence. In the real world, writers like me put together half-remembered incidents with what they hope is principled truth, and try to manufacture continuities from it which propose that causality exists, that randomness isn’t absolute, all with the hope that some meaning might thereby get lodged in the matrix of assembled words. Nothing can be wholly made up, in other words, because we’re in the world, and it’s always evolving, swirling around us, in and outside our brains, just like Werner Heisenberg said.

But there’s more to it. Nothing should be made up, because the world beggars individual imagination. A fictional character as extreme and weird as Donald Trump would strain credibility in anyone’s novel. But in the real world weirdos are legion; they’re everywhere and in everything.

Then there’s the issue of political respect: out in the real world, most people are just playing the hand they’ve been dealt, and seldom get the chance to think about fiction or truth because they’re trying to keep their heads above whatever it is they’re drowning in.

What I’m trying to say is that the kind of narratives the Manual asks us to produce don’t resemble the world I’ve lived in, which moves at the speed of light or maybe just at the 267 miles per hour at which human neurons travel inside our brains, nearly always without anyone having to lose an arm or leg to keep us interested. Nor do I live in a world where the people around me are experiencing those thudding sociological revelations that college teachers so enjoy attributing to characters in novels.

What I’m taking the long way round to say is this: my gleaming switchblade and John Wright’s possibly blood-stained switchblade, along with the dangling bicycle chains of Brighton’s moralizing ad hoc drug squad are okay by the tenets of the Creative Writing Department; and running along Brighton’s alleys and streets with the six-inch blades unsheathed and gleaming is sufficiently dramatic and picturesque to avoid the Manual’s censure; but inside my head those tableaus are lead-ins to the much-more-interesting and complicated disjunction between the two of us and the Rockers we tried to buy dope from. Frustrating the conventional expectations of market fiction with our slapstick naiveté and/or stupidity, even after more than a half-century, makes me laugh out loud: John and I were really in that alley because, as I’ve told you, we had read certain books and not others. Find that in the Creative Writing Department’s Manual.

And no, I’m not kidding that it was books that got us into that mess. John and I had made the short detour to Brighton, (which was slightly off the direct track from Dover to our eventual destination, my aunt and uncle’s farm in southeast Sussex), because I was reading Brighton Rock. And it isn’t up for debate that it was, in fact, Vance Bourjaily and Jack Kerouac’s books that had us looking for dope, if they hadn’t actually been responsible for propelling us to Europe in the first place.

Meanwhile, the incident in the alley presents you with only the barest narrative details of how we landed up in that alley, and what it was that got us running in the darkness with those long, narrow blades flashing under the streetlights, and how, later, we crouched beneath a window in the darkness with the blades we now could no longer see.

What interests me at least as much as anything here is that we didn’t stab ourselves or each other and bleed out in that dark room before we folded and then pocketed our knives. Not doing so in itself was an accomplishment, because, remember, I was trembling with terror, and I have no idea what John was feeling because, as I’ve explained, it was too dark to see his face and I’ve never known what goes on in his head unless he’s deciding that I’m behaving like an idiot.

And why were we reading those books? Because in 1963, books provided us with the best information we could get our hands on. What better to guide us? Is the Internet now more truthful? Was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, ever?

Let me establish a few other things that’ll help you understand what’s going on here, and clarify what I’m trying to make real to you. I should admit, for instance, that the author’s name on the cover of this book is at least decently approximate to the narrator of this story. Also important to note is that this enterprise is aimed at offering his cultural testimony rather than at replicating the usual attributes and purposes of conventional fiction—entertainment, mild, rhetorical enlightenment, invitations to reading circles, book clubs, and (high point!), author signings in bookstores.

Still, this isn’t quite a memoir, because memory is usually too unreliable to support the claims “memoir” makes on it, and because, specifically, I don’t have near enough secure facts to present this as “truth” or the “real” story.

You should also know that “John Wright” is a pseudonym. I’m forced to use it because I don’t have a hope in hell of getting approval for telling this story from the person I was in Brighton with in 1963: not for the episode just concluded; and certainly not for the ones that follow. Deploying a pseudonym is, therefore, an act of respect for this person, and not just for his privacy. I still really don’t know what he thinks even though we’ve been friends for more than sixty years. That’s fairly common in real life, even if it’s not the way fiction normally represents friendship.

Think It Cafe, Toronto

I’m proceeding with the narrative this way because I believe that there are ontological roots that go meaningfully backward in time from that alley in Brighton to a few years after the Second World War, roots that then branch, lurch, project (the right term won’t stay secure in my compositional frame) from there all the way to the present in which I’m writing, which is, more often than not at a table in a small coffee bar on Harbord Street in Toronto, Canada, called Think It Café, where I’m working under threat of a fatal lung disease that will kill me at some point in the next two to five years. The doctors aren’t exactly forthcoming about the precise date.

The use of a pseudonym for one of the main characters, and my need to explain it, aside from a wish to respect my old friend’s privacy, is a signal that this book isn’t going to proceed in ways that could confidently be called fiction or memoir, but having said that, I’m also not going to claim that it will present a revelatory or any lessor sort of “truth”. And in the course of explicating why this narrative is titled “The Martian Invasion” when we all know Martians don’t exist, and why it is subtitled “A Love Story”, other ambiguities of fact and fiction will be pulled into the light and examined. You’ll see.

I have found that human identities, even of those with lives as ordinary and unschooled as the two barely underway lives my friend and I were embarked on in February and March 1963, aren’t circumscribed by what the collective Zeitgeist happens to be at the moment, or by what the World Machines are peddling as universal truth, but by deeper and more complicated currents of loyalty and verity, principle and wilderness, love and competition, probability and self-invention, testosterone and common sense, and no doubt, dozens of other complexities I don’t have enough brains to keep track of.

Right now, let me go back to the beginning of this story—or, to another beginning, one that I can work with—and try to bring you up to speed, so to speak


  • Brian Fawcett

    Brian Fawcett (1944-2022) is a founding co-editor of He's the author of many books, including "Cambodia: A book for people who find television too slow" (1986), "Gender Wars" (1994), "Virtual Clearcut, or The Way Things Are in My Hometown" (2003), "Local Matters: A Defence of Dooney's Cafe and other Non-Globalized People, Places, and Ideas" (2003) and "Human Happiness" (2011).

Dooney’s is serializing, on a weekly basis, Brian Fawcett’s manuscript The Martian Invasion, and a companion piece, The Sussex Variations. Edited by Karl Siegler, this is one of the last books Fawcett completed before his death, from pulmonary fibrosis, on February 27, 2022. Fawcett is a founding co-editor of since its inception in 2001.

You can find the full list of posted chapters for The Martian Invasion here