The Age of Anxiety

A Novel


By Pete Townshend

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In his debut novel, rock legend Pete Townshend explores the anxiety of modern life and madness in a story that stretches across two generations of a London family, their lovers, collaborators, and friends.

A former rock star disappears on the Cumberland moors. When his wife finds him, she discovers he has become a hermit and a painter of apocalyptic visions.

An art dealer has drug-induced visions of demonic faces swirling in a bedstead and soon his wife disappears, nowhere to be found.

A beautiful Irish girl who has stabbed her father to death is determined to seduce her best friend’s husband.

A young composer begins to experience aural hallucinations, expressions of the fear and anxiety of the people of London. He constructs a maze in his back garden.

Driven by passion and musical ambition, events spiral out of control — good drugs and bad drugs, loves lost and found, families broken apart and reunited. Conceived jointly as an opera, The Age of Anxiety deals with mythic and operatic themes. Hallucinations and soundscapes haunt this novel in an extended meditation on manic genius and the dark art of creativity.


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Book One

Chapter 1

Light. Blinding white light. A man is standing with his back to us, arms outstretched. He is naked to the waist. His hair is golden, curling, shoulder length. We cannot see his face. As we slowly approach the man from behind, he begins to block the light. The sun is setting. His hair creates a halo. Suddenly the man leaps forward and we fly with him, sailing through the sky, over the blue-green landscape toward the sunset.

It is with trepidation that I sit here in my aerie this evening in June, a few days before my sixty-seventh birthday in 2012. I am Louis Doxtader, and this is my story. I am in the topmost room in a house already squatting high on a hill beside a busy road just outside the scruffy southern French hill town of Magagnosc. This house is rented and run by a rather lovely but eccentric psychic woman who invited me to stay with her here this summer. I pay all the bills, and she looks after me so that I can write.

Only she knows why I am driven to relate this story. She knows my secret because she was a witness to it, and understands how important it is for me to demonstrate the way wonderful events have transpired as the result of something I once did that I greatly regret. I don’t want to be forgiven; I want to sense some balance. I can’t change the past, but neither can I allow a misunderstanding of the past to change the future. After you’ve heard my story, you will be able to make up your own mind.

From this lofty position where I sit at my little desk I can see the Mediterranean Sea and the distant Bay of Cannes, the port of La Napoule. Down in the valley is the nearby town of Grasse, famous for its perfume factories. Very few of the fragrances they produce reach me here, but the pine-scented air from the mountains that separate the valley from the pistes drifts down sometimes.

Doxtader, my surname, is probably Dutch in origin, but my great-grandfather was originally from Norway and I have lived in Britain all my life. My father, Edvard—known as Ted—had been named after Edvard Munch, who painted The Scream. A dark, presaging idea when I was a child, and possibly one that helped shape me, as will become clear I hope.

Munch was still alive when my father was born, and my grandparents had met the great man and been impressed. My father Edvard had moved to Britain between the wars, and remained there after the Second World War broke out. My mother always told me he had worked as a spy for the War Office during the war, Norway having capitulated to Germany. He was based near RAF Northolt airport, west of London, from where he went on a number of flight missions to Norway. He met and married my English-Jewish mother, Claire, during the last years of the hostilities and I was born just as Germany was forced to give up on Lebensraum.

I first came to spend long periods of time with my godson, Walter, when he became friends with my daughter, Rain. They were at the same schools together from childhood, and had been born respectively in December and August of 1966.

Walter is a musician. Even at the age of eight he was always blowing and sucking on a harmonica, often with his head inside a plastic bucket in order to amplify the sound and shut out the world. I was close friends with Walter’s parents and in awe of the orchestra in which his father performed.

You might be interested to know how Walter Karel Watts got his middle name. Walter’s father, Harry, was a superbly gifted classically trained musician, but also a science fiction enthusiast. Karel Capek was a Czech playwright who wrote R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). It was Capek’s brother who came up with the word “robot,” which in Czech means “drudge.” Harry had great things planned for Walter, which is why he gave his son a middle name inspired by Karel Capek’s percipient play of 1921 about intelligent machines taking over the world. In his father’s eyes Walter was destined for scientific greatness. Instead Walter chose playing the harmonica.

In their late teens Rain became a journalist and Walter went to horticultural school. But Walter ended up concentrating on the music of the mouth and its associated instruments. Playing in pubs and clubs, he began to earn a good living even while he and Rain were still students. Walter became part of what has been called the Fourth Wave of rock, the one that happened in the nineties—bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkinsbut Walter’s own music was a throwback to the post-punk years of the late seventies: the pub rock of Dr. Feelgood, the Stray Cats, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and the Dave Edmunds Band. This was the simple, honest music Walter wished to revive and honor. Whatever wave he surfed in on, in my eyes Walter K. Watts was and always would be a twenty-first-century fifties pub rocker. That is an addled statement. I am prone to them.

I’m sad to say that as a middle-aged father in the early eighties I succumbed to drugs. I scrambled my brain, and but for a miracle would probably have died penniless. My wife, Pamela, left me, telling me she was taking herself off to a nunnery, and for many years I didn’t know where she was. Incredibly perhaps, she left me with Rain to look after. That turned out to be a clever move, at least for me. The responsibility of looking after Rain, who was still at school with Walter, probably saved my life. I have gone on to do as well in my field as Walter has done in his. For today—while Walter is a famous rock star—I am now a well-known and respected art dealer in what is known as Outsider Art. It is also known by slightly snobbish New York gallery owners—and of course by the French, who invented it—as Art Brut. It is drawing, painting, sculpture, carving, and writing by artists who think differently; indeed, they live differently. Sometimes their work is naive, sometimes it is obsessive, and sometimes it is extraordinarily fine or detailed. Behind such work there is usually a single idea, a single system. There is, sometimes, a revelation, a vision, or a mental explosion underlying the work, and they feel haunted or even possessed. They may hear voices, like a schizophrenic, and believe they are being directed. Some believe God is guiding them.

The miracle of which I speak, the one that really saved my life, was that—perhaps because of what I had done to my brain—I was able to see the value in the work of such mentally complicated artists. I became one of the first dealers in Europe to specialize in Outsider Art. I was certainly the first outside France and New York. Wealthy collectors and even some of the best international galleries acquire this stuff now. Indeed, it was through my work as a dealer that I came across Nikolai Andréevich.

One day in the spring of 1996, sixteen years ago, a woman telephoned me at my home in London. As I have no gallery, I work from home.

“I hope I am not bothering you, Mr. Doxtader, but I have been informed that you are the leading dealer in this country for Outsider Art.” The woman’s voice was rather husky, with what I would call a rather posh accent, tweaked by a soft northern lilt.

“That’s correct,” I replied.

“My name is Maud Jackson. I am the wife of Paul Jackson of the rock band Hero Ground Zero. Perhaps you remember them?”

“Yes I do,” I answered. But I was racking my brain, trying to remember one of their songs. “How can I help you?”

She explained that she had something to show me that might be of interest.

Paul Jackson, I now recalled, had been a sixties rock star turned movie actor in the midseventies who had been the founder of Hero Ground Zero. The band’s name had been meant to echo the kind of anger and frustration of his young audience in the language Salinger had used in The Catcher in the Rye. A critic described Holden Caulfield as a “hero ground-zero.”

“What is it exactly you wish to show me? Are you an artist?” At the time my roster of artists was full, every one of my clients a difficult creature in one way or another. I was anxious not to overburden myself.

“Oh no,” she responded quickly. “I am not the artist in this instance. Can I come and see you?”

A few days later Maud Jackson came to my apartment-cum-gallery in Richmond in west London. As I opened the door to her I smiled involuntarily.

“Mrs. Jackson.” I hesitated. “Do come in. I was expecting someone—”

She cut in. “Younger? Older?”

“Not at all!” Indeed, her age was immaterial at this precise moment. Assessing her quickly, as you do when someone new arrives at your door and you must invite them in and make them feel comfortable, I experienced a small but perceptible flutter in the region of my heart. Her face seemed familiar.

Maud Jackson walked past me into my apartment with an elegance and dignity that—as I watched her from behind—made me feel lascivious. I quickly checked myself. But there was something intriguing about the way she moved. The tilt of her head as she turned and held out her hand to me made me feel I had met her before. The shade of her graying hair suggested that she had once been a natural blonde. Her skin was starting to loosen a little and to discolor slightly, and its tone was uneven, but her strong cheekbones pointed to a striking beauty, or at least a diverting prettiness, that she must have enjoyed when she was younger. She was not tall, but had a strong and upright posture that gave her presence. Her shoulders were square; she might have once been a competitive swimmer. Her eyes were a pale blue, her unsettling gaze hinting at a more vibrant past; she had a frank and direct way of looking at you. I estimated her age at between forty-five and fifty. It was hard to tell.

I ushered Maud into my living room, decorated with the work of many of the artists I represent. I have kept a lot of the finest pieces for myself, and that has been the investment that makes me Walter’s equal, financially speaking. Maud immediately walked across to an intriguing piece given to me by its creator: a calendar painting covered in dates and numbers.

“I love this,” she exclaimed. “Who is it by?”

“Simeon Blake. He has an extraordinary memory for dates and historical events, and the progression in this painting revolves around my date of birth and leads both back and forward several thousand years.”

“He uses a computer or something to establish that your birthday fell on a Wednesday in 1945?”

“He makes that computation mentally, and all the progressions involved, in microseconds. In this painting he has selected only my birthdays on June twentieth if they happen to fall on a Wednesday. Not only that, but he can attach significant events, happenings, and facts to every day he selects.”

“Remarkable!” Maud leaned closer to the painting as if in doing so she might unlock the mystery of Simeon’s gift. “I see that he hasn’t attached any significant world events here on your birthday.”

“My birthday fell close to the end of the Second World War—”

“As did mine,” she interjected, giving me the opportunity to say that she looked younger than her years. Thank heavens I avoided doing that; it would have been corny. She was the same age as me, then, fifty?

“Ah! So…” I bumbled along, increasingly drawn to this attractive middle-aged woman.

“A few months,” she said, “before the news of the gas chambers was published.”

“Ah, yes,” I replied. “My mother Claire was Jewish.”

“And so—you?” she asked.

“My father was not Jewish, and my mother’s family were all killed in the war. Anyway, I live a secular life. I’m not sure about God. Are you?”

“Once I would have agreed with you. But recent events have made me revise what I grew up believing, or rather not believing.”

I offered tea, which she accepted, and I went to the kitchen and poured boiling water over the leaves in the pretty blue china pot I only brought out for visitors. Her voice carried from the living room, and again my heart bumped. Did she sound like my long-lost wife? I couldn’t place what was giving me that pain in my heart.

I carried in the tea and set it down.

“So,” I urged. “Please tell me what you have to show me.”

As she gathered herself I sensed she had something of a tale to tell. “My husband grew old in his band. His bandmates were younger than he was and always wanted to do more touring than he felt comfortable with. In the early seventies there was no sign of the touring slowing down.”

“My godson Walter is a musician,” I said, interrupting her. “He was a huge fan of your husband’s band when he was a kid.”

I immediately felt I’d said the wrong thing, casting Maud Jackson’s husband as a has-been from years gone by. I tried some redress: “But of course Hero Ground Zero continued to enjoy lots of hits, didn’t they?”

She shook her head. “Their last big hit was in the early seventies. But by 1975, despite the lack of hits they’d enjoyed at the start, audience demand for their live shows was still growing around the world. I saw less and less of my husband Paul as the years went on.”

At this moment Maud became real for me. She was a good-looking woman married to a hugely successful rock star who had probably spent much of her life overshadowed by him, and perhaps alone and lonely.

I knew Jackson had acted in a movie. Walter had always been a big fan of Hero Ground Zero before becoming an R&B purist. Later, I did some research and got the whole story. At forty-three years old, worn down by commercial success with no creative expression, Jackson had broken up his band at the height of its success in 1979 in order to become an actor. The film—The Curious Life of Nikolai Andréevich—was written and directed by John Boyd, an eminent British cinematographer, with Jackson in the role of Andréevich, a charismatic musician who starts a religious cult.

“Paul found acting extremely tough,” Maud continued. “Rising before dawn and working until after midnight every day for several months was very different to the kind of intense but sporadic work he’d done in the band. Also, in the band he had been the boss. He’d had control of the schedule and the workload. He’d become a very heavy drinker but he stopped in order to cope with what he knew would be a punishing filming schedule. To his credit, John Boyd never pretended the filming would be easy for my husband. But he was a famously hard-driving and meticulous director. Paul reached a kind of pinnacle of anxiety as the filming of the last scene approached. He knew that soon he was going to have to fend for himself again, freed from the discipline of filming that had helped him stay sober.”

Maud wondered if I had ever seen the film.

“I did see it, yes,” I replied.

“Do you remember the final scene?”

I tried to summon up the iconic image; I remembered it had been absurd in a way, and rather overblown. Maud saved me the trouble; she rustled through the contents of her bag and produced a dog-eared page torn from the shooting script of the film. She handed it to me.

Light. Blinding white light. A man is standing with his back to us, arms outstretched. He is naked to the waist. His hair is golden, curling, shoulder length. We cannot see his face. As we slowly approach the man from behind, he begins to block the light. The sun is setting. His hair creates a halo. Suddenly the man leaps forward and we fly with him, sailing through the sky, over the blue-green landscape toward the sunset.

“So this is the last scene in the film?” I was confused. “It seems like a grand beginning, an opening scene to an adventure.”

Maud laughed. “It should have been. It was the beginning of a new phase for my husband, and for me too. But it was the end of the film.

“My husband had been standing on the summit of Skiddaw in the Lake District.” She sounded to be on the edge of tears. “He looked down at the glory of Derwentwater and the blue-green hills; it is the most extraordinary spot. The cameras were rolling, and an enormous Klieg lamp behind him was singeing his hair. He was exhausted from two months of solid work. All these extraordinary images and events have since been handed down like folklore among the local people.”

She described the scene beautifully. I realized that at the time, her husband still lost to her, she had probably been trying to make something poetic out of her loss, as well as open up.

“So what happened then?” I asked.

“My husband lost his marbles.”

Maud went on to explain that the scene in question was to run under the credits to the film. This was itself unusual, as films are rarely shot in chronological order. It was—as they say—a wrap. Shooting over, the crew congratulated each other.

“One of the crew said that after flying down the mountain in the hang glider, right over the second unit waiting down near the lake in order to shoot him flying low overhead, he was supposed to land and return to the unit in the second unit jeep. The helicopter chasing him could not follow as the light was fading. He disappeared into the gloom.”

“Where did he land?” I asked. I was becoming increasingly curious to know more. “What did the film crew say?”

“None of them seemed to know,” Maud said. “They said he would probably have found an updraft and would be flying low, although by this time it was more or less pitch-dark. They said he was an expert by then. He had been practicing of course, but…

“Naturally there was a boozy celebration gathering held that evening by the film crew in the nearby White Horse Inn at the foot of the hills.”

Maud quickly looked away.

“I had arranged to meet him there but he didn’t show up. I quickly realized something was wrong and set off alone to find him.” At that she fell silent, gazing out at the sky for a few moments.

“Do you believe in coincidences, Mr. Doxtader?” Maud asked as she turned to look at me, searching my face for any sign that I might be an unbeliever.

“I don’t think they are significant in the way some people do.”

“Neither do I,” she agreed. She looked down into her lap. “It did seem to me that Paul’s disappearance must have been planned in advance. I suspect the film producers recognized it would make a story that would greatly help the film. I felt no one was taking Paul’s disappearance very seriously and thought they probably knew very well where he was.”

“But he might have been killed!” I was shocked at the idea that Jackson had been subjected to some kind of stunt. “Surely they would have let you in on this?”

“Exactly,” agreed Maud. “But one of the crew mentioned that the movie’s insurance was still valid. They seemed rather callous.”

“Paul was their star,” I said. “They would have needed him for all the publicity surrounding the release, surely?”

“I’m afraid I thought the worst of them all, but I also had a bad feeling about Paul.”

“That he had crashed?”

“Yes, but not in his hang glider. I feared he had crashed emotionally at some point during the filming. He could be a very difficult man. As I say, he was used to being the leader, and making all the decisions in his life and career. He was also used to drinking hard whenever he felt under pressure. It had always been an effective medicine for him.”

“What are you saying? That he had screwed up the filming in some way?”

“Not exactly,” she said. “My fear was that he had lost the affection of the team around him. Maybe he had started to drink again and they had become tired of him, and were probably all glad to get rid of him.”

“They surely knew they were getting a tricky old rock star when they hired him?”

“What do you know about the behavior of the artist who drinks too much? Do you have any alcoholics on your own roster?”

“Very few of my clients drink. They are intoxicated enough.”

Maud smiled at this.

I wanted to talk about myself, to engage her in my story, to draw her into my life and feelings. “I drank and used drugs myself,” I confessed. “I know what happens.”

Maud did not seem surprised. She smiled once more.

“I climbed Skiddaw myself to search for my husband.”

How much she had loved her man, however foolish he was. I was envious of him.

“I don’t want to make you do another interview”—I smiled, hoping to reassure her—“but what happened next?”

“Well, I took a room in the White Horse Inn. But I hardly slept. So in the early hours of the next day, as soon as there was enough light, I got up and dressed and visited the local policeman who lived in a nearby cottage. To my great relief he arranged a search party. In contrast to the indifference of the film people, the locals treated it all very seriously. Apparently any soul lost on the fells gets the same response. After two days of searching—the team was getting increasingly worried—Paul was found.”

“Where? How was he?” What an extraordinary story she told.

She put up both her hands and seemed to wave them in mid-air, as though impatient with me. “I’m sorry, this is always hard to tell.” She went on: “He had managed to fly about fifteen miles, as the wind was strong, and the hills indeed created lots of updrafts that kept him soaring. When he finally landed, he was alone in the dark. The search party who eventually discovered him were shocked at his condition.”

“Were you there?” I cut in. “With the team who found him?”

“I was nearby,” she explained. “I was there shortly after they found him.

“He was still stripped to the waist as he had been in the film. He was shivering, and at first appeared to be delusional. He’d been sheltering in a shallow cave halfway up one of the mountains. He was a pathetic sight,” Maud went on sadly. Her eyes were now moist, but then she cheered up and began to smile.

“He was also quite impressive!” She grinned. “He looked like a castaway on an island who is rescued after years of living on coconuts.”

She paused for what seemed like an embarrassingly long time. At first, I didn’t stir, but our meeting was taking up a lot of my day.

“Would you like some more tea?” I offered.

Maud shook her head. She used her right hand to make sideways circles, like someone describing a “movie” in charades.

“This is the amazing part,” she said. “He told me he had experienced a divine revelation. Triggered by the heat and light from the film lights, and the sheer magnificence of the vista across Derwentwater, he had seen what he described as the ‘Harvest.’”

My attention was sparked anew.

Maud went on with her story: “He was extremely specific and very coherent about what he had seen, but he would not be talked down from the mountain.”

“What did he mean by the ‘Harvest’?”

“All very strange, but I knew my husband; he had definitely seen what he described. He saw a hundred angels, all in the shadow of one massive angel with wings that stretched from one side of the valley to the other, all flying low over a seething mass of several thousand human souls waiting for guidance and transport to wherever they were destined.”

“Destined?” I interjected. “Where?”

“I assumed he meant to some other place: heaven, hell, the astral plane. I don’t really know.”

I had endured my own awful visions as a result of drug withdrawal, but I had never myself experienced anything quite like what Paul Jackson had felt and seen.

Maud took out a small handkerchief and dabbed her eyes.

“I asked him where this flood of human souls were supposed to go, but he said he didn’t know. When I allowed some skepticism to show, he said angrily that he had seen what he had seen, and he could never be the same again. But I believed him.” She turned to me, almost in an appeal.

Maud had stayed in her small room above the noisy bar of the White Horse for several months, sometimes spending a morning climbing to her husband’s little cave. It was really more like a cutting in a hillside protected by a tree. On these occasions she took him various items he told her he needed: maps, a tent, a small shovel, a compass, a knife, pencil and paper, a waterproof jacket, a drinking water bottle a huge supply of small plastic lighters of the kind used by smokers, blankets, and a walker’s backpack. He planned to kill small animals to eat, but she also took him food.

“I sometimes tried to give him money,” she explained. “But he would never accept it.” Perhaps remembering the pain she had felt back then, the impotence and frustration, her face hardened and she suddenly looked older, her lips tight and lined like a smoker’s.

“I thought he might have begged for money from fell walkers he came across on his walks.” At this memory, she smiled again.

“Why did you think that?”

“He sometimes had things in his cave that I knew had not come from me,” she explained. “And in the second week of the second month I gave him a complete collection of Wainwright’s Guides to the Lakeland Fells, and that he did accept. Do you know about Wainwright?”

I nodded my assent. It is often said that it would take a lifetime to cover all the ground that Wainwright himself had explored in order to produce his famous guides to the entire Lake District; it seemed Maud’s husband had dedicated what remained of the rest of his own life to the task.

“From the time I gave him the guidebooks,” she declared, “he became much harder to track down.” Maud explained that her eccentric husband lived like a tramp-cum-hermit very successfully for a number of years on the hillside near Keswick.

“I’d almost given up hope of ever being able to have a normal life with him again.” As Maud spoke of all this her eyes filled with real tears, and I took the opportunity to move to console her, putting my hand on her arm. She dismissed my action, not kindly, with a series of impatient nods, dried her eyes, and continued.

“Of course I called him Paul, his given name, the name of the man I’d married, but he told me firmly that he was now Nikolai Andréevich. He was living out the character he had brought to life in the film. I must—he said—call him Nik. He insisted that one day the world would understand that the revelation he had experienced had come about as a direct result of his work on the film. He said he had become a new man in those last moments of filming.”

“Does he still call himself Nik?”

She nodded. “And I have accepted it. I call him that too.”

“How did you manage? Did you have anyone to help you?” I tried to imagine how she must have felt alone up in Cumbria, trying to keep communication with her husband open, desperately concerned for him.


  • "A cracking story about sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll."—Mail on Sunday EVENT
  • "A dazzling whirligig of a novel, featuring reclusive rock stars-turned-seers, visions of heaven and hell, young musical pretenders, artists and groupies."—Daily Express
  • "Setting his novel in the milieu he knows in all its excess, Townshend directs a cast of memorable characters while examining themes of creativity, genius, music, and love."—Daily Mail
  • "The scope of The Age of Anxiety is broader than first appears: this modern-day fable dwells on creativity and madness."—Radio Times

On Sale
Nov 5, 2019
Page Count
272 pages
Hachette Books

Pete Townshend

About the Author

Pete Townshend is the lead guitarist and principal songwriter of The Who — one of the most influential rock bands of the 20th century, selling over 100 million records worldwide — and the composer of the rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia.

Learn more about this author