Maurice had recently lost a lot of weight and was starting to feel ten feet tall again. As he looked down from his office window at Jan who was struggling with a lap top and some bottles of something he presumed were for today but still attempting to wave up at him, he even had a little smile. She had been useful as the member of staff prepared to sit on the Workforce Development Committee and give the impression they were having some sort of input into a process he began shortly after taking over.
Arriving early to get things done before there was nowhere to sit since he introduced a hot desk booking policy was also exactly the sort of can do attitude he was looking for. In a win win which proved to Maurice he had still got it the ones which were most difficult to fathom stayed out all day while those who were more comfortable tapping into a computer and telling the volunteers who milled around their new bijou office space what to do remained in place.
This was the sort of man management that served him so well in industry before everything went completely tits up. The writing was already on the wall, but it was being humiliated on television by a woman that precipitated the staff arriving at his factory to discover him hunched behind a machine with his suit trousers around his ankles and hydraulic lubricant covering his genitals while deliriously attempting to masturbate, which had led to him being sectioned.
He kept himself to himself on the mental health unit and those first few weeks of watching what was going on payed off. A lanky streak of piss would visit from a mental health charity and immediately locate himself in a room in the furthest corner of the building for what he ludicrously called a “Housing Advice Surgery”. Nobody ever showed the slightest bit of interest and he would leave after half hour of staring into space but Maurice looked the charity up on what passed for their website.
He got the job as Finance Manager after bankrupting his own business. Months later after a particularly vicious bout of third sector internecine warfare and the role of Director coming up, knowing where the bodies and the paper clips were kept did him no harm but an ignorance about mental health was the real USP. The more he prefaced every response with “As a layman” the more the eyes of the retirees and professional committee members who made up the interview panel lit up.
They really did say he would bring “blue sky thinking” to the organisation and Maurice couldn’t believe his luck. Symptoms of different mental conditions? No idea. Tick. Other agencies involved in people’s support? Haven’t got a clue. Tick. The notion of a charity as a voice for people with mental health problems and an example of staff could be treated better? Complete bafflement, a bold “As a layman” and a tick so big it finished at the door of the biggest room in the building.
On a day like today he was in a rare reflective mood and caught himself wondering about the competition. Some dinosaur who had banged on about pressure groups and charities role to fill the gaps in provision that service users wanted or a charmless sociopath from out of town with a fake Facebook page he used to criticise staff at the last job to sack him. Even the ex-officer in something or other that sat on the charities committee had discounted him in the version of events he recounted to Maurice. Bearing this out was Colonel Mustard’s extraordinarily over grown eyebrows going skyward as Maurice thought driving a coach and horses through any notion of professional confidentiality boded well for the future.
This thought was interrupted by a knock on his door. “Come” shouted Maurice as he righted himself in his chair and Charlie’s startled face appeared around the door at the other end of the room.
Maurice knew Charlie wasn’t really on board with the project as rather than celebrate winning a bereavement counselling contract from the charity with decades of experience he had been complaining to anyone that would listen that nobody knew anything about death. Not yet thought Maurice.
“Come in then”.
Charlie shuffled in a couple of steps before announcing that the Minister for Health was on his way from the hostel they had handpicked to show him around.
“Didn’t take him long did it?” coming almost immediately after to fill the silence Charlie found uncomfortable.
“Alright Charlie I’ll be down shortly”.
With palpable relief Charlie retreated the two steps back out of the room and Maurice reflected on how he could now give Jan a run for her money in the lickspittle stakes.
Deciding to leave his entry to the last moment rather than antagonise anyone at this stage Maurice was comfortable enough to allow himself a few more minutes of reverie. The original office was in a rundown part of a town he would never have ventured into if it didn’t offer him the opportunity to be back in charge. Consequently his most pressing concern had been relocating to the sort of premises where he didn’t have to keep inventing reasons to speak to the Day Services Manager as her window offered a view of their breakers yard car park. After reassuring himself that the Bentley remained in one piece the irony of a move which would make the Day Centre and her redundant tickled his recently rediscovered fancy no end. Stop flooding the place with people experiencing mental health problems and the people who were left could get on with some real work.
He was here now and the only time he planned to use his experience of the nuthouse was to help fulfil the sort of user involvement bullshit that hung around like a bad smell from bygone days. Maurice drew a parallel with having a token worker on the board of a company and whilst this was also a complete anathema to him at least they would have theoretically been sane. The last thing he needed when negotiating a deal was some bloke who thought he was Jesus baptising the Council’s Head of Procurement in spittle. Not on his watch.
Or indeed his face. The gratitude which some service users showed made him feel important but those whose unpredictable behaviour seemed to go hand in hand with little concept of his status were most disquieting. He had summoned up the courage to visit one of the charities hostels but that was to be photographed judging a Bake Off style competition for their new website. It was what he saw as an ambassadorial role reminiscent of Prince Phillip’s plaque unveiling that he intended to nurture.
As empires go there was still room for expansion but he was working on it and if that meant others didn’t so much the better. In the game of life Maurice’s book on interpersonal skills had slipped right down the back of the filing cabinet he had visualised on one of the bizarre training courses the voluntary sector insisted on sending you on. As a matter of fact the only interaction he felt comfortable with was the sort of head to one side empathising he had mastered from watching old recordings of Lady Di. Now there was a woman he had time for.
Talking of which the bus load of student social workers that pulled up every other month did his spirits no harm. As well as actually getting money for taking them they were generally easier on the eye than the ones he had to pay. Getting that little bit too close around the table of curled up sandwiches on an away day being one of the job’s little perks.
Of course sticking them on the information line or getting them to visit clients had led to a few close scrapes but so far they had gotten away with it. An hysterical student who was stuck outside the house of someone who was threatening to top themselves had been close but one of the soon to be ex old guard had talked them through it like air traffic control. This had led to some rumblings about it not being what they were there for but the students had too much to lose and a couple of promotions later all the “comprising my practise” stuff mysteriously stopped being an issue for their supervisor. The old divide and rule eh? It had stood him in good stead for years and would have continued to do so if it hadn’t been for the fuckin’ Euro.
Ironically it was the glorified employment agency with its trying to put people who weren’t ready for work into jobs that didn’t really exist payment by results contract that had seen him lose some people he could do business with here. Nevertheless salvaging the services of eighties Essex girl stereotype turned reborn charity worker Debbie from the wreckage and promoting her to Assistant Director had been a masterstroke. Walking into negotiations with the previous incumbent felt like he was going on a CND march as Liz’s unreconstructed brusqueness went down like a lead balloon with the Commissioners at Guild Hall.
Not anymore as the modern voluntary sector organisation has to be light on its feet as it bids for anything that’s going in the new social care wild west. At worst you lose a contract so it’s onto the next one at the end of the year or the Public Sector has to clean up the mess. Of course with the big charities now running on less staff with less training and less wages things had to get pretty bad before that was allowed to happen when the people dishing out the money were also doing the inspecting.
This stuff was genius and went way over the heads of yesterday’s jumble sale holders. Eyes trained on the space where his car was parked next to for today he couldn’t miss the Ministerial Jag slowly easing into place and Maurice thought this is more like it. Even the sight of camera crews milling around didn’t strike him with the fear as he had already noticed how the head of a well-known charity gets an easy ride from the local media. Time to go and enjoy his reward for being a small but vital player in the Big Society.
After coming down the stairs with a slow deliberate stride he opened the main office door with a shit eating grin before he saw lanky streak of piss sat at a desk which Maurice knew he hadn’t booked. Maurice had thought he would like this particular edict as it stopped people covering everywhere with pictures of their bloody kids and holidays but all he did was bang on about reducing sick pay to a month meant people would have to crack on with their breakdowns in future.
Being closest to the outside entrance he was being approached by the Minister with an outstretched hand and as Piss had thought it funny to refer to the Minister as Rhyming Slang ever since the visit was announced Maurice bounded over in an attempt to intervene but only succeeded in getting an unrestricted view for the exchange.
“You really don’t want to be shaking hands with me.”
“I’m the deadwood and you wouldn’t want to get splinters.”
As Maurice tried to manoeuvre a confused looking Minister away he had a second to hope that touching him wasn’t breaching any protocol before Piss piped up again.
“I wouldn’t want to be gripping his hand too tight either.”
Piss nodded at Maurice before addressing the Minister again. “Ask him how he got the job.”
An even more bewildered Minister fell back on his public school days and attempted to address the situation with a slightly hesitant “You clearly have me at an advantage.”
“Onanism” exclaimed an even more agitated Piss.
Now Maurice had no idea what this meant but he was 100% certain it wasn’t a compliment so he bundled his Royal Highness the few steps to the adjacent door and through into the palatial new conference suite. Except this wasn’t it. The Minister and Maurice were now stood right up against each other in a store cupboard for art supplies he had no intention of being used next door.
The bellowing of “By being a complete and utter wanker” was as audible in here as anywhere else. By now the Minister was presuming Piss to be a service user and keen to display a mastery of his brief said “Tourette’s?” into Maurice’s sweaty, bug eyed face. Finding himself none the wiser for the second time in as many minutes and for some reason determined to avoid saying “Yes Minister” Maurice tried and failed to compose himself before starting to mumble “As a layman.”
13 May 2017
God knows mainstream travel journalism could do with a less deferential tone. Not many excursions can result in the sort of life changing epiphany that characterises wealthy westerner’s interaction with a different culture. The actual impact this sunset enlightenment makes on the protagonist’s lifestyle post trip making it even more problematic. Put simply every journey isn’t that sort of journey.
Perhaps Geoff Dyer can spare the patronised locals from the tyranny of late middle aged people staring wistfully at the Ganges and contemplating their own mortality? After the welding of fact and fiction in “Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It” and which ironically I couldn’t be bothered to read, “White Sands” has continued the relatively unconventional approach to travel writing which gets the broadsheets in a dribbling mess. I have no issue with the blurring of fact and fiction. He’s not playing fast and loose with great historical events and travel could do with livening up as for a significant amount of time nothing remarkable happens. It’s just interesting that the pieces which seem most fictitious are the least rewarding while conversely those which focus on how frustrating travel can be are the most entertaining.
On a superficial level much is made of his wife and art curator Rebecca being called Jessica. As a result of this a section which takes place in and around Beijing’s Forbidden City and concludes with Dyer debating a move on a stand in tour guide seems conspicuous. With its irritating cuteness Hugh Grant would be a shoo-in for the film. The title piece of the book places the character in a car with Jessica and a hitchhiker who may have escaped from the local detention centre in New Mexico. It’s a serviceable premise for a bit of comedic crime fiction which over eggs the agony with a too apt to be true Doors soundtrack on the car radio.
Much more satisfying for its examination of what people are hoping to get from travel is Dyer’s attempt to get a greater understanding of Gauguin by visiting Tahiti on the anniversary of his death. As a tactic beloved of commissioning editors this “form of time travel” proves an unmitigated disaster but as fuel for exasperated humour about a recreation of his shack which hadn’t been built it works wonderfully. Dyer’s justification for his lack of enthusiasm about meeting Gauguin’s “grandson or great-grandson” a delight to end on.
For anybody who has spent hours trying to find much hyped attractions and then spent minutes not getting any sort of feel for time and place this should all prompt a glow of recognition. A visit to Longyearbyen in Norway and a fruitless pursuit of the Northern Lights had me knowingly smirking at its “Why have we come to this hellhole?” plea. I had endured the self-same experience in Iceland and at about three in the morning cemented my reputation as a bad person by remaining on the mini bus rather than standing knee deep in another snow drift staring at the sky. If the windblown wilderness was an experience Reykjavik was less the artistic hub of reputation than a particularly dull market town stuck in a snow globe.
Just like Dyer I opted to sit in a bar watching English football I wouldn’t have bothered with at home, while drinking astronomically priced lager to avoid walking up and down its one road of artisan coffee shops again. Having to avoid eye contact with one booze addled patron who seemed to hold me responsible for the then recent banking crisis was still a risk worth taking. That the experience of feeling so dejected made Dyer and Jessica feel closer seemed reminiscent of the bonding by vulnerability of a bad hangover.
Part of my satisfaction with Dyer’s ruminations on land art was no doubt fuelled by a recent documentary on land art which meant knowing the references made me feel clever. One chapter’s name dropping of emigre intellectuals in post war Los Angeles had me feeling like George Clooney in “Hail, Caesar!” whereas I knew what Robert Smithson looked like. If I hadn’t seen pictures of the coils of rock which form his “Spiral Jetty” at the Great Salt Lake in Utah Dyer conjures up a vision of the giant prehistoric fossil like creation which was actually made in 1970.
This was no doubt helped by the “uplift” that Smithson’s work engendered in Dyer. This is perhaps the essence of why we travel to these historic sites although Dyer is right when he highlights that the distance and the exclusivity of the experience seems to influence some people’s enjoyment. It is however the sort of transcendent moment which ancient Egypt does so well it is used as an example throughout the book.
When I left Beijing to have a look at the Great Wall it didn’t have the same effect. After skirting alongside the wall in an attempt to find a bit that hadn’t been built more recently than the Spiral Jetty my attempt to be in the moment came up against the world’s most persistent souvenir sales woman. Whilst appreciating a persistence that could have repelled Genghis Khan and the irony of seeing more of the attraction on a tee shirt that was being dangled in front of my face as I tried to the negotiate the vertiginous slopes, my personal highlight was coming down.
So sometimes being relieved of apprehension can prove as satisfying as anything you're told to find profound and enjoyment can be derived from the most unexpected situations. Nevertheless with art it’s probably better to experience the good than stand retrospectively in the place of greatness, so get there as quickly as you can. Of course this isn’t always possible so be prepared for the cold, dead hands of history and a tourist industry which has picked them clean. It’s worth the let downs because even Dyer’s reasonably successful kick up the bum bag of travel writing won’t compare when travel take off really happens.
Come the Revolution keep the outfits
9 November 2016
“Drawing Blood” is artist and writer Molly Crabapples’s story so far. How this travelogue and protest tract with an insight into the sex industry along the way affect the development of her art are reflected by the illustrations which form the books backbone. On the dust jacket Matt Taibbi describes Crabapple as “this generations Charles Bukowski.” It is the notion of a life as art and the possibility of being able to “invent yourself” into something or somewhere more interesting that drives the book.
I was still considering this when the drawing on the first page of Chapter One was of Bukowski hanging upside down from a door frame. It turned out to be great-grandfather Sam who Crabapple didn’t meet but heard inspirational stories of someone who shunned formal education and put his paintings outside in Brooklyn every day in a bid to challenge traditional art galleries.
Perhaps unsurprisingly with such an inquisitive family background she travelled through Europe and North Africa at the earliest opportunity. Describing the moribund tourist fly paper of Venice as a “false, dying city” raised a cheer before coming to the punk conclusion from Islamic art that creativity can thrive from limitation. Unfortunately she picked up the Molly Crabapple name from the Parisian book shop come flop house Shakespeare and Company and conjured up the misleading vision of someone from a twee eighties indie band.
Back in America Crabapple had to survive while working on her art. As a man it’s debatable whether my opinion of burlesque counts for much. Particularly as my only experience of it is a Bettie Page bio pic and wandering into a tent at the Edinburgh Festival and enduring five minutes of drama students waving their underwear about. The crowd seemed to be enjoying themselves but my preconceptions seemed to be confirmed. When a working class woman takes her clothes off in a pub it’s stripping when a middle class one does in a big top it’s art. Burlesque seemed about 100 parts grim to exactly none of subversion.
“Drawing Blood” confronts some of these assumptions. Performers like Amber Ray come from tough backgrounds and as Crabapple describes it “Glamour was rebellion against the role society prescribed for you.” This seems reminiscent of the dressing up rather than down of the dragged through a hedge backwards look the middle class use to signify intellectual. Think Manic Street Preachers tottering through a Welsh mining town in their defiant early garb. It is also an excellent way of making yourself unemployable.
Less challenging is Crabapple’s experience of posing for Suicide Girls website and introducing bands for them at CBGBs. From Jayne County to the sexual stereotypes of women in sponsored pants and bull neck men barking out orders in New York hardcore bands. Soon after she realises Suicide Girls were just another business turning “rebellion” into money.
As a reaction to this Crabapple has the idea of combining the dancers who were treated so poorly with her real passion. Dr. Sketchy’s is a live-drawing session in any venue prepared to indulge the models desire to work in elaborate stage sets as characters they are interested in portraying. From Marie Antoinette to “1984” and anything else you can imagine. When people discovered this online Crabapple told them to start their own providing they treated the models well. There are currently over 140 in cities around the world.
When I was a socialist I definitely aspired to be a champagne one but working for a club which catered for the sort of slavering bankers who caused the financial meltdown would test the hardiest of gag reflexes. The patronage of rich kids watching people jump through hoops even if their brandishing a glass dildo throws up ethical dilemmas but “enlivened by my hatred” led Crabapple to a style which would culminate in her “Shell Game” series.
First up had been a picture of the club which hinted at the intricacy and scale of a modern day Bosch before “The Great American Bubble Machine” really nailed it. Inspired by Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article Crabapple drew Goldman Sach’s employees as bloated cats producing bubbles which a goddess of capitalism complete with vampire squid head dress was bursting. Projected onto wood from a timber yard Mum traced the lines before Crabapple “attacked the board” with glazes and produced something luxuriantly colourful. Limitation? There is none if you approach it with the attitude.
Culminating in visits to Syria via drawings of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Guantanamo Bay the initial politicisation of her work took place against a backdrop of Crabapple getting involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Despite having its heart in the right place the occupation of a park near Crabapples apartment descended into predictable amounts of drum workshops and police brutality. Following Hurricane Sandy however the protestors responded with help while large aid organisations were still jockeying for position. Crabapple produced posters for the movement and cemented a conviction that “art held on the street meant more to me than to see it hanging in any gallery” which would have made Grandad Sam proud.
It is reassuring to see the traditional ACAB knuckle tattoo persisting in any format and is far more “dangerous” than any number of ironic sailor designs on post gentrification hipsters. There are also still a lot more exciting places in London to discuss the economic collapse of Greece with the Guardian’s Paul Mason than the exclusive arts establishment Groucho Club. Nevertheless the conversation resulted in Crabapple travelling to Athens and meeting the street protestors who had fought the police outside Parliament and representatives of the left wing Syriza party before they got into power and agreed to more austerity cuts.
These contradictions often make a person interesting. If you know one thing and can pretty much guess the rest they’re not thinking for themselves. Thankfully Crabapple is no production line liberal with cheese in their beard and an ancient book of rules to observe. Writing about your own doubts but then through force of will putting yourself in place to chronicle these tales of institutional madness makes it even more impressive.
Coney Island boardwalk pre Hurricane Sandy
1 October 2016
Letting Viv Albertine loose in a library? After her defacing of a sign at the British Libraries Punk Anniversary Exhibition has proved the most punk thing to happen there by some distance the answer is a resounding yes. Meanwhile Jon Savage has spent longer talking about 1976 than the actual year lasted.
As I sit in a pub wondering whether a Motorhead tribute band are still playing down the road I might qualify as one of the male rock sort Albertine struggled with before The Slits. She still has to write “What about the women!!” to highlight being edited out of the party now. I think I can relate to how being bombarded with images of Pans People or sold the role of domesticity in 70’s Britain could give rise to “Typical Girls”. I am more certain the gleeful shout of “Do a runner!” in “Shoplifting” makes me want to get a large coat with a lot of pockets and roll back the years.
Albertine is in Hull taking part in the Lyricull Festival at the cities Central Library. Held in conjunction with Wrecking Ball Press this involved renaissance bloke Russ Litten chatting with Sleaford Mods Jason Williamson, Shaun Ryder and Pauline Black from The Selecter on consecutive nights. Revolving the night around Albertine’s book “Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys” was fine by me. Offering a fresh perspective on punk’s early days after the industry which has grown up around it had made it unlikely and then going into the sort of personal detail many writers would avoid making it one of the best reads in a while.
Consequently it was good to hear a couple of obvious crowd pleasers from the book read by the author. Mother picking crabs from a bent double Albertine after a youthful trip to Amsterdam was squirmingly amusing. Being admonished by John Lydon for “trying too hard” to perform oral sex led made me recall his “two minutes of squelching” dismissal of something a teenage boy spent a lot of time thinking about.
Having already made reference to her interest in “gender fluidity” Albertine seemed most enthusiastic to talk about Patti Smith when considering music in the 1970’s. When she first saw the androgynous Smith on the cover of “Horses” it was like “seeing the inside of my head”. Getting the album home and discovering the music and the lyrics completed the package was a relief.
The abiding message from the Slits creative process was that being taught something would lead to reproducing what had gone before and that was to be avoided. Albertine picked up the basics of guitar from Mick Jones before spending more time with a pre PiL Keith Levene discussing what sounds she wanted to make rather than how to do it. Vocalist and full time fruit cake Ari Up cranked up the intensity while 1979’s “Cut” producer Dennis Bovell got the matches out for a percussion track.
A more genuine year zero approach then the class of ‘76 either contributed to moving things on or a lot of post punk’s tuneless dirge but things would stagnate completely if nobody tried. Albertine considers modern music to be little more than entertainment but did admit to not really keeping in touch with what is going on. She elaborated on this by saying she felt drawn to whatever medium was the most “radical” at the time and enthused about conceptual art like Rachel Whiteread’s concrete filled house. Its true attitudes can often be questioned more radically in other areas of the arts and I’m still not sure about Albertine championing Beyonce when Debbie Harry was derided for selling her sexuality. Or maybe that’s the teenage boy again.
If music needs a defence I would say there is an underground scene in different musical genres which involves real commitment and helps to inform all sorts of people. In the punk scene the transgender debate is tackled head on by the likes of Against Me! and the hardcore fury of G.L.O.S.S. The later having just split after turning down a $50,000 album offer because of a corporate distribution deal. Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit right there.
This desire for something different had been reflected in her decision to study film but the lack of control and laborious process seemed to be a struggle. She felt The Slits were being caricatured in Derek Jarman’s “Jubilee” and found acting in 2014’s “Exhibition” even more arduous than I did watching it. Stuck inside with a Thom Yorke like presence she understandably seemed to prefer their house to him. Art house cinema as in making you want to sit in a multiplex watching things get blown up.
Around this time Albertine released her first music in years and I must confess to more discomfort with lyrics about “quiche” and “lemon drizzle cake” than any rotten blow job anecdote. Then I considered “Confessions of a MILF” and how it was better to be truthful to what Albertine has called her “Hastings housewife period”. Culminating with lines like marriage “is an unnatural state” and “I hate my home” didn’t do any harm either.
In response to questions from the audience Albertine advised people embrace “failure” as part of the artistic experience and spoke warmly of her mother’s encouragement during whatever endeavour she had been involved with. As the “quiet” but “influential” Malcolm McLaren has on his headstone it is “Better a spectacular failure, than a benign success.” The following query about child rearing may have been pertinent to the author of a “self -help manual for girls” but it somehow felt a bit like giving her alternative agony aunt status.
To my relief a ringing endorsement of McLaren’s son’s plan to “destroy” his £5 million punk memorabilia collection on the anniversary of “Anarchy in the UK” being released came last. That Joe Corre is “worth” about £50 million makes this less impressive but his opposition to the beatification of punk by Boris Johnson and the British Library earned a hearty round of applause from me. Oh hang on a minute . . .
14 June 2016
Walking hesitantly across the few steps to the bar in a pub down the Falls Road in Belfast several years after the Good Friday Peace agreement I was mortified by my transformation into John Mills. After drinking my lager and leaving the pub without prompting a second glance I became myself again but now felt as heroic as our man in “Ice Cold In Alex.”
In contrast Lawrence Osborne's decision to look for a drink in areas hostile to alcohol gives the genuine whiff of danger which forms the back drop to his “The Wet and the Dry” travel memoir. In Islamabad the capital city of Pakistan for instance one of the three open bars in the whole city was inside the Marriot Hotel which had already been attacked twice by suicide truck bombers. Sitting alone in the aptly named Rumors Osborne chats to the barman about the “unbeliever” 5 percent who are permitted to enter and the fact that it is as much what they are doing as who they are which makes them a target for an increasingly virulent strain of Islam.
This is succinctly put by the owner of the Murree Brewery who said “Muslim hostility to the Western way of life finds its focus in alcohol.” He should know. Set up in 1860 to make beer for British soldiers its perfect location for an age before refrigeration high in the hills of Rawalpindi is now somewhat comprised by it being home to a network of radical insurgents.
As in Pakistan where the black market in alcohol is worth millions a year the situation on the Malaysia Thailand fault line highlights the cracks and contradictions behind the dogma. Here the Muslim Malaysians cross to Buddhist Thailand to get drunk in the likes of the Genting Hotel a hundred metres over the border. This is despite the attentions of the RKK insurgent group who want a separate Islamic state and blow up an ATM machine minutes before Osborne goes to use it.
From these high energy moments Osborne follows the trajectory of a drunken binge as the unapologetic drinker and old school Englishman abroad takes nourishment from a particular strain of alcohol induced melancholy to wind the book down in wonderful style. In a “secular” Turkey which has become even more conservative and repressive since the book was published in 2013 thoughts of his deceased mother are prompted by the Istanbul which she delighted in. At the Windsor Hotel in Cairo he makes a silent toast to her after celebrating the historic bar which Lawrence of Arabia returned to after victory but David Lean recreated as the more opulent Shepheard's in his film.
The Bosphorus that Osborne's mother loved
Osborne's ability to artificially stimulate this contemplative type of drunkenness in his reader leads me to consider my grandfathers despatch rider visits to Shepheard's in the war. Cementing this cease fire in the class war was a much remembered drink in the officers mess with men he described as “gentlemen”. Ruminating on my earliest elicit alcohol experiences I am taken back to stealing beer from a village pub and furtively drinking it in a disused quarry. As the elderly Egyptian in the big glasses whispered conspiratorially to Osborne on discovering his nationality: “Tally ho.”
The Wheatsheaf in Fitzrovia London and area of Osborne's formative drinking experiences
Since not long after this and in common with many from the West just about every significant event or milestone in my life has either been enhanced or obliterated by alcohol. This high wire act's appeal to the teetotal must seem as unfathomable as a belief in god to an atheist but considering my own relationship with alcohol leads me to conclude that as a means of making the mundane bearable the plus column just about outnumbers the recriminations in the minus one. At least I got to choose.
In the Middle East there is little recent history of this and for many of the native population in present day areas of Syria and Iraq not even the pretence of freedom. Despite much hand wringing at the barbarity of ISIS putting the recent recapture of Palmyra in a wider historical perspective doesn't just highlight a greater concern for artefacts than people. The iconoclasm which formed part of systems from the Protestant Reformation to Nazi book burnings and the Chinese Cultural Revolution is perhaps more emblematic of it being Islam's time to demonstrate mankind's wider capacity for brutality. In “The Wet and the Dry” wine entrepreneurs use civilisations such as Egypt whose history and invention of beer pre dates Islam as a beacon of hope. The fundamentalist would see their relatively relaxed attitude to alcohol correlating more strongly with one more disastrous legacy of empire.
At present the region has deteriorated to such an extent that the situation in Lebanon can now seem almost positive in comparison. Could Osborne's dismissal of travel books be motivated by the desire to keep the wonderful sounding Time Out bar in Beirut to himself? Unfortunately the next time he is savouring the atmosphere in this “bar for adults” and a tourist in a pair of allegorical army shorts raises a glass to personal liberty through it's wonderful fug he only has himself to blame.
Sometime around the turn of the century . . .
Liquid display clocks have been a real boon for the sleepless. There it is staring at you. Enveloped by darkness the countdown is all there is. Initially the hours away from having to meet people is almost comforting. Around 3 or 4 a change occurs and it just becomes ominous. I try laying on my side and facing the wall. Eventually cramp and curiosity get the better of me. A lethal combination.
Its gone 5 and we’re into the home straight. At this point every minute has to be savoured. Fall asleep and it might be time. Worst still the alarm may kick in. This is physical and must be avoided. Thoughts turn to the day ahead and the excruciating interactions and futile endeavours. I toy with ringing in sick. Run the risk of slurring all over the answer machine or wait and speak to a person. I consider the post phone call euphoria but know those days have to be rationed. It’s deathly quiet and I’m going to feel shit all day.
Nearly 6 and I beat the clock. Defiantly I press the off button and laugh in its face. Now I’ve got to stay awake or oversleep. Arms out of the cover I lay so the cold ensures consciousness. It’s almost a relief to get on with it. Despite the inherent problems I attempt to dress without putting the light on. Mentally this delays the day starting.
Getting the television on is a priority of a morning. It’s always comforting to know some other poor bastards have had to get up earlier. Unfortunately even newsreaders seem to have been told to be bright and breezy since breakfast TV. This results in the bloke you associate with Bosnia attempting gags about the Soap Award ceremony the night before. The ones who have the decency to look embarrassed are just about tolerable but most seem to actually enjoy the opportunity. Like pissed relatives at a wedding reception they bang on about staying out until 11-30 and aren’t I fucking crazy.
This morning was no different as they sound tracked coffee making and headache tablets. Back into the front room and the headlines whilst lighting a cig before the shits kicked in. Wondering whether the overgrown student was shagging the coy bird promoted from regional news was replaced by miasma swirling around the other end of the room.
Some bollocks about the Euro and Maurice began to take shape. Before he spoke it was clear the man was beat. Standing in a workshop which hadn’t seen his pudgy body since the suit was fashionable Maurice fidgeted with the microphone near his tie. The subsequent screech nearly knocked him into the machinery he was strategically placed in front of and sent his colour into heart attack territory. This caused Miss Yorkshire TV to blow the last line of her intro and sealed fat lads fate. The human interest in a story which no one gave a fuck about had just become the human sacrifice.
“How is the value of sterling affecting your work with plastic?”
“Actually I’m the owner and my company manufactures the machinery which produces the product” spluttered Maurice as the disdain with which the question was asked dawned.
On the back foot he sought sanctuary in a line rehearsed the night before. “As a direct result of the exchange rate my customers are reluctantly turning to a firm in Belgium. Consequently I will need to rationalise.”
In the old days sacking people had given him a hard on. The memory caused him to shift in his slacks and lower his guard again. Fully focused now I willed her to finish him off. Bastard. Destroy all monsters. How are things at home? Kids a let down and the wife disgusts you ?
“I believe you make the protectors which keep rabbits from trees?”
“Yes, I mean no we make the machines.” Maurice had expected a forum for his tale of woe and things were not working out. His head a cauldron a harsh “Thank you” registered somewhere in his subconscious. He wanted to put it in the lathe and increase the pressure until it cracked like a walnut.
'I've met the man on the street. He's a cunt' – Sid Vicious
The journey to work would be a treat as we sat on the bus and looked for trees. Leaving the house at a suitably funeral pace the flats appear as a monument to my isolation. A handful of lights indicate the junkies up from the night before. The rest a sea of Eastern Bloc grey. In Moscow in the good old days the bastards would be up for work even if it didn’t really exist. Bred a solidarity which is sorely lacking as I freeze and they sleep.
The industry which relies on the winos and burglars love them dearly. Keeps the counsellors and assorted caring flotsam and jetsam in Doc Marten shoes and broadsheet newspapers. Not having to live with them probably helps too.
As I near the bus stop the shapeless mass of humanity outside the post office remains so. This collection must be the carnival face of classless Britain. In the Soviet Union everyone got to queue. Here a select group receive a giro for making the rest feel better about themselves. Otherwise a warning similar to putting the heads of miscreants on the city gates is directed at me.
Actually they seem happy enough. Kind of a low budget version of the January sales. Except this is more of a social thing because it happens every week. I wonder if they know how lucky they are? Never fear the shitload of social workers currently commuting from leafy villages will patronise the smile from their faces.
Apart from the side-show the other constant is the kid who stands with his mother and waits to be taken away from all this. Trussed up in uniform he’s the pleb in a million who goes to private school. Wouldn’t let him on public transport myself. Can’t have it both ways. Maybe he agrees as the posh boys ignore him and the lads round here kick the crap out of him when he gets home.
Oh great the drivers knocking on. Having never recovered from the days when the right change was mandatory they react like you’ve pissed in their ticket machine if it isn’t. I have the right money but hey I’m the customer. Down the aisle and the bastard tries to pull out quickly and throw me but I’m ready for him. I balance on a broken seat which just about balances on its metal frame.
As I open the paper I’m rudely interrupted by the dawn chorus. Mobile phones a chirping and bleeping as calls are taken or sent. If they fry the brain heat seeking missile accuracy will be required. Technology’s no good without the skills and the correlation between use and having nothing to say doesn’t require a diagram.
Amongst this cacophony Eric Clapton becomes discernible. Some twat has actually set his to play the start of ‘Layla’. As a very literal homage to Slowhand I’m treated to about ten of these before his monosyllabic chat commences:
“I put the fucking bins out,” the fascist sympathiser’s sympathiser grunted through gritted teeth.
A pregnant pause.
“Get up and look out the fucking window”. Nobody gets the pleasure of slamming the receiver down anymore.
A slack jawed weasel in a tracksuit is at it now. Kids had more imagination than to volunteer to pay the phone bill or dress like P.E. teachers in my day. Will chip in with the water rates next. The sign about smoking irritating your fellow passengers and polluting their environment seems to become neon. Even worse a bar used by well adjusted thirty something’s discussing relationships in a mature manner over a soundtrack of wind chimes and wank triggers memories of the weekend. Oh for a mob of stinking drunk lager bastards to kick the beat poets off their sofas. Weasel lights a spliff.
'Never Work' – Situationist Graffiti
Guts a churning and time to get off the bus. A temptation to stay on into town and then get on a train to anywhere other than here always suggests itself around now. The countries worst unemployment black spot would be nice. Sometimes I stay on for a couple of stops and postpone arrival by having to walk back. Impossible today as I’ve been spotted from his car by a keen larker. We’re stuck at lights and he’s leant over the passenger seat waving through a jungle of fluffy toys and dashboard ornaments. I nod imperceptibly and head for the solace of a deserted pavement.
“Another day another dollar”. Nerves shot to shit I almost wrap myself round the bus stop. He’s only lain in wait and flung open the passenger door. By the time I’ve found the seat belt we’ll be there and it’s thirty seconds of sanctuary I had been relying on. Killing me with kindness. A target for early doors inanity practice.
“Morning Dave. Raring to go then.” This was rhetorical but Dave wasn’t big on subtlety and never missed the chance to open his gob.
“I am indeed. It's a madhouse at home. Kids rushing round like headless chickens. Yours truly keeping the wolf from the door.”
Not having the inclination or will to try and interrupt his metaphor gang bang I listened to the gears grating and watched impassively as he narrowly missed a bloke walking his dog whilst screeching to a halt.
Then he’s out of the blocks and into work with myself grabbing the letter and memos left in his wake. Dave is bellowing “another day at the office” at someone. Either that or its escaped his notice there’s no one there. I go into the room where my desk clings to a corner. My scorched earth desk policy missed a telephone reminder note from last thing Friday and I’m momentarily transported back to the most tolerable part of the week at work.
People like to customise spaces and other areas of the room were adorned with a variety of pictures and handy wall charts. Postcards were also haphazardly blue tacked onto collages. If you can’t think of better things to do than to write to work on holiday why bother going? Overall my colleagues seem to feel a few knick knacks makes the workplace environment more homely. I feel even more depressed than ever.
I’m jolted upright in my chair by Dave crashing through the door and slamming coffee down on the desk. Most of the drink that made it from the kitchen was forming rings like an Olympic symbol as I tried to salvage the situation. I ignored the remaining mouthful as Dave always compensated for forgetting the sugar by drowning it in milk. “What do you know then?” said Dave above the shit on the radio he had just put on. What does he mean “What do I know then?” You’re an irritating bastard who doesn’t listen to what people say? Dave often bemoaned the fact that nobody ever told him anything.
“Not a lot Dave.“
Thankfully Liz walked in. Work was a serious business and Liz had no time for fripperies like acknowledging my existence. “Any calls over the weekend then?” she demanded of Dave.
“No all quiet on the Western Front.”
“Surprising.” Liz could invest any word or gesture with doubt. In this case Dave’s ability to use a mobile. For once I could see her point. He spent a weekend ringing himself after mixing up the work phones and their numbers. Thinking that his colleague must be a bit pushed he drove round to the person he was on call with and bellowed through the letterbox. Dave still laughs when he recalls discovering his mistake on Liz’s doorstep in the early hours. As Dave correctly pointed out “Nobody Died.” Got to remember he means well. This excuses him riding roughshod over peoples sensitivities like a steamroller.
I use this exchange as an opportunity to smoke. Dave who seemed to be in danger of developing shell shock followed as he needed some 'fresh air' and promptly dissolved into fits of exaggerated coughing. “Time for the meeting then” was barked through a crack in the poorly fitting door. This was not a question. I put the cig I had just lit out. Liz fancied herself as a Buddhist and a bit of a bohemian but drew the line at menthol cigarettes.
The despot the liberals queue up to slaver over is the Dali Lama. From the fucking Beatles to the Beastie Boys they can't get enough. A men only club which lords it over the impoverished isn't usually good for business but this is spiritual. You take your gravitas where you can and discredited old Christianity isn't their bag. Paying lip service to an eastern kind of mumbo jumbo appeals to the hippie which lies at the confused core of charity workers. Don't have to watch the P's and Q's either. If writers gave the Karma's and Nirvana's a ribbing they would have saved everyone a lot of bother. No matter how hard you try a Buddhist can't be seen to kill your publisher.
Liz looked the part. The mod who prides himself on being better dressed than the boss wouldn’t need to break sweat here. Ironing indicates shallowness and is time wasted when you could be considering the injustices of a patriarchal society. I hear an internal phone call and Dave tells her he was “rounding the troops up”. As the war lingo fell it was Liz holding the door open with a face like an angry vegan that pushed us over the top.
As I open the paper I’m rudely interrupted by the dawn chorus. Mobile phones a chirping and bleeping as calls are taken or sent. If they fry the brain heat seeking missile accuracy will be required. Technology’s no good without the skills and the correlation between use and having nothing to say doesn’t require a diagram.
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