28 October 2022
‘The only church that enlightens is the one that burns’.
‘Who said that then?’
‘Me just then. No, it was the Prince and anarchist Peter Kropotkin. Not Durruti who just repeated it a lot.’
‘And when did you learn all that?’
‘Just things you pick up along the way’, I lied. It was stuff I’d read for this but she didn’t know that.
‘Then of course the Durutti Column, who couldn’t even spell his name, at least showed they knew enough to rip off Debord and release their album in a sandpaper sleeve. Loads of Duran records in HMV ripped to shreds.’
Standing here at a tram stop in Bergen we slipped back into silence as the soul destroying monotony of the weather did its thing. From sleet to watery sunshine and a default setting of rain before it all began again. Trying to take a photograph of the hills which surrounded the place before a grey mist obscured them a challenge for frozen fingers.
The ground was permanently covered in a liquefying brown sludge reminiscent of the slush puppies we were given as kids. That Cola town was not the sort of place to look down at the state of your shoes not completely excusing the state that the locals went out in. Looking like fishermen, or the spawn of filthy rich oil money and the man in ‘The Joy of Sex’, all the rage.
Of course the facial hair and chunky knitwear was part of the appeal for travel writers who visited Bergen. Less so the hordes of elderly day trippers, who in return for the raiding parties of yesteryear, descend from the Hurtigruten coastal ferry in red ship anoraks, to a harbour area that is slowly sinking. The long multi coloured warehouses of Bryggen unable to compete with a stuffed bear in the souvenir shops that crowd the lower levels.Promises of yet another cruise if you don’t see the northern lights more threat than consolation.
When a somehow pristine tram pulls up and promises to take us away from this it seems miraculous. We had only been sheltering under a bone dry stop for several weather cycles and our destination was clearly marked. Leaving just enough time to select seats from the plentiful options our transport began moving though the suburbs of Bergen with a Japanese like ease. Entering and leaving each station with the satisfaction of a well lubricated suppository.
Reaching our stop at Fantoft, we almost reluctantly got off. Nothing so far to suggest that our time limited travel tickets had not been a wise choice. With the snow fresh enough to not be packed down, or turned to ice, what would have seemed treacherous a matter of days ago was now taken in my loping stride. Hoping we were going in the right direction, whilst trying to step into the footprints which made it less messy, and avoid the exposed base of an enormous tree. My mind not that focused that a chorus of Sepultura’s ‘Roots Bloody Roots’ didn’t appear. Ahead a woman was walking with two small dogs that were less hounds of hell, than sausage dogs with cold feet, and I ploughed around them to get to the clearing which was opening up ahead.
A path leading towards the attraction that the Stave Church, built to replace the one burnt down by members of Norway’s Black Metal scene, had become. Questions of authenticity superfluous, when the first church was only reconstructed here when another was threatened with demolition elsewhere, and the remaining handful patched up until little original remains. All to praise something that doesn’t exist at all. Indeed, I only mention the intricacies of the Cathedral in Milan, or the enormous feet of a reclining Buddha in Myanmar, to illustrate how well travelled I am.
Today though something was different. Pitch black tar applied to centuries old pine to protect it from the weather made the church jump out from the snow. Dragon heads on either end of the roof that suggested earlier battles between Pagan beliefs and Christian ones, making it resemble a Viking Longship. The overall effect of this otherwise relatively austere building as malevolent as the best religion.
Not that anybody seemed that interested in consecrated corner posts or paying to get past the security fence which rings the church. I reckoned any bunch of Satanists who could get a fire going around here would make short work of this perimeters flimsy construction. We instead manoeuvred our phones through a gap in the chicken wire, to get a decent shot of a stone cross on a blizzard lashed mound, which looked like a prop from a Hammer horror film. Afterwards realising I was investing it with the significance of being around to witness the events that we are really motivated by.
Here the chilling effect of the church just one layer of the story. Something which a loose collection of people, who were now coalescing into some sort of group, were having explained to them by somebody in Norwegian.
‘Okay. It was here back on the 6th June 1992 that the first of the arson attacks on churches took place.’
The guide had a man bun and looked like he spent a lot of time working out. Any confidence this might be giving him betrayed by the ears, which supported aviator shades, glowing red when he spoke. Having immediately noticed that he had made some sort of effort with a Cradle of Filth tee shirt, I wondered whether this heat might prompt a need to remove his coat, and reveal the slogan on the back. This being something I would have spent an inordinate time considering before I left the house.
‘At first it was put down to an electrical fault. Then a pattern begun to develop as there were more fires, and the ring leader of the group Varg Vikernes or Count Grisnackh, started to boast about his exploits.’
Managing to mention his alias without smirking was impressive. Unfortunately, while his tour group appeared attentive enough, they were all decked out in a combination of beard, puffa jacket and hiking boots. No studded gauntlets, inverted cross or faces lathered in pancake makeup, to further embellish the story. Indeed, if I was operating the CCTV I would have honed in on an outlier talking to himself at the back of the clearing, until I concluded he was speaking to someone on a wireless headset.
‘His band Burzum going so far as realising a record called ‘Aske’ that had a picture of the charcoal remains of the church on the cover’.
That means ‘Ashes’. The sleeve by far the best bit about it as the only thing diabolical about the music was how dreadful it was.
‘This all seeing him be sentenced to 21 years in prison before his escape and recapture in 2003’.
Our guide was smoothing over some of the bumps in the narrative to sell the story. Not wanting to spoil the flow, by mentioning that while the Count said the church was burned as retaliation for building on the site of a Pagan temple, he didn’t do it. Being convicted of the other charges, but ‘not guilty’ of Fantoft, even if the Judge said this was a mistake and he was responsible for it.
‘Part of the term also being for the murder of his band mate Euronymous. He being the other main player in his circle, and owner of a record shop called ‘Helvete’ that was the centre of things. Everything painted black with a polystyrene grave stone in the window if you can imagine it. Now they played together in a group called Mayhem, but they fell out about money or who was the most extreme personality.’
A pause for effect, and chance for us to conjure up the vision of hell that the shop suggested, before he came back in without missing a beat.
‘Probably both, as Varg had someone drive him from Bergen to confront him, and ended up stabbing Euronymous on the stairs of his flat in Oslo. That they stopped on the way back, for Varg to dispose of his blood stained clothes in a lake, not enough to stop him being incarcerated for murder in 1994.’
He then peered around the group as if he had lost someone, or expected more people, while I concluded I had enough of an experience to write about now. Another thing to cross off the list, and a job well done, compounded by the invigorating smell of pine needles underfoot. The walk towards the path down from the church, a Photoshop version of the first Black Sabbath album cover, in my head. Cradle of Filth back there again, as Sharon Osbourne mobilised Ozzy’s lawyers. Her anger about their tee shirt, more to do with it impacting on the sales of his, than it saying ‘Jesus is a Cunt’ on the back.
I muttered ‘Black Metal’ in as deep a voice as possible, before beginning the descent. Walking carefully down the slope my brain barely registering what I presumed was another fjord visible beyond the trees. My attention turning towards the photograph being taken of me. Feeling even more satisfied with myself as the trail flattened out, I held my arms aloft and went for a double victory sign pose.
The moment proving predictably elusive as I realised that the devil horn gesture would have been better. Thinking about asking to redo the photo I asked for her phone to look at the picture. To my dismay the mistake stood out, and perhaps even more alarmingly, a small black troll like figure who neither of us remembered had also shown up. It seemed to be uncomfortably close behind me, but unless following my steps exactly, didn’t appear to leave any footprints in the snow. I quickly considered this all, before dismissing it as too ridiculous to be anything other than a reason for having the photo taken again, and deciding this might be an artifice too far.
Instead we stood to collect our thoughts at the sign which helpfully pointed the way back up to the Fantoft stavkirke. I considered sending a picture to Thrash Tony just as the weather broke. A decision to head off in the direction of a tram stop, forced upon us as hail started to obscure Google Earth.
Sat looking through the window of a departure lounge in Oslo Airport it was difficult to see why our flight wasn’t cancelled. But as the snow came down in ever denser formations, an army of ploughs attempted to keep the runways clear, and the call for us to board the plane was announced. A hope that they knew what they were doing, diverting attention from people in a myriad of gold card entitlement schemes, pushing by. Then putting enough luggage in the overhead compartments for a world cruise.
When we arrived at our seats a child was sat alone in the window seat. The girl’s mother moving her to the aisle seat on our arrival as she said it would prevent her leaning over us for sweets. We smiled our appreciation, before the tangle of wires from the electrical devices that were immediately plugged in to charge, confirmed the wisdom of this. The view from the window entirely obscured by snow, until a crane with a blow torch contraption attached, began to slowly reveal the tip of the wing outside.
With the plane defrosted and in the air, the view of snowy ridges and lakes as we made our departure was impressive. Even if I was preoccupied with waiting for the overhead light to give me permission to remove my seat belt. Experience telling me it was wise on short haul flights to get to the toilet and back again, before being stuck behind a drinks trolley, the air stewards were trying to get up and down the aisle before landing.
Scanning the seat numbers as I made the way back I didn’t immediately notice the panic that was taking place. Up ahead a flight attendant aiming a fire extinguisher at sparks which were crackling like something from a grinder. The haze which then descended on the aircraft making it take even longer for me to realise this was happening on my row. Only being sure when her colleague, who had been trying to comfort the child, got the remains of a phone into some sort of bag.
‘My mobile went red hot and then burst into flames. Look at my hands.’
The pilot announced over the radio that the plane would have to return to Oslo.
‘You know what they say?’
‘No one leaves before it has made its mark upon them.’
‘Oh will you fuck off.’
14 November 2021
Sat here marinating in sulphuric smelling lager was still preferable to the alternative. Having exhausted every ounce of sleep, staying in with each hour an eternity, the decision to come out again never really in doubt. Carrying your head from room to room as you forgot what you set out for, or recapturing some sort of temporary even keel, in the vicinity of strangers as lost as you. If you gathered the courage to go out for a paper, the absence of focus to follow a football transfer story, versus the emerging sense of a pub juke box as the drink went down.
So a machine which contained entire albums, and seemed more intimidating sober, was the way to go. Unlike the handful of steps from my seat and through the stools pushed around the tables. The concentration my mind had decided to allocate to the task, making me walk like someone wearing diving boots, and then stand rigidly in front of the CD track listings. With seven songs for fifty pence I assessed the spinning carousels inside the glass for the entirety of ‘Bat Out of Hell’, before playing it safe with Johnny Cash, because it would come on while I was still here.
Next up was ‘48 Crash’ because who doesn’t like a bit of Suzi Quatro? Then some early doors irony from Thin Lizzy before the selection from the punk compilation divides the room. A day-glo cover, leading me to ATV, when I would rather have listened to the Cockney Rejects, but wanted to look clever.
If only they had the Replacements and ‘Here Comes a Regular’ on here, I could jack this story in and sit down. When somebody described me as looking like Tommy Stinson it was the proudest day of my life. With a bloke who resembled Paul Westerberg that I knew, we could have formed a tribute act called the Replacements Replacements, but then the entire audience would have been on stage.
The Ronettes segued smoothly into the New York Dolls’ ‘Personality Crisis’, and I finished with the flourish of my final selection. By the time I retook my seat ‘Be My Baby’ seemed to be going down well. Swimming into the cavernous drums, I emerged as Johnny Boy from ‘Mean Streets’, while the man near the entrance moved his shoes along the footrest which ran along the bottom of the narrow bar.
On my other side a fella gave an almost imperceptible nod of the head in acknowledgement. Above him a noose which had been used for the last execution in the local prison remained motionless. Unlike the photographs, which featured pub patrons gurning or exposing flesh for the camera and then formed into a collage, across the way from the toilets next to him. The dragons on some of the more colourful shirts, starting to move, as the picture turned into a kaleidoscope which made it impossible to focus on one particular image.
Sat back down, everything was just made reassuringly impenetrable by a fug, which felt like it would have to be parted like curtains. A Herculean commitment necessary to generate such density, when so few people were in. The cigarettes and lighter I had jarringly placed on the tin like surface of my table, no more than a prop, as my dodgy stomach left the bar maid to pick up the smoking slack.
As my thoughts turned to beery nostalgia in the shape of a mental health patient, who maintained he was going to sue the cigarette companies for not killing him, my last song came on. ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’ the song I will have heard at the weekend as it brought every Saturday to a close. Morrissey sending students, and individuals who all looked the same, back to bed from the club they went to every week. My reasoning that since it had been ringing in my head since I woke, and tried to piece together what had happened, it might as well be the actual voice of the marginalised now.
A club which had once thrown me out, and had then been evacuated as I rung the Fire Brigade from the pissed soaked phone box at the top of the street, to say it was dangerously over crowded. Peering down the road at the people congregating outside my second proudest moment. There was no chance of the people from last night coming in here and reminding me of what I had done or said. My memories so vague, they could come out with pretty much anything, and I would be unable to dispute it with any conviction. Putting me in a position where I acknowledged their claims, rather than admit I had no idea what had happened.
Things which had seemed important remaining just out of touch, as a man from a holiday excursion to Auschwitz filled the space. I had first become aware of him getting off the minivan next to mine, carrying a large plastic bottle with the label scratched off. Then, at times during the tour making my way past him standing in doorways, or at the back of the group when we were brought together by the guide to ask questions. Crashing into my consciousness when he tripped backwards over a railway sleeper as we all split up. Still managing to keep the bottle upright and hanging onto it like a rubber ring, as he scrambled back up, and tried to lighten the moment with what sounded like a joke. Finally, his glowing face burning through the condensation of the back seat window as we pulled away.
The pub considered the consolation of never having been drunk in a concentration camp, before the door broke our reverie by whining open like something from an old horror film, and Balloon Man walked in. This taciturn fella appearing in pubs and fixing on someone to craft an inflatable swan or poodle for. The latter a self-portrait as his frame was topped with a Brian May style mop that made him resemble one.
Presently stood next to the man at the bar, I decided to ease past them, before his disconcerting attention focused on me, or someone made the inevitable request for a balloon knob and bollocks combo. Outside, the thought of this amused me, and I realised I was entering a period of contentment. Dread dissipating as I went past the fruit machine arcade and tried to grab these moments before they faded. Concerns slipping and a new codeine prescription seeming like it would be enough to make it through the reckoning to come tomorrow.
Walking around the station and the Bermuda Triangle of pubs which surrounded it, a feeling of connection with the places which cling to them, and the people going nowhere inside, grew. It was passed out or thrown out, the bemusement about what people did if they went home, mutating into cockiness and the notion of kids as a substitute for a personality.
Arriving at my destination I was immediately confronted with a wall of people. The change in tempo, providing the sound track to a waving of pound notes which the bar staff wouldn’t fall for in here, confirming my decision to go for a slash. Inside the men’s, the cubicle was occupied, and there was an ad hoc que behind the men already at the urinals. The need to cram yourself into the gap left by somebody turning to leave, complicated by the sloping roof over the trough, making it impossible for anyone over a certain height to get close to it. The jokes about needing a big cock to reach, and the pressure on lanky streaks like me to bend backwards, and hope they weren’t splashing the leg of the short fella next door, sometimes stopping the flow from starting unless you had drunk enough to be past caring. Today being fine, as I finished up to watch cig buts blasted around the urinal cake on rapids of piss, before swirling away like a drunken weekend.
Back around the bar the crowd had eased as people had got served and turned to await the act that had brought them here. Indistinguishable conversations and bursts of raucous laughter being punctuated by a repeated cry of ‘I’ve lost me fuckin handbag’. Just in time I got a drink, and a packet of crisps for tea, as everything was drowned out by the booming sound of the Space Odyssey Theme sending the pub into orbit. Soaring high over deserted railways platforms, and the newspaper kiosk in the bus station, that people got stood up at, waiting for people they didn’t remember from the night before. Blasting through the stratosphere as Black Elvis made his way from the dressing room in the toilets, to the middle of the room.
From stage, the region’s number one tribute act mouthed a greeting to myself, that was either based on seeing him live before, or not stealing anything when he was working as a security guard at a supermarket. Turning to face the window which looked out onto the road that buses left the station on, his buttocks began twitching in time to the opening bars of ‘King Creole’. People making it through the crowd to dance in front of him, as he turned, and the enormous vented flares of his white jumpsuit went into spasm. An imaginary guitar turning into a machine gun on rapid fire as cigarette smoke weaved its way past him. His face framed by an upturned collar, and a swirl of stars, that were only interrupted by the size of belt a heavy weight boxer would have struggled with.
When the song finished, the room roared its approval, and a man on crutches held them aloft in acknowledgement, as Elvis reached for a towel. Wiping his forehead before theatrically handing it to the man, and thanking us all for, ‘keeping the legend alive’. Then dedicating ‘Devil in Disguise’ to the Priscilla I realised was standing next to. On my other side, the woman who had found her hand bag but lost her shoes, was dancing on the boards that had been put on the pool table to protect it. The landlady using the brush she was cleaning up the broken glass with to chase her down.
Back on stage, a series of karate kicks and blows were whistling over the top of the crowd as ‘Suspicious Minds’ reached its finale. Bringing his Divorce Trilogy to a close was the redemptive power of ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’, and a tribute to, ‘my friend Joe Longthorne’. The King’s subjects bellowing every word at him like a football crowd.
The swaying mass only stopping to part for Roy Orbison trying to get to the bar. Everyone calling this man the Big O on account of his black suit and glasses. Always out and about with his equally well turned out wife, they seemed besotted with each other, until her recent absence led to the presumption of death. Now while the sadness his presence left in its wake, made the resemblance to Orbison more real, his hair was less pompadour than Purdey. The poignancy this generated, making people feel miserable, and wish he had stayed away.
Ever the pro, Elvis picked up the energy changing, and went straight into ‘Burning Love’. A chaotic stage invasion, and screeching backing vocals from his elderly fan girls, restoring the euphoria in the room. Sweeping them aside, to leave Me and Chuck D considering the head fuck of Black Elvis whistling Dixie, before the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’. His head tilted towards a yellowing ceiling rose, as he mouthed the words, and finally dropped to one knee in a bow. A triumphant exit temporarily halted by a beaming punter inadvisably slapping him on his stone encrusted back.
In his place the power of seeing someone refuse to surrender every part of themselves lingered. Something I imagined him hanging onto as he pretended to care about shop lifters stealing cheese and washing machine tablets. While not writing, the fight to escape, to hang onto even someone else’s dream, seeming ridiculously beautiful.
Back on earth, I made a bolt for a seat in a corner as Balloon Man arrived. My haste leaving me wedged in unnecessarily close to a table of four big people. The two men accompanying each pint with a short to extravagantly toast a succession of people with ever more aggressive names. Crumpled suit trousers and the beer stained white shirts indicating a bender, while the conversation confirmed a funeral. An air of good natured menace threatening to spill over with one misconstrued sleight.
‘If any cunt turns up at mine in City shirts or all in pink I want you to fuckin’ tell ‘em. When I go I want black and they better look fuckin’ depressed.’
‘I wouldn’t worry about that. They’ll be more likely suffering from loneliness. We could have it in a phone box.’
‘Yeah very good funny cunt’.
‘What we’d need would be some of them Sobbers.’
‘Yeah I read it.’
‘You read it?’
‘Yeah. Billy no mate bastards who know no one’s gonna come can pay people called Sobbers to be at their funeral. They even find out your interests and stuff, so if they have to, they can talk to people without giving the game away.’
‘Jesus, they don’t wanna be talkin’ about his interests in the middle of the church’, spluttered what I guessed to be the wife of the biggest bloke.
A look immediately quietened this conversation and I considered my own plans. If other faiths look where they’re going, then a leg tattoo of Jamie Reid’s ‘Nowhere’ bus can face the fire, while the Dead Kennedy’s ‘Religious Vomit’ spews its way around the deserted pews. Finally, being flushed down the bog in here, as apt a way to get off as any.
‘You’d be good at that son’.
‘Sorry?’. I heard what he said but pretended otherwise so he didn’t know I had been listening.
‘You know, the skinny one in black and a big hat at the front of them funeral processions’.
The big blokes ‘tache speckled with spittle at the brilliance of his observation. Something that, like everything else the fat fuck had ever done, had been done before.
‘Yeah. There’s worse ways to make a living’.
‘True. Like one of them nosey bastard social workers getting you in cos the lad has stood up for himself at school.’
With his wife still nodding enthusiastically, and blue topless women reclining on his arms, the bell for last orders rang. The landlady making her way onto the stage, while the other woman at the table muttered, ‘I never come out and it’s nowhere near time yet’. As I thought he wouldn’t be let in the club with all that shit scribbled on him, the landlady stopped tapping on the mike, to look at her watch and speak.
‘Right you lot time to shut up. Nobody needs a drink that badly, so better late than never, it’s time for two minutes silence to remember everyone who died in the war. Starting now.’
For me time felt like time was going backwards. Last night’s walk to find a taxi crashing into focus and the walls of the pub feeling like they were rushing inwards. The image of a wreath being thrown around and ending up on my head projected onto them. Stuck in traffic outside the window, my burning face confirming to the kids on the back seat of the bus, what I had done. A crown of thorns for how long I would replay the night and fixate on what people would think.
For now, I could hope the tears I was fighting back would just look like the emotion of Remembrance Day. Everything as normal as it could be in a packed pub where the only sounds were people breathing or sucking on cigs.
‘Bloody hell you lot are quiet’, exclaimed a startled Roy Orbison as he emerged from the toilets still adjusting his trousers.
‘Shush’, hissed the big bloke. ‘It’s a minute’s silence for the lads’.
‘Don’t you shush me. I fought in the soddin’ war and have come out to get away from it.’
As the big bloke rose to confront the Big O, and his wife failed to steady the table rocked by his gut, I was drenched in beer.
24 July 2021
‘Firstly, I must wholeheartedly agree; I too am not a big fan, as I normally find there to be too much hard crust and precious little filling. I am however, Pro-Scotch Egg.’
If that prompted a snigger and you need no convincing of the merits of ‘No Government’, then ‘Grammar Free in the U.K.’ is going to be a treat.
Following their attempts to irritate the mainstream, the comedic conceit of pensioner and son team Derek and Dave Philpott, bring piss take pedantry to the punk scene during lockdown. A gentle, John Shuttleworth style finger of fun in a driving glove, their ribbing of the great and not so good of Britain’s bands, sees them picked up for the general construction and meaning of their lyrics. Or somewhere that the anarcho world of the Subhumans and the street punk of Blitz can come together to cogitate on the maintenance of different heating systems.
Fortunately, if you want your band members to have an awareness of the ridiculous than just about everyone is in on the joke, but if if you derive any satisfaction from feet of clay poking out from bondage trousers, you will be disappointed. The responses reflecting well on those involved but I would have enjoyed some Sacha Baron Cohen style bemusement. Previous books highlighted non responders such as Wizzard’s refusal to debate that snowmen don’t ‘bring the snow’ and I wondered who had not replied this time.
Whether Wattie and the Exploited still don’t ‘give a fuck’ about ‘chaos’, and what that meant their stance on public disorder actually is, and if any of the supposedly big hitters were contacted? The thought of Lydon pacing furiously in his MAGA straight jacket one persistent image. His desperate need for attention maybe signalling another victim of the notoriously unreliable US Mail Service eh John?
Sometimes the paragraphs formed from song titles gets, as the Ruts DC seem to tentatively suggest, a little one note, and it undoubtedly helps the enjoyment of the book to have some idea about the Rebellion side of punk, but as I derived some amusement from bands I didn’t know, it isn’t a complete prerequisite. An ability to pen a sturdy Oi chorus not necessarily evidence of a sense of humour.
Perhaps unsurprisingly end of the pier turns like Splodge fare well, before the Membranes paint a picture of Blackpool’s psychedelic influence, and we travel the byways of the Thames Estuary with a Hot Rod. The Gang of Four manage to fly the flag for Marxist intellectuals, but as the voice of independence, I must report that it’s the Gonads and Garry Bushell, who prove particularly mirth some with their reasoning for why Karl was a Millwall fan.
Some time ago I managed to get myself involved in an exchange of words with the then editorial team of Louder Than War about the rules and regulations they wanted submissions to adhere to. If the Philpott’s book had existed then, it might have saved me the bother of trying to illustrate the incongruity of applying them to punk. Now in the spirit of DIY and not caring that your audience might be a bit limited, it left me awake wondering if I was taking too seriously people taking things too seriously, and why it was not just its contribution to homeless charities, that made ‘Grammar Free’ better than buying another edition of ‘England’s Dreaming’.
18 April 2021
Jon picked his way through the boxes to get a closer view of the cars crawling past his window. What moments earlier had looked like a choreographed exit from the paved driveways was now at a virtual standstill. The heads in a procession of predominantly black Range Rovers, all remaining rigidly pointing ahead, apart from a boy in the same green school uniform as all the other children who was smiling at Jon. Acknowledging him with a wave before the stare of the boy became a little uncomfortable, Jon then pretended to look for something amongst the dust that sprung up in the sunlight every time he opened a packing crate.
After briefly considering the titles inside, that he knew were going nowhere until the book cases that were at the other end of the room were reassembled, Jon started flicking through the piles of records which consumed much of the floor around him. For reasons consistent with his character, he almost immediately fixed on the gaps where albums had been sold, rather than the hundreds which remained with little likelihood of ever being played again. Putting the likes of a Velvet Underground or Nirvana cover on the walls briefly amusing him as he looked up and contemplated the blinding white of the house decor.
One advantage being that if they were put as high as the electrical sockets should be, they might be safe if the flooding which had made the house affordable, was to return. Most importantly moving to a housing estate on a flood plain meant he could at last stop pissing money up the wall of a buy to let landlord’s property. The insurance was twice as much but with the drains being cleared while the pumping station was repaired, that was a chance he would take. The mixture of anxiety which this caused, prompting Jon to open the windows in an attempt to address the oppressive atmosphere of a house, he had so far failed to turn the central heating down in.
Unfortunately, while his peripheral vision told him the cars outside had moved, the faint whiff of a fusty almost fetid smell took him back to the house viewing, and his uncomfortable exchanges with the owners. Finding the address in amongst the circuitous roads and properties which only seemed to differ slightly in terms of size hadn’t been easy, but after arriving on time he was immediately walked through to the room Jon was in now. Here he couldn’t help noticing that the family were sat facing an exact mirror image of the enormous photograph of themselves over the fireplace. The tattoos of what he presumed to be the two children’s names on the parent’s wrists which were somehow clearer over the fire, prompting a disquieting image of concentration camps that shook what composure Jon had left.
“Help yourself. It’s pretty much a blank slate.”
This seemed to arrive from nowhere and Jon seemed to take a lifetime to respond. It wasn’t until he negotiated the stairs and went into the front bedroom that Jon was brought back to the here and now by a photograph of the woman from downstairs in what he would subsequently discover was a boudoir shot. That and a wall stencil over the bed which ordered the occupants to ‘Always Kiss Me Goodnight’ combined with the stifling heat, to give the spittle coating his mouth the bitter taste of nausea.
In spite of this with everything being fastidiously clean and barely any furniture to disguise anything, he had already decided to make an offer on the already bargain price, so didn’t need to spend any longer with the family than necessary. Particularly when the upstairs photograph made it difficult to look at the woman on the couch, who along with her husband, seemed to have capsized into ill-judged fillers and plumpers since then. So much so that Jon turned to the French doors at the end of the room and began to feign interest in a patio which was overlooked by so many other houses it felt like he was in an aquarium.
Back then he needed to get out before changing his mind about bidding for the house. Now he needed to get up off the floor of the house and the boxes of books that surrounded him to tackle the first bit of DIY he had ever looked forward to: consigning that bleedin’ sentiment over the bed to history.
Jon awoke to a penetrating shaft of light from the gap where last night’s hastily erected sheet had come away from the curtain rail. His momentary disorientation compounded by being wrapped in a duvet which was using his sweat to adhere itself to him. After peeling himself from its sticky clutches to roll off the mattress and notice in the mirrored wardrobes that the stencil over his head remained visible, he forced himself to recount last night’s pep talk.
Today it was Jon’s blank slate and he was going to start again with the house. Coming downstairs to be greeted by a paper on the mat he wouldn’t be seen dead with, further focusing his mind on the day ahead. On the walk to the shops he went past a show home and half built houses stretching off into fields. An estate agent was pacing up and down the mock living room like a caged animal, and while the prospect of her pouncing might ordinarily have preyed on his mind, he reasoned that they had already done their worst.
A fatalism which stood him in good stead as he passed by the Hart’s Builders flags and the promotional leaflets which blew across the road and congregated again to form a soggy mess stuck in a drain. The terrible predictability of the ‘Home is where the Hart is’ branding seeming to swirl around him before he reached a roundabout. Here the cars on it replicated the log jam from outside the house almost perfectly and generated enough fumes to burn his eyes. For Jon this was an opportunity to avoid the stare of the cars which kept catching up with him, and look in the windows of the clothes shops that ringed the car park of the retail park, before being directed inexorably to the giant supermarket.
Once inside the range of fast food outlets before the shop gave the place the feel of a motorway service station. After negotiating the people waiting to be served the space opened out and he went straight to the island that the newspapers were on. With piles of everything except the one Jon wanted, and booming voices echoing around the shell of the building, it was left to a feeling of condescension to drive him deeper.
He finally found the reduced section being swarmed by people. The flesh mountain which surrounded the cheap cheese and bargain meat turning his thoughts to the size of the competition. People who seemed to have spent the majority of their lives in a gym or others who didn’t look like they had set foot in one, entangled together like rutting cattle.
With no place for his beanpole frame Jon decided it was time to get out. Past the multiplex cinema that was devoting all its screens to the same blockbuster and towards the ‘village pub’ that he had noticed on the opposite side of the roundabout. That neither was true being confirmed by a smell which greeted his entrance that suggested a home improvement store and children running in from the climbing frame on the edge of the gigantic car park. After negotiating his way inside, the stools that surrounded the raised tables whose surfaces were largely taken up by wine lists and different menus for different times, looked like another hazard.
Seeing the impregnable red wall around the bar gave him further cause to regret his decision, before he remembered using football as a way of talking to people. So when the crowd at the bar started to scale the stools around the giant screen before kick-off, Jon got a drink and positioned himself carefully on one that was unoccupied because it was behind a pillar. During the game no one spoke to him but his eavesdropping made him want to ask when the people who lived around here had moved from Manchester or Liverpool. More a question of attaching themselves to success in the misguided belief it made them the same thought Jon, as his smugness went up in proportion to the amount of lager that went down.
When people left after the football he went and sat at a lower table which had a card that read reserved until 8 pm. During the afternoon the half time updates and final scores came and went as Jon become immersed in the floodlit chrome which was reflecting numerous images of his face. On about the sixth or seventh drink, being the centre of attention prompted him to try some banter with the barman about frustrated Scousers, that fell flat before he left as it began to get dark.
Repeatedly mulling the day over and even sometimes thinking it had gone well, probably contributed to him getting lost on the way back to the house. Jon becoming aware he had taken at least one wrong turn after passing the same houses over and over on what felt like his own terrible fairground ride. The sense of disorientation being exaggerated by every house being open to see into, and every sofa being occupied by a family, that resembled the one that used to be pictured over his fireplace. All of whom were staring in the general direction of screens which were showing the same episode of some sort of talent show.
Walking in ever decreasing circles he finally located the house and the contemporary light over the entrance helped him get the key in the lock. Realising if he went to sleep now he would awake early and tomorrow would last for ever, Jon went upstairs to prize the lid of the paint, and using the roller next to the bed applied a generous coat to obscure the writing over the headboard. To celebrate this success, he removed the bubble wrap from his prized Edward Hopper print and utilised the hanger from the picture in the front room to plant a flag on enemy territory.
The first thing Jon saw was tiny pin pricks of blood before his eyes which turned out to be a fine mist of burgundy paint on his pillow from last night. His head pounding as he replayed a jumbled version of yesterday before noticing the stencil staring back at him. As he reached for tablets in the stupefyingly warm atmosphere, the beer soaked silence was broken by an almost bowel loosening crash.
In what he may later characterise as extreme bravery, Jon ran downstairs in a flurry of pipe cleaner arms and legs, before sliding on the shiny surface of the magazines from the paper he had cancelled at the bottom. After picking himself up the sight that greeted him in the front room was shards of glass and splintered wood from where his picture frame had dinted the mantelpiece on the way down. Now lying there, just about propped up at the bottom like a broken fire guard, it seemed so poignant Jon tried to think of something else to stop himself from crying.
He settled on clearing books from the sofa and putting them in carefully aligned piles on the floor. Taking their place, he then stretched out and attempted to return to sleep. Almost immediately the exertion and the towelling dressing gown he had thrown on caused him to get up again.
Opening the windows only resulted in a smell of burning flesh which caused him to lay back down. With his head parallel to the spines of one particular body of words his thoughts turned fancifully to absorbing the essence of a Carver, Mishima or Selby Jr. The sooner the better because he felt like Phillip fucking Larkin.
Or Tom Waits in ‘What’s He Building’. Outside men with beards, who appeared to have put their heads on upside down, or older ones who bought their clothes in camping shops were hitting things with tools. The two merged into a cacophony in Jon’s head, which made him wonder whether spending a bank holiday doing what you did at work all week, was any worse than writing about it. With peace impossible he returned upstairs to run a bath that was cool enough to sit in and attempt the most desultory wank in the world.
To combat the condensation that was running down the walls, Jon pushed the window ajar. Outside the scene was coming to life. Away from the sheds and garages each garden had a slightly different permutation of garden furniture with what seemed like a compulsory hot tub for later. Alone in wondering why people bought houses and then replicated it all outside, his eyes eventually focused on next door. Here there was a basketball hoop with a stand and a gigantic trampoline which covered nearly all of the garden that hadn’t disappeared under decking.
Despite the trampoline being positioned against the regulation size fence he could see the children bouncing from everywhere in the house. The rhythm and rigidity of their appearances over the top of the panels making them appear like they were moving as one to the sound of a dreary old punk band. As he stood there his head began to pulse in sync with them and Jon decided it was codeine time again.
Back in the bedroom with his eyes not accustomed to the gloom he pulled down the sheet in an attempt to find them. At first sight the children having formed themselves into a motorcycle display type formation under the basketball hoop made him step back. Then the smallest boy pulling himself even higher on the hoop and forcing his head through the netting, caused Jon to forget his nakedness and move forward to stand at the window.
As he did the pyramid of children collapsed into giggles, while the boy in the netting started to thrash his legs as his neck got more and more enmeshed in a structure which now resembled a gallows pole in the shadow of the mid-day sun. Even Jon’s reluctance to get involved was shaken but by the time he began gesturing towards the spasming body the hangman’s jig was coming to an end. With this the boy slipped clear of the ring, and crashed onto the ground, as in the corner of his vision the man of the house raised a piece of charred meat on a barbeque fork.
Simultaneously the other boys to move out of Jon’s field of vision. His wide eyes were then drawn back to the prone figure jack-knifing upright and shaking itself like a waterlogged dog. It was only when he looked up and smiled up at the window that the realisation of it being the boy from the back of the car on his first day in the house hit home. Jon now knowing exactly how hot he had been, when he went cold as the banging on his front door began.
Just before they left home it had begun to rain incessantly. As they neared their destination this deluge become even more apparent as it bounced back up from the water which was starting to collect in the tracks of machinery surrounding their son’s estate. After this the journey made the mother and a step father who often despaired of Jon, exasperated with each other as they tried to find him again.
With the visibility making it impossible to see house numbers, mother decided against her better judgement to ring but by the time she had manoeuvred around her mobile in a moving car and Jon hadn’t answered, they were still lost. When her ring tone tried to make itself heard over the rain hammering on the roof like a construction worker on crystal meth, Jon informed mother that the house was the one without a car on the drive. The terseness of the response to a request for Jon to stand in the window for them, being apparent to step father even with her attempts to make conversation.
When they finally pulled into the only available space on what he was fairly sure was the right road, step father decided to wait while mother made her way to the front door as quickly as possible. Peering through the condensation of his windscreen he could just about make out her knocking. After an interminable wait, step father just made out it open wide enough for him to see Jon in the same dressing gown as usual.
Taking this as his cue to get out the car and get the tools that Jon didn’t have from the boot, he got as far as putting one foot outside, before mother hissed at him.
‘He doesn’t want the bookcases put up anymore.’
There was a temptation for step father to let his head slump against the steering wheel in frustration, when the number of times he had moved his shit from place to place came to mind. A sensation which gave way to relief, as he reversed the car through the spray it was generating and onto the road which ran alongside the house. As they pulled away mother waved furiously at what looked like a deserted front room window to him.
21 February 2021
‘A prisoner of war?’ Even Brian sounded shaken out of his lethargy by this. Since answering the phone and mumbling the ward name, he had been silent and other than his increasingly quizzical expression, gave nothing about the call away. Now he became positively loquacious by ending it with promising to, ‘send someone over’. The unexpectedness of the exchange only matched by the predictability of who he would be volunteering.
Prior to this the night shift had been proceeding as usual. Myself and a new care assistant, whose only qualification for the job seemed to be that he knew Brian, eventually managing to get every patient into bed at the same time. Apart from Geordie, who remained in the day room, because making him go just created work. As we no longer had to man handle him into bed, and I studied him from the office, his role as a geriatric R P McMurphy took on heroic proportions. A status which aligned with mine, after Jim the departing Charge Nurse, said the Newtown Neurotics logo visible through my shirt and tie wasn’t appropriate.
The tee shirt stayed on as I walked down the freezing cold corridors of the hospital. That Jim had picked on my attire, when Brian and his mate looked like they had come straight from the allotment, heating up the walk to the admission ward. A sort of relief being engendered by these cavernous spaces being incapable of stopping the wind blowing in and creating a perfect ghost story backdrop at this time of night. That nothing ever happens, no matter how many times I trudge spaces which have witnessed more pain and torment than anywhere else imaginable, my rebuke to the existence of a spirit world.
In reality, it’s the living which trouble me. More specifically at this moment in time, spending hours with some squaddie who thinks he’s got shellshock. Having to listen to how he is unable to function in society after six months in Aldershot, and all about a fight with the blokes from the big city who get the train to the market town near his barracks, because the pubs were open for the afternoon.
Arriving at my destination I am relieved it is not the place opposite. The unfortunately named Speedwell being the site of a particularly nerve jangling Saturday morning shift, that resulted in a nurse telling Jim I had stunk of booze. Opening the other door, I am immediately face to face with a distressed looking man in a worn out dressing gown, bathed in a jaundiced looking glow from the incandescent lighting. My side step and attempt at a cheery greeting going unacknowledged by someone who clearly had more on his mind than swapping pleasantries.
At the office a pleasant enough woman greeted me from a chair at the opposite end of the room.
‘Hello there. You here to do the one to one?’
‘Yeah that’s right.’
‘Good. I don’t suppose Brian put you in the picture?’
‘No afraid not.’
‘Right then, well to be fair it is all a bit name, rank and serial number. The police brought him in after somebody let off some tear gas in a pub down Spring Bank.’ That this sounded like something a football firm would do to get their rivals out of a pub for a fight, caused a surge in apprehension that made me forget the lines I had been rehearsing.
Thankfully perfectly pleasant rose from her seated position, and made her way past a man who was sat on the desk swinging his legs, in a way which was making me unsure why he wasn’t doing what I had been nominated for. As I followed her down the corridor she continued to update me.
‘It’s all the enemy combatant stuff and knowing his rights under the Geneva Convention which seems to have thrown everyone.’
‘Yeah it is a bit of a worry’.
After taking a hard right into a side room we almost concertinaed together after she stopped abruptly a couple of paces in. The congestion in the shabby looking space apparent over her shoulder, as a young woman who had presumably been my warm up act, slid her way out.
‘This gentleman has come to sit with you now Alan’.
With this the medium sized man who was laid on the bed in a slightly too small American GI’s outfit, grabbed a canvas hat from his side, and stood to attention in one move. His eyes fixed straight ahead and moustache twitching with concentration. The display of discipline being slightly undermined by the rawness around the pupils and smell of someone who had stood too close to a firework display.
‘I’m guessing you’ve heard of Barry Nuttall and his Army’. Now stood alongside the woman in charge, I nodded an affirmation which hoped to correspond with the seriousness of Alan’s body language. On particularly dull days at work the parochial paper highlight was updates about a platoon of battle re-enactors who had occupied a street where their houses once stood. All complimented by pictures of jeeps and pretend rifles to keep the bailiffs away from living rooms which had been recreated with rubble. A flag, raised like something from the Battle in the Pacific, but with the local infirmary and a cluster of kids in grim up north Rugby League shirts forming the background.
‘Well this man here thinks they’re really at war and because he has been taken prisoner it’s his duty to try and escape. That right Alan?’
‘I’ll leave you to get acquainted then’.
As the only light came from the corridor outside, the room had a subdued feel, but after Alan returned to the bed and I sat on an armchair, that positioned me just above his eye level, the atmosphere soon felt oppressive. Just as I was about to comment on what sounded like rain outside, he tentatively announced, ‘I’m not really going to escape’.
‘Good. I wasn’t gonna do much to try and stop you’.
‘I only said about the Geneva Convention so they didn’t stick me in the same clothes that poor sod behind the front door has got on. The stuff I’ve been spouting just comes from war films. Colditz and that’.
‘Right’. Alarmingly for Alan he was starting to sound increasingly sane while most of my POW experience came from The Bridge On the River Kwai. The elephant in the psychiatric side room blowing chunks when I asked, ‘Do you think you’re at war then?’
‘No, what do you think I am, fuckin’ mental?’
‘Well, no, but it is kind of supposed to be one of the requirements’.
‘Look, I’ve been arrested before, and I thought this would be cushy compared to Queens Gardens.’ That this was the police station in town I knew from my own incarceration made me consider sharing my own story in a bid to empathise. The moment passing as I remembered a crime spree which ended in my arrest for stealing Subbuteo players. The subsequent court appearance, seeing me convicted of the theft of ‘toy footballers’ in front of the big lads from school I was trying to impress, not what I had envisaged at all.
‘We was just sat minding our own business in Polar Bear, when the band finished and somebody let all that bloody smoke off. By the time the coppers turned up, I was outside looking for everybody, and it seemed like a good idea. A lot of the people round near us think we’re weird anyway, so I thought it might work’.
‘Problem is I think it has’.
Following attempts to integrate me into society, and a recent Psychology O Level, I knew all about the people who got themselves detained in hospital for pretending they could hear a voice saying ‘Thud’. The bloke at the entrance had probably sussed him out already, but if the ones in the experiment with middle class manners couldn’t get out, then Alan was well and truly beat. By now, continuing to hold his hands up and take the medication that had his name on, the only way back to the barricades before he really went mad.
His face and the magnitude of the situation caused me to ask, ‘What’s Barry like then?’
‘He’s a good bloke. I know him from when he worked the doors and did djing in pubs. He did up the jeep and that so it’s fair he’s in charge. The papers seem to like it’.
‘Right.’ He struck me as a bouncer who wanted to play at soldiers and make sure he was the one in the photos wearing a tin hat. ’Knows Joe Longthorne doesn’t he?’
‘Yeah we all do but Barry borrowed his Cadillac to get married in’.
While silence enveloped us, we both took recourse in our different memories of the talent show winner. A friend of someone I know found herself drunk in the reception of a Blackpool B&B and face to face with a poster promoting Joe on the Pier. Taking advantage of the early hour to add a discreet little Hitler moustache, all was forgotten until she told a boyfriend who had grown up where Longthorne had been a tatter before he made it. The incongruity of his outburst starting the sort of painful, juvenile giggling, that was only added to by him writing off Shirley Bassey.
Alan had turned to face me, olive green trousers rucked further up his legs as a result. On night shifts when tiptoeing into sleep, I would sometimes construct a scenario where my true vocation was as a journalist employed to change history with vivid exposes of Yankee imperialism. In the last remaining strong hold of the rebel army I was trying to grab some sleep before myself and Martha Gellhorn ventured out of our bombed out building once again. The sound of shells exploding and men returning from vicious hand to hand fighting helping me to relax.
‘It’s still about the houses though. I’m back home with me Mam since they knocked mine down.’
‘That must be difficult,’ the best I could offer through the gloom and my increasingly dry mouth.
‘Difficult! If I go out she wants to know when I’ll be back, and if I did get luck there’s nowhere to go. Even if we could go in the front room, the sofa’s still wrapped in plastic to keep it new. It’s like being a bloody teenager again. No offence.’
‘It’s not even helped with getting me tea cos I could just walk down the back ten foot from my old house anyway. Back then there was a fish shop, and another for fags and stuff if you ran out, and if that was shut there was always some old dear stood on her step to cadge one off.’
I hadn’t thought to ask about smoking. As it might be a bit of a performance in here I decided to not say anything. Maybe he had stopped in case a sniper picked him out.
‘Not to mention letting you know when the rent man was due or who was getting off with who. Now they’re moving me to the middle of bloody nowhere and the world’s biggest council estate. Bathrooms would be good, but unless you’ve had a really big night out, nobody near me wants to spend their time in there. I stayed in last night and watched The Godfather again. D’ya think a gangster ever goes to the lav and just has a shit?’
Suppressing a yawn, I could do nothing but grimace. The pedant in me getting his head down, as it was actually rumoured to be Europe’s largest housing development, that my grandparents had already been banished to. Having an indoor toilet being better than good when facing the cold in winter or circled by angry wasps in summer. Other perils waited on the Bransholme boondocks. Most alarmingly teenage men with bum fluff taches, bursting out of three star jumpers, and beating my school sports teams before they had got off the coach. On holidays this posh boy sat, with his even posher brand new public school step brother, in a bush near an enormous roundabout that offered the best sight lines for escaping attack.
We ran back to Grandma through the strange little underpasses that went under flats near their house. Something made more difficult by the gigantic coats we had to pretend to wear because she had already lost boys to pneumonia. Doctors, who dismissed her as hysterical when she said they were ill, admitting her to this very hospital when she not unreasonably lost the plot. Here they saw some sort of recovery, when she had the ECT which my Grandad had to authorise, before bombarding him with the ward crockery when he visited.
Grandad stood in the middle of a front room which was really at the back of the new house because the front faced a wall. His silent consideration of the permanently windswept space out back, interrupted by the daily expedition to the Centre. Before their move he had been a gas man with neighbours wanting him to fix things or keep the meter ticking over. Here we traipsed there and back undisturbed with me making up the numbers because of the record stall at the Centre. The isolation meaning ‘Toilet Love’ by Wayne County and the Electric Chairs in brown vinyl would be waiting for me years after its release. Back in the house, with layers of irony too complex to unravel, I laid in bed listening to people fuck and fight their way home from the Telstar nightclub in the Centre.
I was less surprised to see Grandma in the room than I might have imagined. Even stood on a step ladder and leaning over to reach the far corner of the window she was scrubbing. The shammy leather in her hand splashing onto the bed as she twisted to look at me. Asleep with his moustache moving rhythmically to the sound of snoring, Alan would wake a victim of water torture if he turned over.
‘You’re dripping on him Grandma.’
‘Whoops. It is a bit cosy in here. Who’s your friend then? I remember them.’
‘No Americans. During the War’.
‘Oh right yeah. Its confidential. The doctors and what have you will be coming round soon.’ This wasn’t strictly true but seemed the best way to stop the cleaning. Since the curtains had been opened my head had appeared as if dismembered by the window frame. The faint outline of the trees outside looking like a windblown crown of thorns.
‘Right then, I’ll finish up here and start somewhere else. You’re looking thin are you eating properly?’
‘I’m fine. You’re looking well.’ She was half a century younger than the last time I saw her, and wearing an outfit which could be considered excessive for cleaning, but was always to be expected if there was any chance of seeing a doctor. Thankfully now down from the ladder, she was doing up the duster coat that had been hung in the rooms ramshackle wardrobe. The sort of well buffed shoes I imagined my Grandad had brought his military experience to, either side of a steaming bucket of water, as her face took on a serious countenance.
‘Thank you. Wrap up warm its siling down out there.’
I jolted upright with the sort of neck that held my head off the back of a chair to preserve the Hanoi Rocks hair do I no longer had.
‘The cavalry’s on the way lad’.
Moments later a double pleat chino clad groin, which was no respecter of personal space, was telling me to, ‘Just let them know you’re off and everything’s okay.’
‘Yeah will do’.
‘This one alright for you?’
‘He was fine thanks’.
As I rose cautiously and conceded the chair to the new man, a stare and then a wink fixed on me.
‘Put a word in for me eh?’.
‘You take care Alan’.
The office door was closed this morning. I tapped and opened it a fraction before inserting the top half of my body in at a 45-degree angle and declaring that I was, ‘getting off’.
Leg swinger remained in situ on the desk and broke off from addressing the day staff.
‘Steve McQueen still with us then. How was he?’
‘Oh just the same.’
‘Right we’ll put something in the notes and let you get on. Cheers.’
With the call of the journey to bed, that saw me heading in the opposite direction to a world going to work, I set off for base and my bike lock. Sunlight making a half-hearted attempt to break through the bird crap on the conservatory roof of the central building, and a confused panopticon set in motion by the wide eyed patients on the smoking carousel inside. Saving them from a smile as weak as the day, a decision to nip into the canteen toilets to take off my tee shirt, as I remembered Jim was back on shift.
2 January 2021
After wasting time highlighting the functions on the meter, his reluctance to leave made me wonder if he was expecting another drink. Or if his expression was the face of someone needing to make room for more, and not knowing whether to ask. Thankfully he didn’t because it would have to really stink up there.
‘You got anything by Terry Pratchett,’ finally revealing he was looking at my bookcase and speaking like he was in Waterstones.
I knew where this going. So with a box load of Disc World stuff in the garage I wasn’t going to admit to, replied pointedly, ‘No he wasn’t really my cup of tea’.
‘Shame. I heard his stuff has gone through the roof since he died.’
He was right but the last thing the trade needs is more amateurs thinking its easy money. Pratchett makes them think it is because his departure had been signalled for years by documentaries and God knows what, announcing he was on borrowed time. Combine this with a fan base that has shed loads of disposable cash, because they only leave the house for Science Fiction conventions, and this didn’t require any skill. Don’t get me wrong though, this is the sort of pay dirt which keeps me going and probably won’t be topped until I can shift that pile of Carrie Fisher books, or Harrison Ford crashes his helicopter again. Thankfully the workman seems to have lost interest as by the time I look up he has packed up and gone.
I started before the internet and my condition had deteriorated to where it has become my only income. Back then it was midweek mail order adverts at the end of magazines or record fairs at the weekend. Usually held in the function rooms of dated hotels or around the dance floors of clubs, at a time on Saturday mornings were the life from even earlier hours felt like it was being extinguished. Something which was effectively achieved by shuffling around rooms that were populated by men who had absorbed the essence of their collections and were planning to leave with both intact.
On one such occasion I was stood behind someone monopolising the end of an alphabetical sweep of tapes, which occupied the entirety of two decorating tables. Attempting to divert my attention from the dandruff which speckled his jacket, and a game of one-upmanship about Neil Young tour dates, looking down at the swirl of the carpet caused me to gag on the memory of my night before. For the first time, the forbidden knowledge that this had been funded by selling records for 50p a go to a second hand shop, causing a brief burst of positivity about the deal. Furthermore, as the music coming from behind each trader was filling the room with all the vigour of a sound system clash in an Uncut editorial meeting, it was easy to hear the conversation at the other end of the pasting bench. Here with two comprehensively patched youths proclaiming loudly about the dearth of Bon Scott bootlegs, came a possibly too good to be true, AC/DC light bulb moment.
Coinciding with a Prozac nation and the dead at 27 Club giving it something to hang on, didn’t do any harm either. First up was Cobain and a relationship which went back to a pub, and the arse end of a bill which saw them upstaged by a fat lad called Tad, who stole my thunder by shitting himself on stage. Nirvana being my closest to a Pistols at Free Trade Hall story, I should say they changed my life, but that just carried on as they got bigger.
Enough to have William Burroughs thinking you were overdoing it and being circled by thousands in a field to watch. A Sunday at Reading that was always heavy with the weight of accumulated hangovers, being as apt a place for Nirvana’s last stand, as the year grunge sunk. Mudhoney were pelted with mud, and after L7 returned fire with tampons, I plotted the driest route to the bar, before attempting to use using identikit people in a sea of brown to return. Eventually rising from the puddle I had given up trying to keep my shoes clean in, to see his arrival on a comedy wheelchair that still confirmed all bets were off. The poignancy of which didn’t stop me stock piling his trademark Daniel Johnston tee shirt, for when demand was in danger of outstripping supply.
Onstage the day before was a Manic Street Preachers more interested in the grand statement and feigning disinterest in esoteric musical references. Indeed, I can confirm that notwithstanding the sale of Wedding Present albums to confused George Best completists when he finally disappeared down the tunnel, obscurity doesn’t pay. Of course everyone knows the Manics laughed when Lennon got shot but do they know the real reason? Buying a job lot of Beatles junk and ‘Double Fantasy’ albums from Spillers in Cardiff with their pocket money is why.
My first contact with chief ideologue Richey was in the doorway of a terraced house at the gig after slashing 4 Real into his arm. Back then what now seems like a cottage industry in speculation hung over the bombed out car park of the venue in Hull, as he huddled into a Parka which seemed as big for him as the world seemed too small. From then on anything from a signed copy of the Bible to a beer can lamp to find it became fair game. One that not being able to bring myself to cash in on when he disappeared, saw the hoarding which is now rationalised as waiting for his return from exile in a kibbutz.
Throwing myself into the dot-com revolution in memorabilia was a means to try and usage the feeling I was just like all the other fan boys. The correlation between them, and computers early adopters, meaning numerous opportunities to peddle stuff if I could master the technology. Training like a rat in a laboratory, eventually resulting in my debut on eBay, while various contrived questions on message boards ended in sales. Certificates of authenticity for autographs are usually done by the seller and often mean it’s a fake. In vinyl valley get them on fan sites and let a market which knows they aren’t going to be signing anything again decide.
As the necessity to brave the mildew at the collector fairs reduced, the number of things some people discovered in lofts, and others were keen to buy increased. From magazines to concert posters and crumpled up ticket stubs there was always somebody out there who wanted to trade. Badges even having a renaissance as punks who wanted to show which band they were in awe of bought handfuls of rusting tin to emblazon themselves with.
Of course the trick was to sell more than you bought and I ran out of space. Venturing to the end of the garden and negotiating the padlocks on the garage was daunting enough, before facing up to the mountain of old electrical items and paint tins inside. After each agonising period of tension, the smack of the bifold doors being hit by a ball, sent me scurrying back to the smallest room in the house. Thankfully a light existed under the garage grime, and after using the darkness to secrete the rubbish in the wrong bins, a layer of damp proofing paint I wasn’t convinced would work was finally applied.
Arranging my stuff, and placing the likes of the New Musical Express in the neat piles which always left a credible cover facing upwards, to impress the visitors I didn’t get, was most enjoyable. Comedians now considered dinosaurs on formats whose moment had passed, stacked alongside tapes of Bukowski slurring his way around America on a spoken word tour. All positioned chronologically on the shelves that had housed the previous owner’s tools. Less pleasing was the cardboard stand, which would leave Bill Hicks in a danse macabre with the capsized arms of a life size Amy Winehouse cut out.
Sat in the middle of this, on a piece of fancy lino that had survived the clearance, resisting the realisation it was starting to resemble a shrine was becoming impossible. Trays of Ramones bobble heads lined up as my personal Terracotta Army to guard the way in from the alley at the back. All springing into action and nodding furiously along to the Blitzkrieg Bop in my head when there was the slightest vibration outside. With the power of checking out proving never more apparent, I remembered the Ramones being pelted with bottles of piss when they appeared way down a bill with U2. Their presence making me excited enough to buy both tee shirt designs before the first time I saw them, and remembering they had both been lost when Topshop started selling them.
Nobody saw them being bigger than Bono. Or the albums I had sold becoming fetishised as a lifestyle accessory that the militant wing of the speculative fiction crowd would go to any length to pay and display for. Rubbing themselves against it when their partners go out to play ironic bingo. Every cloud as they now pay their friendly local second hand dealer, hundreds for Crass records that have ‘pay no more than £2’ stamped all over them. If you catch them eulogising about the sound of vinyl, bundle them into the back of a car and bring them to my lock up, where I will play them Nagasaki Nightmare single on repeat, to see how long they get on with the warmth of the experience in here.
The neglected building was tucked out of sight as if it was something of an embarrassment to the rest of the hospital. Used as a storage facility in the recent past the cobwebs and redundant medical equipment had been removed but the shell remained a time capsule. One in which with everything else being chip board or plastic, only the olive green tiling which stretched past a deserted reception, remained to suggest the satisfying excess of an old fashioned public swimming baths.
Our room was right at the end of this central corridor, with the door propped open by a disused oxygen tank. Once inside I’m tempted to lighten the mood by pointing at it, and worrying about the mess if we all go up, but decide they look like too tough a crowd. Curtain runners from a former life remaining intact but any notion of privacy is immediately sacrificed to the production line of shit factory.
Apart from a harassed nurse behind a desk in the corner, the outer walls are occupied by people attached to drips of various medication. Once attached to a cannula, the whole process conducted to an intermittent beat of machines bleeps, designed to indicate a blockage in a tube or that another colourless bag of liquid was empty. The occasional missing of a vein, and the discharging of the drug into tissue causing a Popeye like eruption on my skeletal like frame, providing a distraction. Or the size of some of my fellow dung beetles suggesting they weren’t taking our weight loss regime seriously enough.
My pride that even with this competition, I had arrived like a ghost at the party, was broken with an invitation to move from the doorway and complete the questionnaire. The enquiries about frequency and urgency always striking me as ironic when I considered the distance back down the corridor to the one trap toilet. My machine and works dragging behind until the wheels get stuck on the third set of swing doors. For her part, the nurse’s demeanour was little better than mine, as if somehow asking me about the consistency of my stools didn’t seem to be how she had imagined her life turning out. What put a tin lid on it for us both, being a scan which showed me carrying a shit ball or ‘heavy faecal load’. Sounding like a band I wished I had been in, but actually meaning I was somehow explosively incontinent and constipated simultaneously, leading to a degree of hopelessness which saw me sat down and wired up as quickly as possible.
Even so, as the icy sensation of the drug began to meander aimlessly around my system, the news that confirmed I was literally full of shit, started to percolate in my mind and suggest possibilities. In the Soviet Union making bone music by pressing decadent western music onto X-rays was a risky business. Often sold around the edges of markets or in the underpasses leading to them, buying one involved furtively answering questions about your prospective purchase. The seller acting as a particularly uptight version of an independent record shop owner in order to establish you weren’t an undercover KGB officer.
So, for instance, getting that Kiss album to be surreptitiously hidden in a peasant songs compilation at your Kiev flat, involved knowing who the God of Thunder is. A quick internet search revealed that stick it on an X-ray of a pelvic area which looks vaguely like the body of a guitar, and back in the West people are still prepared to pay a fortune. We will just have to see whether having my compacted waste stuck in the middle reduces the value or provides a unique visual representation of musicians. Something which I would like to make clear, could not be less appropriate in the case of Kiss, who can always be relied on to shift merchandise.
After a few minutes of bleeping I was detached from the machine and left for an hour or so to see if I had an allergic reaction to the treatment. What happened was that a few moments of silence were broken by the young woman who was sat next to me using a phone to film herself and the surroundings. Her free arm sweeping the room before she announced, ‘I’m in a band and I’ve written a song to raise awareness about the illness. I might be able to use this for the video.’
I buried my head in the rucksack which contained a Kindle that was easier to locate than I suggested. The other old timers feigned an exaggerated show of interest in their paperbacks, before the woman sat on the other side of the tattooed tripod, finally mumbled an acknowledgement.
‘I go on the support group chat rooms but have you ever tried just talking to someone about it? They don’t know what you’re on about.’
‘It varies I suppose.’
‘That or they’re only interested in, you know, not making it in time. Has that ever happened to you?’
As the question fell to the floor, books were raised to act as shields against the irregularity of the exchange. The defenceless suddenly fascinated by the sorry looking bunting which surrounded a notice board and announced that ‘Not every disability is visible’. Something which seemed increasingly unlikely if my neighbour continued to film and share everything on the internet.
Out of habit I was upstairs in a box room scrolling through the sites I had saved as favourites on the computer. Half-heartedly scanning magazines to see who looked under the weather, or was stood outside court looking haggard and despondent, despite the idea of myself circling the battlefield looking for celebrity carrion being long gone. The futility of trying to predict the fate of whichever reality television star was being hounded by the tabloids, or writer who had internet mobs urging boycotts because their view was different, evident by my situation.
It wasn’t as if I had been dealing in Hitler’s old water colours. I couldn’t afford them and was now reduced to paying tribute to the bassist from a band I couldn’t remember if I went to watch at Glastonbury. Racing to get the footage on my timeline before somebody thinks I don’t care. Then sitting back with a sigh, and really considering our own onrushing mortality, before waiting for an album by a band that used to be good, or a band that sounds a bit like a band that used to be good.
Dealers driving a market which was going to rupture like a second hand colostomy bag. A generation waiting to make a killing on the bloke from Elbow and not realising they are the only people who have bought the stuff. To think it has sold for any other reason leaving such a low opinion of humanity it would be impossible to carry on.
Downstairs the abruptness of the knock suggests a delivery so I run downstairs before they leave it with a neighbour. I open the door to be met with my usual delivery man, and a perfectly adequate nod of acknowledgement, before he runs back to his van. The weight of the box he passes to me meaning I only just manoeuvre it around the door before it slips to the floor. A flash of the old excitement leading me to get the carving knife from the kitchen and return to cut my way through the tape before I move it. Inside is a Johnny Depp selection box, containing a Jack Sparrow fancy dress costume, and some half price Hollywood Vampires albums that nobody had ever listened to.
As I lower myself to sit on the stairs, I notice a letter which must have been delivered earlier, just sticking out from under the box. Dragging it clear I immediately recognise the typeface in the see through window and open the envelope with resignation. Inside the tone is matter of fact but asking me back for another scan at short notice, confirming to me that my broken inwards are damaged beyond repair. Finally accepting that nobody will be reading this and keeping it until I die, I walk down to the garage and begin to barricade myself in.
22 August 2020
From where he started work seemed to be everywhere. The distance to it increased by a decision to take a back road which was longer but less arduous than biking up the hill. A ride which sometimes saw him confirm he was still drunk from the weekend night before, by swerving in and out of the markings on the middle of the road.
Today being midweek meant a relatively clear head and a bag full of music papers to finish off. A thought which momentarily distracted him from the buildings which went past as he completed his journey up the drive. Apart from being called villas, there being nothing remotely grand about the staff quarters and converted social club, which appeared at random around the Victorian pile up of a main building. The squat brick construction with a clock tower to form the pinnacle, ensuring that every day lasted forever.
As he locked his bike up so as not to be blamed for someone absconding, a weather beaten woman who wandered the grounds putting drink bottles and cigarette butts in a carrier bag, appeared from nowhere. This had startled him the first time, but in the morning light and with his months of experience, he now found it somehow comforting. Less so the peacocks which had wandered over from the lawn that the men tended to, and who by turning their plumage into a wall of piercing blue eyes, caused him and the bag lady to shuffle off in opposite directions.
Following the men’s courtyard, the sun was turned off as he stepped through a side door. Here the fabric of the open plan bed space had been infused with a smell of cabbage and rotting flesh. The disembodied sound of snoring from behind the cubicle curtains was punctuated by a plaintive cry for attention. In what he knew was no consolation other than to make himself feel better, he left the locker room from hell mumbling, ‘it won’t be long now Alfred’.
Emerging from the gloom, the quantity of red, white and blue that was competing for dominance with the battleship grey of the day room made him stop. He considered the scene while attaching a clip on tie to the old school shirt he was wearing. Bunting was attached around the room with blue tack and groups of three balloons put in each corner.
In centre stage, a poster of a Union Jack with a golden image of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, that had been given away free with yesterday’s paper was over the television. Bracing himself, he entered the nurse’s office which functioned as a glass sentry point in the corner of the room, and attempted a cheery greeting.
‘Are you ready for the big day Steven?’ responded Joyce with genuine enthusiasm.
‘Why what’s happening?’
‘It’s just what we need after everything that’s been going on,’ smiled Joyce as Brian scurried past like a badger going back to his burrow.
He worked nights because no one would employ him during the day. Jim was already in position, and staring at what passed for the notes from the night, as this would take the place of a handover because Brian only stayed after the day staff arrived if someone had died.
Steven presumed nobody had as Joyce set off ready or not. The strip lights in the bedroom spluttering into life like the men beneath them, before transforming into a tanning shop glare seconds later. Unsurprisingly this increased the number of people shouting and Steven tried to discreetly open the curtains of someone who wasn’t going to belt him. Something which was as likely to be serious as Jim was to come out the office if it was.
Men often thought they were still at work, and while this could be problematic with plumbers who messed with the radiators or teachers who told everyone what to do, David had presumably worked in office supplies. His willingness to get out of bed, in what he considered a travelling salesman’s hotel, driven by the targets that still occupied his mind. Even if the half-mast trousers and garish patterned shirt that had been left out for him, gave the impression of someone who shopped at a charity shop for the colour blind. With a parting handshake Steven sent David to sell Jim a photocopier.
In the next bed, Claude was cooperative enough to be manoeuvred around onto a commode, before they both got soaked in piss. Running his hand over the draw sheet before sitting down, Steven looked at Claude. Being camper than a wedding and having worked in the theatre, he was often treated with amusement by the staff. Joyce had told Steven that a bouquet of white gladioli was always left at the main gates on his birthday.
‘How are you today Claude?’ The pause was long enough to wonder whether he had heard him.
‘I’m very thirsty.’
Steven thought it isn’t surprising with the shed load of drugs they give you, but said, ‘I reckon we can do something about that. Champagne okay?’
Claude smiled and Steven hoped he was recalling some particularly decadent experience in the West End.
Minutes later he was reminded to get on with it when Joyce shouted through for help with Alfred. With Claude ready, Steven walked towards the familiar scene of the curtains opposite Alfred being wide open, and Geordie laid on top of his sheets trying to beat some life into his disinterested member. Every morning the North East’s King of the Road either being ignored by whatever woman was within sight, or told dismissively to, ‘put it away’.
Meanwhile Alfred was sat on the edge of his bed, while Joyce battled to get brittle limbs into clothes, before completing the outfit with a red kipper tie that she thought was appropriate for today. As they lifted him up, and Joyce managed to position an enormous incontinence pad between his legs, a crater of a pressure sore which looked like a burning volcano became visible on the bottom of his spine. Steven winced and tried to remember to be more patient with the shouts for his mother.
After being lowered into a net chair on wheels, the journey to the dining room must have felt like being forced onto a waltzer. A scream if you want to go faster ride which nearly wiped Claude out as he wandered off in the opposite direction. He could be retrieved in a minute as it looked like David was sealing the deal with Jim as they went past the office and Steven smiled.
Enjoying herself now Joyce grabbed ‘Mad’ Max’s wheelchair and pushed him in and out to ‘Green Door’ by Shakin’ Stevens. Joyce was difficult to dislike but Steven was prepared to try when she insisted on local radio and calling him Shaky. She liked the song because the fifties were her ‘time’ so Steven planned to inflict a tape of the Cramps new album on her and husband Ted (his real name).
Thankfully the arrival of the food trolley began to mask the odour of Alfred, and as Claude came around for another lap, Steven sat him down. When the left overs and untouched food was collected Joyce raised her eyebrows at Steven as it went past. Jim had not gone wherever it was he went for his break, and Joyce couldn’t make the sausage sandwiches she maintained were because Steven was too thin. Last week they had just managed to put them in a drawer when he returned to work unexpectedly.
Sod’s law or suspicion saw Jim virtually follow the trolley out the door. Steven saw this as an opportunity to sit in the office and read the newspapers that were always delivered. If anyone asked, he would justify this as work because there was a white board on the wall which someone had decided should have the day’s headlines to go with who was working, written on it. This helped to ‘orientate’ everyone to where they were and what was going on.
‘I like this one’
A startled Steven looked up to see Joyce leaning through the doorway to collect the cigarette rations. Not wishing to always appear negative he said, ‘Yeah, it’s not bad.’
This resulted in the song about a bloke down the chip shop who thought he was Elvis being turned up. Steven thought there was more than that, and several who think they’re Jesus, in here.
The papers were wall to wall royalty. Even the local rag was still going on about the Queen opening the world’s longest bridge to nowhere. In the last few months Steven had been on a mission to chronicle the inner city riots which had broken out from Brixton to Toxteth. Then waiting to see how long it would take before an exasperated Joyce would rub this off the board. Today was more of a challenge, but after recording the staff and writing ‘Wedding’, he considered that ‘Thatcher Says IRA to Blame for Hunger Strike Deaths’, should do it.
Stepping back to admire his work he saw Joyce gesturing him over. The swirling smoke that was being highlighted by the light from the television making it almost necessary for her to say, ‘It’s started’. Claude pacing up and down in front of the screen wasn’t helping much either.
As Steven sat down between Geordie and Max, Joyce stood up from her seat. She returned with a pile of plastic Union Jack bowler hats and started to reach over the backs of the brown vinyl chairs to position them on the row of heads.
He presumed it was the scene in London which had caused her to remember getting them. The way up Ludgate Hill to St Paul’s Cathedral being lined with a number of wide eyed people in the same head gear. Behind those squeezed against the crowd control barriers were hundreds of people holding cardboard periscopes aloft. That this was intended to give them a better view, but in most cases was only providing a close up of another identical contraption, striking Steven as emblematic of something or other.
A BBC reporter then strode purposefully into shot and made straight for a man in a red, white and blue suit.
Her cut glass tones enquiring, ‘And when did you get here Sir?’
‘Tea time yesterday and I’ve not eaten so I don’t lose my place.’
‘My word that’s commitment. What in particular makes you want to be here?’
‘The kiss’. The man puckered his lips to illustrate, before outlining his plan to run up the Strand to the Palace, and open the bottle of ‘something’ he was saving for when the moment on the balcony arrived.
Next to him a pair of older ladies were sat on fold up chairs crammed against the fencing. This entailed the reporter leaning over but was worthwhile when she discovered they were East Enders who remembered the Queen Mum walking around the area in the War. One observing that, ‘We wouldn’t have churches or parks without them’, as the camera showed two skinheads in Union Jack tee shirts pushing their way alongside.
Just then Steven heard Jim approaching the day room with the rickety medication trolley and had to get up. Strictly speaking it could not be left unattended once it was unlocked, so Steven distributed the drugs, while Jim filled in the record cards that he attached to the inside of the hinged lid. In reality, he often took the yellow tablets or orange tinged liquid to the compliant patients, while the likes of Steven had to try and cajole everyone else. Even then, old lags would manoeuvre pills out of sight in their mouths, that would next be seen down the sides of chairs.
Somebody Jim would try to avoid if at all possible was Charlie. On the rare occasion it was unavoidable, Charlie would wait until he approached and turn to face the wall or, with a fleet of foot that belied a man of his age, dart off in the opposite direction. On one long night with Brian, Steven had dug out Charlie’s old notes to discover he was found as a baby in a bag at the gates, and by his teenage years ‘voices in the sky’ were telling him he needed to be ‘destroyed’. Today his frame was frozen in the shape of a crucifixion, which with one leg tucked behind the other, could only have been more striking with the addition of a cross. The sunlight coming in from behind his translucent pallor, making him appear like a sacrilegious stained glass window.
Steven took the bowler hat from Charlie’s head and went to sit down. Geordie was going on about the cigarettes which Joyce would have to construct, because everything fell out the paper when he made them. Instead he went into the kitchen to bring the sandwiches that had been covered in cellophane and placed on the side this morning. An acknowledgement of the special day being the slither of Battenberg cake on each plate. When he returned, Geordie was taking a deep drag on a roll-up and looking like all was right in the world.
‘Now we’re having a party, eh Joyce?’
‘Oh shut up’
‘Still not a patch on Ken and Deirdre’s do though’
Charles and Prince Andrew’s medals were overshadowed by Prince Phillip’s collection, while an aerial shot of hats, demonstrated the camera crew’s abilities. As the wait for the bride went on, Max patted Steven’s leg and asked how he was, before Diana’s arrival outside the Cathedral was met with a very English loosening of the tie. Voices shrieking with delight at a dress which was still going up the steps while Diana was at the altar. In Steven’s opinion she looked like Miss Havisham, if Miss Havisham had been based on a toilet roll holder, and Steven had known who Miss Havisham was.
As Diana was struggling to remember all Charles’ names, Steven noticed Max had gone silent. This was usually the precursor to a barrage of swearing and today was no exception. Joyce telling Max he was, ‘Spoiling it’ as ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ tried to drown them both out, and Steven’s grin became even wider when he realised it was time to go.
‘That’s me done Joyce. Are you here for the duration?’
‘Yeah. I don’t want to miss anything driving home.’
‘Fair enough. See you all tomorrow.’
‘Fuck off then!’ shouted Max.
In the shade of the bike sheds he swapped the lock for the Walkman that had been a birthday present. Digging it out from under the Melody Maker in his bag, before turning Motorhead and ‘No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith’ up really loud. Then, throwing down the tablets Geordie hadn’t wanted, Steve began to free wheel down the hill.
22 May 2020
As the well-oiled Axl Rose paean to booze cruising said ‘One bad mother, Got a rattlesnake suitcase, Under my arm.’
If an interest in railways has an image problem, then this exploration of the fatally romantic sleeper train may go some way to rescuing it from an anorak and Michael Portillo’s trousers. A praiseworthy endeavour which follows in the tradition of attempts such as Pete Brown’s chronicle of beer drinking around the world in Three Sheets to the Wind, to restore some of the original appeal to pursuits that should never have been hijacked. The central theme managing to cast a light on identity and globalisation whilst restoring some of the excitement to the pursuit itself.
Of course old habits die hard and restoring popular appeal runs the risk of alienating the core readership. This sometimes resulting in a balancing act which sees evocative descriptions of the Wagon-Lits that provided the glamour of the sleeper train service, countered with details of timetables, which to the more general readership would be more suited to a guide book. Thankfully the variation in sizes of track gauges is efficiently explained as countries making it difficult for their neighbours to invade.
The enormity of a Milan Central that seems to have enveloped Martin’s train
A military bent that is extended into a visit to a Scandinavia which saw ‘Fortress Norway’ as Nazi Germany used slave labour to build a line that stopped just short of the Arctic Circle. Night Trains journey in Norway takes place entirely in the daylight of the midnight sun. That Martin acts on the recommendation of a fellow British Rail employee at his father’s funeral part of a book which acts as a fitting tribute to a committed traveller and response to this island’s invigorated insularity. One mark of the writer’s success is that his attempt to get a photograph at a junction called Hell is entertaining enough to form part of the inspiration for this reader to undertake the journey.
For the lukewarm railway enthusiast, discovering Hitler’s appreciation of the Night Ferry may be superseded by incidental details such as his feelings for the Grand Hotel in Scarborough. To experience what is actually a train that is loaded onto a boat and secured by chains, Martin travels across the Baltic from Sweden on the Berlin Night Express because the British train ferry is no more. Thereby denying the less intrepid the novelty of using a seasickness bowl in each compartment or the ‘receiving pits’ that were aligned with the train toilets on the ferry. The overall decline in British railways attributed in no small part to a Transport Secretary in Ernest Marples, who appointed Beeching to close lines, and then avoided tax on his road construction company before fleeing to Paris on the Night Ferry.
Another pillar of the establishment in George Howard, the then Chairman of the BBC, attempted to put the use of a prostitute during a journey on the Orient Express down to expenses. Martin acknowledges the sex which often occurred on these journeys and the double compartments, which accessed a washroom from both sides, as sometimes facilitating it. Most spectacularly the blowing up of the train carrying Josephine Baker from Budapest by a Sylvester Matuschka was like something from a Freudian fever dream, motivated by obtaining sexual gratification from derailing trains. More routinely anyone who has spent a night in a shared sleeper compartment will recognise Martin’s stories of awkward if sometimes rewarding conversations, or laying in a bunk listening for the movement of fellow passengers, before negotiating the way out of a bunk to see where the train was.
On the Asian side of Istanbul, the magnificent if neglected Haydarpasa Station
Of course much of the glamour associated with an overnight train traversing its way across borders comes from Agatha Christie and the various adaptations of Murder on the Orient Express. As the Orient Express ceased to run in any of its incarnations in 2009 Martin opts to replicate a route which began in Munich, and went through Vienna and Bucharest, before arriving in Istanbul. It is the journey through Romania which proves the comedic high point of the book as food is offered which is not available, and enquiries for a ticket to Istanbul combine, to form a sense of déjà vu which is reminiscent of Fawlty Towers meets ‘British Rail circa 1974’.
If one mark of travel writings appeal can be to generate a sort of recognition factor, then Martins experience of Bucharest Nord station succeeds admirably. Roaming dogs just about visible through what seemed like a smoking competition, and a city where a hotelier with the splendidly apposite name of George Tache was waiting on my return with the bag I had lost. Generating an affection for a place which more than withstood a train ride to Transylvania, at walking pace past disinterested workmen, that may have been reminiscent of Ceausescu’s day and an Orient Express only he could afford.
A Vienna platform with a backdrop familiar to Greene
It was an Orient Express in 1929 that got stuck in a snow drift in Turkey which inspired Christie. Martin ended his odyssey at what was then Constantinople in a Pera Palace Hotel where early travellers could be carried from the station in sedan chairs and Christie stayed in a room that now costs three times more than his. References to other writers such as Graham Greene or Lawrence Osborne do emphasise the occasionally pedestrian style of Night Trains, and details of different compartment permutations indulge in too much of them, but then there are passages which elicit the frisson of excitement generated by this age of travel: the grandeur of dressing for dinner in a carriage with livery colours which increased the anticipation of an exotic destination, or returning to your compartment on a deep pile carpet that deadened footprints, and made the revolver that was recommended to early British passengers seem reassuring.
By the post war period Christie was more concerned with bed bugs and wrote of ‘the beginning of that dull routine, travelling by air.’ A commonplace occurrence which only increased as cheap flights became available and now leaves Russian Railways RZD as the saviour of overnight trains with its journey from Moscow to Nice currently Europe’s longest. Perhaps now with airlines under threat, a post Covid world is the ideal time to popularise the glamour of railway to everyone but the most hair shirt of climate protestors. Night Trains a timely reminder of what is missed by always flying over places, that is complimented by the likes of BBC’s Race Across the World, in illustrating how the journey can be better than being there.
31 October 2019
Sounds from the plaintive sigh of a dolphin trapped in fishing nets to a low frequency from the pits of hell, all the while the sensation of a particularly cack handed taxidermist scooping his guts out, riving his pounding head back and ramming a gigantic spoon deep down into his innards and scooping intestines out SPLAT goes the KIDNEYS against the wall before slithering down the mortuary wall and joining the pile of steaming OFFAL on the floor Finally he is at the legs, hollowing them out until he becomes the long stringy puppet of his creation
Thin. That was the word for him. Or it was the politest one that Raymond could think of as he stood there in his chef’s whites sweating like a bastard. What he did know was that the bloke across from the carvery was no sort of advert for his three meat Sunday lunch. Alarmingly he then took a few steps with an agitated ostrich gait before sitting near the entrance to the pub bogs looking like Bobby Sands with a better hairdresser. What the fuck was wrong with the fella? He seemed nervous, twitchy almost. His head pivoting towards his chair and the toilet doors while he was trying to position half a dozen garden peas on his plate. Looked as if he managed to burn his hand on the gravy ladle though. Seemed like some sort of sex case waiting for one of kiddies to run in after one coke too many or if Raymond hadn’t known better do his own sort of drug deal before shooting himself up in a cubicle.
Junkie yeah, mainlining steroids up this fingered and photographed arsehole twice a day should do it, bright side is some people pay to be laid on a bed with a nozzle up their jacksy, You try and keep that amount of juice up your rectum, Yeah You as for the bum gravy that was the watery way it broke clear of the Yorkshire PUDDING to settle with the Cranberry SAUCE and resemble something he had last seen on his hands and knees this morning that shook him Thank You very much
This was Raymond’s home and his castle. Albeit one painted in the lurid colours of a fairy tale and sporting a Kinder egg dispenser where the cig machine used to be. Granted the regulars could be more up themselves near the South Bay but you didn’t have to deal with SPICE Zombies asleep on your pool table in the week or women trying to cave their ex blokes head in with a stiletto on a Saturday night. Here it wasn’t just him and his ex either, the place had real people to order around but he always did the carvery on a Sunday as it was the nearest thing to the enjoyment of holding a barbeque at this time of year.
Like flies around shit in a MEAT based pub game, a sprint relay compared to the all you can eat marathon holidays these morbid LARDs specialise in And by Christ his brood were CHIPS off the block making their way home with Jenga like constructions before DAD took to the floor and blew them out of the full fat fizz: MASH and ROAST forming the base or the foundations if you will, before the MEATS are applied with care and BREAD SAUCE, the PORK had disappeared under the BEEF but he knew it was there TURKEY dry and white at the top of the pile. Backing away from the lights on the serving trays with a dexterity that SAUSAGE fingers saved for this particular spotlight. Couldn’t get down a train aisle without a lubricant and MEAL deal to concuss his fellow travellers with until he finally found the FAMILY seat and a studied individual was left with his a$$ cleft running along the lip of the plastic seat. Fat lad FOOD hoovered it was over to the mobility scooter and down to the sea front to fight seagulls for CHIPS
‘Cheers mate’ blasted Raymond. The reception for his signature dish a reassurance that eased nicely into contentment as he contemplated the huge Breakfast with Santa sign that was obscuring most of the road outside the pub. A pigs in blankets reverie that was shattered when he turned around to see only a Bisto smeared plate where the skinny twat used to be.
Trainspotting my arse. A quick assessment of the facilities before the selection of a cubicle with lock and roll, Trap secured, the heat oppressive enough to finally necessitate the removal of the coat Its hanging thankfully obscuring the name time and number to raise cleanliness issues which were written tidily on the back of the door Milena Please forgive me. It is time as the perspiration and throb spread, sense of self eroding as a mountain of artifice collects around the distended anus of the world Baby Shark pulsing through the cistern from the room behind and taking on an incantatory dimension as synapses fire in rhythm, delivering messages around a reverberating flesh case In this moment a harmony between bowel and fundament so pure, so intense as to blow from a bunghole with the broken pieces of law and system dancing a detritus death spasm on the flow. The whole shower of shit unleashed in a volley so transformative as to splash back through time, rising up around the rim of the acrid haze to eyeball a man with his trousers down sat in the end stall of three His dead eyed stare focused on phone and social media Mercifully the other end is unoccupied but serviceable with facilities that increase the euphoria and feeling of battle entered before avoiding a right across the frosted pain of toilet glass butt cheeks still in spasm during a fly past over the urinals and home. Contemplating the world the God of Shit sits resplendent on his CARAMEL throne, Empire extended and defiled This is Flush Fiction.
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.
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