I didn't know what the word 'factotum' meant so I googled it and lo
and behold, it means 'a person who does all kinds of work'. You learn
something new every day.
Factotum is also the title of Charles Bukowski's second novel,
published in 1975 though set just at the end of World War Two. It
chronicles him (or rather, his alter ego Henry Chinaski) going from
one dead end job to another, maintaining a healthy drinking habit
along with the inevitable hangovers. Going from one cheap boarding
house and rented room to another, encountering and more often than
not doing his best to avoid all the people in a similar situation to
himself. It's a bleak, miserable and depressing story but for all
that, it has its moments.
Chinaski's a writer and it's from his writing that he wants to make a
living but that's easier said than done. His constant drunkenness
thwarts him from holding down any job for very long but that's okay
because there's always another equally rubbish job to move on to. Or
at least there was in those days.
What's more troubling and far more depressing than the world as
depicted in Factotum is that nowadays if anyone gets a rubbish job -
and there are plenty out there that can suck the life, the blood and
the soul from you and all for a basic minimum wage - then they cling
to it like a drowning man to a raft in an ocean of circling sharks.
It's a constant state of despair battered further by the imposition
of austerity measures whilst the rich get richer. Is it any wonder
that when there's a riot, alongside lobbing bricks at police, people
make a grab for a few commodities out of smashed shop windows?
Chinaski's actually a very funny guy, talking to those he encounters
with short, wry comments loaded with an awareness of the absurdity of
the situation they're all in. There's also a cruel, mocking element
to many of his comments as if to say 'At least I know this is all
fucked up, which is more than you seem to'.
There's also, however, a respect for those ducking and diving in a
bid to get by and for those who are genuinely witty without even
having to try. Respect is also shown to those possessed of a similar
awareness, even if they're drowning it in booze as he is doing:
"Frankly, I was horrified by life, at what a man had to do
simply in order to eat, sleep, and keep himself clothed. So I stayed
in bed and drank. When you drank the world was still out there, but
for the moment it didn't have you by the throat."
One of the high points of Chinaski's confessions is when he receives
a letter from a New York-based magazine he admires by the name of
Frontfire that he's been sending countless stories to in the hope of
being published. Receiving rejection slips is the norm until one day
he returns home from another day at another rubbish job to find an
envelope addressed to him containing an acceptance slip for one of
his stories (entitled My Beerdrunk Soul Is Sadder Than All The Dead
Christmas Trees Of The World).
It's his very first acceptance slip and he can hardly believe it:
"From the number one literary magazine in America. Never had
the world looked so good, so full of promise." It's a very
sweet moment but is countered later on in the book when he tries to
get a job as a reporter with a Los Angeles newspaper. He fills out an
application form and surprisingly gets a telephone call back from
them:"Mr Chinaski?" "Yes?" "This
is the Times Building." "Yes?" "We've
reviewed your application and would like to employ you."
"Reporter?" "No, maintenance man and
It's yet another depressing episode being added to the pile though
coloured with a sense of humour to help swill the bitterness down.
Whilst employed at another rubbish job, he's called into the office
one day by the boss of the company who is sat there with another man,
both smoking expensive cigars.
"This is my friend, Carson Gentry," says the boss to
Chinaski "Mr Gentry is a writer too. He is very interested in
writing. I told him that you were a writer and he wanted to meet you.
You don't mind, do you?"
"No I don't mind," Chinaski replies.
The two men both sit there looking at Chinaski as they smoke their
cigars. Minutes pass. They inhale, exhale, and continue to look at
him without saying a word.
"Do you mind if I leave?" Chinaski asks. "It's
all right," says the boss.
Walking home later on, Chinaski ponders the difference between him
and the two men smoking their cigars who have sat there looking at
him in silence. "Were they that much more clever than I?"
he wonders. He concludes the only difference is money, and the desire
to accumulate it, along with the will to bleed and burn your fellow
man and build an empire upon the broken bodies and lives of helpless
men, women and children.
All that Chinaski wants is to be a writer, a problem being, however,
that almost everybody thought they could be a writer too. Almost
everybody used words and could write them down, meaning almost
everybody could indeed be a writer if they chose to. Fortunately,
Chinaski thinks to himself, most men aren't writers and some men -
many men - unfortunately aren't anything at all.
His dream is realised in the end, of course, and Chinaski (Bukowski)
over thirty years has thirty-two books of his poetry published, five
books of his short stories, four novels, plus the screenplay to the
film Barfly starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. Factotum too has
been made into a film starring Matt Dillon (which is up on YouTube,
as is Barfly).
Factotum is bleak, miserable and depressing though within its pages
are glimmers of hope and rays of light and that's much better and much more than a lot of other books I could mention.
The problem with someone (or something) like Psychic Sally is
that she's an epitome of putting a dollar onto everything. It's a
mindset of always thinking about how much money can be made from
anything? What's its financial worth? How much can it be sold for? In
Psychic Sally's case it's £24.50 per person, the cost of a ticket to
get in to see her perform when her Call Me Psychic tour rolls into
town. There's also Psychic Sally jewellery available alongside books,
DVDs, greeting cards, bags, T-shirts and candles.
I understand how we all live in a capitalist society and that we've
all got bills to pay so if you've got something to sell be it a
certain skill or your labour, your time or your talent then you're
inclined to use it so as to enable you to get by. Psychic Sally - or
Sally Morgan, to give her her real name - uses her psychic powers.
Sally's a medium, communing with the dead and passing on messages
from them to the living. I'm not interested in debating the truth of
this because essentially, everyone is free to believe what they like
and if anyone believes death is not the end then all power to them.
It's their prerogative just as it's the prerogative of others to
believe in what they wish be it reincarnation, angels, Heaven, Hell,
or that dead is dead. Whatever gets you through the night.
No, the problem with what Psychic Sally does is her putting a
monetary value on something that by its own definition stands beyond
our earthly plain and therefore stands outside of any man-made system
such as capitalism.
Is there nothing in this world that cannot be exploited? Is there
nothing that can stand exempt of the profit motive and consumerism?
It would appear not and that's why capitalism is so powerful and has
been so successful as a system. It's this very strength, however,
that is going to be its ultimate downfall because ultimately
capitalism will exploit and consume itself.
Paradoxically, absolutely everything can also be exempt from being
capitalised on and exploited but only if we so desire it. Regarding
something like spiritualism and communing with the dead (because
that's what we're talking about here) there are plenty of
spiritualists and mediums out there who are happy and willing to
provide their services for free. For nothing. Those who seek such
services therefore have a choice to either go to those who are
serious and are not wanting anything back in return, or to go to
someone like Sally Morgan who say they are also serious but ask to be
paid £24.50 for the privilege whilst putting tiny disclaimers at the
bottom of their advertisements saying 'for the purpose of
So will I be going to see Psychic Sally at the Exmouth Pavilion? Will
I fuck. Though I might just take a stroll down there on the night
just to see what kind of people it is who are going. It would be
funny though if it was cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances,
Regarding Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature
recently, the only question that needs to be asked is 'Why has it
taken so long?'. You don't need to be a fan (and you don't need a
weather man) to acknowledge the fact as Allen Ginsberg stated years
ago that Dylan is the world's greatest living poet. Where's the
argument in that?
Published in 1973, Writings And Drawings is a collection of
Dylan's lyrics, sleeve notes and drawings dating from his very early
songs, through all his albums from Freewheelin' in 1963 to New
Morning in 1970. What's immediately apparent when reading it is how
the lyrics stand up as poems in their own right rather than being
just words to songs and of course, this is one of the reasons why
he's been given the award.
There's an art to writing song lyrics and there's an art to writing
poems, and it's actually not that often that the two forms are
successfully combined to create a whole other. In respect of modern
pop culture, Dylan was quite possibly the first to achieve this.
Throughout the book there are many classic songs and lines from
songs, familiar if not by being sung by Dylan himself then being
covered by other bands and artists: A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall -
Bryan Ferry, Mr Tambourine Man - The Byrds, I'll keep It Mine - Nico,
Quinn The Eskimo - Manfred Mann, This Wheel's On Fire - Julie
Driscoll, Wanted Man - Johnny Cash, All Along The Watch Tower - Jimi
Hendrix, etc, etc.
Dipping into the book at random you land upon such lines as this:
"I'm ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for to fade. Into my own
parade, cast your dancing spell my way. I promise to go under it."
And this: "You've thrown the worst fear that can ever be
hurled, fear to bring children into the world. For threatening my
baby, unborn and unnamed, you ain't worth the blood that runs in your
Andrew Motion eat your heart out.
Writings And Drawings isn't really a book to be read cover to cover
but rather to browse through appreciatively. It looks good on a
bookcase also, or on the side of your table desk, particularly as
it's out of print now...
And whilst on the subject of Bob Dylan, for what it's worth his best
album (in my opinion) is Desire, from 1976. I remember first hearing
it years ago in Athens, in a Greek hostel, sitting in the communal
area drinking a coffee before setting off to catch a boat to Crete.
The track One More Cup Of Coffee was being played over the hostel's
sound system and the words would resonate with me for years after:
"One more cup of coffee for the road, one more cup of coffee
'fore I go - to the valley below."
I landed on Crete and I remember a hippy lady saying to me "You
look like the man who fell to earth," meaning Thomas Jerome
Newton as played by Bowie in the film. I was seventeen, my hair was
dyed yellow and my head buzzing with Anarcho Punk ideas.
Any right-thinking acolyte of Dylan should own a copy of this book. I
do - and I'm not even really a fan; Patti Smith and Leonard Cohen
being more my preference. I appreciate good art when I see it though
and Bob Dylan is nothing but an artist and Writings And Drawings
nothing less than a very good art book.
Hermann Hesse goes into the Mystic and returns clutching a tale about
searching for the only One. It's a divine light mission in the proper
sense, once again mining themes familiar to all his works.
Essentially, all of Hesse's books are vehicles to convey his
thoughts, his ideas and his beliefs; Siddartha being one of
the most popular he's ever written. There's no real reason why it
should be one of his best received books as there's nothing
particularly unusual about it or anything that makes it particularly
better than any of his others, though that's not to say it isn't any
good, and in fact - it's very good indeed.
It's the story of a young man by the name of Siddartha, the son of a
Brahmin, who leaves his family home to venture out into the world in
a search for enlightenment. He spends a period of his life in
absolute poverty, living in the woods with no roof over his head, no
possessions and hardly any clothes to stand up in. A total ascetic.
From this period in his life he learns to think, wait and fast;
though he comes to understand also that by continuing down this path
of denial of all worldly matters he will still not attain Nirvana and
a return to Godhead.
He gets to meet a living Buddha who many seekers after the Truth are
following but sees that if he was to follow him too, still he would
not become a living Buddha himself but would remain a disciple. He
chooses instead to take a completely opposite path and throws himself
headlong into the world of pleasure and material gain. After some
years, however, he discovers that wealth is a ghetto leading
ultimately to the extinguishing of the soul.
Where then might lay the answer? Battered and bruised by the slings
and arrows of life and contemplating suicide, he rests by a river and
it is here he has a revelation: 'The river is everywhere at the
same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the
ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere,
and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past,
nor the shadow of the future.'
He sees his life also as a river where Siddartha the boy, Siddartha
the mature man and Siddartha the old man are only separated by
shadows, not through reality. He sees his previous lives were also
not in the past, and his death and return to Brahma not in the
future. 'Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and
So he becomes a ferryman, spending the remainder of his days learning
from the river and listening to its many voices, which when heard in
totality becomes just the one voice and the one word: Om.
Hesse concludes that there is such a thing as an Ultimate
Truth but that there's no single path to it, and that it isn't
anything that can actually be taught, only realised. Everyone must be
allowed to live their own life and to follow their own path even if it
might cause them harm, though with the proviso that it shouldn't
cause harm to others.
Siddartha concludes that 'love is the most important thing in the
world. It may be important to great thinkers to examine the world, to
explain and despise it. But I think it is only important to love the
world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be
able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love,
admiration and respect.'
Siddartha is a good book and Hermann Hesse was a very good storyteller. For further reading on the subjects he writes about here I'd recommend anyone to go to the primary sources, those being
the Baghavad Gita and the Upanishads. For all that, however,
Siddartha by Hermann Hesse is a good place to start.
On the 11th of June 1965, 7000 people packed into the Royal Albert
Hall in London for an evening of poetry. Hardly imaginable these
days, of course: 7000 people? To hear some poems? It was, however, a
pivotal event. An accidentally momentous occasion. Arguably, it was
the moment when in Britain the Sixties began and British
The event was titled the International Poetry Reading and was
organised by (among others) poet and film maker John Esam and artist
Dan Richter. Coinciding with a visit to England by Allen Ginsberg,
the idea was hatched to book for one evening the biggest venue in
London so as to host him and to stage what was in effect, a
Happening. So, just two weeks before the arrival of Ginsberg, the
Albert Hall was booked, leaving very little time for publicity or for
The spontaneity of it all, however, acted as fuel to the rocket and
within that short space not only had all the mainstream media
(including, even, the bastion of the Establishment, the Times
newspaper) been successfully approached and publicity garnered but a
number of other internationally known poets and artists stepped up
and offered their support, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory
Corso, Michael Horovitz, and Alexander Trocchi.
Come the evening, to the surprise of everyone (not least the
organisers) 7000 people turned up; this being the largest audience
ever assembled to hear poetry in the country. Flowers from nearby
Covent Garden market were handed out to everyone on entry by girls
with painted faces, whilst inside the Hall, the robot creations of
artist Bruce Lacey whirled around as a recording of William
Burroughs' dry, reptile voice crackled over a pall of pot smoke.
"I don't want that sort of filth here." said the
Albert Hall's manager "Would you send your teenage daughter
to hear that sort of thing?" But his was the voice of
culture past and Allen Ginsberg et al were the voices of the future,
the audience being the forward thinkers aware of something in the air
signifying the times they were a-changin'.
Wholly Communion, published shortly after the event, is a
mixture of photographs of the various poets performing there along
with some of the poems they recited. Such was the significance of the
event, however, that to capture and convey it is no easy task though
it should be said the book doesn't purport this to be its aim.
Rather, it's a snapshot or rather still, a version of the
event. Just as film maker Peter Whitehead describes the documentary
film he made of it (which is up on YouTube) , it's an "impression
of a unique evening".
Up against some stiff competition, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem To
Fuck Is To love Again stands out but the poet that steals the show is
Adrian Mitchell, in particular with his poem To Whom It May Concern.
What the International Poetry Reading at the Royal Albert Hall (and
subsequently the book, Wholly Communion) teaches us is that a small
number of people when they come together to act, can achieve great
things. Booking the biggest venue in London for a few poets to
perform at was a case of taking the bull by the horns and simply
going for it. They were probably daunted and no doubt scared but
their enthusiasm and belief in what they were doing carried them
through - and they won.
Up until that evening in June of 1965 there were all these thousands
of people in their homes and communities, all isolated and unaware of
each other's existence. The Poetry Reading brought them all together
under one roof and showed there were others like them and that they
were not alone. Inspired by this revelation all number of activities
and ventures were launched, not least the publication of what was to
become a leading voice of the British counterculture, the
International Times newspaper.
And then there's the power and importance of the written and spoken
word. The importance of poems, songs, books, magazines and any other
medium that might carry words. The primacy of the words being the
key. The medium not being the message but the words within and the
message and meaning that those words convey. And then the
imagination, the belief, and the courage to externalise those words
into real life and into living action.