Monday, 17 April 2017

Junky - William Burroughs


Ever wondered how William Burroughs started his career in heroin? No, me neither. In an interview recently with Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones conducted at The Strand book store in New York, Jones revealed that he wasn't a great reader. No surprise there, really, but there was more. He went on to say that he's only ever actually read one book in his life and even now he couldn't say what it was about. And that book? Junky by William Burroughs.
Was Steve Jones being deliberately funny, I wonder? I mean, if you pick up a copy of Junky and you've never seen it before, there's a bit of a clue going on in the title as to what it's about. Or am I just being guilty of judging a book by its cover?

For the record, Burroughs first came into contact with heroin in the early 1940s when he was asked if he knew of anyone who might want to buy a stolen tommy-gun along with five one-half grain syrettes of morphine tartrate? Like Jarvis Cocker in Common People when being told by a girl at St Martin's College that she'd like to sleep with someone like him, Burroughs replied "I'll see what I can do."
In such circumstances it would have been rude not to have sampled the goods but road testing the tommy-gun was out of the question so that only left the morphine...
Before too long it's all pills 'n' thrills and bellyaches as Burroughs develops a healthy heroin habit and starts regaling us with tales of hustling doctors for prescriptions, robbing drunks on the subway, pushing 'the product', and encountering fellow denizens of the drug world.

All good stuff, of course, especially to a teenager or if read decades ago when this kind of subject matter was considered 'underground'. Unfortunately, in this day and age when you're viewed as being weird if you don't do drugs it's all very quaint and dare I say, innocent?
Might I also say that perhaps nowadays Junky should be kept in the 'Teen' section of any public library because reading it isn't going to entice anyone to experiment with heroin and in fact if anything it's going to put you off: 'I felt a cold burn over the whole surface of my body as though the skin was one solid hive. It seemed like ants were crawling around under the skin.' You'd be better off with a cup of cocoa, a biscuit and a quiet night in.

Junky was William Burroughs' first published novel and gives not the slightest hint of the experimentation and subject matters of his books to come. There's certainly nothing in it to suggest the Naked Lunch was in the offing. Then again, he hadn't yet killed his wife and in fact, she's even mentioned in Junky after he's arrested for possession and she gets him a lawyer and medical help when he's going cold turkey.

'Once a junky always a junky,' writes Burroughs but is that really true? I guess for Burroughs it was and for some, heroin is the end of the line and the only way out for them is dead but then for others it's just another gateway drug. For Burroughs, heroin led to yage, and as he puts it: 'The uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk.'
Yage (along with the William Tell incident with his wife, and the meeting with Brion Gysin, it should be said) opened out Burroughs' writing into the full-blown mind bombs of his later works and as Norman Mailer put it, for Burroughs to become 'The only living American novelist who may conceivably be possessed by genius.'
These later works of Burroughs were years ahead of their time and in fact, I would argue that the world is still trying to catch up. But as for Junky, it hasn't really stood the test of time and this is accentuated by the inclusion of the glossary at the back of the book containing such gems as: 'Cat... A man. Chick... A woman. Dig... To size up, to understand, to like, or enjoy. Hep or Hip... Someone who knows the score. Someone who understands 'jive talk'. Someone who is 'with it'. Square... The opposite of hip. Someone who does not understand the jive.'

Are you hip? Do you know the score? Are you with it or are you square? Can you dig it? To the public library with you if not, to the 'Teen' section and pick up a copy of Junky. You've got a long way to go but you've got to start somewhere. Bear in mind, however, that cultural elitism is now passé. It's out the window. Anyone can now be hip, anyone can be a Sex Pistol, and anyone can be a junky. The future is yours. Or as Arthur Daly once said: "The world is your lobster"...
John Serpico

Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Plague - Albert Camus


In an obscure, nondescript town on the Algerian coast, rats suddenly begin dying; crawling out from their hideaways onto hallways and into gutters where they spit blood and convulse before being trodden underfoot without due care. The numbers of these dying rats rapidly escalates causing murmurs of concern due to the nuisance of it all and the lack of any action from the municipality in dealing with clearing away the carcasses. It's only when people also begin to fall ill and start dying that the idea that there might be something more serious going on starts to take hold.
It's soon obvious that both rats and people are dying in the same horrific manner though it's only when the number of people dying escalates exponentially that it's decided this might be an emergency situation but even then a significant number are still loathe to believe it. By this time, however, it's too late and plague has taken hold.

The thing about the works of Albert Camus is that they never age, they're never out of step or irrelevant to the times they're being read in. When first published in 1947, The Plague was read as a metaphysical novel with the plague being a symbol of the German occupation of France during the Second World War. It can still be read this way, I guess, just as it can still be read as a straightforward narrative but this is 2017 and we're all living in a new age where a vote on membership of the European Union has led to Britain being delivered on a plate to the hard Right and where in America a sleazebag, millionaire, sexual predator has been made President. Both of these events, particularly the latter, begs the question: Are we living in neo-Fascist times?

There's a lot going on in The Plague and though some of it is unambiguous, most of it is subtext and between the lines, most notably the pursuing of some of the common themes found in other books by Camus such as the question of suicide. At one point, Camus describes a sermon as delivered by a preacher in the midst of the epidemic: 'If the chronicles of the Black death at Marseille were to be trusted, only four of the eighty-one monks in the Mercy Monastery survived the epidemic, and of these four three took flight. But when he read that chronicle, Father Paneloux had found his thoughts fixed on that monk who had stayed on by himself, despite the death of his seventy-one companions, and, above all, despite the example of his three brothers who had fled. And, bringing down his fist on the edge of the pulpit, Father Paneloux cried in a ringing voice: 'My brothers, each one of us must be the one who stays!.'
If, as suggested by another character in the book that plague is 'just life, no more than that', then what the preacher is alluding to is that one should not try to escape from life but to remain within it. Suicide is not legitimate.

At another point in the book, Camus describes another character reading what is taken to be a detective novel: 'I was thinking of people who took an interest in you only to make trouble for you. Only I've been reading that detective story. It's about a poor devil who's arrested one fine morning all of a sudden. People had been taking an interest in him and he knew nothing about it. They were talking about him and he knew nothing about it. They were talking about him in offices, entering his name on card-indexes. Now do you think that's fair? Do you think people have a right to treat a man like that?'
Detective story? Is Camus talking about Franz Kafka's The Trial here?

Elsewhere in the book, another character describes a conversation overheard in a tobacconist's shop one day: 'An animated conversation was in progress and the woman behind the counter started airing her views about a murder case which had created some stir in Algiers. A young commercial employee had killed an Algerian on a beach. 'I always say,' the woman began 'If they clapped all that scum in jail, decent folks could breathe more freely.'
Clearly, this is in reference to one of Camus' own books, The Stranger. All these things (and more), however, are academic and for students of philosophy and literature to pore over because we're all now living in a new age and what's of greater interest (to me, at least) is the symbolism of plague to the election of President Donald Trump.

Since Trump's election victory there's been much talk about Fascism and whether we'd recognise it if it arrived tomorrow? It's a good question because Fascism is not going to come knocking at our door in jackboots, Sieg Heiling, with a Swastika on its sleeve. No, it would come in another form. In a suit and tie, probably, but just as ugly. And would it announce itself to be Fascist and wear the name like a badge of honour? Of course it wouldn't. So how would we know of its arrival or if, as suggested by some, that it's arrived already with Trump? The answer is that we wouldn't.
Like the rats appearing in Camus' novel, the signs would be there but we wouldn't pay them much attention. We would turn a blind eye and put up with the inconveniences until such a time that the truth is just too discomforting to ignore but by then it would be too late and plague/Fascism would have taken hold.

In Camus' book, when the town's gates are closed and a ban put in place to prohibit people entering and leaving, consternation ensues as people suddenly find themselves cut off from their families and loved ones. The situation is made worse by actually closing the gates some hours before the official order is made known to the public. The similarities to Trump’s Muslim travel ban and the subsequent chaos that ensued at airports is strikingly similar.
What Trump did that day was cruel and inept, serving as a warning shot of what his Presidency was going to be like. The subsequent protests triggered by the ban served, however, as an inspiration and as a sign of what might be expected as a response to such actions. Or as Camus puts it: 'What's true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you'd need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague.'

Elsewhere in the book, Camus contemplates what the future might hold if the epidemic spreads: 'We may see again the Saturnalia of Milan, men and women dancing round graves,' he writes. 'Saturnalia', however, is how Margaret Thatcher described the inner city riots of 1981 that blew up in practically every major city in Britain two years after she came to power. So, might we be seeing whirlwind riots across the USA soon?
'We learn in times of pestilence,' continues Camus 'That there are more things to admire in men than to despise.' This is true, but if history teaches us anything it is that such concepts are not enough to prevent a nation state sleepwalking into Fascism. Once there, however, just as important as knowing what to do about it is to understand what led to it so as not to ever have it repeated. Or as Camus puts it: 'We might try to explain the phenomenon of the plague, but, above all, we should learn what it had to teach us.'

The Plague by Albert Camus is considered by many to be his finest book and I tend to agree. It's certainly his most beautifully written. It's a book that is unlikely to ever age and to be always relevant to the time it's being read in. It's organic and its symbolism applicable to all kinds of things: Nazi occupation of France, Ebola in Africa, turbo capitalism, the absurdity of life, and so on and so forth. Even the election of Donald Trump. It's a classic of world literature. Profound, astonishing, thought provoking and unquestionably brilliant.
John Serpico

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

My Fault - Billy Childish


If I was to vote in one of those Greatest Living Englishman polls, for me it would be a toss up between Mark E Smith and Billy Childish though I suspect Billy Childish would win it by a whisker which, when taking his moustache into consideration, would make sense. It certainly wouldn't be Sir David Attenborough or Stephen Fry, or even Nicholas Parsons for that matter.

What makes a man an artist? Or rather, what makes a man a great artist? Must you suffer for your art or must you have suffered? If so, does this explain Billy Childish? Picked on, beaten and bullied by his father and elder brother. Shat on, spat on and made to eat soap. Betrayed by his mother, dragged into school and yet more misery where - as Childish puts it - 'specialness' is destroyed. The world of nature, innocence and imagination erased. Then raped by a friend of his family.

Childhood is a horror show, no better exemplified by Billy Childish's account not of his molestation and rape by an older man or the physical and psychological violence inflicted upon him by members of his own family but by the cruelty that children themselves are able to inflict through the bullying of their weaker classmates and through the torture inflicted upon lesser creatures. A case in point being his description of him and his friend glueing matchsticks to wasps then burning them alive like some sadistic Japanese prisoner of war camp game, followed by Childish demanding his friend (whose father is a vicar) spit on a cross: 'Come on, God’s kid, fuckin' spit on it, you fuckin' Christ lover! Jesus ain't gonna save you now, so spit on it! Spit on it, you wanker!'
Suffer little children to come unto me.

Billy Childish is an artist, poet, writer, photographer, film maker and musician; and despite being diagnosed dyslexic at the age of 28 has published more than thirty poetry collections and three novels. He's recorded over one hundred albums on a variety of record labels and exhibited paintings all over the world. According to the late, great John Peel he's 'a cult-rock icon'. Billy Childish is a one-man art movement and My Fault is his memoir of his childhood and teenage years.

'All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental', as it states in the disclaimer at the start of the book but clearly that's not the case at all. Tracey Emin, Childish's ex-girlfriend, for example, can be identified fairly easily and the things he's got to say about her are... interesting, to say the least. No wonder she'll no longer talk to him: 'There's nothing that bitch liked better than a thick one up her arse, looking over her shoulder, mascara like a spider. Then I'd pull it out, feeding it into her mouth, and she'd take it full in the face, laughing and coughing through the sauce,' he confides to the world and its mother. It's the kind of confession that might sour any relationship, you'd have thought? Or maybe not?

Other episodes are equally identifiable such as him relaying a conversation conducted among workmen at Chatham Naval Dockyard one day as they sit drinking cups of tea and reading the newspapers:
'"Lucky for me I ain't got kids, but still, in front of my wife, six o'clock, it's bang out of order!"
"Fucking disgusting!"
"But this idiot in here, it says he kicked his TV set in, two hundred quid's worth! It says it here in black and white. Here, take a look for yourself, read it! What do you make of that? Two hundred quid's worth of television, it's a bloody joke! The man's an idiot!"
"I'd have just switched it off."
Without mentioning them or going into any further detail, Childish is clearly referring to the Sex Pistols and the Bill Grundy incident that made headlines in 1976, catapulting them to world-wide infamy and without realising it himself at the time, planting a tiny seed inside of him that would inform everything he would do in the future. By this I mean Punk Rock and the spirit of independence and 'do-it-yourself', where art and creativity are guiding lights and the highest ideals for man to attain to.

Other episodes in the book are - if not identifiable due to being local to the area Childish grew up in - familiar due to almost everyone having experienced something similar. He mentions, for example, the destruction of the woods at the back of his house where he and his friends played: 'The woods, our woods... They moved in and flattened the lot! Crushed to the ground! Without so much as a 'by your leave'. Age old and noble. There's no doubt that those woods belonged to us kids, us kids, the dickie birds and the occasional adder. One day rabbits, spiders and birds, the next: bulldozers!'
I feel the same about the Stonehenge Free Festival that was so violently smashed by out-of-control police in the summer of 1985, known now as the Battle of the Beanfield. Unleashed by the Thatcher government in the wake of the miners strike the previous year. It still makes my blood boil after all these years. I still want it to be avenged.
'People have no rights and kids have less than none. They knocked down our world with no warning, with no consultation. Their only emotion: contempt! An atrocity that should never be forgotten. I write it down, here for all to see, to be documented for future generations. The holocaust against our friends the trees, the grasses, the flowers and all their myriad of friends and relations, four-legged, six-legged, eight-legged, and wings of the sky. I swear to Christ, it makes me see red, even after all these softening years...'

For Childish, however, this event led to his involvement with the Walderslade Liberation Army, a highly disciplined ecological terrorist unit comprised of him and his gang of fellow eleven-year-olds, led by a political mastermind called Goldfish. "We need guns and we need politics!" Goldfish would declare as he wiped the snot from his nose "The politics of our situation!"
Armed with crude, home-made guns made out of old metal pipes and real bombs made from chemicals stolen from the school lab and typical bomb-making materials such as weed-killer, sulphur and saltpetre bought from any hardware shop or chemist, Goldfish led his men into battle with the developers who were trashing their woods. "The first thing an army needs is discipline! Discipline! Food! Guns! And Glycerine!"
I wonder what became of Goldfish? What did he grow up to be? I wonder if Billy Childish even knows? Maybe he went on to form Class War?

My Fault is funny, disturbing, brilliant and harrowing all at the same time. Within its pages are echoes of Charles Bukowski, Knut Hamsun, Dostoevsky, and Henry Miller - and that's a very good thing indeed. Billy Childish is an example to us all. An example of triumph over adversity, of art over commerce, and of integrity of intention. An example of creativity being the heart and soul of mankind.
And Billy Childish gets my vote for the Greatest Living Englishman.
John Serpico

Sunday, 26 February 2017

City Of Spades - Colin MacInnes


Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes comes highly praised and as touted by Paul Weller among others is 'the mod bible' but I'd argue that actually City Of Spades is the superior book. It's slicker, better paced, and less stodgy and so subsequently more engaging.
Apparently, MacInnes spent a lot less time thinking about City Of Spades whilst writing it than he did with Absolute Beginners, and this shows. The names given to the characters, for example, are the kind that might come in a flash of inspiration but if mulled over for too long might be dismissed as being too colourful: Billy Whispers, Jimmy Cannibal, Peter Pay Paul, Ronson Lighter, Karl Marx Bo, Alfy Bongo, Moscow Gentry, Norbert Salt, etc, etc. How could you possibly go wrong with such names?

As for the title, 'Spades' means black people but any suggestion of racism regarding the term is dismissed very early on in the book in an exchange between the two main characters - Johnny Fortune, who is black and Montgomery Pew, who is white. It's Johnny Fortune who uses the term himself when talking about black people, with Montgomery Pew questioning if it's alright to use such a name? Johnny dismisses it as only a name said with some degree of cheekiness and no more insulting than the term 'jumble' that he uses for white people - 'jumble' meaning 'John Bull'.
So, City Of Spades means literally 'city of black people', the city being London. And that's largely what the book is all about: London as lived in and experienced by black people in the 1950s when immigration from Africa and the West Indies was a new thing.

The story is told through the eyes of two people, the aforementioned Johnny Fortune and Montgomery Pew, though the main protagonist is Johnny, fresh from Lagos and arriving in London to study meteorology. Montgomery is a Welfare Officer at a government Colonial Department, employed to give support and advice to immigrants though he's inherently less qualified than those he's meant to be helping
Johnny's journey through London is followed; revealing an almost secret, underground metropolis to not only himself but Montgomery too, who had no idea such a world existed where cultures simultaneously intermingle and clash against a backdrop of music, drugs and the crumbling of Empire.
Johnny's story is of a fall from grace; from pride and enthusiasm to world weariness and imprisonment, as he's battered and bruised by the ghosts from his father's past and the struggle to simply survive in the strange landscape of 1950s Britain.

Why City Of Spades has never been made into a film is anyone's guess. It's there for the making with even a good twist at the end with Johnny about to get on a boat that will take him back home only to be informed that his nemesis Billy Whispers who wishes to see Johnny dead has just got on board also. It was decided instead to make Absolute Beginners into a film and a musical at that, starring Patsy Kensit. It bombed, and deservedly so; it's only saving feature being the Bowie song of the same name - and possibly Ever Had It Blue? by the Style Council.
But I'll say again (and argue against Paul Weller) that City Of Spades is actually the superior book and would make a far better film but then compared to Absolute Beginners as directed by Julian Temple, that wouldn't be too difficult a task.
John Serpico

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Telling Stories - Tim Burgess


What do we want? Sex! What do we want? Drugs! What do we want? Rock'n'roll! When do we want it? Now! What have we got? Telling Stories by Tim Burgess! What do we get? Scrapings from the barrel of a career in pop gone awry!

I was never enamoured by the Charlatans and equally I was never enamoured by Madchester, Baggy, Brit Pop or any of the other genres the Charlatans were associated with. I admit, I liked various songs from those times and (I admit again) I liked the drugs but as scenes I always felt they were too contrived and each overly desperate to be perceived as 'a scene'.
As ever, the music press and the music business seemed to be categorising and labelling a mixture of bands for their own ends; dividing and ruling, building 'em up and knocking 'em down. The Only One I Know by the Charlatans was good as was Polar Bear from their Some Friendly début album, along with Tim Burgess's collaboration with the Chemical Brothers on the track Life Is Sweet but apart from these I never followed the Charlatans at all.

So why read Burgess's book?

Well, I read an interview with him not long ago - it may have been on the Quietus website? - where he was talking about his love of early Eighties punk rock and naming a bunch of bands that revealed a knowledge of them. In the same interview he said he was also an old Crass fan who used to buy all their records and go to their gigs.
This piqued my interest because I also happen to know that he's had Crass writer Penny Rimbaud reciting a poem on one of the Charlatans' albums and has had Crass artist Gee Vaucher design that same album's sleeve.
Was there another side to Tim Burgess that had been kept hidden by his pop star image, I wondered?

Upon reading Telling Stories, he does indeed tell us about his old punk rock records and how Penis Envy by Crass altered his attitude toward women for the better. He mentions also how as a teenager he would walk around his local village with the words 'Who killed Liddle Towers?' painted on the back of his jacket; which is quite amusing because a lot of kids at that time did exactly the same but with different slogans and messages.
In the Anton Corbijn-directed Joy Division film there's that scene showing Ian Curtis with the word 'Hate' painted on the back of his coat. Nowadays, of course, it's only brand logos that people sport on their clothes - the ubiquitous 'Rockface', as an example. A sign of the times, I think.

All of this, however, is mentioned only very briefly in the book and is almost lost in a blizzard of other musical influences ranging from Kraftwerk to Gram Parson to Bob Dylan. Burgess is a music fan. First and foremost, above anything else.

Burgess comes across as a nice guy without really having a bad word to say about anybody, not even the Charlatans' accountant who fleeced them for £300,000. Enthusing about favourite bands and people, however, doesn't really make for riveting reading which is why it isn't until when Burgess dishes the dirt on Radio 1 DJ Simon Mayo that it starts getting interesting.

Mayo had made The Only One I Know his Single of the Week and had called Burgess to tell him he had to call in to the show at six in the morning for a chit chat on the radio. Burgess declined and Mayo was apparently furious, saying that Billy Joel had called in from New York the week before when he was given Single of the Week. Was Burgess claiming he was bigger than Billy Joel? Or bigger than Simon Mayo?
'You'll never be played on Radio 1 again,' Mayo told him. You've got to laugh, haven't you?

The book peaks with Burgess's confession of his band's penchant for blowing cocaine up each other's arses so as to get a better hit a la Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks. Now, call me old fashioned but doesn't everyone who's serious about their drugs get to a point in their drug career where they're keen to get the most out of their investment?
Most people simply progress to more exotic cocktails of drugs or to the needle or whatever but there's no mention of any of that in the book, and for a northern industrial drug taker such as Burgess was, it seems a bit strange.
Like the scene from Trainspotting when Renton visits his dealer and he's asked if he'd care for a starter and Renton replies 'No thank you, I'll proceed directly to the intravenous injection of hard drugs, please.' Did Burgess simply bypass needles and pipes with a 'No thank you, I'll proceed directly to the cocaine up the arse, please.' Which makes me wonder which method is deemed the most controversial? Intravenous injection or up the arse with a straw and a funnel?

For all this, however, I also wonder if Telling Stories is actually deserving of all the plaudits laid upon it because it's not that good. Near the end of it, Burgess mentions his Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle LP and how he bought it from his pocket money and how it's now signed by Sex Pistols' guitarist Steve Jones who he counts now as a friend. 'He drew a cock on it,' he tells us. Which is rather juvenile, puerile, childishly offensive and immature - but also brilliant! It's exactly what you'd expect and what you'd want from Steve Jones. It's a sort of confirmation of how you perceive someone to be.
It's just a shame that it's probably the best bit in the book...
John Serpico

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Proudhon His Life And Work - George Woodcock


Is there anything to be learned from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon these days? Is there anything he can teach us? Is he still worth reading? Well, let's read a book about him and see, shall we? Pierre-Joseph Proudhon His Life And Work by George Woodcock. That'll do. First published in 1956.

According to Woodcock, Proudhon was the first man to call himself an anarchist, this being in his first major work, What Is Property?, published in 1840. The term 'anarchist' had been used before but only as an insult and to demonise. Proudhon happily applied it to himself and adhered to it until his dying days.
What Is Property? is the book wherein Proudhon put forward the answer to his question that became the statement for which he would become forever known: Property is theft. But what exactly did he mean by it and has he been misinterpreted? For a better understanding of anything like this, it's always best to just go straight to the source, so to quote Proudhon from the opening passage of What Is Property?:
'If I were asked to answer the following question: "What is slavery?" and I should answer in one word, "Murder!", my meaning would be understood at once. No further argument would be required to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality, is a power of life and death, and that to enslave a man is to kill him. Why, then, to this other question: "What is property?" may I not likewise answer, "Theft"?'

According to Woodcock, what Proudhon meant by 'property' was what Proudhon later called 'the sum of its abuses' and what he was denouncing was the property of those who use it to exploit the labour of others without any effort on their own part. Property as distinguished by interest, usury and rent, by the impositions of the non-producer upon the producer.
Regarding the right of a person to control their dwelling and the land and tools needed to work and live, Proudhon had no hostility, deeming it to be a necessary keystone of liberty. His main criticism of the Communists was that they wished to destroy that keystone. For Proudhon, it was clear that neither communism nor property were suited for a just society because communism was the rejection of independence and property was the rejection of equality.

And what exactly is the significance of all this in this day and age, you might ask? Well, it's hugely significant, I would say. Particularly if you're living in London and you're being priced out of the rental market let alone the buyer's market due to an extortionate economy.
Isn't gentrification great? We've seen what it's done to New York and we've seen what it's doing to all the major European cities such as Amsterdam and Paris. And now London where it seems that nowadays you have to be a Russian oligarch to be able to afford to live there. And you can be sure that what happens in London will soon follow in our smaller towns and cities such as Bristol and even Exmouth.
It's coming I tell thee! You're going to be evicted out to the edge of your town or city (if you're not there already?) where you'll scratch out a living on a minimum wage and be expected to be thankful for the privilege.

Proudhon's other big statement was that 'God is evil', meaning God as a sort of freedom-restricting altar to bow down to. No gods and no masters, and all that. His actual declaration is a semantic conundrum but at the end of the day - though using the word 'evil' was probably just a way of causing maximum impact - he wasn't wrong.

Another big idea of his was for the establishment of what he called the 'People's Bank', which though it failed at the time to be implemented in France, came about years later in the form of credit unions and Lets schemes. Credit unions are a good idea but from my experience of Lets schemes, if you offer something useful such as plumbing, plastering, or painting and decorating then you're in big demand and build up a lot of credit. All you get back from most other participants, however, are offers of dog walking, house-sitting, or even cactus plant-sitting... From each according to his ability, I guess?

Proudhon His Life And Work is a badass motherfucker of a book in its turgidity. No bodice ripper, this. Though it must be said that George Woodcock certainly did his homework, poring over Proudhon's diaries and letters it would seem. I applaud him. It's a labour of love and I couldn't have done it. I don't read French for a start.
So, is Proudhon still worth reading? Personally, I'm rather partial to a turgid badass motherfucker of a read every once in a while but what I'd say is that it would probably be better if those of a curious persuasion went to a book that summarised the best of Proudhon rather than Proudhon's own books or George Woodcock's take on him. A kind of 'Winnie The Pooh A-Z Guide To Proudhon'.

It should be said that whilst ploughing through Woodcock's book a few ideas of Proudhon's stood out from the page demanding attention: 'Individuals cannot live on their own - there is no such thing as an isolated being or fact', for one. 'The proletarians are our strength,' another. This being exactly what George Orwell was to repeat many years later with his 'If there is hope, it lies in the proles'.
It was put to Proudhon by some of his contemporaries that he was a 'representative of peasant radicalism', as if this was a criticism - as if it was a bad thing. And yes, Proudhon was from peasant stock and was self-educated but in my eyes this is a good thing. Something that as we all know, hasn't ever been enough of, particularly in this day and age where if you've not been to private school then your ideas and opinions are somehow not worthy or are 'uninformed'.

For all this, the most important declaration Proudhon ever made and the one that he should really be remembered for is 'Whoever puts his hand on me to govern me is an usurper and a tyrant; I declare him my enemy'. A maxim that is as relevant now as it was then. A maxim that if you carry with you through your life then you won't go wrong.
John Serpico
Anarchy on a stamp - for real

Saturday, 7 January 2017

A Riot Of Our Own - Night And Day With The Clash - Johnny Green


There's been a fair few books written about The Clash but none by any of the members themselves. Joe Strummer, of course, has now passed away but there's still Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper. Isn't it about time Mick Jones wrote his autobiography? Could somebody have a word with him, please? Until that happens, however, the closest we've got to the story of The Clash as written from the perspective of the inner sanctum of the band is A Riot Of Our Own - Night And Day With The Clash by Clash road manager Johnny Green.

Johnny first got involved with The Clash in October of 1977 so wasn't actually there from the outset. He had helped transport their music gear over to Ireland for a gig at the start of the Out Of Control tour, and though he was by then already a fan of the band he hadn't at that point actually met any of them.
It was support band Richard Hell and the Voidoids who first offered him a job as a roadie and from there, due to the departure of both The Clash's regular roadie (the legendary Roadent) and their driver, was invited to step in and help out with The Clash. By this time, of course, The Clash train was already in motion going full pelt down the rails but Johnny jumps on board (and starts his story) and soon becomes almost a fifth member of the band; working for them full-time and becoming friend and confidant to all the members.

So what tales, insights and anecdotes from the Punk Wars does Johnny supply us with? Well, as you might hope, quite a few, actually. Firstly, he tells us (though not explicitly) that Joe had issues with identity, credibility and public perception - though we kind of knew that anyway. Mick was a prima donna though in many ways it was encouraged by everyone (Johnny in particular, it would seem) kowtowing to his demands. Paul was always more of an artist than a musician, which is what he eventually became. And Topper could play the drums, thus holding the band together musically but at the same time could also be inexplicably stupid.
There was no single leader of the band though fans thought Joe to be it, whilst Mick Jones presumed he himself was. Each member was integral to the success of the functioning whole though it was only once they had split up that this became clear to them. And by then it was too late.

Johnny tells us about some of the dealings he and the band had with manager Bernie Rhodes though it leaves us none the wiser as to what to make of him. Quite the enigma is Bernie and even Johnny fails to understand what he's about. A clue is given when Johnny visits Bernie’s flat and there being no place to sit due to the stacks of Marxist Internationals in the front room (along with hundreds of copies of the original Capital Radio EP, which was supposed to be a rarity).
Leading up to the the Rock Against Racism carnival of 1978, Bernie chips in by asking Johnny if The Clash members know what they're doing by getting involved with the event? "Do they really want to be knocking about with these student types?" he asks "Isn't it all a bit safe and cosy? Aren't they preaching to the converted? And what's it going to achieve?"
Johnny can't tell if it's a wind-up or does Bernie actually mean what he says? Interestingly, Johnny himself reveals a political naivety about Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League when he asks 'Just whose pole were The Clash tying their flag to? Was there a Left-wing group behind the Anti-Nazi League? Would The Clash be seen to be endorsing their politics?'
Which begs the question: Did Johnny (and The Clash) really not know that the Socialist Workers Party was behind Rock Against Racism and that the Anti-Nazi League was a front?

At a time when all the music press were throwing their weight behind The Clash and declaring them to be The Only Band That Matters, John Peel wasn't very impressed with them and their attitude when they were invited to the BBC studios to record a session for his show. The session was never finished and Peel accused The Clash of being 'unbearably pretentious'.
This was an extremely cutting criticism, made all the more powerful by the fact that it was coming from John Peel. Perhaps this is the reason why Johnny mentions the incident in his book, though he fails to give any real explanation as to why the session was abandoned. Was it simply a case of Mick Jones being a diva again?

For all this, Johnny Green is an amusing storyteller and tells us of such golden moments as when bumping into Lionel Blair after returning to a hotel following Joe and Paul having spent a night in police cells. He's wearing a full-length fur coat, a suntan, wrinkles and a huge cheesy smile.
"Morning, boys!" he says, having clearly heard about the previous night's fighting with bouncers following a Clash gig at the Glasgow Apollo. "Well, that's showbusiness," he smiles. "We're all in it together." As Johnny and the band just stand and stare at him.
And then there's rock god Ted Nugent trying to get backstage at a Clash gig in America because he'd like to jam with them. To Johnny's surprise, Joe agrees but then hands him a pair of scissors. "The band are looking forward to it," Johnny says to Nugent "But could you cut your hair first?" as he reaches for his locks. "The hell - " Nugent says, before storming off.

And then there's actress Vanessa Redgrave regularly calling the band in a bid to get them to play a benefit for the Revolutionary Communist Party. The Specials playing support to The Clash on a tour but having to camp out each night in a big Boy Scout-style tent on the outskirts of every town they're playing because they can't afford hotels. Martin Rev from Clash support band Suicide having his nose broken whilst performing one night by a disgruntled skinhead who's failing to appreciate their art. Topper taking over Sid and Nancy's flat in Maida Vale and having to wash the blood off the bathroom walls that Sid has sprayed with his syringes. Radio 1 DJ Mike Reid putting his arm around Joe's shoulders and congratulating him on getting an Ivor Novello lifetime achievement award: "Well done, well deserved," he says - and this from someone who never once played a Clash record on his show.

All of these tales and many others make for one of the best books written about The Clash. Johnny is clearly in love with the mythology of rock'n'roll and he's perfectly aware that The Clash now also fall into that pantheon of music legends. This, however, leads to the only fault in the book, that being his reluctance to shatter any of The Clash Myths and as we all know, there are quite a few of these.
For sure, he opens up about such things as the tantrums and the cocaine and heroin use but he also shores up walls around The Clash so as to protect The Myth. But then it would be naive to expect anything different because The Myth was erected by band, journalists and fans alike and to what and to whose benefit would it be if Johnny was to tear any of it down? No-one's. Which means that with The Clash, at the end of the day the dream may be over but in a strange way... the dream still remains.

John Serpico