Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Fallen - Dave Simpson


"We are The Fall." as Mark E Smith declared on the debut album 'Live At The Witch Trials' back in 1978 "Northern white crap that talks back." And almost 40 years later, on stepping onto the stage at any Fall gig Mark still introduces the band by declaring "We are The Fall" even if it's just him and his granny on bongos. It's a pertinent point for amongst other things The Fall are famous for having a bewilderingly high number of line-up changes over the years and it's this that journalist Dave Simpson has chosen to write a book about, naming it - naturally - The Fallen.

In excess of forty musicians have passed through the ranks of The Fall in almost as many years and Simpson makes it his mission to track down each and every one of them though his reason for doing so is never really made clear. He's a Fall fan, of course, or perhaps that should be a 'Fall obsessive' and it seems to him to be a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
"Ha ha ha ha ha. You're crazy!" says former lead guitarist Marc Riley who along with all other ex-members that Simpson approaches, still agrees to be interviewed. For Simpson, he imagines the former members might hold the key to the legends of The Fall and that they're a piece of social history, as in decades of music seen through the eyes of the foot soldiers. Mark E Smith, however, fails to understand and finds it all very boring: "I don't understand the big deal with it." he says "They came, they saw, they fucked off and now I no longer see them. The Fall are about the present, and that's it."
Mark also fails to understand why former members are so quick to talk about their Fall-years (or days): "It's as if they've been to Vietnam or had a particularly fraught space-excursion and their senses have been obliterated. It's all they can talk about, it's all that remains in their fried heads. I'm thinking about setting up a post-Fall-syndrome therapy hour. That'd chase a few wolves from the door." And as often is the case, there's a lot of truth in what Mark says because what comes over in the interviews Simpson conducts is that the former members are indeed in need of some form of therapy and use their interview as a way of getting it for free. There are certain things some of them still can't bring themselves to talk about: dark, drug induced secrets; demons they still shy away from addressing, though strangely they all say they'd return and play with The Fall again if asked.

Of all the former members, the most interesting is Kay Carroll who from 1977 to 1983 sang backing vocals but more importantly, was the band's manager. By all accounts Carroll was (and still is) a formidable woman who terrified her fellow band members. She was also Mark's girlfriend at the time. According to Carroll, The Fall's entire 'no sell-out/outsiders' stance was her creation, her 'musical instrument'. "I brought an ideology to The Fall and Mark carried it on." she says.
The ex-member offering the best insight into The Fall is perhaps not by coincidence also a woman, that being Brix Smith, former guitarist/backing vocalist/'stylist' and also Mark's wife at the time of her being in the band. According to Brix: "Like a great painting, what people make of The Fall is actually a reflection of themselves." This idea is expounded upon by ex-member Marcia Schofield who played keyboards, who suggests that The Fall are a mirror and Mark E Smith is "a walking, cultural Rorschach Test."
The thing about these specific offerings is that not only are they from women but they also echo my take on Albert Camus' book The Fall (see a previous review), from which Mark, of course, took the name for his band. And it's funny that of all the people interviewed by Simpson - including Carroll, Brix, and Schofield - none of them not once mentions Camus' book or even hints that they've ever read it.

Simpson just about succeeds in his quest but apart from an article in The Guardian and the completion of his book, in the end he actually has very little to show for it. In fact, he seems to have lost more than he's gained for not only has his girlfriend of 17 years left him - tired of taking second place to his Fall obsession - but he's also received withering condemnation from Mark E Smith himself for 'the hatchet job on Fall members past and present'. But then what did he expect? Particularly as at times in the book he comes across as a stalker, even at one point lurking around outside of Mark's home and asking neighbours if they know who lives there? And sure they do. "Mad Mark", as one of them replies with a shrug, as if to say 'And? So what? What's it to you? What's it to anyone?'

And so consequently, if as Brix Smith suggests The Fall simply reflects and as Marcia Schofield suggests that The Fall is a mirror; what we're left with at the end of the book is a not very flattering portrait of the author Dave Simpson going through a very long and slow nervous breakdown. The one unexpected blessing for him being that though he's not actually become a member of The Fall, in a certain way he has become a member of The Fallen who like the others belonging to that particular club who he's tracked down and interviewed, seems to be in need of some form of therapy.
John Serpico

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Renegade - Mark E Smith


Teenage Kicks by The Undertones was John Peel's favourite song and The Fall were, of course, his favourite band which was a pretty high accolade indeed. So what is it about The Fall that sets them not only apart from but head and shoulders above their peer group? It's not their sound as their sound's always changing, it's not their lyrics as they're often indecipherable, and it's not their image as they're practically anti-image. No, I reckon it's the idea of them.

Behind The Fall lies an interesting and unusual intelligence borne from the backstreets of Greater Manchester and baptised in the white heat of the original punk wars of 1977. During that famously hot summer of revelations, unlike most other young contenders they declined to ingratiate themselves with the punk crowd and instead struck out on their own, not pretending or trying to be anything other but themselves. Their uniqueness sprang from them being enthused with a sense of literacy brought about through self-education, and their interest in and curiosity with the world of the ordinary. Behind the mundane and the normal lies wonder and fright and this is what The Fall shone a light upon, and - I should hasten to add - continue to do so almost 40 years later. And when I say The Fall, to be more precise I mean, of course, vocalist Mark E Smith.

Ghost-written by journalist Austin Collings, Renegade - The Lives And Tales Of Mark E Smith is neither an autobiography nor a memoir but rather one long, hilarious monologue. I suspect it was a relatively easy book to write as all it would have required was a copious supply of drink, a tape recorder and free rein given to Mark to talk. This probably wouldn't have worked for most people but then most people aren't Mark E Smith - thank heavens. In fact, there is no-one quite like Mark E Smith. He's a complete original and as his fans all appreciate, an absolute genius to boot.
So what does the vocalist of The Fall have to talk about over the course of a whole book that he hasn't already discussed before in all the years of interviews he's done? To be honest, it's difficult to know where to start but let's give it a go:

Apparently, one of Mark's relations fought against the Zulus at Rorke's Drift and in the film starring Michael Caine he was played by actor James Booth. He was the pissed, laid-up-in-bed, proletarian soldier; on the skive with a boil on his arse.
As a child Mark would have to babysit three of his younger sisters and two of their friends all aged about five, so he devised a game called 'Japanese prison camp' which as the name implies if enacted today would probably be investigated by the social services. "What can you do?" says Mark "It's hard work bringing up kids. Japanese prison camp was the perfect solution."
At sixteen he started smoking: "I don't think you need it really before then. I couldn't see the point to it. You can't appreciate it then." Before taking up smoking cigarettes, however, at the age of fifteen he was taking acid: "I was on acid before I even had any pot; pot was for hippies. I had no problem with the acid because it was proper LSD."
Before starting The Fall, Mark shared a flat situated at the back of a mental hospital and he would often invite patients in for a cup of tea, play them some rock'n'roll and let them watch a bit of telly. Whilst the nurses would all sit cross-legged on the floor, teaching the patients yoga and playing them Pink Floyd, Mark would take them down the pub for a bit of normality: "Sometimes I think I did more good than all the nurses put together. It's where my dislike of hippies came from, I think."
According to Mark, The Clash were better than the Sex Pistols but so too were the Glitter Band. Geoff Travis and the Rough Trade label are nowhere near as radical as they think and being signed to them was "like living in Russia", asking such things as "What exactly is a Prole Art Threat?" Tony Wilson of Factory Records was like Engels but rather than having twelve-year-old girls working in a factory like Engels did, Wilson had The Happy Mondays. Mark's always got time for Bez, however, and so too for John Cooper Clarke. 
Alvin Stardust was "cool", George Best "a great bloke", Leigh Bowery "a proper artist", Pete Waterman "a good worker", and The Searchers "brilliant song-writers, very underrated." And "nothing touches" the film Dead Man's Shoes. He's "a big fan" of film director Lindsay Anderson and comedy actor Leonard Rossiter who played Rigsby in Rising Damp but he's never like Noel Gallagher. Joe Strummer wasn't the "saviest cultural commentator" and his politics "were all over the place"; and as for BBC media graduates, they're either "Jo Whiley-ites" or they dress like Mork and Mindy.
Writing about Prestwich, in Manchester is "just as valid as Dante writing about his inferno". Primark sells "some alright stuff at a fair price. Go and shop there; you don't want to be walking around like an urban scarecrow". Bargain Booze is a particular favourite shop of Mark's: "You can get some good offers there". Mobile phones are "a disease. People ringing each other up all the time, talking about tomato sauce and what's happening in their car. They're as much an addiction as drink, but less sociable". Proper pub landlords tell you to "drink up and get another or leave", libraries are full of "repressed stormtroopers gawking at you", there should be "more ashtrays on morning TV and presenters wheezing", taking speed helps Mark sleep, and people fail to realize that "99.9 per cent of people with a healthy diet will eventually die". And so on ad infinitum.
Mark's dad had a few good opinions too. Regarding people naming their kids 'Keegan' after Kevin Keegan he would say: "Stop hanging around with people like that. You should get away from people like that". And: "If you're feeling too sexy have a glass of water and a run round the backyard".

When writer and critic Sean O'Hagan reviewed Renegade for The Guardian, he suggested it may be the funniest music book ever written and I suspect he may well be right. I'd be reading it on a packed-out train on the way home from work and I'd be laughing out loud to it. I can't imagine what any of the other passengers thought but then none of them cared to ask what I was reading. Not that the name Mark E Smith would have meant a lot to any of them.
Mark hoped that Renegade would turn out to be a kind of Mein Kampf for the Hollyoaks generation, and though I don't think it's quite that, it's certainly unlike any other book stocked in the music section of Waterstones. And you don't have to be a Fall fan or even to know anything about them to enjoy it. 
According to Mark, he's always wanted The Fall to be "the group that represents people who are sick of being dicked around; those that have a bit of fight in them", and I think that's a very accurate description. And that same description could also probably apply to this book.

John Serpico

Monday, 1 December 2014

Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Fall - Albert Camus


The Fall - Albert Camus' famous monologue; thoughtful, contemplative and... unsettling, I guess. Multi-layered so as to be read as though the fictional narrator by the name of Jean-Baptiste Clamence is addressing a stranger encountered in an Amsterdam bar or as Camus himself addressing the reader directly. Whatever, it's a very effective style of writing that slowly but surely pulls you in until you realise you're trapped in the folds of Camus' world and there's no easy way out.

The Fall was Camus' last book he wrote before he died in a car crash at the age of 46 and is considered to be his most misunderstood if not most difficult work. If you read through his books from The Stranger, to The Myth Of Sisyphus, to The Plague, to The Rebel, you can see a progression in his thought and a development in his skill as a writer. Ever deeper he was digging into the question of suicide and the Absurd and though The Fall isn't the complete flowering of his ideas, it's probably as close as he ever got.
I do wonder, even though The Fall is a classic, does anyone actually know what the story is about before they start reading it? I very much doubt it. A reader might have an idea of what the book is concerned with but it's only after finishing it that you realise it's like a Trojan horse and its real meaning is in its depths, which is almost being smuggled into you. Essentially, The Fall is a mirror held up to the reader and what the reader chooses to do with that reflection is entirely up to them.

Jean-Baptiste Clamence describes himself to the person he's talking to (the reader?) as a 'judge-penitent' and it's only when you finish reading the book that you come to understand what is meant by this. Clamence explains how he was once a very successful, benevolent Parisian lawyer who was near-perfect in every way a man could wish: rich, cultured, noble of mind, dignified, courteous, popular, generous, good-looking, athletic, etc, etc. A man at the height of his powers.
In these exalted heights he revelled, in plain view of all other people so they might see what a wonderful person he was. His existential crisis begins, however, when walking home one night over a bridge in Paris where he sees a young woman peering over the railings into the river below. After passing her, he hears from behind him the sound of a body striking the water and then several cries drifting away downstream before falling silent. He remains there rooted to the spot in shock but rather than turning around or running for help he slowly gathers himself and starts to walk away in the rain, never mentioning the incident to anyone.

From there on he begins to have moments of clarity, realisation and insight into his true character. When he hears laughter it for some reason unsettles him, as if the laughter was aimed at him. He catches himself doffing his hat to a blind man whom he's escorted across a road and realises it's not for the blind man's benefit that he doffs his hat - he's blind, so he wouldn't know - but to people looking on so they might see what a kindly man he is. After playing a part, he was taking a bow. He's involved in an altercation with a motorcyclist and ends up being publicly humiliated, then bitterly resents how he didn't simply give his adversary a good thrashing and then walk away with head held high. His whole life, it dawns upon him, is hypocritical so he starts to wilfully damage his own reputation and destroy his perceived good character, setting himself on a path to social suicide.

To escape himself and to be free of the judgement by others he enters realms of debauchery, taking up with prostitutes and drinking for nights on end; and for a time this succeeds in erasing the laughter though at the cost of damaging him physically. Finally, he closes his law office, leaves France and travels; ending up in the Red Light district of Amsterdam, a city below sea level where poor and rich men alike from all the corners of the world wash through like so much dirty water down a drain.
And there now Clamence waits for them in a bar. Making their acquaintance and relaying his story; changing or highlighting aspects of it according to whom he's talking to on any given evening.
Through the acceptance of his hypocrisy and the absurdity of his existence, and by falling as far as he can, he has found a freedom he wishes to tell others of. There is no turning back and no second chances for anyone, hence the no escaping from his walking away from the event on the bridge in Paris or the public humiliation suffered during the altercation with the motorcyclist. There is no escape from the absurdity. There is no grander height to scale than the very bottom. Those men who are above others in whatever way (such as the Pope - the name of which Clamence was given whilst being held in a prisoner of war camp) need the most forgiving because they are the least innocent, they are the most hypocritical, and they are the most absurd.

The brilliance of The Fall is that it is as I said like a mirror being held up to the reader. What the reader sees in that mirror and how it's interpreted is down to them. The very title 'The Fall', for example, could be read as referring to the woman on the bridge and the incident that instigated Clamence's existential crisis or to Clamence's self-inflicted fall from supposed grace as a lawyer in Paris to a dispossessed judge-penitent in Amsterdam. Or if you're American it could be taken as another name for 'Autumn'. Or it could even just be read as the name taken for one of the most interesting and uniquely individual bands in British music of the last few decades, fronted by a curmudgeonly Mancunian by the name of Mark E Smith...

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."

John Serpico

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 12)


There is something perfectly relaxing about sitting and watching the boats roll back up the Exe at the end of a day, homeward bound to the quay. As the sun begins to set and the colours in the sky start to flare and dissolve, a languid weariness descends from above like a beautifully soft eiderdown being thrown over the world as slowly but surely everything feels right. 
The sea heaves and shifts its mighty weight and the beach is deserted to fall prey to the gulls and the crows seeking scraps and detritus left behind by the tourists.
The boats sound their horns.  The sound of children's laughter fades. The waves lap upon the shore. 
And life becomes dream....

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Street Art Exmouth Style (Part 7)


In a shop doorway on Rolle Street in Exmouth is a beautiful picture of the sun composed of tiles on a wall. And I've seen that as people walk by going about their daily business they pay this picture not a blind bit of notice. Either they're oblivious to it, they're otherwise engaged, or they're simply not interested. Whatever the reason, it seems to go unnoticed. And there's a kind of sadness about this because it begs the question 'what else goes unnoticed?' Do people not see any of the other works of art around them? Do they not see all the other faces around them? Do they not notice the real sun in the sky? Or the clouds, or the moon, or the stars? Do they not notice the world? Do they not love the world? Do they not love the clouds, the moon, or the stars? Do they not love the sun?

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Anthem - Ayn Rand


Well, at least Ayn Rand is interesting, which is a lot more than can be said about a good many writers. She's interesting because she's thought-provoking which in any day and age can only be a good thing. She's also - or has been - a massively influential writer, more so perhaps than what most people might even realise.
Rand set down through her books an idea, a philosophy she called 'Objectivism' which when looked back on in hindsight was obviously picked up on by a large number of people who subsequently went on into influential political and economic positions, particularly in the USA.
Objectivism is essentially all to do with self-interest. It's a cocktail of atheism, existentialism, laissez-faire capitalism, narcissism, Nietzscheism and selfishness; eliminating all notions of altruism. Aspects of her philosophy are actually very good in many ways but it's the selfishness that underpins it all that's the major problem because basically - it's against nature. Co-operation, mutual-aid and altruism is what practically all species on earth practice and ultimately it's the only way that anything can survive, evolve and move forward. Selfishness is a dead-end in more ways than one.
Ayn Rand is most famous for two of her novels - The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged - both of which give full vent to her ideas but before these she'd already written two other books, Anthem being one of them.

Anthem is a future-shock sci-fi novella depicting the world in an unspecified future time where all concept of individualism has been outlawed and eliminated. It's written in the first-person but because all sense of individuality has been eliminated, the narrator refers to himself as 'we' rather than 'I', as do all other characters.
At birth, children are separated from their mothers and housed in special units where they are raised and schooled before being assigned life roles. The narrator, going by the name of Equality 7-2521 is assigned the role of 'Street Sweeper' and re-housed into another unit for those in a similar vocation. The world is a bleak, sterile, totally regulated place where every thought and every action is for the benefit of the whole rather than the individual: "What is not thought by all men cannot be true. What is not done collectively cannot be good."
Equality 7-2521, however, is curious of mind and on discovering an old abandoned tunnel full of relics from the past, allows his curiosity to run riot and through experimenting with copper wires and 'globes of glass containing metal thinner than a spider's web', discovers and harnesses the power of the sky. It turns out that what he's discovered is an old subway tunnel, the globes of glass are light bulbs, and the power of the sky is electricity.

He takes his discovery to the World Council of Scholars believing himself to be the bearer of a great gift for mankind but the Council denounce him and his discovery as a threat to all that is held dear: "This would wreck the Plans of the World Council, and without the Plans of the World Council the sun cannot rise. And if this should lighten the toil of men then it is a great evil, for men have no cause to exist save in toiling for others. It must be destroyed!" And so too must Equality 7-2521 so he flees for his life and ends up living in an old house deep inside an uncharted forest where he comes to understand the meaning of freedom and individualism. The narrator's voice changes from 'we' to 'I' and his vision for life is laid out in a final hymn to self.

Rand didn't write Anthem for it to be The Great Novel or to show the world her talent for writing, she wrote it to communicate an idea and this she does reasonably well. So with this in mind, it's helpful to read the book as simply a vehicle for that idea as anything more will probably just lead the reader to being disappointed.
Whenever Rand is criticised, her supporters more often than not jump up and accuse the critic of being either weak-minded or a socialist. Or they say Rand is being misinterpreted or misunderstood. Well, I've no intention of criticising Rand at all because as I said, I actually find her interesting. And I'm neither weak-minded nor a socialist. What I will criticise, however, are her supporters because Rand is dead and they are the living, and it is they who are the interpreters of her ideas and philosophy into the world as it is today.

For some reason, all her supporters just happen to be right-wing conservatives and neoliberals - now why might this be? - who tend to use Rand as their own private backbone of morality to their selfishness and greed. But then how else could they sleep at night? How else could they live with themselves without some sort of moral justification for their world-view? Misanthrope propels them to distance themselves from life, nature and human emotion as they embrace certain aspects of Rand's philosophy and reject others. For them, laissez-faire capitalism and self-interest is all fine and dandy but atheism is contentious so they overly embrace religion almost as a cloak to cover their actual spiritual emptiness. Splendid isolation is justified as being God’s divine will when in actual fact it's existentialist and God is dead. So the aspects of Rand's philosophy that are beneficial to their greed are promoted whilst the aspects that gain them nothing are set carefully to one side and not spoken of.

Rand warns against the world turning into some kind of ultra-communist, sub-Korean super-State where subservience to collectivism morphs into a hell on earth. And she's not wrong. A world of such extremes would indeed be a living nightmare. What she and her supporters promote to counter this, however, is equally as hellish: A world in which self-interest is the guiding star, where capitalism is given free reign and profit for the individual is the be all and end all. Where nature and the environment is incidental or just something else to be exploited, where the world is ruled for the benefit of an elite 1% and the other 99% can go hang, or go beg, or go starve, or as writer Whittaker Chambers once put it: "To a gas chamber - go!"

I wonder: Does this world sound familiar to anyone in any way at all?

Over 29 million copies of Rand's magnum opus Atlas Shrugged have been sold to date and at one point just back in the Nineties it was cited in a poll to be the most influential book upon those taking part in the poll second only to the bible. Anthem has sold nowhere near those amounts and is lesser known than Rand's other books but as an insight into what Rand's about, it's a good place to start.

Narcissist babe extraordinaire
John Serpico

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 11)


Well, that's it for another year then.... Gunpowder, treason and plot.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Behold The Man - Michael Moorcock


I must confess, I've always been a bit of a fan of Hawkwind but then who in their right mind wouldn't be? I've heard and owned a reasonable amount of their recorded output over the years and seen them perform live a number of times, starting out from experiencing them at the Stonehenge Free Festival many moons ago when I was but knee-high to a grasshopper. I must also confess, however, that as inexplicable as it might be to some, until now I've never read anything at all by Michael Moorcock.
Moorcock, of course, was once inextricably linked with Hawkwind and used to perform live with them. I guess my only excuse is that there always seemed to have been other books to read instead?
So, with that confession out of the way I'm basically declaring that I'm no expert on Michael Moorcock at all so I don't actually know whether Behold The Man is typical of his work, or one of his best or perhaps not one of his best? This, then, is a layman's review.

First published in novel-form in 1969, a shorter version of Behold The Man originally appeared in a magazine called New Worlds and won the Nebula Award for the best novella in 1967. It's the story of a bookshop owner called Karl Glogauer who volunteers to be the first person to travel in a time machine that's been invented by an old eccentric physicist; Glogauer's only proviso being that he chooses the time and the place to travel back to. The time machine can only travel backwards in time, not forward; and as it's only the untested prototype there's the danger the machine may not be able to return successfully.
Glogauer isn't a very likeable character it must be said, in fact he's quite pitiful due to having just a few too many issues. He's self-pitying, humourless, sexually-repressed, has suicidal tendencies, he's a victim of predators in all shapes and forms, and has an unhealthy (or perhaps healthy?) interest in Jung. His chosen destination to travel to is Nazareth, in the Middle East and his chosen period to travel back in time to is AD28, approximately one year before the crucifixion of Christ.
For Glogauer, discovering the truth about Jesus and whether or not He actually existed will give meaning to his life and settle the discontent he's always carried with him. The book begins with the time machine crash-landing and Glogauer crawling from the wreckage.

He's rescued from the desert wilderness into which he's crashed by tribesmen who take him to their village, whereupon he's questioned by a giant of a man as to who he is and where he's from. The giant's name is John The Baptist. Glogauer is accepted by the tribe and takes a place amongst them whilst recovering from injuries sustained from the crash. His strange arrival in a chariot of fire from the heavens is seen as being a sign from their god and he's taken to be a magus. Glogauer has suddenly landed centre-stage in events that are about to change the course of the world.
John The Baptist asks that Glogauer baptise him and announce to the tribesmen that the time is ready for the kingdom of heaven to be established on earth. Glogauer agrees, seeing it as merely helping to prepare the way for the arrival of Christ but when it comes to the moment of baptising John, Glogauer is unable to go through with it and flees into the desert where for forty days and forty nights he roams.

Glogauer is next found stumbling into a town; emaciated, half naked and talking in tongues. He's in search of a carpenter by the name of Joseph who with his wife Mary are the parents of a child called Jesus. He's finally led to them only to find Joseph a sour man who never laughs, Mary a sex-craved bully and their son Jesus a dribbling, giggling, hunchbacked imbecile.
He's offered refuge by the rabbis at a local synagogue where he spends his time whilst recovering from his ordeal in the desert trying to understand what has gone wrong. There is, however, no answer to be found. The Testaments and scrolls he reads are simply false and confusing. In the meantime, the rabbis and the townfolk are becoming ever more curious about this stranger in their midst.
Glogauer takes to roaming the streets and talking to people, who, viewing him as some strange prophet start seeking his advice on all manner of things. He obliges them and his reputation quickly spreads, enhanced by him pitying the poor and the sick and curing some of easily remediable psychosomatic conditions. He develops a following and word spreads of the miracles he performs. Glogauer is only too aware that what he's doing is turning the myth of Jesus into reality.

He gathers around him twelve particular disciples and after further sermons and performing of 'miracles' he prepares for his ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, though not before ordering one of the disciples - by the name of Judas Iscariot - to inform the governor Pilate of the prophet's revolutionary intentions. Judas does as he is bid and the prophet is duly arrested and as punishment is sentenced to death by crucifixion.
The book ends with Glogauer in agony on the cross, pleading to be let down. Finally crying out until his last breath: "It's a lie - it's a lie - it's a lie..."

For a book dealing in such heavyweight themes as Jungism and the imitation of Christ, Behold The Man is actually a very light read which is obviously evidence of Moorcock being a very good writer. In the past, Moorcock has declared himself to be an Anarchist and this makes sense as it would require someone to have that kind of sensibility to be able to write a book such as this. 
Behold The Man trashes the mythology of Christ though it should be stressed it doesn't actually trash His teachings. Moorcock's Glogauer character may well have a messiah complex but by taking on the role of Christ and knowing he will die in agony, he's making sure lessons such as brotherly love and the non-acquisition of personal wealth are cast in stone and continue down through the ages. The problem with this, however, is that when Glogauer enters Jerusalem on his donkey the crowds aren't seeking lessons in brotherly love and so on, they're looking to be led into armed revolt against the Romans. John The Baptist had been planning to rise against the Romans that Passover, and it was thought that the new prophet was taking John's place as a rebel leader. "Free us! Free us!" the crowds call but because the armed revolt the crowds want isn't in the story Glogauer's enacting, all that he can say is "No. I am the messiah. I cannot free you.

Is this a blasphemous book? Of course it is, though when read objectively it's actually doing Christianity a service by placing the accent on the message of Christ, not the messenger. And it's the message that's the most important thing, is it not? Which is something I suspect a few Christians could do with remembering because believe you me, I've met a few in my time who haven't an iota of love in their eyes, their words or their actions let alone their hearts.
To those who might judge a book by its cover, Behold The Man would appear to be a cheap, pulp sci-fi novel but it's actually an incredibly well researched and interesting book. Michael Moorcock is an important figure in English literature though I suspect he's dismissed by a lot of people and not given the respect he's due simply because of the field he works in, meaning the fantasy/sci-fi genre. I suspect a lot of people are losing out - and I would include myself among those who have lost out due to not picking up on him earlier. The same would also go for Hawkwind, as in a lot of people miss out on them due to preconceived ideas but at least I don't count myself as one of those. But yes, Michael Moorcock - I shall endeavour to read more of his books in the future. 
John Serpico

Monday, 3 November 2014

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 10)


Under the sky the sea, under the sea the beach, under the beach the pavement, under the pavement the beach, under the beach the sea, under the sea the sky.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut Jr


Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr is a work of genius. It's a work of art that has the power to disturb. It's as simple as that.
Not everyone would agree with this, of course, and there are some who would even have a problem with the book, not least Kurt Vonnegut Jr himself although the problem he had with it was unlike anyone else’s. Slaughterhouse Five, you see, is about the destruction of the German city of Dresden during World War Two and from it Vonnegut made a substantial amount of money and became an internationally known writer of repute. To Vonnegut this meant that for the thousands upon thousands of people killed in the Dresden blitz, he was the only one in the world who had actually gained anything from it. There are some, of course, who would argue that Dresden's destruction hastened the end of the war; meaning the whole world gained from it but... but... but what can you say to that? There are no words. And this, precisely, is what Slaughterhouse Five communicates: There are no words.

Vonnegut was a serving soldier during World War Two and along with British, Russian, and fellow American soldiers was held captive in Dresden by the Germans. Dresden at that time was of little military significance and had even become a destination for refugees seeking a kind of sanctuary. For three days in February of 1945 British and American planes conducted an all-out attack on the city, dropping tons of bombs and incendiary devices upon it with the planned intention of razing it to the ground and inflicting mass civilian death. The incendiary devices whipped up massive fire storms that swept through the city, sucking the air away and reducing anything that would burn to ash or charcoal. Dresden was turned into a hellish inferno.
Vonnegut, along with his fellow American prisoners and their German guards were sheltered in an old abattoir called Schlachthof-funf - in English, Slaughterhouse five - which by some miracle was one of the very few places in Dresden that withstood the fires. When the bombing ceased they left the shelter only to find that Dresden - famously known as being a city of refined culture - was now, in the words of Vonnegut "like the moon". Everything was dead. What was once men, women, children and babies was now charcoaled stumps. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of charcoaled stumps.

This was no longer war. This was beyond any such description. There was no valour here, no bravery, no heroism, no morality. This was the greatest massacre in European history. This was beyond a war crime, beyond madness, beyond imagination. Beyond words.

Vonnegut tells us in Slaughterhouse Five that he'd been wanting and trying to write about his experience in Dresden for years but had always been stuck for words; finally, only succeeding and brilliantly so when he became unstuck.
He relays his story through a fictional character by the name of Billy Pilgrim who, finding life meaningless even before Dresden has become unstuck in time and now ricochets between periods, episodes and events like a proverbial pinball. Everything is connected yet simultaneously disconnected. There is no sense and even less meaning. One moment he's on honeymoon with his wife, the next he's a little boy being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool by his father. One moment he's visiting his decrepit mother in an old peoples home, the next he's at his wedding anniversary party with a fictional writer of science fiction books called Kilgore Trout. One moment he's in Dresden, the next he's in a glass cage on a planet called Tralfamadore being observed by aliens like a specimen in a zoo.
Every event is equally credible yet at the same time equally incredible. If such an event as the burning of Dresden has happened in his life then why not such an event as being in a zoo on another planet? Birth, time, place and death are simply moments like beads on a string, with no real beginning and no end. He's forever a little boy being thrown into a swimming pool and he's forever on honeymoon with his wife. He's forever in a glass cage on another planet and he's forever present whilst Dresden burns.

Slaughterhouse Five isn't a difficult book to read at all but there's so much going on in it that the only way to do it justice is for anyone to read it themselves and then make of it what they will. At one point in the book, Billy Pilgrim has committed himself to a veterans psychiatric hospital because he feels he's going crazy. In the bed next to him is another former soldier who tells Billy that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov by Feodor Dostoevsky, adding "But that isn't enough anymore". When Billy is asked about the war a thought occurs to him that he thinks would make a good epitaph: 'Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt'. Vonnegut himself then interjects into the story and says "and for me, too", causing the narrative to be further fragmented. He does it again when Billy is entering a latrine where his fellow American prisoners are being sick and excreting profusely. "That was I." Vonnegut writes. "That was me. That was the author of this book."
Every time death is mentioned, Vonnegut writes 'So it goes', creating a catchphrase that crops up throughout the whole book. This, along with 'Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt' has been turned into popular choices for tattoos, and when something like that occurs - for my money - it's always a sign of cultural significance. How many other books are there that have inspired tattoos?

Though written in 1968, Slaughterhouse Five has dated only slightly and remains an essential book to read at least once. The film of the book, directed by George Roy Hill  in 1971 following his success with Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is equally worth watching. Vonnegut's message (however it might be construed) is an important one that's very much worth considering. And whilst the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still remembered it's important to also never forget Dresden and if Slaughterhouse Five in any way helps in that, then all power to it.

John Serpico

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Guilty Pleasures (Part 5)


The King is dead.

Alvin Stardust is dead.

All dreams of him playing one day at the Exmouth Pavilion have now been dashed. Instead, on the streets of Exmouth his loyal disciples walk now in stunned silence. In pubs throughout the town, grown men (or at least, those old enough to remember) weep silently into their beer glasses, trying hard to accept that he is no longer with them. They drink to his name. They drink to his memory. Mothers at home sob into pillows, knowing their children will never now experience what they did as children. They will never know the joy, the thrill, the emotional frisson he could instigate by simply standing motionless, sideways on, microphone held level; just looking, cooing, singing.

What to do? What words of comfort are there?

Stalker of dreams. Haunter of childhoods. Black leather pop demigod. He of the black glove, the ruby ring, and the clutching hand. The exaggerated quiff. The sideburns. The raised eyebrow. The steely eye.

He has gone.
Here in Exmouth we were awaiting his return. His presence. His gifts.
But no more.

Who will lead us now?

This night, throughout Exmouth, candles are being lit.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Turn Of The Screw - Henry James

A bit of a dry writer is Henry James which doesn't make for him being the easiest of reads but this, his best book by far as opined by a good many people is simply sublime. The Turn Of The Screw is a ghost story. Or is it? And it's this very equivocation that makes it so very interesting.

Written in 1898, it's the story of a young woman taking employment as a governess to two orphaned children in a mansion house in Essex. Her employer is a gentleman bachelor based in London and he's the children's uncle. Their parents have both died in India and though he feels it's his duty to now take care of the children, having no experience in such matters he makes available his countryside residence for them to live where he has staff running the house but needs a governess for the children. His only proviso being that under no circumstances must he be contacted with regards to the children and that any problems be dealt with entirely by the governess.

The two children - Miles and Flora - turn out to be the most well-behaved, beautiful, angelic creatures imaginable which makes it impossible to understand why for some unexplained reason Miles has been expelled from his boarding school and is not going to be allowed back. The governess can only presume that some grave misjudgement has occurred and quickly settles down to tutoring and looking after them both.
Everything is sweetness and light until one sunny afternoon the governess spies a stranger peering down at her from up on the balcony of one of the mansion's towers. The only conclusion she can come to is that the man is an intruder, though simply curious about old houses, who has made his way to the top of the mansion to take in the view then stolen out as he came. Thus, she makes no more of it, assuring herself that she'll see no more of him. Her rather naive conclusion, however, is shattered some days later when upon entering a room she sees the same stranger peering in through the window from outside but after rushing out to confront him, she finds he's vanished. On describing the man to the housekeeper, the governess is informed that she has just described Peter Quint, the uncle's old valet. The only problem being that Quint is dead.
Days later, whilst sitting with Flora next to the mansion's lake, the governess realises there is a figure of a woman standing amongst the reeds on the lake's far side. To her horror, she realises Flora is also aware of the woman's presence but is not acknowledging it.

The governess learns that during his time at the mansion house, Quint had exerted much influence upon both staff and the children, and had been particularly close to Miles. According to the housekeeper, Quint was "much too free - with everyone" and took many liberties. She also learns that Quint and the previous governess to the children had been having an affair that had ended horribly. Quint had been found frozen dead on the road, suspected of falling over whilst drunk when returning one night from the village. The previous governess - Miss Jessel - had abandoned her job through shame of the affair and had moved away, only to be reported to have later died also.

The governess concludes that the figures she is seeing are demonic apparitions; the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel who have returned to the mansion to possess and stamp their claim upon the children. She also believes that the children are both fully aware of their presence but are keeping it secret. Miles never talks of his close past-relationship with Quint and never hints as to why he's been expelled from his boarding school. Flora denies being able to see Miss Jessel even when she appears again and the governess tries to force her to admit that she's there: "She's there, you little unhappy thing - there, there, there, and you see her as well as you see me!" But Flora simply won't have it and the situation isn't helped by the housekeeper taking Flora's side and denying that she can see anything also. The governess decides that only she can save the children and tells the housekeeper to take Flora away from the mansion, leaving her alone with Miles to confront Quint. The story concludes, as might be expected, in tragedy.

There is a lot of ambiguity throughout The Turn Of The Screw, with deeds and relationships being hinted at but never openly expressed. Henry James may well have been inhibited by the times in which he was living and by what was deemed suitable to be openly spoken of. The governess in the story is herself an innocent though in the full flush of her very pent up emotions. The housekeeper, though having bore witness to past unscrupulous events and interactions is unable to bring herself to talk about them in any detail. The children, though mere infants are mature beyond their years and their angelic behaviour seems only to be a facade; a mask to hide the horribleness they have suffered and that has manifested within them. Quint and Miss Jessel are silent figures, bonded together by potentially dark and unacceptable secrets.
Did something occur between Quint, Miss Jessel and the children? What did Quint teach Miles that seems to have led him to be expelled from boarding school? Quint, as disclosed by the housekeeper was certainly a manipulative individual; able to worm his way into having the trust of his employer, bypass class distinctions and conduct an affair with the governess at the time, plus enjoy the close companionship of a young boy. Is there something paedophilic being hinted at here? Or is it indeed the governess who is the corrupter? Feeding the children and the housekeeper disturbing ideas but to what ends? Just as she tells the housekeeper how the children manoeuvre situations so that one or the other may be alone with the apparitions, does she do likewise so as to end up alone with Miles at the end? Or is the governess simply imagining she can see Quint and Miss Jessel and it is actually she who is possessed by a madness?

The Turn Of The Screw has been cited as one of the greatest ghost stories ever written and this may well be true but only because it can be read as so much more than a ghost story. The film version - The Innocents - made in 1961 and directed by Jack Clayton features a tour-de-force performance by Deborah Kerr and is without any question one of the greatest ghost/horror films ever produced. Both book and film are well worth reading and watching and are guaranteed to remain in the memory for a very, very long time.
John Serpico

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Street Art Exmouth Style (Part 6)


Daubed upon the wall of a seemingly derelict building in one of the old back streets in the heart of Exmouth, an incongruous piece of graffiti hangs in view of all who pass by. Its origin, its meaning and to what it refers has long been forgotten over the many years it's been there. It's neither a statement, a slogan or a declaration but a question, and it's precisely this that makes it so beguiling. It may well have originally been put there with but one very simple meaning but to what it alluded has long since gone leaving it now to take on any meaning that anyone cares to bestow upon it. Or even no meaning at all.
If it wasn't before, it has now become a work of art and is as much a part of Exmouth as a freckle might be on the face of a child.
Let it fade in it's own right and let it never be erased because it's street art - Exmouth style.