Saturday, 26 April 2014

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 1)


"What were the skies like when you were young?"
"They went on forever. The skies always had little fluffy clouds. They were beautiful, the most beautiful skies as a matter of fact. The sunsets were purple and red and yellow, and on fire. The clouds would catch the colours. I used to look at them all the time."
The Orb - Little Fluffy Clouds.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Taxi Driver - Richard Elman


Yet another movie tie-in and aren't I the lucky one?
I do often wonder how some books end up in a charity shop on the East coast of Devon? How many other people have thumbed through its pages over the years? Where else in the world has it been? Whose bookshelves and in whose home has it stood? I'll never know but you can rest assured that where ever it's been, it's now landed into some safe and very welcoming hands and has found itself a good home where it shall be read and properly appreciated. See, I'm actually one of those people who believe books are meant to be read and not left on some shelf gathering dust, so I shall at some point pass this book on and send it once again out into the world. Wave it goodbye and bid it good luck in its further travels.
In the meantime, whilst it's in my possession let’s see if this particular book - Taxi Driver by Richard Elman - is any good.

Everyone knows the film Taxi Driver by now. Martin Scorsese? Robert DeNiro? Jodie Foster? Lonely and unstable taxi driver in New York tries to assassinate Senator, fails, so sets out to save teenage prostitute? Carnage ensues?
If you've never heard of it or never even watched it then you should be ashamed. I mean, what have you been doing all these years?

So, the film is a classic - iconic, even - but what's the book like? Well, like the film it's all narrated in the first person by cabbie Travis Bickle but what's immediately striking is that it's written phonetically. This is the voice of an uneducated man - troubled, confused in his thinking, paranoid, sad but strangely poetic - writing down his thoughts and speaking his mind without fore or afterthought:
'I was standing in front of the Avon Cinema to see Angel Pussy (for the fifth, or possibly sixth time) when this person with big yellow cole slaws on his lips starts telling me things.'
The voice is how you might imagine a taxi driver in New York would sound like: single-minded, unsubtle and to the point. It's interesting to think that Irvine Welsh would be lauded for writing phonetically in the Scots accent for Trainspotting when this same device was obviously being used years earlier by writer Richard Elman but for New York.

There's a remark that Travis Bickle uses throughout the book which strangely is not used in the film and that's "Words to that effect". Also quite strangely, one of the most famous scenes in the film where Travis Bickle is talking to himself in the mirror ("You talkin' to me? Well, then who the hell else are you talkin'? You talkin' to me? Well, I'm the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you're talkin' to?") doesn't feature in the book. The book is, however, based on the screenplay so quite possibly the mirror scene was ad libbed or simply just a late edition to the filming?

There's an amusing part in the book where Travis picks up a passenger one night who asks him to stop outside an apartment block and to look up at a window where a woman can be seen. It's the passenger's wife and he says he's going to kill her with a .44 magnum. The book relays Travis's thoughts whilst waiting at the kerb with this passenger in the back: 'Christ I'm thinking faggot faggot faggot who's got the faggot. My first thoughts my very first are definitely faggot here... I turned around to look at him. He was real sick-looking, white with big hollow eyes, crazy man.'
In the film, of course, this part was played by Scorsese himself so is the description of the character a dig at Scorsese or a joke written at Scorsese's expense?

There are two quotes at the start of the book, one from American poet Herbert Krohn and another from the writer Thomas Wolfe, taken from God's Lonely Man: 'The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.' So this let's us know that this was the inspiration behind one of Travis's own inner dialogues and one of his most famous of lines: 'Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man.'
It's all interesting stuff.

Apart from these points that I've highlighted, the book is pretty much faithful to the film which of course, is no bad thing. It's a classic. And having just Googled 'taxi driver' I see that the film has actually been considered 'culturally, historically or aesthetically' significant by the US Library of Congress and has been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Not that accolades such as this are actually important but it just proves the high status of the film and by association the high status of this book.

John Serpico

Monday, 21 April 2014

The Wild Bunch - Brian Fox


There's a certain type of book that I've always had a fondness for and that's the movie tie-in, particularly those from the 1960s and early 1970s. Even though all these books are is essentially an addition to a movie, a kind of souvenir of it, they're still wonderful little artefacts and pretty cool things to collect. Not that I do collect them, I should point out. Published as paperbacks by publishing houses such as Tandem, Corgi, or Fontana they always came in stylishly designed covers and when an old copy of one one falls into my hands it's always a joy to read.
Needless to say, whenever such a book is donated to any charity shop in Exmouth (which isn't very often at all - these kind of books seem to be getting ever more rare) then I nab it immediately.
The Wild Bunch by Brian Fox is one such book.

As a summary, this is the story of a gang of ageing outlaws known as The Wild Bunch pulling off one last robbery so as to enable them to retire, whilst all the time being pursued by a posse of bounty hunters hired by the railroad and led by an ex-Wild Bunch member.
As I say, that's just a summary because in actual fact it's about much, much more than that. I even would go so far as to say that actually it's almost Shakespearian.
As a novelization of the film, it's a pretty faithful rendition of the script. It's fast-paced and doesn't go in for any unnecessary descriptions of anything. The action and the dialogue is all. The depth and the substance of it as with the film, however, is in its underlying themes.

On one major level, The Wild Bunch is all about violence and in the hands of director Sam Peckinpah this was fully and even extravagantly realised. Peckinpah's films are famous, of course, for their slow motion depictions of specific moments, particularly at the point of when somebody is being killed. Peckinpah shows people being shot in all its bloody yet beautifully balletic detail and The Wild Bunch was the full, florid flowering of his cinematic vision.

Released in 1969, just a year after Arthur Penn's Bonnie And Clyde, The Wild Bunch upped the ante ten-fold in it's unblinking depiction of violence. Penn's film had ended with the two gangsters being ambushed and shot to bits in a hail of bullets, their bodies flicked around like bloody puppets. Cinema-goers had never seen anything like it before. The Wild Bunch was not only visually more shocking with its scenes of violence but emotionally more shocking too. Peckinpah showed that the whole world in which The Wild Bunch traversed - that being Texas and Mexico of 1913 - was drowning in a sea of violence. This was the world of the classic Hollywood western - the world of Henry Fonda and John Wayne - but turned upside down.

The Wild Bunch are violent killers themselves: from the start whilst holding up a bank, the leader, Pike Bishop, barks out an order to his men in regard to the bank staff and members of the public caught up in the robbery: "If they move, kill 'em!"
The railroad bosses are men of violence who have no qualms about massacring women townfolk in a bid to ambush The Wild Bunch. The bounty hunters are obviously violent men as they kill then strip the dead of their boots and guns. The Mexican army deal in nothing but violence as (led by the psychotic savagery of General Mapache) they massacre their own people in raids on villages. The presence of German officers alongside Mapache signifies the impending violence of large-scale war. Even the children who bear witness to all this play games involving the feeding of scorpions to red ants before burning them all alive. Significantly, it is a child who fires the final shot that kills Pike Bishop and even more significantly, it is the children who are so obviously the inheritors and future perpetuators of this violence that they've been born into.
The story starts with a bloody massacre as god-fearing, gospel-singing men and women are caught in the crossfire between The Wild Bunch and the bounty hunters; and it ends in a final, monumental massacre as The Wild Bunch take on the Mexican army, puting to good use a Gatlin gun to even up the odds.

So if this was the world in which everyone was drowning where might hope, salvation or redemption lay? This is where the other major theme comes into play. According to Peckinpah, it was in loyalty and friendship as again and again Pike Bishop is shown informing his gang in no uncertain terms how they need to stick together:
"When you side with a man, you stay with him and if you can't do that you're like some animal. You're finished. We're finished. All of us!"
It is in the betrayal of that loyalty and the resulting guilt that the other themes come into play, being also an explanation as to why the bounty hunters in pursuit of The Wild Bunch are being led by an ex-Bunch member.

Come the end of the film, The Wild Bunch's loyalty to a fellow gang member held captive by Mapache eclipses any amount of gold and any dream of a better life, and it is this very loyalty that separates them from everyone else. Adherence to such an idea in this changing, violently turbulent world of the west, where cars are soon to replace horses and machines are being built to enable man to fly, marks them out to be men with no future.
Walking into final battle, their fate already sealed, The Wild Bunch suddenly become heroes amongst men with their epitaphs about to be written in the blood of friend and foe alike.

The Wild Bunch is arguably one of the greatest westerns in the history of cinema and as the years go by its stature only grows. It brilliantly captures the end of an age and an end of an epoch not only in cinema and how the west might ever be shown again but in the way that the world is and might forever now be viewed. The fact that all the main players in the film - William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, etc - are all now dead in real life simply adds further poignancy and pathos to the tale.

It's unlikely you'll easily pick up a copy of the book of the film so I would urge anyone to instead watch the actual film. It's an action-packed, full-on visual feast but probably more importantly it's food for thought.

John Serpico

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Bono On Bono - Michka Assayas


When New Order were once interviewed on television, vocalist Bernard Sumner referred to Bono as "that Bongo guy" and ever since then the name has stuck - in my mind at least. Bono's real name is actually Paul, and The Edge's real name is Dave but when considering U2 these real names don't exactly have the same ring to them as their pseudonyms. Personally, I much prefer Bongo. It just sounds less... inflated. So for the sake of this review, Bono shall now be referred to as Bongo and with this in mind this book shall now be referred to as Bongo On Bongo.
Which makes it sounds better already.

Written by French music journalist Michka Assayas, Bongo On Bongo takes the form of a series of conversations between himself and Bongo over a period of two years. Now, U2 are by no means the most boring band in the world; they play a good song and put on a good gig, and what does it matter if John Peel chose never to play them? They've always been very earnest (with a wink) and they've always been good source material for some decent quips and remarks: Boy George once commented that if Bongo still hasn't found what he's looking for then he's not looking behind him, because it's there sat on the drummer's stool (wink, wink).
In interviews, Bongo often made good copy. He was once interviewed by the NME where he spoke of his interest in such things as why at the height of The Beatles fame and glory did John Lennon sing 'Help'? It was a good observation. So, over the course of a whole book what might Bongo have to say for himself? Well, not a lot actually. In fact, though it's not intentional, if anything the book shows him in a curiously dubious light.

Each to one's own and live and let live and all that but for a start, Bongo's Christianity sticks in the craw. No matter what outlandish costume he might wear or extravagant show he might put on, not only does his faith keep his band fully contained and holds them chained to the like of Cliff Richard but there's something about being a Christian and a millionaire that just doesn't wash.
'It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.'
Bongo justifies his vast wealth by saying that in the eyes of two thirds of the world's population who are living hand-to-mouth there is no difference between the wealth of a journalist such as Michka and Bongo's own wealth. Both can eat well, can afford medicines, have time off, and don't have to worry about their children. So there you go. He then goes on to reveal how the Zoo TV tour cost a quarter of a million dollars a day to put on, which if you think about it for a moment is actually quite staggering. That's a lot of money for some Christian entertainment.

He then goes on to say that he has respect for such people as George Bush and Jesse Helms. But how can this be? How can anyone respect such a pig ignorant, sack of shit motherfucker? And as for Bush... there are no words.

Bongo gets to meet these presidents and politicians on behalf of AIDS charities and Drop The Debt campaigns. Bureaucratic administrators for these fucking creeps see that Bongo is representative of some kind of constituency so he's invited and welcomed into their fold to show that they're listening and that they're sympathetic to his cause. He's awarded promises, he has his photo taken with them and everyone is happy. In the meantime, however, the world outside grinds on with people being born, being exploited to the hilt and then dying in extreme poverty as modern day plagues sweep across nations.
For the powermongers Bongo is a foil, a sop to allow them to get away literally with murder. He is given bread crumbs from the table. A band-aid for a decapitation. Better than nothing a fan or a Christian might argue but in the grand scheme of things in actual fact it's not. It's a trick of smoke and mirrors to make it look as though efforts are being made to resolve problems whilst in reality things remain firmly the same. Poverty remains. Debt is not wiped out. AIDS is not vanquished.
The cheery photos are taken and gestures are made. A few million dollars given here and a few million dollars deducted there. But the show goes on.

If the political will was there then the debts of developing nations could be wiped out. Poverty in the First, the Second, the Third and the Fourth World could be eradicated. The spread of AIDS could be halted. To the eternal shame of mankind, however, the political will is not there and the token gestures are a pretence. It's a sham in which Bongo for all his compassion colludes.
The reason as to why world poverty and disease is allowed to continue is debatable. Is it to maintain a balance of power? Who knows? Do the presidents and politicians even know themselves? Again, who knows? Certainly not Bongo.

Some years ago at the G8 forum in Genoa, Bongo was inside the heavily guarded zone of the city where the heads of states were meeting, busily glad-handling and hobnobbing. A famous photo came out of it showing Bongo laughing away with President Putin like a couple of old drinking buddies. Meanwhile over in Chechnya the civilian population were being terrorised and murdered by Russian forces. And just a short distance away from the safe area where Bongo was laughing with Putin, thousands upon thousands of protesters from all over the world were in pitch battles with armed Carabinieri; throwing themselves at the police lines in a bid to shut down the G8 and chase the circus out of town. The city was a war zone. One protester - by the name of Carlo Guiliani - was shot dead by the Italian police.

It has to be asked, which side of the fence should Bongo have been on? Which side of the fence would his friend Jesus have been on?
It's probably a question that Bongo secretly does know the answer to.

Bongo On Bongo reveals that there's a major hole in Bongo's understanding of the world. To some extent he's filled that hole up with Christianity but there's a lot that he still fails to grasp. At one point in the book he talks about U2's first tour of America and how when they were staying at the Gramercy Park Hotel they bumped into The Clash and the Slits who were staying there too:
'It was like an American bohemia. I remember the Slits hadn't got guitar straps. They were so punk. Their guitars, they were around their necks by strings. I think Edge put out his hand to shake one of their hands, and the singer, Ari Up, slapped it. She said: "We don't do that".'
You see, back then at that stage - young, fresh, keen and green as a carrot - Bongo (and Dave/The Edge) just didn't get it. He just didn't understand. And after all these years, he still fails to.

Bongo On Bongo. Read it and weep.

There are no words
John Serpico

Friday, 18 April 2014

Street Art Exmouth Style (Part 2)


Another example of art on public view in Exmouth, this time the sign hanging outside The Beach pub. Let's be frank, however, and admit that it's not a very imaginative painting.
You can see where it's coming from: Exmouth has a beach, the pub's name is The Beach so let's have a painting of - a beach! Which is all well and good but it's a bit empty, isn't it? A bit desolate. A bit void of any imagination.

Personally, I like my art to be a bit more vivid. A bit more colourful in both it's physical appearance and it's metaphysical relationship to the viewer. If there's going to be a painting of a beach then I want it to be a bit more expressive. I want it to explode in excelsis deo. I want my beach and my Exmouth to be depicted as a psychedelic wonderland:

I even want the sea itself to be depicted as liquid ecstasy. As one of the greatest natural wonders of the world because let's face it, that's exactly what it is. I want the sea at Exmouth to be depicted as the source of everything. Don't know about you but I want it to be like Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris. I want to be able to look into it as you would a fire and see things you might never have imagined. I want it to be a lake of dreams. A sea of rains. A gulf of dews. An ocean of fecundity:

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Insider - Piers Morgan


Another book that for some inexplicable reason is always turning up in charity shops is The Insider - The Private Diaries Of A Scandalous Decade by Piers Morgan. Were thousands of copies given away at some point and did people take them because they were free, only to later realise they'd been lumbered with a book they were never going to read? After finding they can't sell it on ebay or at a car boot sale is the only option to donate it to a charity shop? It's feasible. Unlike the Robbie Williams biography, however, there's no attempt to hide it amongst other items being donated. People just don't seem to care about this particular book. It's almost as if they're just glad to get rid of it.

Everyone knows who Piers Morgan is, either from his past roles as Editor of tabloid newspapers, from his work as a judge on Britain's Got Talent, or as a chat show host. In America he's actually probably better known than Robbie Williams, firstly from being a judge on America's Got Talent and then from replacing Larry King on CNN.
He's ubiquitous. Like this book.

So. It's perhaps quite telling that in these diaries of a man whose living was once based upon words, the best words are not actually from him but from one of the many celebrities he was 'reporting' on. In this case from Stephen Fry who in a programme on Radio 4 suggests a new definition for 'countryside': the killing of Piers Morgan.
Ever wishing to show that he too has a sense of humour, Morgan relays how he confronts Fry at a party and angrily tells him he is going to exact terrible revenge.
"I really am awfully sorry," Fry replies "It was only a little joke." Whereupon Morgan informs us of Fry's babbling and squirming before being put out of his misery by Morgan telling him to "Relax, mate, it was funny."
Ha ha ha! Gotcha!

This tiny extract in many ways sums up what Piers Morgan was all about and how he was viewed by others. Those in the media spotlight - celebrities, politicians, etc - all knew that he could do them harm. Unfunny he may have been - unsophisticated, even - but he had power.

As Editor of the show biz page at The Sun, Morgan gained the attention of some very influential people, not least of whom was Rupert Murdoch. In his own words, Morgan was a 'carefree, aggressive, inhuman Thatcher-loving young shark, trashing people's lives'. His column at The Sun dealt in pop and tv gossip, rumour, trivia and scandal. Something in all this apparently and for some reason caught the eye of Murdoch who out of the blue awarded Morgan the editorship of the News Of The World and it is at this point that his diaries begin.

After a faulty start involving the story of a naked man with green testicles flying onto the roof of Buckingham Palace, Morgan hit his stride with a series of political scandals involving a variety of politicians and their extramarital pursuits. The ruling Conservative government at that time all appeared to be at it; even, it eventually turned out, John Major and Edwina Currie. Still, 'At Least It Wasn't Anne Widdecombe' as Morgan's chosen headline put it.

Reducing the world to trivia and scandal was what Morgan excelled at. News was entertainment and vice versa. Somewhere in amongst the plethora of gossip and sensationalism must have been some grain of truth but to discern where it was proved always to be a difficulty if not an impossibility.
And if a sizeable portion of the Conservative government appeared to be 'at it' when it came to the bedroom then absolutely everybody in the public eye was 'at it' when it came to media manipulation. There were pay offs and deals, nods and winks, tip offs and red herrings. Claims, counter claims, allegations, suggestions, innuendo and injunctions. There were those who were masters of the art such as Lady Di, those who wanted to be masters but failed such as Blair, and those who were simply victims such as Paula Yates.

Cast into the position of ringleader of this sorry circus and wielding the power that came with it, Morgan's ego and ambition knew no bounds and reached newer heights when offered the editorship of the Daily Mirror. Allegations of insider trading and crass headlines such as 'Achtung Surrender' (regarding the England/Germany match in the semi final of the Euro 96 football championship) failed to defeat him as almost single-handedly he merrily took on the Royal family, the Bush administration and the Blair government. Morgan suddenly became very serious. Vehemently against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he took every opportunity he could to criticise the war but his was a lone voice and sales of the Mirror plummeted. The final straw for his bosses came when he gave the go-ahead to publish photos depicting British soldiers urinating on Iraqi prisoners. The photos were found to be fake and Morgan was subsequently sacked.

Should some sympathy be extended to Morgan because come the end, was he not on the side of the angels with his anti-war stance? Was his conversion to treating the news seriously for real? The answer to both of these questions is probably 'Yes', though in truth it all came too late and it all came with a price.

Morgan's diaries are actually quite fascinating and often genuinely amusing. Whether any of it can be believed, however, is a completely different story.

Morgan's epitaph?
John Serpico

Monday, 14 April 2014

Feel: Robbie Williams - Chris Heath


It's really strange. A phenomena even. There are certain books that can be found in just about every charity shop in Exmouth and Feel: Robbie Williams by Chris Heath is one of them.
When a bag of clothes is donated a copy might be found nestled amongst the layers. Never just placed on top but always hidden in the middle, like some escaping prisoner smuggling themselves out of jail by hiding amongst the laundry. Do people think if it's spotted that it might be declined? Do people feel ashamed of actually owning a copy but as nobody likes to burn a book they try instead to get rid of it surreptitiously? Who knows? But whatever the reason, you'll always find a copy on a charity shop book shelf. It's just another of life's little mysteries and so too in his own peculiar way is Robbie Williams.

Robbie was the cheeky one out of Take That, always with a mischievous look on his face and a glint in his eye. On exiting the band he famously (and to their eternal shame) hung out with Oasis before releasing his debut solo single, a version of George Michael's Freedom. After a stumbling take off he just went up and up and up in his solo career, selling millions upon millions of albums worldwide, winning countless Brit Awards and performing to millions upon millions of people. The working class lad from Stoke entered the stratospheric world of mega-pop stardom and became an object of strange fascination where his identity was no longer really his own but was instead the property of the global entertainment industry.

Chris Heath at first got involved with Robbie Williams with the simple intention of conducting an interview with him. Having been invited to visit Robbie at his Los Angeles home, he was expecting to stay for about a week. He stayed instead for almost two years, accompanying him practically everywhere he went from which the initially intentioned interview turned into this book.
For Heath this was an almighty scoop, gaining unlimited access to one of the worlds most successful solo artists and bearing witness to the luxury, the craziness, the privilege and the intrusiveness that came with it. For Robbie too it came with some benefits. Apart from being a vanity project to further boost his ego the whole set up worked as a much needed form of therapy. And therapy - on reading Heath's book - was what Robbie was badly in need of.

From his early days in Take That, Robbie Williams displayed an air of confidence that would often be translated as arrogance. Underneath it all, however, he was always full of self-doubt and prone to depression. On hitting the heights of fame and fortune in his solo career his neuroses was magnified ten-fold, exasperated by endless stories about him in the media that were the stuff of lies and slander. Everyone wanted a piece of him and if the tabloids couldn't get any new gossip about him then they simply made it up. Faced with almost daily reports about himself that were totally untrue, a huge schism developed between the advantages of being rich and famous and the disadvantages. Trying to pin down exactly who he was and where reality lay became an increasingly difficult task.
When commenting on Ronan Keating's bid to break the American market, comedian and television presenter Simon Amstell once touched upon this in his typically amusing fashion: "If Americans have successfully managed to ignore Robbie Williams so far, who has so many different personalities, then they're hardly going to take to someone without one."

Just another typical evening at home for Robbie

This is the theme that is returned to throughout this whole book though it's only really addressed when Robbie reminisces about his drink and drugs period. Heath is not only a writer but a friend and admirer of Robbie and because of this relationship there are things that are not fully delved into or are simply excused. Whilst not being sycophantic to his subject he still at times comes across like Dennis Hopper's photojournalist in Apocalypse Now though it should be said that Robbie is no Colonel Kurtz spouting so-called words of wisdom such as "'If' is the middle word of life". His anecdotes are a lot more funnier, particularly when recounting his lost drug days:
'He had flown over to Bono's Dublin retreat for a party... At the party, Rob got off his head on mushrooms and Bono found him staring at the wall. Rob had been staring at the same thing for ages, because he was quite sure it was the most beautiful picture he'd ever seen in his life.
"Bono," he said, "that picture's amazing..."
"Robbie," pointed out Bono, patiently. "That's the window."'

There are other episodes recounted that only now in hindsight make any sense but which at the time were obviously not helping Robbie's mental state:
'There is a growing paranoia that someone close to him is selling stories to the British tabloids. "I only have to fucking think something at the minute and it's in the papers, and that's scaring the life out of me," he says. "I think all my phones are tapped. I can't trust anybody. It's fucking done my head in. Your mind goes and then you start to distrust absolutely everybody."
He tells me that recently he's even planted false stories with people he suspects, to see if they turn up in the tabloids. Nothing so far. He's had his phones checked but - and he knows this is funny, and he knows it is kind of crazy, but once your mind starts down this track it's hard to find its brakes - he's now even worried that the people asked to check his phones have actually tapped them.'
Robbie was being hacked. Probably by the News Of The World.

Apart from the great songs (and a lot of them are great) and the spectacle of his fame, it's actually this mental state (and the multi-personalities) of Robbie's that make him so peculiar and so interesting. As an insight into the rarefied atmosphere of celebrity and the mindset that comes with it, Heath has succeeded in doing a very good job and has produced a very interesting book.

There's no need to feel ashamed at actually having owned a copy. There's no need to hide it amongst a bundle of clothes if donating it to a charity shop. And when you see a copy on the shelf - buy it. It will be 50p well spent and for your money you'll be well entertained. And entertaining - as he has so eloquently expressed in song - is what Robbie Williams is all about. Nothing more and certainly nothing less.

As an aside, Robbie is actually my neighbour. He owns one of the flats down on Exmouth quay and though he's not in town very often, when he is here he's no trouble. He doesn't hassle me or anyone else at all and as of yet no restraining orders have needed to be taken out against him.  

"That picture's amazing... "
John Serpico

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Street Art Exmouth Style (Part 1)


Does anyone take any notice of the art hung out on the streets of Exmouth? I'm talking about the pub signs. Do people actually recognize that they are indeed works of art? Genuine paintings hanging there for all to view; painted by starving, anonymous artists in their garrets?
The Powder Monkey pub sign is an example.

It may just be a Wetherspoons pub (and there's nothing wrong with that) but the meaning of The Powder Monkey's name is interesting. The boy in the painting is a 'powder monkey', the name given to children who worked on battleships in days of old ferrying gunpowder from the ship's hold to the cannons. It wasn't exactly a job with many long-term prospects as life expectancy was thought to be limited, particularly at times of battle. Exmouth's most famous powder monkey was actually, however, a woman called Nancy Perriam who served in the navy at the time of Nelson. Legend has it that she miraculously survived numerous battles at sea and lived to the tender age of 98 years. A blue plaque has been mounted outside her old home in Exmouth.

The Powder Monkey is a haven for artists of every hue (as are many pubs in Exmouth - there's a joke in there somewhere) and apparently even Morrissey has been spotted in there ordering drinks.  

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Autobiography - Morrissey


After writing a thousand-plus word review of the greatest book ever - as in Ulysses - where do you go from there? What do you review next? Well, it's obvious really, you just go from one Penguin Classic to another. From James Joyce to Stephen Patrick Morrissey. In a single bound.

Now, I must admit, I wouldn't say I was really a big fan of Morrissey and I once even belonged to the school of thought that believed he should have killed himself years ago. Ian Curtis did it so what might possibly be stopping Morrissey? Why the reluctance to enter that pantheon of pop heroes who (unlike Pete Townsend) died before they got old? More so than Spike Milligan, could the grave stone epitaph 'I told you I was ill' be any more fitting? If Morrissey had indeed 'flung his skinny body down to the rocks below' would he not now be fixed forever with the likes of Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, James Dean, Ian Curtis, etc, etc? Would it have been a shock to anyone if Morrissey had killed himself years ago? Hardly.

I'm so glad now, however, that Morrissey did choose to stay because if he had left us we would not now have this very wonderful book. And I mean that most sincerely.

There was a time that The Smiths were untouchable. They could do no wrong. They ruled the roost. In hindsight, they can now be viewed as one of the greatest English bands of all time which when you consider the competition, is no mean feat. What made them into one of the most iconic of bands was the combination of individuals and what each one brought to the party. The kind of combination that is always a happy accident, forged not by man (or manager) but by some almost unspoken greater power. For all his words, for all his wit and for all his charm, however, the enigma was always Morrissey. He gave so much of himself away - his influences, his passions, his darkest thoughts - but still he remained a puzzle. Who was Morrissey? What made him tick in the way he did? What had made him so? What maketh such a man? What maketh such a genius? The answer, or part of it at least, lies within this book.

'Manchester, so much to answer for' as the lyric goes and indeed it's true though it's not the only factor to consider when considering Morrissey. There is also, for example, the school education system of the early 1970s if it can be called an education or even a system because after reading Morrissey's memories of it, a far better description might be 'criminal behaviour' on the part it must immediately be noted of the teachers alone.
'Exactly why I am here, and what it is I am meant to do, is beyond me.' Morrissey writes 'Each day is Kafka-esque in its nightmare, and the school offers nothing at all except a lifelong awareness of hate as a general truth.'
His tales of the perpetual floggings of children by the adults into whose 'care' they have been put is shocking as is the unspoken yet barely concealed homosexual desires of the male teachers.
'What could it possibly all be for?' he asks 'The fruitlessness of such overactive repulsion, in modern times, would of course suggest the starkest sexual overtures... for what else? What job did he (the Headmaster) think he was doing? And.. for whom?'
So this was the inferno from whence Morrissey came. A psycho-sexual killing field where all hope, curiosity and aspiration was beaten out of tiny children in a display of State-sponsored sadism. Evidently the experience scarred Morrissey though through it all he managed to find salvation in music and free expression but what of all the other children? What scars do they now bear as adults? How does the horrific experience of their school days now manifest itself?
It's a troubling thought.

It was the power and beauty of song that saved Morrissey and pointed the way to a better life and his observations of some of his favourite proponents of the craft are absolutely wonderful:
'As David Bowie appears, the child dies. The vision is profound - a sanity heralding the coming of consciousness from someone who - at last! - transcends our gloomy coal-fire existence.'
'Roxy Music are resolutely odd, and Agatha Christie queer; the smile of Ferry is Hiroshima mean, as he shuffles crab-style from stage right to stage left... like someone who's had his food dish removed.'
'The New York Dolls were the slum of all failures, had nothing to lose, and could scarcely differentiate between night and day. For the Dolls, it could never be dark enough.'
'So surly and stark and betrayed, Patti Smith was the cynical voice radiating love; pain sourced as inspiration, an individual mission drunk on words. Horses pinned all opponents to the ground. It shook the very laws of existence, and was part musical recording and part throwing up.'
'The Ramones are models of ill-health, playing backwards, human remains washed ashore, so much condensed into a single presentation, and it is outstanding.'
'Iggy Pop does not so much sing as relieve himself. "Your pretty face is going to Hell" has a quality of emotion in line with Paul Robeson, and this is why I am still writing about it forty years on.'
'The Sex Pistols are the first British band whose social importance appears to be instantly recognized, and their immediate success is an exhilarating danger to behold.'
And so on and so forth taking in also the likes of Marc Bolan, Sparks, and Nico. But just as Morrissey is adept at offering praise where deserved so too can he bury with cruel delight and it is here that he can be at his most hilarious:
'Wherever I go I seem to see the Duchess of Nothing, Sarah Ferguson... She is a little bundle of orange crawling out of a frothy dress, the drone of Sloane, blessed with two daughters of Queen Victoria pot-dog pudginess. A thousand embarrassing press exposes will not persuade her to back off... (chasing) the limelight until it will kill her - or you. It is the unfortunate drive of the overly untalented.'
'(Julie Burchill's) naked self probably kills off marine plankton in the North Sea. God stopped her body from being right. Unchained from the cellar, Burchill will make sure that you remember her. I imagine she crawls out onto the scaffold outside the living room window in order to sleep at night. Burchill will one day be found dead... having been burned and hanged and stuffed on the legitimate grounds of being an irritable woman. I shall be honoured to attend her funeral, and I might even jump into the grave.'

Like many a miserabalist, Morrissey can be an extremely witty person and this was always an aspect of his song writing that many, many critics failed to recognise and still to this day continue to do so. Though crippled with 'a shyness that is criminally vulgar', Morrissey has never been anyone’s fool and for all these years it appears that he's been taking notes. Here then is him slaying all those same critics, his detractors, those who have crossed him and those who have done him wrong. Here is their comeuppance and it's a dish served cold though garnished with all kinds of lovingly tendered herbs and spices. Tony Wilson of Factory Records gets it right between the eyes. Geoff Travis of Rough Trade is pummelled into an unrecognisable heap. The NME is outed as an extremely dubious organ. Smiths drummer Mike Joyce is destroyed by his own reflection. Judge John Weeks is ridiculed from off the face of the earth.

Relaying his many encounters with celebrities, neighbours, his fans and all others whose orbits he falls, the tale that lingers, however, is that of his encounter with something up on Saddleworth Moor one foggy, freezing evening whilst in a car with friends. A spectre of a tall, thin, teenage boy; naked save for a short anorak, pleading Christ-like for them to stop. Frightened out of their wits, they accelerate away as quickly as possible and call the police who tell them that a lot of strange things have been reported up on the Moor and that they should keep an open mind. In other words, they are told that what they have seen is commonly known as a ghost...

Morrissey's whole journey through life has been a haunted one; very long and in his own eyes quite tortuous. He now resides in Rome where hopefully he is far happier than he's ever been in England or America. Morrissey chose not to kill himself and for his pains has been voted by viewers of the BBC the second greatest living British icon, losing out only to Sir David Attenborough. Is it too late for anyone to offer him any advice? Does he need any? He must now certainly be rich enough to be able to buy a form of happiness or to at least fortress himself against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
"Get up off the ground and stop whining, you wuss." said Beavis whilst watching a Morrissey video. "Yeah." added Butthead "Quit whining, go out and get a job and some good clothes. And quit humping rocks."
Slightly better advice might have been that of Bill Hicks when he tried to explain that life was "just a ride", so don't worry and don't be afraid.
But the best advice, of course, is Morrissey's own which he long ago offered up but has himself resolutely failed to heed and it goes something like:
'Why pamper life's complexity when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat?....La la la la la, this charming man..'

Morrissey is a troubled man. He always has been and he probably always will be but he's also very charming and this - his Autobiography - is a very charming book.

Morrissey when visiting Exmouth tries to get served in the Powder Monkey
John Serpico

Ulysses - James Joyce


In reviewing the world (through a charity shop in Exmouth) the question is where to begin? Where to start? The answer is of course to start at both the beginning and the end, and from the centre then move out. To start everywhere at once. And how do you do that? Well, you start with a review of Ulysses, James Joyce's modernist classic tale of life, the universe and everything as played out on a single day in Dublin, 16th of June 1904.

Now, the main problem with this is that Ulysses has a reputation that goes before it, that reputation being that not only is it one of the greatest books ever written but that it's also one of the most difficult to read. There’s little point in arguing against this as there seems to be a universal consensus on it. However, just because you're told something is difficult shouldn't mean that you must automatically agree and adopt that stance also. Just as when you're told that something is great art, it doesn't mean that you should again automatically agree. Art is, after all, subjective and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That said, I happen to agree that Ulysses is indeed one of the greatest books of all time, if not the greatest. I also agree that it's not exactly easy reading but I hasten to add that it's not an impossible read. I also hasten to add that Ulysses is extraordinarily enjoyable and even a life-enhancing experience that will leave its mark on a reader forever.

For what it's worth, the story focuses on two people - Stephen Dedalus, a young writer and teacher who could be Joyce himself; and Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertising salesman. There are other characters too, not least Leopold Bloom's wife, Molly, but these two gentlemen - who could almost be father and son - are the main protagonists. The journey of Leopold Bloom through a single day echoes that of the hero Ulysses in Homer's epic poem The Odyssey which in itself conveys the idea that there are no new stories under the sun. Everything has been done before and only the scale changes. Or rather, only the perception of scale changes because ultimately Leopold Bloom's drift through the city of Dublin over a day is just as epic as Ulysses' mythical voyage to Ithaca over 10 years.

So does this mean that everything in life echoes through eternity, recurring an infinite number of times? On one level, yes, this is what Joyce's book suggests but more importantly the book also suggests that there is another life going on beneath the surface that is far more interesting than any possible earthly adventure. A shifting, complex life unique to each individual that is banal yet utterly profound. It is this 'lake of dreams', this 'sea of rains', this 'gulf of dews', this 'ocean of fecundity' that Ulysses is really about. The external world is finite and can be captured and contained by words if nothing else but the internal world is without end. Just 'Shut your eyes and see', as Joyce says.

Ulysses soars and dives and stutters and glides and turns linguistic somersaults in a bewildering display of absolute genius. Words are the tools used to set language free to reveal the subtext of everyday living and the life extraordinary alike. Only one other writer has come close to revealing the hidden meaning in language and that's William Burroughs through his use of cut up and a healthy heroin habit. For James Joyce, it took 7 years of living in poverty with nothing but sheer intelligence and will power to assist. To this day, however, Ulysses stands head and shoulders above just about any other book and is a testament to imagination unbound. Feted for its streams of consciousness, there is a richness even in the tiniest of observations that leaves the reader in awe at the wonder of the English language:
'Poets in the delirium of the frenzy of attachment... the condensation of spiral nebulae into suns... a new luminous sun generated by the collision and amalgamation in incandescence of two nonluminous exsuns... out of the vaulted cell into a shattering daylight of no thoughts... love loves to love love... your head it simply swurls, those pretty little seaside gurls... '
On and on it goes, ad infinitum for approximately 727 pages until we get to Molly Bloom's soliloquy where for the last 50 pages punctuation is dispensed with entirely as she reminisces, ponders and dreams before finally remembering the time she first gave herself to Leopold, her husband to be:
'... and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.'

As an aside, in November of 1966 John Lennon attended an art show preview at the Inidica gallery in London. On entering, the first exhibit he saw was a step ladder that had to be climbed to get near to a blank canvas attached to the ceiling from which a magnifying glass hung. Lennon climbed the step ladder and through his rimmed glasses peered through the magnifying glass at a word written very small upon the canvas. The word was 'Yes'. This was Lennon's first encounter with the art of the then unknown Japanese artist Yoko Ono and the significance of that encounter was immense.
In Ulysses, Joyce chooses to end his book with that same, single, life-affirming, orgasmic (on the lips of Molly Bloom), heartening, positive word: Yes. It is the final word. The final firework exploding into the heavens ('The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit') and illuminating the universe, the mind and the imagination for ever more.

Ulysses is always there. It is in this world and yet it contains this world along with all others. There is no escaping from it. It is there waiting like a fat Buddha at the centre of all things for the reader to come to it. It exists as a reminder of what is possible, reasonably demanding the impossible. It will not go away and until it has been read will tug at the back of the mind, gently nudging, gently whispering, gently extending an invitation to something very, very special.

To something more.

To something other.

  If Marilyn Monroe read Ulysses then so can you
John Serpico

Sympathy For The Devil



"Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste." 
Well, almost. 
"I've been around for long, long years, stole many a man's soul and faith.'"
But then actually, not quite...
"Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name? But what's puzzling you is the nature of my game..."

Exmouth is situated on the East coast of Devon and marks the western end of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. Devon is in England, of course, in the northern hemisphere of the third rock from the sun. On one side of Exmouth just further along the coast there is the town of Budleigh Salterton, known to locals as 'God's waiting room' due to the large number of elderly people there. It's a toss up between Hilary Mantel and Giles Wemmbley Hogg as to who its most famous resident is. On the other side is Lympstone, referred to in the Domesday Book as 'Lumpshyte', which is something estate agents for some reason fail to ever mention. One of its biggest claims to fame is that Dave Davies, lead guitarist of The Kinks once lived there. Say no more.

In many ways Exmouth is a typical English coastal town with all the delights and problems which that entails. Personally, I like it here though it's probably fair to say it has an image problem that's constantly exasperated by the actions of those in charge. Not that most local people could care less for they know that all human life is here and nowhere is that more true than in the abundance of charity shops in the town where all that same human life flows through. If it's in this world then at some point it will end up in a charity shop in Exmouth. It will be given a quick clean and then sold on, all for a good cause.

This blog, then, is - in part - the world as reviewed through a charity shop in Exmouth. 
This is Exmouth re-imagined.
Books - lots of books - films, music, magazines, clothes, haberdashery, flotsam, jetsam, news, people, gossip, politics... 
The cornucopia of everyday life.

Herein are reports from the front line of human existence.

This is the art of Exmouth.