Friday, 30 January 2015

Guilty Pleasures (Part 6)


I was once upon a time a great admirer of the Sex Pistols and in particular John Rotten. I say 'once' but I should declare that still to this day I fully appreciate them and all that they did. To think that John was only 19 at the time of the Pistols but how brightly he shone then. How fierce his intelligence was and how righteous his anger. Viewing old clips of him now on YouTube it's quite astounding how incandescent he was, articulating what I and many, many others were thinking and feeling.
"We ain't got no heroes." he would say "They're all useless." And oh, how I identified with that. A slight problem being, however, that in the process John became a sort of anti-hero hero of mine and very slavishly would I soak up his pearls of wisdom. Over a Pink Floyd t-shirt he had scrawled 'I hate' and I thought that if Johnny hated Pink Floyd then they must be bad so I chose to agree with him and chose to hate them too - without ever actually listening to them.

It was only a couple of years later at a friend's house whilst trying our utmost to exit planet dust via his sensimilla that my friend put on the Wish You Were Here album and I realised how brilliant Pink Floyd actually were.
I learned a valuable lesson that day.
And wouldn't you know, it turned out that Johnny never really hated them himself and that he even liked Hawkwind and Alvin Stardust...

Which brings me to Think Floyd, regarded by many as being the UK's finest tribute to Pink Floyd. They're playing at the Exmouth Pavilion and I may just go and see them. As a teenage Anarcho Punk Rocker such a thing would have been unthinkable, particularly as tickets are £17.50 but you know, this is 2015. In answer to Marc Bolan's old question, I think I know what happened to the teenage dream. I've heard the chimes at midnight. I know for whom the bell tolls. But the world keeps on turning. And the sun also rises.

I still see light at the end of the tunnel.

Life is good.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Among The Thugs - Bill Buford


Not that I long for the return of such days but there was a time when you couldn't go to a gig (particularly of the Punk Rock variety) without the night ending in an explosion of fighting on the dance floor, or by being chased home by a pack of howling skinheads with the scent of your blood in their nostrils.
If you care to gather round I could tell tales of Toyah screaming hatred at brawling boneheads, of the UK Subs leaping from the stage and swinging their mike stands wildly around at anyone and everyone in a bid to stop mobs fighting; of the Angelic Upstarts halting play and inviting disruptive elements up onto the stage to fight personally with them, of the whole of Crass jumping en masse from the stage to tackle mass punch-ups, of the Cockney Rejects punching out shaven-headed racists only to be labelled Nazis themselves, of The Slits heaping abuse upon fighting skinheads, of Stiff Little Fingers buckling and fleeing from crowd violence, of Conflict pulling out baseball bats to confront troublemakers, and so on and so on and so on. These names won't mean much to most people nowadays but that's fine because the point I'm making is that violence and fighting at gigs was once endemic.
There was a time also when you couldn't go to a football match without being caught up in or bearing witness to aggro and violence. There was blood on the terraces and blood on the streets brought about not only by boots and fists but coins, darts, coshes and Stanley knives. Unlike a gig situation, the fighting was not contained within the confines of the event but could erupt at any point to and from the match, encroaching upon anyone who just happened to be there at the time. At train stations and in pubs it could be particularly ugly and many an innocent bystander could be injured. In regards to this, however, I must admit I've never personally ran with any football hooligan gangs but because of where I was born and where I went to school (in Bristol, England, if anyone's interested?), I knew plenty who did who would regularly regale me with tales of their exploits.

So enters writer and editor of literary magazine Granta, Bill Buford, who whilst waiting to catch a train in Cardiff one Saturday evening encounters hundreds of Liverpool supporters packed tightly into a train bound for London. He has to get on the same train and during the journey witnesses destruction, wanton vandalism, aggressiveness, theft and constant chanting. The supporters are apparently ungovernable and unstoppable. All the police can do is to escort and contain them until their final destination at Paddington Station.
Buford can't quite believe what he's witnessed. He's an American and though he's been living in England for some years has never seen anything like it before. Like Butch Cassidy to the Sundance Kid regarding the posse in pursuit of them he asks "Who are those guys?" but his Cambridge and Oxford-educated friends can't really explain so he sets off to discover for himself by attending football matches; his aim being to meet a few of these 'football thugs', get to know them and then write about them.

In Manchester he comes upon a suitable specimen and duly introduces himself by saying he's writing about football supporters and can he ask a few questions? The specimen responds by stating "All Americans are wankers and all journalists are cunts" and from there establishes a rapport. Buford's advised to go to Turin for the Man Utd/Juventus Cup-Winners Cup second leg match and it's there that he starts running with the pack and dishing up vicarious thrills for the middle class, all neatly recorded in his book Among The Thugs. And as evidenced by the plaudits on the back cover of the book it's a right bunch of vicarious thrill seekers he appeals to: Martin Amis, Jonathan Raban, John Stalker at the Sunday Times, Michael Crick at the Independent, writer John Gregory Dunne, unnamed writers at the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, Time Out, The Economist... All highly-educated and cultured fellows to a man.

To be fair to Buford, his writing is actually really good and in describing the destruction wrought upon Turin by the English football fans he captures a series of snapshots that ring very true. As I said, I've never ran with any football hooligan gangs but I must admit I've been in a fair few riot situations of a more political nature over the years and the sounds heard, the scenes witnessed and the feelings felt are as he describes. Buford's good at writing riot porn. He's a riot pornographer appealing to the fetishistic desires of Martin Amis and his like.

Buford starts off by being quite witty in his descriptions of the characters he's meeting; mocking their manners, their physiques, their world-view - their whole lives, really. As the book progresses, however, he gets more and more serious until it eventually starts reading like a thesis on the nature of crowd behaviour, culminating in an analysis of what it's like being truncheoned by a couple of Italian riot police.
His lack of political awareness is exposed early on when he reflects on the values of the football hooligan community and composes a list of what they like: Lager, The Queen, the Falkland Islands, Margaret Thatcher, Rolex watches, war movies, the Catholic Church, expensive jumpers, lots of money, and themselves. What he doesn't seem to realise is that what he's described is the model Tory citizen. Thatcher's children. Thatcher's electorate holding Thatcher's values.
He then gives his game away at the end of the chapter detailing his adventure in Turin when he describes his return to London and his rush to get back to his home. There's an old couple having trouble negotiating the stairs at the Marble Arch Underground station, and they're taking one step at a time. Buford shoves them forcefully aside so he can get past then turns around to them and says "Fuck off. Fuck off, you old cunts." Presumably he writes of this incident so as to show how being involved with a hooligan riot can affect a person - even someone as well-educated and cultured as him - and cause them to act uncivilised too. Hooliganism can be infectious, he seems to be saying. The problem here, however, is that Buford releases the hooliganism he's been contaminated with upon a couple of weak, defenceless, old-aged pensioners which is actually the lowest of the low. He's not out in a mob caught up in the madness of the moment. He has no excuse and for all the mocking of the football hooligans over the previous pages, it's highly unlikely that very many of them would do as what he's just done. In fact, many would probably have asked if the old couple needed a hand down the stairs. He seems to think it's normal that a mob mentality in a riot situation is simply replicated when trying to pass a couple of old people on a flight of stairs but he's so incredibly, utterly wrong.

Following his trip to Turin he returns to the UK and continues to attend football matches, heading up to Manchester for a Man Utd vs West Ham game. Whilst anticipating a bloodbath, what he actually witnesses is the humiliation of the Man Utd hooligan firms by the infamous West Ham Inter City Firm, led by the legendary Bill Gardiner. Buford describes Gardiner's entrance as "majestic", standing there unflinching, flanked by his troops. This is hardcore football hooliganism being handed to him on a plate but rather than following the real story and trying to gain the acquaintance of Gardiner, Buford instead heads next to a National Front disco in Bury St Edmunds of all places. As if the NF are ruling the roost and have unbridled influence over football crowds, and that it's here that he'll find the answers he's searching for. He finds none, of course.

From there, over the course of the book Buford writes about the conditions of the terraces, the physicality of being in a crowd, the release of jubilation at a goal being scored, crowd psychology, mob anonymity, mob violence, organised violence, the euphoria of crowd violence, mindless violence, the ubiquity of football violence, lad culture, Heysel Stadium, and then Hillsborough.
A lot of this is actually very intelligent writing and a lot of ideas and insights are thrown up though at the same time there are a lot of very deep flaws that rise up to expose Buford's ignorance, naivety and total lack of consciousness - socially, politically and culturally. This then calls into question the judgement of all the critics such as Martin Amis, John Stalker, Michael Crick etc whose praise for Buford's book has been used as blurbs on the back cover. Just who are these people and how do they continue getting away with being taken seriously as aficionados of literacy criticism? Are they really up to the job? Who exactly are they talking to? Who exactly takes their views seriously?

One of the biggest clangers Buford makes is when he states that the working class doesn't exist any more and that there is only at best a working class 'style': "Nothing substantive is there; there is nothing to belong to, although it is still possible, I suppose, to belong to a phrase - the working class - a piece of language that serves to reinforce certain social customs and a way of talking."
If this is the case then who exactly does he think he's been talking to out on the terraces and at his National Front discos? Who are all these people out on the council estates, the urban sprawls, towns, cities and villages through the UK? They may no longer be working out on the coal fields, the docks or in heavy industry but who are then all these people working in the call centres and the service industries? Who are all my friends? Who are all my family? Just who the fuck am I? Am I also simply part of a "highly mannered suburban society stripped of culture and sophistication and living only for its affections: a bloated code of maleness, an exaggerated embarrassing patriotism, a violent nationalism, an array of bankrupt antisocial habits"?
If the working class doesn't exist any more does this mean the middle class no longer exist also? That there's no longer any upper middle or ruling class? Is it meaningless that David Cameron and most of the leading elite in politics, the media, business, Law, etc all come from Eton, Oxbridge and Cambridge? Is it just some fucking coincidence?

Among The Thugs isn't a bad book at all, in fact a lot of it is very interesting and it's very well written but what it brings to mind whilst reading it are the lines from the song Common People by Pulp:
"Like a dog lying in a corner, they'll bite you and never warn you. Look out! They'll tear your insides out.
Cos everybody hates a tourist, especially one who thinks it's all such a laugh, and the chip stains and grease will come out in the bath.
You'll never understand how it feels to live your life with no meaning or control and with nowhere left to go.
You're amazed that they exist and they burn so bright while you can only wonder why."

Bill Buford is a tourist and so too is Martin Amis and all the many other critics who have praised this book to the skies. Every single one of them fails to understand the subject matter in hand whether they’re writing about it like Buford or simply reading about it like Amis et al. And they would probably all scoff at, guffaw or vehemently deny the very idea but the lives they lead are much less interesting than those they choose to write about, deride and read about.
Their antics may not be to everyone’s taste but ultra hooligans such as Bill Gardiner and all the other working class people whose existences are denied do indeed burn brightly as the Pulp song suggests whilst Buford and Amis et al remain as nothing but damp squibs; collectively and individually wondering why whilst congratulating themselves for their devastating literacy skills, their sizzling repartee, their considered opinions and breathtaking insights in one very small, self-centred and exclusive mutual masturbation club.

Among the thugs? There are football thugs but there are also intellectual thugs of a more academic nature being paid good money to expound, pontificate and elucidate upon subjects they blatantly have very little understanding of. Laying down their social and cultural guidelines within very restricted parameters. And of which is the most powerful and of which is the most dangerous depends entirely upon where you're from and where you're at.
John Serpico

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Street Art Exmouth Style (Part 10)


I've always had a fondness for bees and always pay them much respect. So, much respect to the tea rooms in Manor Gardens, Exmouth, for not only calling themselves Bumble and Bee but for having a very large stencil of a bee on the outside wall of the building. 
As Kate Bush once said in an interview with the NME many years ago: "Fancy being a bee, leading an incredible existence. All these flowers designed just for you. Flying into the runway, incredible colours. Some trip...."

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Street Art Exmouth Style (Part 9)


They call them 'ghost signs'. Old, hand-painted murals on gable ends advertising products and businesses from a by-gone age. And it's an apt name to give them as they are indeed like ghosts from the past offering somewhat haunted glimpses into history.
They can be found on buildings in towns throughout Britain, and Exmouth is no exception. In fact, Exmouth can boast one of the most beautiful examples on a derelict, boarded-up building near to the centre of town. Yes, there really are boarded-up, derelict buildings in Exmouth and it's all the better here for them.
The ghost sign in question is a mural advertising a long-gone photo studio by the name of Memory Makers. I know nothing more about it than that. Which is rather fitting and also rather poignant.
Memory Makers: a place where memories were once saved but now itself fading from memory...

Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Rats - James Herbert


When first published in 1974, James Herbert's debut novel The Rats was like a firecracker being set off in a church. His writing was in a direct, no-holds-barred, straight-for-the-jugular style that left all other writers working in the same genre standing at the touch-line. Critics were apparently dismayed at the explicit horror he portrayed and were subsequently dismissive of him but for the thousands of readers who never read book reviews and never considered the opinions of Martin Amis and such like, James Herbert and his book The Rats was exactly what they wanted.

The Rats is a straightforward horror story about a new breed of vicious super rats the size of dogs, erupting from the slum houses and bomb-sites of London's East End and bringing terror to the people there. It's a relatively simple idea for a story, of course, but it's the manner in which Herbert wrote it that makes it so outstanding.
Each character is given a potted history, explaining who they are and how they've ended up in the job or life position they're now in. They're all then horribly slaughtered by the rats. Scenarios are set up whereupon the arrival of the rats cause maximum carnage and mayhem. So for example, Herbert has them attack a tube train stuck in a tunnel, a cinema audience, all the animals at a zoo, and a school full of children.
Herbert exploits to the hilt the inherent dislike if not fear of rats in most people and imagines all the places where an attack by hordes of them would be most dreaded; so it's in darkened places such as down in a tube station or in a cinema, or when in the daylight it's against the most vulnerable such as children and animals.

Herbert paints a vivid picture of a neglected London where tramps gather on wastelands at night, where children are tough but their environment tougher, and where the working class eke out their lives under the governance of incompetent authorities. As a depiction of early 1970s Britain it's a very accurate one, a depiction that at the time was hardly ever represented in the media. Re-reading The Rats today, it's apparent that Herbert was pre-empting the Sex Pistols and Punk Rock by almost three years. His London is one of no future and his rats are Year Zero made flesh. His was the modern world. The Rats was Punk Rock in book form, acting like a brick through a window.

Pre-Punk Rock the music industry was dominated by lumbering dinosaurs such as Genesis, Pink Floyd, ELP and so on until the Sex Pistols and their bastard children scared and chased them all away with a dollop of urban realism on the end of a broken stick. In a similar fashion, James Herbert and his Rats book did exactly the same but to the likes of Dennis Wheatley and H P Lovecraft - the supposed establishment figures of horror writing. Spread by word of mouth, The Rats was picked up by a whole new generation of readers, propelling itself away from the typical type of books aimed at teenagers and out to the council estates and inner cities where copies would be passed around.

Punk Rock corrupted and ruined many a teenager's life for the better and so too did The Rats. James Herbert captured both the dreams and the nightmares of children and thrust them screaming into the present. The dreams and nightmares of those children were never the same again.
John Serpico