Saturday, 28 March 2015

Up The Junction - Nell Dunn


We all know Nell Dunn was slumming it when she moved from Chelsea to Battersea and started writing about the lives of the working class people there but I'm sure that if I'm able to forgive her for it then anyone can. I mean, did anyone accuse George Orwell of slumming it for going off and living like a tramp then writing about it in Down And Out In Paris And London? Did anyone accuse Wilfred Owen of the same when he went off to the trenches in the First World War and started writing his poems? Not that I'm comparing life in Battersea during the Sixties to the life of a tramp or to the horrors of Flanders but you know what I mean?

Nell Dunn's father was a knighted industrialist and her mother was Lady Mary Sybil St Clair-Erskine, so yes indeed, she did come from a very privileged, upper class background. Bearing this in mind, I must admit that when I hear the word 'culture', unlike Herman Goering I don't reach for my revolver but when I hear the words 'privileged' and 'upper class' I do tend to reach for my surface-to-air missile launcher. In Nell Dunn's case, however, I make an exception due entirely to the calibre of her writing.

She moved to Battersea, in London, with her journalist husband Jeremy Sandford in 1959 having just married, their wedding reception having been held at the Ritz. They bought themselves a tiny house and Dunn took a job at a local chocolate factory. The house, according to Dunn was "the most beautiful place I have ever been to. A grapevine grew wild over the outdoor lavatory and the garden was full of sunflowers six-feet high with faces as wide as dinner plates. At the end of our street were four tall chimneys..."
Her house, her fellow women workers at the factory, the local community and the life therein all enchanted her and it's the observations she made of all these things that went to form her d├ębut novel, Up The Junction.

First published in 1963, essentially it reads like a writer's equivalent of an artist's sketch pad. Dunn watched, listened and observed but also obviously joined in to the best of her abilities and became a good friend to a number of people there. It's a very specific style she writes in, focussing primarily on dialogue linked by brief descriptions. It's minimalist but very effective, very evocative and at times very powerful. The dialogue is all. Conversations, quips, exchanges, remarks, exclamations, statements and whispered intimacies; all flow into one and other to create a complete story. Shining through and elbowing its way to the forefront, however, is humour. Whether said in innocence or with the full intention of being funny, the humour is bawdy, sad and stupidly delicious. The stuff of high comedy. At times it's even reminiscent of the humour of Withnail And I, which is no bad thing at all.
Nothing is judged, belittled or mocked. Dunn simply records. But what she picks up on is - as the blurb on the back cover from the Daily Mail correctly pinpoints - harshly truthful yet poetic, and it's this aspect of the book which is the cause of controversy. Lewd banter is recorded verbatim along with racism, upfront female sexuality, the normality of criminality, and - most controversial of all - abortion. Back street abortion.

If you tend to judge a book by its cover then you'd be inclined to think Up The Junction was simply lightweight pulp fiction. Not that there's anything wrong with pulp fiction but Dunn's book is much more than that and to a large degree I think it's been mis-sold and misrepresented. How powerful and heart-rending, for example, is this:
'Rube was shrieking, a long, high, animal shriek. The baby was born alive, five months old. It moved, it breathed, its heart beat.
Rube lay back, white and relieved, across the bed. Sylvie and her mum lifted the eiderdown and peered at the tiny baby still joined by the cord. "You can see it breathing, look!"
Rube smiled. "It's nothing - I've had a look meself."
Finally the ambulance arrived. They took Rube away, but they left behind the baby, which had now grown cold. Later Sylvie took him, wrapped in the Daily Mirror, and threw him down the toilet.'

Mary Whitehouse objected to it, in all likelihood because everything about Up The Junction is so real and so human. It reads like a very accurate depiction of what life was like in a working class area of London during the Sixties, where the times were a-changing and cultures were colliding. All played out to a soundtrack of American pop songs and pub sing-a-longs.

Dunn went on to write Poor Cow and the stage play Steaming, both of which were made into films. Up The Junction was also, of course, filmed firstly by Ken Loach as a play for the BBC and then as a film proper in 1968 starring a host of 1960's British cinema actors and actresses including Liz Fraser, a young Dennis Waterman, Maureen Lipman (who is brilliant in it) and Hylda Baker. It also, of course, formed the title to the classic song by Squeeze...

John Serpico

Monday, 23 March 2015

Clothes Music Boys - Viv Albertine


Viv Albertine's memoir is more fascinating than she might even realise and from the start I would urge any girl (or adult woman, come to that) who has ever had any inclination to be an artist of any sort - not just a musician - to read it because I'm certain they'll love it to bits and be inspired.
Viv was, of course, the lead guitarist of the Slits who as everyone should know were an incredibly important band. As to be expected, a proportion of her book concerns itself with her time in the Slits but I wouldn't say that's the main subject of the book at all. In fact if anything, the running theme throughout it is 'honesty' and Viv is nothing but honest in what she writes. At times, startlingly so.

The past is a foreign country and Viv conveys this in her descriptions of life in London during the early 1970s when horizons were limited, expectations were low, education insufficient and encouragement non-existent. And that was just if you were a boy. For a girl it was much worse. And adding a little spice to everyone's affairs was the constant threat from gangs of skinheads roaming the streets in search of fresh victims, like sharks scenting blood.
For Viv, as for many other young people, music offered a meaning to a life devoid of any. Music was the medium that carried the news, that brought the world to her door and into her bedroom. Politics, culture, protest, art, glamour, ideas, alternatives - all the things that were never taught in school. John Lennon, the Kinks, Captain Beefheart, Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Patti Smith - these were her real teachers.
"Every cell in my body was steeped in music," she writes "But it never occurred to me that I could be in a band, not in a million years - why would it? Who'd done it before me? There was no one I could identify with. No girls played electric guitar. Especially not ordinary girls like me."

Whilst attending Hammersmith College, in London, Viv is one day invited along to a gig by her friend Rory Johnston who's a fellow student and unpaid assistant to a clothes shop owner on the King's Road. The band come on: "They're loud and raucous but not bad musicians. I've seen bands that have this anarchic quality before: the Pink Fairies, the Pretty Things, the Edgar Broughton Band. It's the singer who stands out."
The singer's name is Johnny Rotten.
"He's unapologetic about who he is and where he comes from. Proud of it even. He's not taking the world's lack of interest as confirmation that he's wrong and worthless. I look up at him twisting and yowling and realise it's everyone else who's wrong, not him. How did he make that mental leap from musically untrained, state-school-educated, council estate boy, to standing on stage in front of a band? I think he's brave. A revolutionary. He's sending a very powerful message, the most powerful message anyone can ever transmit. Be yourself.
I've always thought that my particular set of circumstances - poor, North London, comprehensive school, council flat, girl - haven't equipped me for success. As I watch the Sex Pistols I realise that this is the first time I've seen a band and felt there are no barriers between me and them. Ideas that have been in the back of my mind for years rush to the front of my brain...
... This is it. At last I see not only that other universe I've always wanted to be part of, but the bridge to it."

Attending the same college as Viv is a softly spoken, shy but flamboyantly dressed boy by the name of Mick Jones who becomes her boyfriend (and guardian angel), and through him she gets to know his friends and some of his friend's friends. One afternoon whilst walking down the Portobello Road with Mick they bump into John Rotten who's walking along with one of his friends and during the ensuing conversation Viv mentions she wants to start a band. To her amazement John's friend says "I'll be in a band with you."
"This is an extraordinary thing for a guy to say because there are hardly any boys and girls in bands together" writes Viv.
The friend's name is Sid Vicious and they go on to form a band called the Flowers Of Romance but after practising all through the summer of '76 they fail to write a single song let alone play a gig. Sid sacks Viv from the band for 'not being able to play well enough' (and this from Sid!) and she's comforted by a kind and thoughtful Johnny Thunders who shoots her up with heroin. Sid, of course, goes on to join the Sex Pistols and Viv is recruited by the fledgling Slits, and in the process... history is made.

This may all sound as though Viv was always in the right place at the right time but it's not at all as simple as that. The Sex Pistols were the catalyst for an extraordinary chain of events but everyone whom the Pistols effected had to already be receptive to the possibility of such an impact be it from whatever source. They had to have been already looking for something different.
There were a lot of people at that time who would go on to form bands who had already been practising their chosen musical instrument for quite a while and the Pistols were the final boost they needed to just get up and do it. It was those, however, whom the odds were stacked against that the Pistols' 'message' was not only doubly important but vital. Those with no musical training in the slightest. Those to whom there was no outlet for creativity whatsoever. Those who were too poor. Too uneducated. Those who'd been born in the wrong place. Those born the wrong sex. Those like Viv Albertine.

Viv's observations and anecdotes about this specific period offer a completely fresh view of a subject that has been almost written about to death. There are completely new insights into many of the main characters of those early Punk days but more importantly they're from a female perspective. It's apparent in the way that Viv writes honestly, openly and truthfully about her problems, her family, her lack of confidence, and her sexual experiences that what she says about the people and events around Punk must also be similarly truthful. And actually, this is quite important because so many myths and exaggerations have been thrown about by people writing about Punk that it's often hard now to even see the wood for the trees.
Viv is a very good, very witty writer. She has a natural way of complimenting people without overstating things, just as she has a very calm way of sticking the boot into people. What she says about Paul Weller, for example, is devastating to his public persona (and much respect to Mick Jones for wanting to have a go at him for it). And her description of giving John a blow job is almost as hilarious as Sid (having been taught the art of love by Nancy Spungeon) very sweetly and very generously offering to give her an orgasm. Her skill, however, is in the way she can compliment and stick the boot into the same person in equal measures. The person she's least kind about though, is herself, which is a shame really because what she and the Slits did for women in particular is immeasurable. If only she knew.

But as I said, Viv's book isn't just about Punk and the Slits. The second half of it deals with her post-Punk/post-Slits life and this part is quite possibly even better than the first. At times her honesty is almost harrowing as she writes about miscarriage, IVF and divorce before emerging like a butterfly from its chrysalis as an artist reborn. And I'll tell you what, if Viv can do it then we can all do it.
And throughout it all is Viv's much put upon mother, who even more so than Viv is the true hero (or heroine?) of the book. In fact, I reckon she deserves to be honoured in some way for her services not only to Punk Rock (for giving Viv her constant blessing and support) but for her services (through Viv) to creativity, art and womankind. Thank you, Mrs Albertine, for giving the world your daughter. 
We salute you.
John Serpico

Friday, 13 March 2015

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 18)


"Nightswimming deserves a quiet night. I'm not sure all these people understand." - REM

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Sound and the Fury - Barney Hoskyns


Like a murderer returning to the scene of the crime there's a certain type of book that I keep coming back to and I'm not really sure why. It's books on music, basically.
As a teenager I would read the weekly music press as in Sounds newspaper, the NME, and Melody Maker and what undue influence this has had upon me I can only hazard a guess. I was probably lucky because in those days there were a lot of very good writers working for these papers and there were a lot of very good bands and records to write about. I do suspect, however, that every generation says the same thing about themselves. Whereas in those days all we had were these newspapers along with sundry fanzines, nowadays there is the Internet and I believe it's here where the best writers can now be found rather than in what passes for the NME these days.

Barney Hoskyns used to write for both the NME and Melody Maker so that puts him in good stead from the start, as well as the fact that he was always one of the more intelligent writers if I remember correctly. Apparently he went on to write a number of music books and has continued to this day as far as I'm aware to be a music journalist and editor, setting up along the way a website called Rock's Backpages (Google it) where thousands of articles, reviews and interviews of the music variety are archived.

The Sound And The Fury - 40 Years Of Classic Rock Journalism, edited by Barney Hoskyns is essentially a sampler of that website and is a collection of articles and interviews culled from past issues of the aforementioned newspapers as well as Creem, Zig-Zag, International Times, Crawdaddy, The Observer, and so on. There are even a few articles that have never been published before and it's actually one of these that I found of most interest. Entitled 'How to become a cult figure in only two years: the making of David Bowie', it was written by someone called Steve Turner for a magazine called Nova in 1974. Nova folded that same year which is why it was never published.
The article describes how Bowie was turned from a scruffy songwriter dressed in roll-neck and jeans into Ziggy Stardust superstar. Apparently, it was all down to manager Tony DeFries. Bowie designed the style (and wrote the songs) but DeFries designed the image or to be more precise, the public perception of the image, using the same methods that Richard Nixon's team used to make Nixon President. "It's not what's there that counts," as one of Nixon's aides is quoted as saying "It's what's projected." So DeFries manipulated the media by controlling what pictures were released of Bowie, charged £1,000 an hour for an interview, vetted interviews, surrounded Bowie with an entourage and bodyguards so as to elevate his importance, controlled the flow of information, and then finally killed Bowie (or rather Ziggy Stardust) off at the height of his fame before managing 'the comeback'. It obviously all worked, didn't it?

Rock'n'roll suicide

Other items of interest include an interview with Joni Mitchell where she talks about Herman Hesse and his book Narziss And Goldmund (which happens to be one of my favourite books), and the caves at Matala in Crete where the hippies used to live (and where I lived also for a while once upon a time). Then there's metaphysics with Marvin Gaye, Will Self on Morrissey, the brilliant Mick Farren on Nashville, an excellent piece on Altamont by David Dalton, an informative piece on Andy Warhol by Mary Harron, and others that are not so interesting.

Pop apocalypse - Altamont

Strangely, for a book that's been edited by an accomplished writer and editor, there's quite a few mistakes in it ranging from paragraphs repeated to ill-researched references leading to clangers of spelling mistakes. In one piece regarding the Beach Boys and The Manson Family entitled 'Surfin' Death Valley USA' written by David Troop it says that Sharon Tate was the star of Rosemary's Baby, which is quite an unforgiveable mistake, really. Yes, Tate was murdered by The Manson Family but she was the wife of Roman Polanski who directed Rosemary's Baby and it was Mia Farrow who starred in it. When the pieces were originally written, the authors would have been facing deadlines so I suppose for that reason they can be forgiven (to an extent) but when being reproduced for inclusion in a book I'd have thought these mistakes would have been spotted and corrected. It doesn't appear to have happened though.

Barney Hoskyns, however, is well-intentioned and his commitment to music journalism is obvious as evidenced by what he writes in his introduction: 'There is a fundamental loss of faith in the value of pop culture, with so much coverage reduced to bland, consumer-guide homogeneity. So what can we in the media do? Well, we can resist the relentless banalisation of rock'n'roll. We must resist it. We have a sacred duty to inject magic and danger into the bloodstream. We cannot let capitalism erode our souls. Music is about spirit, not matter: it's about our emotional lives, not our material status.'
Which is all well and good but I personally reckon it's all too late - to a point. The four corners of the world of music have already been explored, recouperated, accommodated and commodified. For example, music as a force for social change has done all it can (the ultimate protest statement set to music being by Anarcho Punk band Conflict with their EP 'This Is Not Enough - Stand Up And Fucking Fight') as has music as a means of communing with God (the ultimate stairway to heaven being the raves of the '90s and defined by Faithless in their 'God is a DJ'). The only way forward now for music in my opinion is for it to be completely free, as in free downloading; and if a musician wants to make money from music to do so by performing live.

So prove me wrong.

In the meantime, however, I won't deny there's still some enjoyment and possibly enlightenment to be gained from listening to music, as well as in reading about it in books such as this. Although obviously a book is a bit more difficult to dance to than a song.

Or is it?
John Serpico

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

How to Become a Virgin - Quentin Crisp


I'm very happy to stand up straight and tall and shout that Quentin Crisp was a better man than I. Like Robert DeNiro's Travis Bickle character in Taxi Driver, here was a man who in his own particular way 'would not take it any more, a man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here was a man who stood up. Here was...'. But rather than setting out to assassinate a politician or to rescue a child prostitute from her pimp, Quentin (or perhaps we should refer to him as 'Mr Crisp' in the same fashion as to how he politely referred to everybody by their title and surname?) instead leant limply for 50 years against a metaphorical wall until it began to give way.

How To Become A Virgin is the sequel to Mr Crisp's autobiography The Naked Civil Servant which is, of course, required reading for anyone who's ever felt themselves hard done by, just as the television drama of the same name starring John Hurt is required viewing. It details how after a lifetime of ostracism and poverty Mr Crisp finally makes it into what Americans call 'the big time' and how his dreams of celluloid fame if not fortune come to pass. There are setbacks and whole minefields of potential catastrophe to navigate along the way but in the end Mr Crisp prevails to become the icon of individuality that he's still known as to this day.

It's this lesson in being true to yourself and above all being yourself that Mr Crisp has bequeathed and it's a lesson of incalculable value. To be yourself is an exhortation that's far easier to say than to actually do, and then far easier to try for than to actually accomplish. It is, however, perhaps one of the greatest things that any person could hope to achieve in their lifetime.
At one point in the book Mr Crisp describes being asked by an interviewer whether he was meeting more interesting people now he was famous than he did formerly to which he replies that to him, everyone who will talk about themselves is interesting. He later revises his reply to declare that everyone is interesting who will tell the truth about themselves. Mr Crisp would tell nothing but the truth about himself, often alarmingly so. Including details about his housekeeping habits - or lack of.

For him, fame was the heart of the city of happiness and his entrance into it was ignited by the publication of his autobiography and then cemented by the broadcasting of the television drama: "It offered to the viewers visual proof of what previously had only been suspected, feared or, possibly, hoped. This did indeed cause certain people to despise me even more deeply than before but in the eyes of others I gradually started to become sanctified."
For years after he kept his name and telephone number in the Yellow Pages and diligently suffered the consequences, laying his eager ear to the keyhole of the world as he put it and listening to abuse, enticement, entrapment and the murky unpleasantries of human experience. It wasn't only homophobes, would-be psychopaths and schoolboys who wished him dead but also members of the Gay Movement (as distinct from gay people) such as writers for Gay News who expressed the opinion that it would have been better for 'The Cause' if The Naked Civil Servant had been published posthumously - a literary way of saying 'Drop dead'. But as Mr Crisp explains: "In spite of all that my persecutors can do or say to me, I still want the world. What else is there?"

From talks in small theatres to invitations to Canada, Australia and then America where he eventually settled, Mr Crisp graciously accepts and describes it all in his uniquely witty and insightful way, revealing himself to be almost poetic at times as when, for example, describing a long-distance flight: "It is impossible not to regard the cloudscape below you as the surface of the earth. You are not aware of any motion and feel that you are standing in a disused lighthouse surveying a snowbound planet, long since bereft of human habitation, making its last meaningless, million-year dash towards the sun." At other times, he sounds distinctly Morrissey-like: "At a time when my two brothers aspired to be splendid icons of manliness such as firemen or ships' captains, all I wanted was to be a chronic invalid. For this vocation I had a certain flair. Unfortunately my parents decided that, as a career, it would prove too expensive."

Mr Crisp grew up instead to be a very fine and extremely courageous gentleman who has my and should have everyone else’s full respect and admiration. Mr Crisp grew up to be a hero.
John Serpico.