Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Guardian Columns 1998-2000 - Julie Burchill


More huff and puff from everybody's favourite sociopath, Julie Burchill.
I'll tell you what, reading her columns en masse with no seven day gap between each leaves you reeling, as though you've just had a fight in a pub car park with some bloke who's accused you earlier in the evening of giving his pint funny looks ('Are you looking at my pint, mate?'). Your chest is pounding, your shirt is ripped and you've a bloodied lip though you've neither lost nor won because your opponent is one of those who just won't stay down or concede defeat because they've no comprehension of the concept. So you've both had to call it a draw just to bring the fight to an end to enable you both to get home for some sleep as you've got work in the morning...

I remember reading these columns when first published in the Guardian and waiting for the inevitable angry denunciations from irate liberals in the following week's letters page. I always felt these responses from the readers was what Burchill actually thrived on and if it didn't happen then it meant she wasn't doing her job properly. Which was all probably part of her remit as handed down by her employer. The editor of the Guardian at that time was Alan Rusbridger, I believe.

Am I a masochist for reading them all over again in book form? Probably. And how are you meant to read this collection of columns, I wonder? In one big sitting? Are you meant to dip in and out of them? I don't know what lesson it came in at school but I surely missed the one entitled 'How to read a book of Julie Burchill columns'. Perhaps it was in human biology? Or woodwork?

So with trepidation I started reading it (in short bursts on a train, actually) and it didn't turn out too bad. Burchill's reputation goes before her but it's a bit like swimming in the sea here in Exmouth: you dip a toe in and you think it's going to be freezing but when you immerse yourself fully, it's really not too bad.
I'm not sure if Burchill was at the height of her powers when writing for the Guardian but even if running on empty, she's better than most other columnists. Which means that Julie Burchill - The Guardian Columns 1998-2000 is an okay if not dizzying read even if it does come in an atrocious cover.

All human life is here, from the sublime to the ridiculous; from the precise aim of the assassin to the scattershot blasting of the shotgun wielding cider-addled farmer. Burchill's humanity is given a good airing, particularly in such pieces as when she writes about the death of her Dad - killed by capitalism: 'They tell you how many people communism killed, and how many fascism killed. But they don't tell you how many capitalism killed, and is killing, because a) they wouldn't know where to start, and b) it would never end'.
So too is her sense of humour particularly when the spectre of David Baddiel falls under her gaze: 'One of the most embarrassing questions, right up there with 'Are you really going out with David Baddiel?', must be, 'Do you know who I am?'.
Or even certain male poets: 'Ted Hughes. Another pet hate of mine. His poetry is like being slapped around the face with a wet mackerel, and I don't mean that in a sexy way'.
Or even lidos: 'If there's one thing I love, it's lidos. More than parks, more than pubs, more than President Clinton's penis, they seem to me to be the greatest expression of a very public hedonism, attractive and accessible to all, regardless of age, sex or social status'. Interestingly, Burchill was one of the features of Banksy's Dismaland show at the old lido in Weston-super-Mare recently.

It's when she goes out of her way to intentionally cause mischief or controversy for no other reason than for controversy's sake that she's the most annoying, however. No better illustrated than by her attack upon the late, great John Peel who was alive when her column about him was first published, causing him considerable upset. To whose benefit was it to launch such an ugly attack upon him? No-one's, of course, apart from her own. That particular column is included in the book and it's not a pleasant read. Neither are her attacks upon John Lennon, come to think about it, though this is more than made up for by her attacks upon her very much more deserving (middle class) targets.

When reading this book it struck me, actually, that both Burchill and I have ended up living on the coast (though different ones - she now lives in Brighton) having both been born and raised in Bristol. Both members of the West Country working class that she never neglects to mention.
Perhaps I should Facebook her and become her friend? Dare I?
On finishing it I returned it to the charity shop from whence it came for some other masochist to enjoy, which I thought was a good fate to befall it as it means it will continue generating money for some decent cause or other until it one day finds a proper home on someone's bookshelf.
And from there, sadly, it will remain forever more unread simply gathering dust...
John Serpico
Where it all started...

Saturday, 19 September 2015

On Wine And Hashish - Charles Baudelaire


Charles Baudelaire is a bit of a firm favourite down here in Exmouth and his books are always flying off the shelves as soon as they appear. Along with Thomas De Quincey's Confessions Of An English Opium Eater, Baudelaire's On Wine And Hashish is constantly being asked for at the public library and in the charity shops. There was a period not so long ago when demand for them was being eclipsed by everyone wanting to read Fifty Shades Of Grey but that particular fad has now passed and so it's back to business as usual.

There was talk at one point of erecting in town some kind of monument to Baudelaire but it's all gone a bit quiet on that front of late. Cut-backs on public spending, austerity measures and all that would be the reason. Still, it would be nice if something could be done in the future to acknowledge just how much Baudelaire (and Rimbaud as well, actually) is revered in these parts.

He liked his wine did Baudelaire and in On Wine And Hashish he sings its praises. Being a poet, he does it most eloquently, weaving his words to convince the most hardened of teetotallers that a glass of wine is practically a communion with God. And so it can be.
A year or so ago there was a particular piece of graffiti on a wall near to the beach in Exmouth that in large letters read 'Bacchus in delirium', this being a line from On Wine And Hashish. The local Council - cultural aficionados that they are - had it removed. I wish I'd taken a photograph of it. It certainly gave Banksy a run for his money, I can assure you. Bacchus, of course, is the god of wine and it got me to thinking: is there a god of cider? If so, might that god be Greek? Norse? West Country? Might it be Adge Cutler perchance?
But I digress.

Everyone knows the leisure-time drugs of choice in neighbouring Budleigh Salterton are gin, cocaine and heroin which might explain the penchant there for the Queen Mother, mountain trekking holidays in Peru, and the writings of William Burroughs. In Exmouth, however, the preferred choice is definitely wine (or cider), hashish and opium which would explain the great affection for The Wurzels, dub reggae and the writings of Charles Baudelaire.
A paradox in this, however, is that whilst the denizens of Exmouth relish the grape, glorify the apple, adore their hash and savour their opium; Baudelaire himself - though loving his wine and being a very good friend of opium - appeared to be ambivalent about his hash. If you read On Wine And Hashish, it would seem Baudelaire was almost scared of it, referring to hash constantly as 'the poison'. He denigrates it.

His descriptions of the effects of the drug are amusingly accurate but his opinions of it have dated somewhat. At the time of his writing, hashish was fairly new to France and hadn't been fully explored so whilst the plebeians and aristocrats alike drank to their hearts content, those indulging in hashish was limited to the artists and intellectuals of the day. Every week a group of them going under the name 'Le Club de hachichins' would meet at a mansion house in Paris and mong out together and it was from these sessions that Baudelaire formed his opinions.

Nowadays, hash has been completely democratized in the same way that wine was in Baudelaire's time. At one point in his book Baudelaire writes: 'In Egypt, the government bans the buying and trafficking of hashish, at least inside the country. The Egyptian government is quite right. Never could a reasonable state subsist if hashish could be freely used. It produces neither warriors nor citizens'. This was obviously written long before it being semi-legalised in the Netherlands to no earth-shattering consequence, and long before people everywhere else in the West where it's not been legalised (including Britain) began taking hash anyway in the same way as they would eat food. As in a completely normal thing to do.

For all that, On Wine And Hashish is an interesting if not curious book that paved the way for a thousand other works of art in all mediums to bloom. Seminal is the word.
As for Baudelaire himself, he was yet another great artist who died in poverty but who should and shall be remembered, honoured, and celebrated for ever more. In his homeland, of course, but also in Exmouth.
John Serpico

Monday, 14 September 2015

Midnight Cowboy - James Leo Herlihy


'Classic' is a term that might be bandied about liberally but in the case of Midnight Cowboy starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight there's no other word for it. It's one of those rare films where everything comes together perfectly: the script, the casting, the photography, and not least, the music. It may well even be the case that the theme music and the theme song for Midnight Cowboy is better known than the film? I suspect, however, that far less known is the book that the film is based upon.
Written by James Leo Herlihy in 1965, I would argue that whether you know the film or not, the book is just as good if perhaps even better. It's impossible when reading it to not envisage Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight as the main characters even though their descriptions don't quite match - the Dustin Hoffman character in the book, for example, is described as being blonde - but this is because their performances are so good. Such a good job both actors did in the film, in fact, that picturing them when reading the book simply adds to it.

The first third of the book centres totally upon Joe Buck (the character as played by Jon Voight) and his life before he sets off for New York in his quest to be a hustler selling his wares to rich women in need of a Texan cowboy. This is the bedrock of the whole story and explains exactly who Joe is and what has led him into being a 'midnight cowboy'. Not only this but it firmly establishes what the story is actually about, that being essentially a tale of loneliness and isolation.

In all, it's an incredibly sad story made all the more sadder by the fact that Joe is inarticulate and naive. He's an innocent thrown into a world where it seems that everyone apart from him is privy to all kinds of secrets and special knowledge. As a child he never knows who his true mother is, let alone his father. Everyone else seems to but not him.
As a boy growing up he doesn't know the girl who takes a shine to him is having sex with almost every other boy in town. Such an innocent is he that he's easy prey to those with more darker agendas and so even ends up as a victim of male rape and it's this incident that's the catalyst for him to head off to New York. All these experiences (or lack of) go to making him the person he is with even the idea of New York being the place to go coming from the mother who assisted her son in raping Joe.

On arriving in New York, Joe is totally out of his depth. In a city of millions he's just another lonely person among a million other lonely people except they're more worldly than him, more street-wise, and more crazy.
He meets Ratso Rizzo, of course (the character as played by Dustin Hoffman), who immediately cons him out of his money. It turns out, however, that Ratso is just as beaten down by the world as Joe is, the difference being that Ratso's a survivor - or so it would seem.
A potted history of who Ratso is and where he's from is given in the book which isn't given in the film and though Hoffman's performance is masterly, his background story goes to make the character more fully-rounded.

Joe and Ratso become buddies and according to Ratso, the State of Florida is where the answer to all their problems can be found. A place where the sun always shines meaning they'd never be cold and where coconuts fall freely from all the palm trees, meaning they'd never go hungry. So that's where they head off to in the end on a Greyhound bus though when they get there it leaves Joe even more lonelier and more scared than he's ever been before...

Midnight Cowboy - meaning the book - is surprisingly good. It's extremely well written and deals with adult themes that for its time I suspect was rarely being touched upon. How it was ever made into a Hollywood film, I don't know, but I hope James Leo Herlihy (who committed suicide in 1993) was paid sufficiently for it.
Reading it nowadays after some fifty years since first being published, it's lost none of its power, none of its significance, and none of its poignancy.

It's a classic.
John Serpico

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Trout Fishing In America - Richard Brautigan


He flew his freak flag high did Richard Brautigan and for a moment the world noticed and waved back. It didn't last, however, and the world moved on leaving him sitting alone on his cloud of daydreams; scribbling away, recording his thoughts and observations. Just doing what he'd always done.
He was born into poverty and that's where he pretty much remained all his life apart from when in 1967 his novel, Trout Fishing In America, catapulted him to international fame.

At the age of 20, weary with hunger he threw rocks at a police station in a bid to be arrested, figuring this would at least be a way of getting fed. His wish was duly granted but this was America in the 1950s and the police brought in a doctor to look at him who pronounced Brautigan to be not only clinically depressed but also a paranoid schizophrenic so they committed him to a mental hospital where he was administered electro-convulsive therapy. Coincidentally, this was the same hospital where One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest would later be filmed.

On his release, Brautigan headed for San Francisco where the nascent Beat Generation scene was dawning, subsequently falling in with the company of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, et al. With the flowering of the hippy counter-culture in the 1960s, particularly around the Haight-Ashbury area, Brautigan seemed to have found his spiritual home and would often be seen handing out his poems on street corners and for a while was heavily involved with Emmett Grogan and The Diggers, handing out free food to the needy.

And then came recognition and critical acclaim with Trout Fishing In America, a collection of idiosyncratic thoughts and observations using the title as an idiom running through the whole book. Written in a gentle, innocent and amusingly off-kilter manner, to this day it defies description and is more akin to a fluttering butterfly that cannot be pinned down than to anything approaching conventionality. Like a literary equivalent of a collection of songs by Daniel Johnston.

With the recognition and acclaim, the offers started rolling in and as well as becoming a regular contributor to Rolling Stone magazine, he was offered the opportunity to record a spoken-word album for The Beatles' Apple label.
All was good but Brautigan was inextricably associated with hippydom California style and when that particular dream started to die in the 1970s, so too did the plaudits and the offers of work. Very soon after he started falling back into poverty.
Though he still continued to write and further books of his were published, by 1984 he seemed finally to have had enough and in September of that year he blew his brains out with a .44 Magnum.

Some decades later, who now remembers Richard Brautigan? Well, the fact that his books have now turned up in a charity shop in Exmouth means that someone does.
Even if it's only me.
John Serpico