Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Impostor - Jean Cocteau


I was unaware of Jean Cocteau's sense of humour until reading his novel, The Impostor. Why did I presume he was a serious-minded fellow interested only in serious art and serious subjects albeit revolving around the avant garde? His humour might be black but here it is on display for all to see if anyone cares to look.
It's rather similar to the way Morrissey is viewed as a miserable person when in actual fact he's a very funny guy. The same with Hilary Mantel as in her being viewed strictly as a serious writer when in actual fact she possesses a very keen sense of humour.

The Impostor concerns itself with the collision between the reality of war and the fantasia of the mind. It's set in France during the First World War at the point where the government has fled Paris and all kinds of madness is subsequently flourishing. Those who have chosen to stay behind are either heroic, loyal, foolish or just plain crazy; and in many cases a good mixture of all four of these things.
Cocteau introduces us to an esoteric troupe of misfits gathered together under the leadership of a princess who has ambitions to be a cross between a Florence Nightingale figure and an actress. She's set up base at an old nursing home in Paris and is setting off for the front line in a convoy of vehicles carrying crates of dry biscuits, oranges and Cordial-Medoc. Their mission being to pick up wounded soldiers and bring them back to Paris.

Just before they're due to depart a sixteen year-old boy in a soldier's uniform enters the camp and on being asked his name is mistaken for the nephew of a famous and much revered General. He does nothing to correct the mistake and in fact assures everyone that he is indeed the General's nephew. The boy is, however, nothing more than a wandering fantasist who has spent his whole life in a world of make-believe and delusion. His fantasies and his adoption of another's identity serve to be a useful asset to the princess who asks him to help her secure the necessary passes and documents required to travel unobstructed through France. He duly sources her the papers that she needs simply by mentioning to the authorities the 'fact' that he's the General's nephew.

Cocteau describes the war as a Catch 22/MASH-type situation of blackly funny and illogical circumstances. He wrote it, however, in 1923 so this is years before either of those books (or films) had even been thought of.
At times it's not the most well written book ever but this might perhaps be down to the translation? It's Cocteau's weaving of reality, fantasy and farce that makes it interesting, particularly in his depiction of the young boy living a life of illusion ultimately to the benefit of other people. The boy himself is unable to distinguish between reality and falsehood but nor does he make any attempt to do so.
His fantasy is his reality, right up to the final moment on the battlefield at the end of the book where he is shot and says to himself he doesn't have a chance unless he pretends to be dead - even though he is actually dead already.

Cocteau would go on to develop his ideas and his writing powers most notably in Les Enfants Terribles before moving into film making. Though having written much poetry before, it was with The Impostor where it all really began and if for no other reason this makes it an important book. Perhaps significantly, the same year that The Impostor was first published Cocteau became addicted to opium...
John Serpico

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Guilty Pleasures (Part 9)


I always thought Boney M were brilliant and subversive. I know they were manufactured and all but so what? Does anyone still care about such things these days?
I've nothing at all against ABBA but at a time when the IRA were at war with the British State did they ever sing a song about Belfast? No - but Boney M did. At the height of the Cold War did ABBA ever sing "I see mushrooms, atomic mushrooms. I see rockets, missiles in the sky. We kill the world - Don't kill the world."? No - but Boney M did. At a time when Bob Marley was considered to be a 'political' singer, did ABBA ever cover any of his songs? No - but Boney M did. And was I just imagining it or did Boney M make Painter Man by The Creation their own and turn it into an anti-fascist anthem (a painter man being what Adolf Hitler was before he started his career in dictatorship)?

I remember seeing Boney M (or a version of them, at least) some years ago at Gay Pride in Amsterdam. There I was, skipping and dancing away amongst a thousand gay men, all singing along to Brown Girl In The Ring (tra la la la la - she looks like sugar in a plum - plum! plum!) and mid-song Bobby Farrell made a short speech from the stage, urging us all to love foreign gay people as much as we love ourselves because they're not as strong or as confident as us and they need our support. "Will you do that for me?" asked Bobby. He himself was originally from Aruba but was by then a resident of Amsterdam where as you might imagine, he was treated like royalty.
Did Cliff Richard ever make such a speech at one of his concerts? No - but Bobby Farrell did.

And talking of Bobby Farrell, wasn't he one of the greatest dancers ever? Wasn't he so obviously born to dance? Did he not blaze like a comet with the wind at his heels?

And so, Boney M are playing at the Exmouth Pavilion next month (or a version of them, at least). Bobby Farrell won't be there as he sadly passed away a few years ago and of course, any version of Boney M without him is like a house without books, or a body without a soul. So should I go to see them? Let's go to YouTube and just remind ourselves of them for a moment, shall we?

The problem with playing just one song by Boney M is that you immediately want to play another and there's such a choice to be made. Let's run with it...

Oh, I just can't stop...

Fuck it. I'm going to see them. They're even being supported by ABBA tribute act GimmeGimmeGimme, which just about seals it. It's like a Don Corleone offer that you can't refuse. I'll be digging out my sequinned cat suit and cape from the back of the cupboard, taking a load of amyl nitrate and I'll be dancing crazy like a fool. See you there, windowlickers.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

To Sir With Love - ER Braithwaite


I read this on the recommendation of Steve Ignorant, ex-vocalist of Crass who, in George Berger's book The Story Of Crass is quoted as saying the following: 'One day we were all talking about books around the table. Penny Rimbaud was talking about Tolstoy and I chipped in with To Sir With Love, and was met with roars of laughter, it was quite a joke. When there was the yearly clear-out of books, out it went. But the Maigrets stayed. That book To Sir With Love is about one of the first black men to go into the East End of London and teach unruly white kids how to respect themselves and other people as human beings. Which I thought was the basis of anarchism, wasn't it?'
The story is essentially just as Steve describes but its main theme is the subject of prejudice and racism as experienced by a black man in late 1940s Britain and how he translates that experience to the kids he teaches so they might learn to respect not only other people but also themselves. The school he teaches at is in the East End of London so as might be expected, they're all from very poor families. He's somewhat shocked at first by the general conduct and crude language of his pupils but come the end he loves them all dearly as they come to love him.

All in all it's a very nice story but is not without flaws. In his descriptions of some of the women - both fellow teachers and 15 year-old pupils alike - there's a fair few mentions of 'large breasts' which doesn't really sit well coming from a teacher who's on a mission to instigate respect. There's also one incident where he refers to a sanitary towel as a 'disgusting object' and the conduct of the girls in his class as 'sluttish behaviour'. ER Braithwaite wrote the book in 1959, however, and it's set in 1949 so at a stretch this attitude toward women may be forgiven because the past is, as they say, a different country. It's hard to ignore it though.

What's possibly more significant - in my eyes, at least - is what the teacher is aiming for in his bid to educate the kids in the ways of civility. They might all be unruly when he at first encounters them but at least they're street-wise and at least they're nobody's fools - and is there anything wrong in being unruly? The teacher seems to want them to be model citizens; obedient to the law, saying 'yes sir, no sir' and never causing a fuss. He wants them to be like him.
He knows, however, that British society can be conservative as hell with all its ingrained codes of crap morality and 'acceptable' racism and prejudice. He's experienced it himself and he soon comes to see that these working class children of parents he describes as looking and acting like peasants from a Steinbeck book are prejudiced against also. Not for the colour of their skin but for their class and their poverty.

He goes out on a date with a fellow teacher to a well-to-do restaurant in Chelsea and the sight of a black man with a pretty white woman immediately instigates racist behaviour and attitude from the waiter. To him it's nothing out of the ordinary but his date storms out of the restaurant in outrage and then vents her spleen upon him. In as much as she's disgusted by the racism she's just as outraged by his willingness to just sit there and take it:
"What was I supposed to do, hit him? Did you want a scene in that place?" he asks.
"Yes, I wanted a scene. I wanted a big, bloody awful scene." she replies.
"What good would that have done?"
"I don't know and I don't care. I wanted you to hit him, to beat him down, down..."
"It wouldn't help, it never helps."
"Why not? Just who do you think you are, Jesus Christ? Sitting there all good and patient. Or were you afraid? Is that it?"
"You're being hysterical, beating people up never solves anything."
"Doesn't it? Well, you tell me what does. You've been taking it and taking it, don't you think it's time you showed a little spirit?"

This particular exchange is interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it reveals the extent of the teacher's vision as in how he sees the model citizen should behave. His passiveness and his unwillingness to cause a fuss is essentially allowing what's unacceptable to remain unchallenged and his silence is ultimately condoning racism and prejudice. By not causing 'a big, bloody awful scene' he's allowing the situation to continue and subsequently remaining in a position of being a victim.
So is this how he wants the kids in his class to be? To not speak up, to not challenge, to not object, refuse, reject, abuse? However much he may wish to educate his pupils and teach them good manners, are they forever meant to accept their position in society and subsequently accept the more 'fortunate' positions of others?

For anyone who knows anything about Crass, this is similar to the same impasse that they came up against in their bid to do nothing less than change the world. They were very happy to make a big, bloody awful scene but ultimately were only willing to go so far. They showed spirit, yes, but when it came to the point and the question of 'beating people up' as the teacher puts it, they capitulated and their advocacy of pacifism became a burden that led to being a major factor in them falling apart.
It's interesting that Steve Ignorant recalls his mentioning of To Sir With Love led to roars of laughter around the kitchen table from his fellow Crass members because in actual fact the book contained some pertinent messages if not a significant warning to them. Had any of them actually read it, I wonder?

Apparently the film version of the book, released in 1967 (and set in the Sixties) starring Sidney Poitier and Lulu was a huge box office success and the theme song as sung by Lulu was number One in America for five weeks. Viewed nowadays it's quaint and charming, held together by Poitier's performance. Steve also cites the film version as being an influence upon him along with A Taste Of Honey and Kes. Whilst not being on quite the same par as A Taste Of Honey and Kes (and other black and white, kitchen sink Sixties movies) it's still (in a way) part of that same oeuvre and so is an enjoyable watch if only for Poitier's performance and the often hilarious depiction of 'the wildest set of rebels London ever produced' by rather well-spoken young actors and actresses fresh from stage school.
John Serpico

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Revenge Of The Lawn - Richard Brautigan


Idiosyncrasy Central with Richard Brautigan. Was a time when his flame burned brightly and he was showered with critical acclaim, particularly with the publication of his short story collection Trout Fishing In America. It didn't last for long, however, and he soon fell out of favour and from grace. Published in 1971, Revenge Of The Lawn offers clues as to why this might have been.

Of the 62 short stories collected here, just a few of them are actually worthy of publication. I mean, they're alright but they read as though they're really ideas for short stories taken from a notebook rather than fully developed pieces. Written over a period of about 7 years, there's little to suggest (unlike in Trout Fishing) any sort of theme or focus. They even come across as almost a cash-in on the success of Trout Fishing, as though his publisher was keen to get another book out to Brautigan's newly established readership and so asked him what else he had? "Well, I've got these," Brautigan possibly replied "But they're really just my notebooks." His publisher took them anyway: "It's cool, man. Your readers will dig 'em," so his notebooks were published under the title Revenge Of The Lawn without taking into consideration what it was that made Trout Fishing In America so endearing.

Of all the stories and observations presented here, only two really stand out and perhaps it's no coincidence that they're also two of the longest?
Post Offices Of Eastern Oregon concerns itself with the news of the death of Marilyn Monroe and the memory it evokes in Brautigan. It takes him back to the time when he was a child and going on a hunting trip with his uncle. They arrive at a small town in Oregon and see two dead bear cubs being lifted from the back of a pickup truck and laid onto a porch of a house.
He and his uncle go to a post office to send a postcard and in there on a wall he sees a large nude photograph of Marilyn Monroe, which seems to him to be a strange thing to have on a wall of such a place. When they go back outside, the bears have gone and none of the town folk seem to know where. They're finally discovered on a side street sitting in the front seat of a car. One is now wearing a checked shirt, a red hunting hat and has a pipe in its mouth; the other is wearing a white silk negligee, felt slippers and a pink bonnet - and there's a purse in its lap:
'Somebody opened up the purse, but there wasn't anything inside. I don't know what they expected to find, but they were disappointed. What would a dead bear carry in its purse, anyway?'

The other story that stands out, entitled A Short History Of Oregon, is a snapshot of a memory of a time when aged sixteen Brautigan went out hunting by himself. It's pouring down with rain and he believes himself to be alone in the woods until he comes across a house at the end of a logging road. As he'd been enjoying the solitude, the discovery disappoints him.
From out of the house four children suddenly emerge and in silence watch him as he walks by, his gun cradled in his arms. The children don't say a word, and instead just stand there getting soaked from the rain:
'I didn't say a word in my passing. The kids were soaking wet now. They huddled together in silence on the porch. I had no reason to believe that there was anything more to life than this.'

It's when writing like this that Brautigan is at his best as he conjures up both child-like innocence and the surreal, with one always bleeding into the other. He evokes a stoned-like ambience and imbues his stories with a sense of wonderment and hidden meaning. Ideal reading for hippies, in a way, contemplating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Brautigan's appeal, however, was a double-edged sword and he struggled to retain the attention and interest of his readership; not helped by his publisher putting out books of lesser quality such as Revenge Of The Lawn. Inevitably, obscurity beckoned.
Having said that, I would still suggest that Richard Brautigan deserves to be remembered and not just left consigned to the past as a relic of the Sixties, if only for no other reason than for him and his writing being and remaining ever so slightly odd.
                                                                                                                                                                              John Serpico

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Guilty Pleasures (Part 8)


In my whole life there is probably only two people who, when being in the presence of them have exuded greatness. Just two people who very obviously were living legends. It was plain to see. Undeniable. There was about them an undefinable quality. Something rare, unspoken, and very special. One was Joe Strummer of The Clash; the other was Johnny Cash.

I was always a fan of The Clash and was lucky enough to have seen them when I was very young, even getting to go backstage to meet them. It wasn't, however, until I saw Joe Strummer during the Class War Rock Against The Rich tour in whatever year it was that I suddenly realised how much of a living legend Joe was. As I said, he exuded greatness. He had 'it'.

As for Johnny Cash, he's always been legendary but it wasn't until I saw him at Glastonbury festival that I realised just how iconic he was. I used to work at the festival and would see a lot of the bands backstage, and though a lot of them were 'stars' I was never awestruck by any of them - until Johnny came along.
There was something about him; in the way he walked, the way he held himself and the way he spoke. Here was a very modest man who was from a different age but still very much relevant to the present. He had survived where so many others had not. He carried with him a grand and very heavy sense of history and when he strode out onto the stage and said "Hello, my name's Johnny Cash", he brought forth all that same history into one single, live moment.

Both Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash were very much one-off, unique figures and their like will probably never be seen again. To attempt to emulate them would be a futile task and there have been quite a few people who have tried. Ultimately, the greatest honour to be paid to them both would be to have them as inspirations and an influence but then to go your own way, live your own life and sing your own sings.
That's not to say, however, that their songs can't be covered. There's been some very good covers of Clash songs over the years and one of my favourite albums is, in fact, a tribute album to Johnny Cash entitled Til Things Are Brighter featuring the likes of Marc Almond, Michelle Shocked, the Mekons, Marc Riley, and Mary Mary of Gaye Bykers On Acid.

Playing in Exmouth this weekend is Johnny Cash Revisited, "an unmissable journey spanning five decades of music from the legendary 'man in black'." Purists might scoff but even if it's merely a pale shadow of an imitation of a copy, how can you really go wrong with songs of such quality?
See y'all there, cowboys and aliens. Yeehaw!