Sunday, 27 March 2016

Inglan Is A Bitch - Linton Kwesi Johnson


Linton Kwesi Johnson was really popular at one point during the early 1980s. Not as in mainstream culture popular but in the way he crossed over with his art to a large white audience. He was a poet, reciting his poems in Jamaican patois over reggae rhythms supplied by Dennis Bovell and his house band. The music was really good and Linton's voice beautiful but what clinched it was the subject matter. Linton Kwesi Johnson was political and militant and as this was the first years of Thatcherism when such things as police racism went unchecked, he captured life in black Britain perfectly.

Inglan Is A Bitch is a collection of Linton's poems taken from his Forces Of Victory LP period. Written in phonetic patois, it includes what might be his most well-known poem, Sonny's Lettah; written in the form of a letter to his mother from a black youth incarcerated in Brixton Prison on the charge of murdering a police officer. In highlighting police prejudice and the injustice and misuse of the SUS law of old it is brilliant, and in an extremely dignified manner conveys a powerful sentiment.
A good poem should work when both read and heard, and Sonny's Lettah (as does all other LKJ poems) does this and more. When read, it comes alive from the page, carrying the reader along on a narrative that defiantly punches out at the reader's mindset. When heard with Dennis Bovell's dub reggae rhythms, the words grab, hold and force the listener to pay attention; eradicating any barrier to understanding that the patois might cause. When the music drops out as it does in Sonny's Lettah and Linton's words step in to fill the silence it's like underscoring; accentuating and adding gravitas.

In reading these poems in 2016, it's interesting to see how they now stand up. The SUS law has now been repealed (though there are still stop and search laws in place) but this hasn't led to Sonny's Lettah being any less powerful.
Linton's class consciousness has stood the test of time and his observations of such things as 'di black petty-booshwah' stand now as being very prescient: "Dem wi' side wid oppressah w'en di goin' get ruff, side wid aggressah w'en di goin' get tuff."
Independent Intavenshan is of particular interest because it shows that Linton was right all along: "Wat a cheek dem t'ink wi meek, an' wi can't speak up fi wi self. Wat a cheek dem t'ink wi weak, an' wi can't stan up pan wi feet."
In the same poem he goes on to state that only 'we' - as in the black British working class but applicable to anyone, really - can set ourselves free and that no-one else can do it for us. Not the SWP, the IMG, the Communist Party ("dem too awty-fawty"), Labourites ("dem naw goh fite wi rites"), the CRE, the TUC, the Liberals or the Tory Party ("a noh fi wi pawty").
At the back of the book a glossary has been added explaining the meaning of the acronyms because who nowadays knows what the IMG or the CRE is, or even the SWP come to that? And indeed, where are they all now? What the poem tells us is that if faith had been put in any of these political groups, including Labour and the Tories, then where would it have led? That's right: Nowhere.

Linton Kwesi was/is not only a brilliant poet but also nothing less than a visionary.

Reading Inglan Is A Bitch led me to think of DJ Derek who having been missing for some time now has recently been pronounced dead. He'd been missing for eight months until a body was found in woods, in north Bristol. I think we all knew it was going to be Derek and DNA tests confirmed it to be so.

Sad days.

Derek used to DJ in one of the best pubs in the world - The Plough, in Easton, in Bristol - and there we'd all be night after night, plotting our plots, scheming our schemes and dreaming our dreams; maybe sometimes getting a little drunk, with Derek supplying the soundtrack. I remember there was a song he used to play a lot which I really liked and one night I asked him what it was: Under The Sycamore Tree by Lady Saw. So I told him I really liked it and he just nodded like a wise old sage and without me even asking him, played it again.

Any time I saw him I'd say "Yo! DJ!" in deadpan imitation of a ghetto gangster, which I plainly wasn't, and he'd just smile back and say "Yeah, mon," in his heavy patois brogue. He came up to me one night and said "Easy now, mon, and mop it up aftah," and it baffled me for weeks because I didn't have a clue to what he was referring to.
I can't ever recall him playing anything by Linton Kwesi Johnson and I don't know what Derek thought of him. In fact, in hindsight, it's apparent now that Derek was a very private person. I don't know if he smoked reefer or what his politics were, or anything. I do know, however, that he was a superstar but at the time I thought nothing of it. He was just DJ Derek, one of the best DJs ever doing his thing in the corner of one of the best pubs in the world.

Peace out.
                                                                                                                                                                            John Serpico

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Graduate - Charles Webb


The problem with The Graduate, meaning the film, is that the story is eclipsed by two things: firstly, the seduction scene and secondly by the soundtrack as performed by Simon and Garfunkel. It's quite understandable, however, as the seduction scene is a classic piece of cinema and the soundtrack is practically perfect.
So how does the book that the film is based upon fair? Well, of course, there's no music to attract/distract to or from the story but there's still the seduction scene which is perfectly written and exactly the same as depicted in the film, with exactly the same dialogue. In fact, it doesn't look as though the film's script writers had to do a lot of work on it at all as it was all there in the book; and seeing as the book is dialogue-led, all they would have had to do would have been to set the scenes and fill in the spaces - leading them to win a Golden Globe award for best screenplay...

The book brings much more attention to Benjamin's (as played by Dustin Hoffman, of course) disaffection and dissatisfaction with his life and the lives of those around him. Benjamin's experiencing an existential crisis rather like that of the narrator in Albert Camus' novel The Fall. He sees no value in the college education he's received and sees no value in the life mapped out before him. He sees no value in education or intellectualism per se and as he is now a beneficiary of the best education money can buy and viewed somewhat as an 'intellectual', he subsequently sees no value in himself.
At the same time, however, he sees nothing of any worth in the world of his parents and their friends and wants something else instead; the problem being that he doesn't know what.

So enters Mrs Robinson into Benjamin's life (played in the film, of course, by the brilliant Anne Bancroft) who shows her hand (and everything else, actually) and leaves him with an open offer: "Benjamin, I want you to know I'm available to you. If you won't sleep with me this time, I want you to know you can call me up any time you want and we'll make some kind of arrangement."
Benjamin goes away 'on the road' for a few weeks and on his return starts an affair with her.

The Graduate is set in early 1960s American suburbia and what author Charles Webb does is to shine a light upon the unhappy vacuousness of that world. All the prizes of the American Dream are on display: wealth, good education, big houses, swimming pools, fast cars. But at the heart there's something missing and it's the introduction of Mrs Robinson's daughter, Elaine (in the film played by Katherine Ross), that offers a hint of what that might be.
All that Benjamin's parents could wish for (and Mr Robinson too for that matter) is that he take up a career in Harvard or Yale and settle down with Elaine, so much so that he's coerced into taking her out on a date. Mrs Robinson, however, is not best pleased and tells Benjamin to promise he won't ever take Elaine out.

In as much as having an affair with an older, married woman (and the wife of his father's business partner to boot) is a potentially socially suicidal act, suddenly there is a more forbidden fruit, if only forbidden by Mrs Robinson. She does all within her power to prevent a relationship between Benjamin and Elaine developing, from chancing divorce from her husband by revealing the affair to even accusing him of rape; in the end successfully turning everyone against Benjamin and them wanting Elaine to have nothing to do with him.
Benjamin, however, is nothing but determined and the story ends with him gatecrashing Elaine's wedding and whisking her away from her husband-to-be, her family and his own mother and father. The book ends (just like the film) with them riding away together on a bus toward an uncertain (though actually very predictable) future. The paradox being that the future they're riding toward is exactly the same one his parents and all their friends wanted for him in the first place and exactly the same one that Benjamin was initially rejecting for being vacuous and valueless.

The film of The Graduate is nowadays viewed as a classic of American cinema and the book is now a Penguin classic, though author Charles Webb has over time been somewhat forgotten. Whilst the film has grossed millions, Webb sold the rights to the story years ago for just $20,000 and lives now in Brighton (having moved there from America) in relative obscurity and poverty.
If the story within the film is eclipsed if not even obscured by the seduction scene and the soundtrack, the story within the book tends to be eclipsed by the Mrs Robinson character. Webb's creation of this powerful character is the book's legacy and just as Anne Bancroft will always be remembered for that particular role so too one day should Charles Webb for his creation of it.
                                                                                                                                                                             John Serpico

Monday, 21 March 2016

Exmouth Bound Soundtrack (Part 5)


Up and down the Avocet rail line, in and out of Exmouth, day in day out. And don't you find sometimes when you're staring out the window listening to your music on your iPhone that it's all you can do to not just stand up and start dancing and singing in soprano...
"We can fight our desires but when we start making fires..."

Or is that just me? 
"I'm going in for the kill, I'm doing it for a thrill. I'm hoping you'll understand, and not let go of my hand..."

Sunday, 20 March 2016

All The Young Punks - George Berger


The thing is, what I want to know is how this book ended up in an Oxfam shop in Exmouth, which is where I found it? I think we should be told and I think George Berger, the author/editor should be told also. Firstly, however, just who is George Berger?
Well, according to his Goodreads profile he's 'a freelance writer, with Punk rock DNA. He's written for Sounds, Melody Maker and Amnesty International among others. He's published two books: Dance Before The Storm - The Official Story Of The Levellers, and The Story Of Crass. George is the founder of Flowers In The Dustbin. He lives where the mood takes him and funds allow.'
A further Internet search also reveals that he was the hippy leader in the film Hair.

All The Young Punks - Punk Rockers In Their Own Words is a book that poses just eight questions to what looks like a number of George's friends from his Facebook page. Those questions are: Where were you when you discovered Punk? How did it feel at the time? Your fondest memories? The best Punk gig you ever saw? What's your favourite Punk B-side? How did Punk change your life? What lasting legacy did it leave on you? Where are you now?
All well and good and all very interesting but the answers we get contain no real surprises. All who answered are obviously old fans of the Punk rock genre and all wax enthusiastically about the good times they had and the positive influence Punk had upon them. None of them come out with it and just admit that actually, Punk rock fucked up their life.

It's one of those things, isn't it, where there's no real way of knowing whether their lives would have turned out much better without Punk or not? At the tender age of 13 or whenever it was they got into Punk, they might have thought their lives were mapped out before them or that society was a drag and saw Punk as an alternative to what was on offer. So, having taken the Punk rock path they've ended up where they are today with a mindset forged in the fires of the Sex Pistols, the Clash and Crass. Would they have ended up somewhere different, in possession of a different mindset were it not for Punk? Who knows? What is there to judge it on?
At the end of the day, however, whether or not Punk ruined their lives or enhanced it, there's no suggestion or hint of regret either way and it's just as the Butthole Surfers once postulated: "Well, son, a funny thing about regret is that it's better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven't done. And by the way, if you see your mom this weekend would you be sure and tell her: SATAN! SATAN! SATAN!"

I'll admit here that some of the people quoted within this book I actually know, either through association or having encountered them over the years. Mark from The Mob, Phil from PAIN, Louise from Hysteria Ward, Bob Short from Brigandage, Alastair Livingstone from Kill Your Pet Puppy. I even actually know who George Berger is, if truth be told, and in his introduction he writes: 'Every book seems to be about the bands, about the 'faces', about the music. But being a Punk back then was only punctuated by these things, however often. Here are a few stories from the frontline, from the trenches. Stories from the footsoldiers who made Punk what it was without turning it into a career. Think of it as correspondence from an unreported war. Just as generals are celebrated in wars, so only the opinions and memories of the 'stars' are sought for Punk books. This book tries to widen that out to include the thoughts and reflections of normal, everyday Punk rockers.'

The problem with this (and to his credit, George recognises it) is that Punk was an arena where every man, woman and child was a star (or anti-star), and not just those with a public/media profile. Whose fault is it then that Punk is always defined by the same old people, as in those with the biggest profiles? The writers, reporters and translators of those definitions or the punters for continuously gobbling up without question these repetitive definitions, documentations and histories?

I applaud George for what he's done with this book and for his original intention though I frown upon the way it's been exercised. I'm a bit baffled, actually. George's band, Flowers In The Dustbin, have always been innovative and imaginative with a lot of care and consideration put into the songs. His books, however, are a different matter. His book on Crass, for example, contained so many editing mistakes that I wondered if it had been proof-read at all?
All The Young Punks is the same. Besides a lack of editing and proof-reading there's a total lack of any detail in it. People reply to the questions he's posed but there's a lack of information as to who these people are and I can guarantee that most of them would have played in bands in the past but unless they mention this themselves in their answers, then we're none the wiser. It's quite frustrating.
I presume this is a self-published book as well, as there's no information on or in it as to suggest otherwise? There's no date on it to advise when it was published and no price on it either.
If anyone wants a copy then all I can suggest is they look in the same place I found mine, as in a charity shop in Exmouth...
John Serpico
Spot the Punk anti-stars: Members of Lunatic Fringe, Chaos UK, Disorder - and moi!

Monday, 14 March 2016

Absolute Beginners - Colin Macinnes


It's the mod bible, according to Paul Weller, and if he says so then so it is for who else could be better placed to make such a judgement? Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes evokes a period and paints a picture of a time long past when the idea of 'teenage' and a London emerging from the wreckage of World War 2 was something very new and exciting. It's a description of a time when Britain was on the cusp of a great sea change where economic spending power and the very idea of it lent a piquancy to those never in possession of it before.

The story is neither here nor there because the point of Absolute Beginners is in the language, the descriptions and the observations, and if read like this is thoroughly enjoyable if not - it should be said - a tad slow. Practically everyone has a nickname apart from the unnamed narrator, and everyone talks in an endearing hep cat jive slang that displays a love of English and American idioms. People are referred to as 'cats', girls as 'chicks', police as 'cowboys', and coloured people as 'Spades'. Most endearing of all, a good many sentences spoken by the characters finish with the word 'child' in the way that people nowadays would say 'mate'. It's a term used with affection and one that's never used nowadays at all - and it really should.

It's interesting that Colin MacInnes was in his forties when he wrote Absolute Beginners because reading it today it feels as though it's absolutely the voice of a teenager. Though very specific to the time period it's set in, as in 1958, there's an authenticity about the narrator's voice and outlook that doesn't fall into cliché or direness. Three years after publication, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange would be published and though not acknowledged, the influence of Absolute Beginners upon the way Burgess had his Droogs talk is obvious.

At one point, the narrator thinks to himself: "My lord, one thing is certain, and that's that they'll make musicals one day about the glamour-studded 1950s." Little could MacInnes imagine that one day a musical would be made of his book starring David Bowie and the legendary Lionel Blair. Not that the film of Absolute Beginners should really be associated with the book because they just don't compare as one is absolute rubbish and the other is required reading for anyone with the slightest interest in British culture.

Paul Weller is probably right but I do wonder how Julien Temple got it so spectacularly wrong?

John Serpico

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Guilty Pleasures (Part 10)


As a teenager full of the joys of youth, I rather liked the Anarcho Punk band Crass and would always go out of my way to catch them live. They would lay on what can only be described as a roadshow, with banks of televisions stacked alongside stages bedecked in anarchist and peace banners. It was all very un-rock'n'roll.
They were always supported by bands and poets such as Flux Of Pink Indians, Poison Girls, Dirt, Andy T, and Annie Anxiety. Except these bands and poets weren't really support acts because they were all very brilliant in their own right; Poison Girls in particular, who on a variety of levels may even have been actually better than Crass.
Yes, I used to like Poison Girls.

Their lead vocalist was a woman in her mid-forties who went by the name of Vi Subversa and she was unconventional to say the least. That is, unconventional in terms of who might typically be regaling audiences of volatile, angry young Punk rockers in an Anarcho Punk band.
Her voice was cracked and smoke-ravaged in a Marianne Faithfull kind of way, and her age lent her lyrics a conviction that shone with a truthfulness that was rare. When she sang - or declared - for example, a line such as "I denounce the system that murders my children," you just knew she really meant it.
All of Poison Girls' songs were exceptionally good but there was one in particular that for me was inspirational. A song from their début album Chappaquiddick Bridge, entitled Daughters and Sons. It was a song that demanded no explanation. You either understood it or you didn't and if you didn't then you probably never would.

I saw Poison Girls live on a number of occasions over the years, one such time being at the Treworgey Festival, in 1989. There's a school of thought that says the Castlemorton free festival of 1992 was the last major free festival before the Criminal Justice Bill took hold but I'd argue it was Treworgey even though it was actually (or meant to be) a ticket festival.
Like the Glastonbury festival at that time, there was the pay-to-enter site and the free Convoy site adjacent to it but very quickly all the fences came down and it merged into one gigantic free-for-all with no policing, no rules and no infrastructure.

Along with Hawkwind, the Levellers, Misty In Roots, Gaye Bykers On Acid, Chaos UK and all kinds of strange and wonderful bands, Poison Girls played a set and later on that evening I saw Vi out on site and on a whim I approached her and said "Hey! Thank you, Vi, for just being alive!"
She gave me a bemused look and asked why I said this so I replied "For being so good, for being so brilliant, for being so inspirational."
I found myself babbling and Vi probably thought I was just drug-addled (as most people at that festival were) but I wasn't really. Well, I made my excuses and continued on my merry way, leaving me feeling as though I'd just embarrassed myself and Vi probably wondering what the fuck was all that about?

A few months later I went to see Poison Girls again when they played at the Thekla showboat in Bristol, and I saw Vi walking around in the venue so, like an idiot, I approached her again and with a smile said "Thank you, Vi." And once again she gave me a bemused look as if to say 'What for?'. And once again I began babbling: "For everything. For being so good. For being so inspirational. For just being alive." I was embarrassing myself again.

Vi Subversa passed away last month, which made me remember these two occasions I met her, both times (though she was on both occasions lovely with me) leaving me thinking I'd made a fool of myself. With the news of her passing, I once again pondered just how brilliant Poison Girls were and how very special and inspirational they were. And it made me think I'm glad I said those things to her on those two occasions rather than trying to be cool or trying to discuss politics or whatever with her. I'm glad I said what I said because I meant it and now there'll never be an opportunity to say such a thing again - except for here on the Internet.
So, thank you, Vi, for everything. For being so good. For being so brilliant. For being so inspirational.
Thank you for just having lived.
                                                                                                                                                                               John Serpico

Friday, 4 March 2016

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 31)


I fear seagulls in Exmouth are getting bigger and one day will be the size of pterodactyls. No longer will they be feeding on detritus and the rubbish from dustbins but will have their eye on more nourishing prey. At the very least, the signs in town will have to be changed from 'Please don't feed the seagulls' to 'Please don't feed the seagulls - your children'.

For all that, the question remains: Where do seagulls go when they die? Why aren't our streets strewn with their carcasses? Is it true they head out to sea to die? If so, does this mean they know when they are soon to die and like elephants head for a fabled graveyard? What is this sense of death they might have and why don't we as people have the same? Or maybe we do? If only on a subconscious level? On a humankind level, are we actually somehow aware of our impending demise and might this explain Donald Trump? Might this explain David Cameron?

If indeed seagulls do head out to sea to die then what distance are we talking about? Why is there never seagull remains swept up onto the shore? You'll find everything else under the sun (and from under other suns too) swept up on the shore at break of day but never a hint of seagull.

The world is a strange, mysterious, frightening but wonderful place and no more so than in Exmouth where seagulls the size of dinosaurs hover outside your bedroom window on a morning and Armageddon is not denied.

Exmouth is a favoured seaside holiday resort that welcomes careful drivers and happy campers.