Friday, 22 April 2016

A Taste Of Honey - Shelagh Delaney


There's a wonderful clip up on YouTube from 1959 of Shelagh Delaney being interviewed by a reporter on the ITN News and it shows just what Shelagh was up against in those days and how she dealt with it with a naturalness that was totally charming.
It's essentially a clip of class war being waged, with the aggressor being the reporter but Shelagh being the one who wins hands-down on all levels. The reporter, talking with a huge plum in the mouth, is accusatory, condescending and belittling; as stiff as a board and sounding almost like a caricature of a public school-educated got-it-all.
Live and let live I say because the reporter in the clip can't help where he was born and how he talks, just as I can't help where I was born and my Bristolian accent but I do wonder if people like him go home to their loved ones and talk in the same manner to them? I can't see how they wouldn't and it makes me a little sorry for them in their frightening, uptight, pent up, living hell lives. No wonder they're so full of hate for 'the lower orders' when they see that even when living in slum estates with no money and no opportunities, a working class life is still better than theirs.

Shelagh Delaney was born and raised in Salford and though she was entered into a local grammar school at the age of 15, her future - just like everyone else's from her working class community - was hardly bright. There were no chances in life for her to rise above her station. She herself described it once as like being 'tethered', like horses to posts. Shelagh, however, had a flair for writing and at the age of 19 she wrote a script for a stage play and sent a copy of it to theatre director Joan Littlewood. The play was staged at Littlewood's fringe theatre, the Theatre Royal, in Stratford, London and was an immediate if not controversial success.

A Taste Of Honey features just 5 cast members, all of them being working class characters. It's the story of a seventeen year-old girl called Jo living with her mother in a squalid rented flat in Salford. Jo's mother, Helen, is feckless and apparently out only for a good time with any man with a bit of money she might encounter. Jo and her mother's relationship is based entirely upon insulting each other which in the play leads to some sparkling displays of dialogue. Jo can't wait to leave school and get herself a job so she may be able to afford a place of her own, whilst her mother can't wait to bag any man with the means to help get her out of her impoverished position.
Jo's mother meets such a man in the form of 'brash car salesman' Peter but Jo can see through him immediately and knows he's just a womaniser only interested in her mother for one thing. Peter views Jo as merely an in-the-way nuisance.
Her mother and Peter go away to Blackpool for a week leaving Jo alone in the flat. Jo, however, has met a boy, a young black sailor from Cardiff who promises to return after his six months at sea to marry her.
Jo becomes pregnant; the boy never returns from sea and Jo takes up living in a new flat where she's cared for by a homosexual art school graduate by the name of Geoffrey Ingram. In the meantime, her mother has gone on to marry Peter though when the marriage fails she returns to Jo under the pretext of coming back to care for her whilst she has the baby. Geoffrey is ousted from the flat by Jo's mother and life looks as though it's going to return to how it once was - only with the addition of a black baby.

Up until the staging of A Taste Of Honey, such characters had never before been depicted in a theatre production. A good many critics hated it but others such as Graham Greene and Kenneth Tynan praised it to the skies though more importantly - to Shelagh in particular - it was appreciated by ordinary people from working class communities such as cleaners and bricklayers.
As we know, the play was made into a film starring Rita Tushingham as Jo and Murray Melvin as Geoffrey, and is now viewed as a classic of British 1960s cinema. I remember watching the film once with my Mum when I was just a little boy and both of us very much enjoying it though at such a young age, I wouldn't have really understood what it was about.

On reading the book of the stage play now, I see that one of the major themes of the story is 'escape' - as opposed to 'escapism'.
Jo is trying to escape from her dysfunctional home life. Her mother, Helen, is trying to escape from her circumstances, whether that be social or economic or from her responsibility as a parent. Peter is trying to escape to a better life through marriage and owning a house in a better area. The sailor boy is escaping his life as a black man in Cardiff. And Geoffrey is trying to escape his homosexuality by living with a pregnant girl and taking on the role of surrogate husband.
Come the end, however, they all go back to the life and the circumstances they were trying to escape. They all, in a way, return home.

Any critic worth their salt back in 1959 should have been able to recognise the dialogue employed by Shelagh in A Taste Of Honey was far better than anything else in any other play at that time - and that it was all just typical working class language. It would have told them that the language of the uneducated and uncultured was more interesting, more expressive and more vital than the language of the so-called educated and cultured.
They should also have been able to recognise the themes underlying the play such as the one that I pick up on now - 'escape' - and recognised Sheila's play had depth and meaning. All emanating from an uneducated, working class teenager in the north of England. And to cap it all, in those days when a woman's place was still felt by many to be in the kitchen, it was from a girl as well.
No wonder they hated it.

Over the years, Shelagh Delaney and her play A Taste Of Honey has gone on to influence and inspire a huge number of artists and writers, especially those from a similar background as her. Famously, she was a major influence upon Morrissey who not only used lines from the play such as 'I dreamt about you last night, fell out of bed twice,' (in Reel Around The Fountain) but also put Shelagh's picture on two of The Smiths' records (Louder Than Bombs, and Girlfriend In A Coma).
One of my favourite pieces of sampling appears at the start of Never Gave Up by Chumbawamba and lo and behold, it's taken from the film of the play:
'Geof: You're just feeling a bit depressed, that's all. You'll be your usual self once you get used to the idea.
Jo: And what is my usual self? My usual self is a very unusual self, and don't you forget that, Geoffrey Ingram. I'm an extraordinary person. There's only one of me like there's only one of you.
Geof: We're unique!
Jo: Young!
Geof: Unrivalled!
Jo: Smashing!
Geof: We're bloody marvellous!'

At one point in the play, Jo starts singing a song and it's In The Pines, sung years later by (among other people) Nirvana at their MTV Un-plugged session: 'Don't you lie to me, where did you stay last night? In the pines, in the pines where the sun never shines, I shivered the whole night through.'
There's a line as spoken by Helen in there that could so easily be classic John Cooper Clarke: 'The only consolation I can find in your immediate presence is your ultimate absence.' And then there's other lines such as 'I'm not frightened of the darkness outside. It's the darkness inside houses I don't like,' that would make other writers humble.

A Taste Of Honey was like a mini-earthquake causing the tectonic plates of British culture to shift ever so slightly, leading if not to the destruction of the old order then to some structural damage being caused. It was an unselfconscious blow against established mores and conventions, opening up to the disempowered a window to empowerment that had hitherto been firmly held shut. Shelagh Delaney is (or should be?) a national heroine. I know her native Salford nowadays recognises and acknowledges this fact and now so too - at the other end of the country - does someone down in Exmouth.
John Serpico

Shelagh, take a bow

Monday, 18 April 2016

The Smile At The Foot Of The Ladder - Henry Miller


The Smile At the Foot Of The Ladder is one of Henry Miller's lesser known books but it is, if I say so myself, a small thing of perfect beauty. Miller viewed it as being the most singular and strangest story he'd ever written and I've no doubt he was right.
It's the story of a clown called Auguste who perfects an act that night after night delights his audience. It's a very simple act but very ingenious. In contemplation he sits at the bottom of a ladder that stretches up toward a moon nailed to the roof, and with a fixed smile and his thoughts far away he depicts the miracle of ascension. The audience roars with laughter and applauds wildly the sight of a clown feigning ecstasy, and then for that clown to be aroused from his reverie by a white horse that would nub his neck.
Auguste, however, is not content with the laughter and applause his act evokes and wishes instead to communicate to the audience a far greater happiness. Auguste wishes to communicate a joy supreme.

Failing to achieve his desire, the laughter from the audience starts to grate until one night it turns to derision and Auguste is assailed with jeers, catcalls and a barrage of thrown objects. Unintentionally, he had fallen into such a deep reverie during his act that he had left the audience waiting for over half an hour for him to return to his 'wakened' state; pushing the patience of the audience beyond its limits.
Auguste is fired from his job as a clown and takes to wandering, drifting anonymously now without his clown make-up on among all the very many people he had once brought so much laughter to. He ends up working as a general dogsbody with a travelling circus until one night, Antoine, the lead clown of the troupe falls ill and Auguste decides to take his place but disguised as him so the audience won't know. His intention is to put on a performance such as no-one has ever seen then to let Antoine return the following night and take advantage of the glory.

Antoine, however, knowing he could never live up to Auguste's masterful clown performance dies not from his illness but from a broken heart. Shortly after (without me wishing to spoil the plot), so too does Auguste die, killed by a blow to the head from a policeman.

Throughout his journey, from trying to surpass the joy he was giving to his audience, right up to the moment before his death, Auguste is attaining a wisdom he wished only to impart to the world so that he and the world may become enlightened together. The key to the kingdom of heaven - to glory - and to the kingdom within lay in being true to one's self. In simply being one's self.

It's a hard lesson to learn and an even harder lesson to take on, as Auguste tries to explain to Antoine: "To be yourself, just yourself, is a great thing. And how does one do it, how does one bring it about? Ah, that's the most difficult trick of all. It's difficult just because it involves no effort. You try neither to be one thing nor another, neither great nor small, neither clever nor maladroit... You follow me? You do whatever comes to hand. You do it with good grace, bien entendu. Because nothing is unimportant. Nothing. Instead of laughter and applause you receive smiles. Contented little smiles - that's all. But it's everything... more than one could ask for."
Like Auguste's act, it's very simple yet very ingenious.

Interestingly, Miller was originally asked to write this story by French artist Fernand Leger as the text for a series of illustrations on clowns and circuses but in the end Leger was obliged to reject it as being unsuitable. It's hard to believe, really. Did Leger not have the wherewithal to understand that Miller's story was almost perfect in every way?
The Smile At The Foot Of The Ladder is only a short story but it deserves to be read a number of times because on each occasion it will open up like a flower and reveal further beauty and hidden depths. Everyone should read it at least once, not only for the enjoyment but for the lesson it imparts. That lesson being one of the most valuable and important lessons in this world: To be yourself.
John Serpico

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Exmouth Bound Soundtrack (Part 6)


Up and down the Avocet rail line, in and out of Exmouth, day in day out. But it's not all fun and games, reading books, listening to music and generally Zenning out. Sometimes, in fact, it's all just one big fucking blur...

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Quiet Days In Clichy - Henry Miller


Any admirer of the work of Henry Miller is always going to be interested in Quiet Days In Clichy for the fact that not only was it made into a film but that it was written during the same period that Miller was writing Black Spring, which I for one consider to be his best book.
I've not watched the film so can't comment as to whether it's any good or not though there are a few clips of it up on YouTube and it looks pretty faithful to the book. It's a black and white, Danish film made in 1970 featuring music by Country Joe McDonald (he of Fixin' To Die, Woodstock fame). 'Pioneering and experimental' according to Film4 and if that doesn't pique your interest then perhaps mentioning that it features a lot of nudity might?

I'd describe the book as a 'bawdy romp' as two ex-pat American writers (not named as such but clearly based on Miller himself and his friend, Alfred Perles) living in a cheap flat in Paris encounter and bed a whole series of women in an almost matter of fact manner. There's nothing erotic, comedic or particularly pornographic about any of it, it's just that it's all done excessively.
The book's strength is in the array of characters that Miller fills it with, from the Alfred Perles-based flat mate to the many women who are 'encountered'. Miller's always been brilliant when it comes to writing about people though, and it's all enhanced by his flights of vivid thoughts, dreams, philosophical musings and reveries. His words flow freely showing the world of reality has its limits but the world of imagination is boundless, and even when hungry and without a cent, franc or penny to his name describes his life being lived to the full. For sure he's a sexist but paradoxically at the same time he's very much a romantic and a lover of women. First and foremost, however, Miller is a lover of the written word.

Quiet Days In Clichy is by no means the best book Miller's ever written but then by no means is it the worst. That particular award I would give to Sexus, his first novel in his Rosy Crucifixion trilogy which was a slog to get through and having finished it left me remembering nothing of it. But such is life and in more ways than one. I wouldn't even say that Quiet Days In Clichy is a good place to start for any Henry Miller novice; for that I would recommend Black Spring, Tropic Of Capricorn and of course, Tropic Of Cancer. For those familiar with Miller's oeuvre and fans of his writing it is, however, an essential read.
John Serpico

Friday, 8 April 2016

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 32)


I went for a walk and watched the cars go by.
The sun was high - and I thought of you.

I went for a walk and the wind was blowing. 
It sure was hot - and I thought of you.

I went for a walk and watched the cars go by.
The sun was high - and so was I.

I thought of you.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Emotional Terrorism - Joolz


Remember Joolz? Flame-haired, tattooed Punk poetess with New Model Army affiliations? She's still around, you know? Still performing, still painting, still writing. Runs a tattoo parlour in Bradford nowadays as well. When it came to her poetry, not for her such things as rhyming or alliteration but narrative and prose. Vignettes, observations and short stories were more her style, delivered when spoken in a northern accent or on the page written almost as a conversation with the reader.

She was probably at her most popular during the Eighties when for a while being a ranting poet was in vogue. Attila The Stockbroker, Seething Wells, Mark Miwurdz and others were being taken seriously by the music press and fanzines up and down the land were always featuring them. Fashions come and fashions go, however, and the music press soon moved on to the next trend, assigning them all along with their Left-wing credentials to the dustbin of history.
Though lumped in with these poet ranters, Joolz was always different and slightly apart not only due to her being a woman amongst a bunch of blokes but for her delivery. She was an old soul born into a deprived, modern-day environment and her words were like echoes from centuries past, washed up upon the shore of Thatcher's Britain like remnants from a shipwreck.

Her book, Emotional Terrorism (one of many she's had published over the years), collects a number of her poems and drawings into a neat volume of what can only be called 'art'. Joolz is an artist, nothing more and nothing less.
A striking thing about the poems collected in this particular book is that whilst she rages against oppression, injustice and the 'corrupt and wicked government' she has no qualms about also criticising and chastising her own peer group and her fellow members of the working class community of which she's from.
In a number of her poems she rails against the ignorance, prejudice and small-mindedness of the working class, particularly that of Bradford, her home town. Indeed, in a poem entitled 'Bradford (Hometown)' she admits to hating it and wishing it 'destroyed, flattened, finished, ploughed with salt... Because it isn't good, they aren't nice and it doesn't fit the dream'. She gives good reasons for feeling this and is justified because it can be true: '...when you can't walk out alone and the hatred, blind and ignorant, is a trait they breed for; when resentment and sullen fear are all too easily read in eyes deprived of passion by callous families, rotten schools and the endless, slow crucifixion by the society that spawned them'.
It comes, however, with a caveat: 'But even though there is no welcome, no love and no smiling faces, I still go back, don't I? We all go back, always, don't we? To all those towns that scar this sorry island, we all go back and some of us never leave, because it's all we've got'.
Joolz is a very good poet and far better than she's ever really been credited for.

In her poem entitled 'Nemesis', she describes an encounter with a family living on an estate at the back of her house, a 'sprawl of ill-built council houses, pebble-dash peeling and broken fences'. The family's puppy keeps getting loose and ending up in her garden so she's always having to take it back to them. She describes the mother as a 'worn-out zombie' and the father as 'stupid drunken... beer gut straining his shirt buttons'.
On one such occasion after returning the puppy, the father starts yelling at Joolz and it's then that she notices the grubby children and in the eyes of one of the children in particular a bright intelligence: 'And I can't forget that, I can't forget the stab of surprise and the horrible knowledge of what that bright child's life will be: with his worn-out zombie mother, and his stupid drunken father, cheated of his chances in useless schools, ignored by corrupt and wicked government, denied, beaten, dispossessed and shoved into the numbing inevitable round of frustration, fighting and savage boredom, while the children of the middle classes piss away their privilege in the Student Union bars, and prop up the tottering society that shelters their inadequacies.
Everything faded but the child's gaze as he stood at the rickety gate, his fate certain and damned. And I want to pull all this injustice down, destroy it all in blood and fire, not next year, not tomorrow, but now, this moment, this very second, level it, raze it and start again clean, so he's got a hope, so we've all got a hope...'.

'If there is hope,' wrote George Orwell 'It lies in the proles.' And it always has and always will but Orwell despaired as there was no mass rebellion forthcoming. "You don't have to take this crap!" said Paul Weller in one of his better moments but we do and the British working class continues to be shafted over and over and over again. Spat on and shat on and made to eat soap, then saying thanks for the privilege.
You do what you can to right wrongs but there comes a time when you wonder what else can you do if your neighbour refuses to raise their voice let alone their fist? Fucking get on with it then and wallow in shit is one conclusion. Joolz is an artist but then aren't we all? The difference being that Joolz expresses herself rather than keeping quiet, sitting on the fence or trying to be moderate and reasonable. At the end of the day Joolz did and does what she can (and very well too, it must be said) but she holds no answers but then has never claimed to. Though at least she once stood up and spoke out.
It's always horses for courses and you do what you can - and Joolz has done more than a lot of others even if her faith in a Labour government coming to the rescue was somewhat misguided. Her book, Emotional Terrorism, is interesting as it documents not only her art but also something much more. It's a snapshot of a time over thirty years ago when the world was being turned upside down. Unfortunately it was by market forces, the free enterprise economy and the conservative Right and, of course, things have never been quite the same since.

John Serpico