Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Complete Illuminated Books - William Blake


There's William Blake The Complete Illuminated Books... and all the rest is propaganda.

John Serpico

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The Thief's Journal - Jean Genet


I never understood what Bowie was singing about in Gene Genie and it used to trouble me. I knew all the words but what did it all mean? It was a puzzle. One night when I was at a party, however, the song was played over the sound-system and suddenly (with the aid of a copious amount of hashish, I should add) it suddenly made sense: All that Bowie was doing was throwing together a random selection of rhyming couplets and playing a kind of word association game. The couplets weren't actually intended to make much sense and the clue was in the line "Let yourself go", meaning to stop trying to make sense of it all and just free your mind - and your ass will follow.
I was stoned, remember.
But then what was it with the title 'Gene Genie'? I read later that it was a nod to Iggy Pop but that also it was a pun on the name 'Jean Genet', whom Bowie was an admirer of. When I discovered that Patti Smith was also an admirer of Jean Genet, I wanted to find out more.

The Thief's Journal is Genet's most famous book and it records the progress of him as a young man travelling through Europe during the 1930s. Genet is a tramp, a thief, a beggar and a male prostitute but moreover, he's a brilliant writer. His words are like those of a poet though not in the sense of 'I wandered lonely as a cloud' but more comparing criminals to flowers and waxing lyrical over an accomplice’s cock.

Born an orphan into a world that from the start had resolutely rejected him, Genet in turn rejected the world and aligned himself instead with all the other underdogs: the homeless, the poor, the criminal underground, prostitutes, petty criminals, tramps, beggars, the destitute, the desperate, the unloved and the unlovable.
According to Genet: 'Betrayal, theft and homosexuality are the basic subjects of this book', but it's also about the quest for saintliness though for someone who has only the rags he stands up in, how might this be achieved? For Genet, it's by destroying all the usual reasons for living and in discerning others. Subsequently, he becomes ecstatic in his poverty, and every crime, every petty theft becomes an exaltation.

When all you have is lice and dirt and rags, do you become a worthless person? Of course not. Genet bestows poverty with a virtue and a wonder though he doesn't romanticise it, nor does he bestow honour upon his thievery because after all, there is nothing romantic about being poor and there is no honour among thieves. He does, however, charge them both with erotic intentions. As he puts it from the start: 'I was hot for crime.'

I was once hitch-hiking on the island of Crete when a car pulled over to offer me a lift. Inside were two German girls dressed in shabby hippy chic.
"Where are you going?" one of them asked. I told them and they said to jump in. They seemed to hold little interest in engaging in conversation with me and just chatted between themselves in German. After about ten minutes, they pulled over to the side of the road and one of them said to me: "We'll be back in a minute."
They both got out and I watched as they headed off down a dusty path to an old church. After a couple of minutes they came back and got into the car again, their arms laden with candles.
I couldn't believe it. Had they just stolen a load of candles from a church?
"We use them to light our room," said one of them.
I was dumbfounded. For want of anything better to say, I said: "You won't get to heaven," and they seemed to find the remark amusing as they spent the rest of the journey laughing their heads off. When we arrived at the village where I was living, we all went for a drink together before going our separate ways though I admit, I would have liked to have hung out with them for longer.
I relay this anecdote simply because reading The Thief's Journal reminded me of it. It was my Jean Genet moment when I was hot for crime.

Genet's book is a thing of strange beauty. It transcends the consensus on how a saint should be perceived. It redefines what it is to be poor and what it is to be a petty thief. It redefines what it is to be homosexual and it redefines erotica. From out of nowhere and from out of nothing, Genet forged his own world though which he battled with, was a world of his own making rather than a world imposed upon him of which he had no say.

'My adventure, never governed by rebellion or a feeling of injustice...' says Genet at the start of The Thief's Journal. Years later, however, after becoming a world-famous writer but then to all intent and purpose leaving the business of writing behind, Genet threw his support behind Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the Paris student revolution of May '68, the Black Panthers, and the political situation of Palestinian refugees. It was only a short step thereafter to him declaring an affinity with Germany's the Red Army Faction, for which he drew much criticism.
Was this Genet being still hot for crime, I wonder?

Genet had an obsession with flowers as he so succinctly explains in the Journal: 'I am alone in the world, and I am not sure that I am not the king - perhaps the sprite - of these flowers. They render homage as I pass, bow without bowing, but recognise me. They know that I am their living, moving, agile representative, conqueror of the wind. They are my natural emblem, but through them I have roots in that French soil which is fed by the powdered bones of the children and youths buggered, massacred and burned by Gilles de Rais.'
Jean Genet may well have been the king or the sprite of flowers, who knows? What is certain, however, is that he was the most rarest of flowers and The Thief's Journal is nothing less than him in full, florid bloom.
John Serpico

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Island Of Doctor Moreau - H G Wells


Jung called it 'synchronicity', meaning the underlying connection between disparate people, events, objects and places. The pattern of coincidences. I was listening to an album called Search And Destroy: A Punk Lounge Experience by a Swedish singer called Sofia and on it was an ambient version of the song Mongoloid by Devo who were mentioned in a book I was reading at the time called New York Rocker by Blondie bassist Gary Valentine where he said the line "Are we not men?" by Devo is taken from the 1930s film of H G Wells' novel The Island Of Doctor Moreau.
The following week I was talking to Stacia Blake, who used to dance on stage with Hawkwind and she pointed me in the direction of a second-hand bookshop I'd never been to before. In that bookshop I found a whole load of Michael Moorcock books who was, of course, once very involved with Hawkwind himself. But whilst there I also found a copy of Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and a copy of The Island Of Doctor Moreau by H G Wells which, naturally, I bought. It felt as if I should.

I take it everyone knows who H G Wells is and some of the books he wrote? The Invisible Man? War Of The Worlds? The Time Machine? A fair few of us may have seen the film versions of these works but how many of us have actually read any of the books? I for one have never done so, for sure. I acknowledge there's not enough time in the world to read everything that's ever been written, but H G Wells? He's a classic, world-famous writer. I thought then, that it was time to put this right and it seemed as if Jung's theory of synchronicity (along with Stacia, the nude dancer from Hawkwind) was coming into play to make this happen.

The first thing to do was obviously to check out the "Are we not men?" line and the connection to Devo. And well, well, well. Gary Valentine wasn't wrong. There it was:
'Not to go on all-Fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to eat Flesh nor Fish; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to claw Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?'
These lines are chanted-out by the Beast People, a tribe of crippled and grotesque animals who have been transformed into half-humans via the vivisection experiments of a scientist by the name of Doctor Moreau.
Cast out by his peer group in the scientific community of London due to his unethical methods, Moreau has set up camp on an isolated island in the Pacific where he is free to continue his pursuits without interference. Into the mix comes Edward Pendrick, a lone survivor of a shipwreck who, finding himself stranded on the island bears witness to the last days of Moreau's self-made, jungle kingdom.

Seeing as how The Island Of Doctor Moreau was first published in 1896, H G Wells was obviously years ahead of his time and for good reason is cited as 'a father of science-fiction'. The book entertains such themes as morality, man's relationship to animals, science, vivisection and - most importantly - the subject of pain in regard to man's perception of it applying to himself, other creatures and its role in the universe.
It's interesting to remember that Charles Darwin's The Origin Of Species had only been published just over thirty years earlier so the theory of evolution and natural selection was still relatively new when Wells wrote his book. The significance of this is shown in the way Wells looks at the link between animals and men purely through the prism of science, without bringing god and religion into the equation.

It's easy to see a lot of metaphors in The Island Of Doctor Moreau though whether they're intentional metaphors created deliberately by Wells is another question. Does Moreau symbolise God? Is Moreau's laboratory (referred to by the Beast People as 'The House Of Pain') a metaphor for the world? Is the whole book a critique of vivisection and a warning of what could happen if science is given free rein to do as it pleases?
There's a creeping feeling of sickness throughout the whole book and you realise once you've finished it that what you've just read isn't so much science fiction but a horror story. This then leads to an unspoken link between it and Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness (published three years later) that has that same creeping sickness feel about it. In Conrad's book, Kurtz (as played by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, of course) like Moreau has also had free rein to create his own jungle kingdom; ending with Kurtz' dying words of 'The horror! The horror!'
Of the two, Conrad's is the better book but an underlying connection is there.

Swedish ambient Punk, Devo, Blondie, H G Wells, Hawkwind, Michael Moorcock, Joseph Conrad.
Synchronicity, in other words.
John Serpico

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Road To Rembetika - Gail Holst


If as Mark Perry of Alternative TV once surmised in the song How Much Longer that "the Punks don't know nothing, the straights don't know nothing, the hippies don't know nothing, you don't know nothing, we don't know nothing" then who, I ask, might know anything? The Greeks, perhaps? And if so, do they have a word for it? Yes and yes. And the word is 'rembetika', meaning 'an expression of the artistic potential of the masses of the sub-proletariat of Greek towns'.

You've got to admire the Greeks and pay them due respect for the way they took a stand against austerity measures as imposed by the Greek government at the behest of the European Union. Against police armed with guns they rioted again and again through the streets of Athens, eating CS gas for breakfast and laughing in the face of State oppression.
At various times it seemed as though they were on the point of pushing their country over into a state of Anarchy, in its true meaning of the word. Sadly, the heritage of being the cradle of democracy in the end won over and faith was put into the electing of anti-austerity politician Alexis Tsipras of the Syriza Party who, as is the wont of all politicians, let his constituency down by buckling and implementing the austerity measures as demanded by the EU and the IMF.

The Greeks certainly put the English to shame who put up practically no fight whatsoever against austerity measures as demanded not by the EU but by the Conservative government; and then in a twinkling of an eye voted not against David Cameron, George Osborne and the rest of the Eton/Oxford Mafia responsible for imposing austerity but against the EU. As if the EU was to blame for it being grim up North.
"We will not say that Greeks fight like heroes," said Winston Churchill once upon a time "But we will say that heroes fight like Greeks." And he was right.

According to Gail Holst, author of Road To Rembetika - Music of a Greek Sub-culture, Songs of Love, Sorrow & Hashish, 'Pre-war rembetika is hashish music', meaning the songs and the music played in the taverns of the port of Piraeus in Greece during the 1920s and 1930s was hashish-fuelled. Rembetika was the voice of the dispossessed, of those who held a natural dislike of the police along with any other form of authority. It was the voice of the voiceless, the result of cultures colliding where Turkish immigrants met Greek proletariats; bonding over their mutual social and economic position and in their adverse relationship to the mainstream of Greek society.
Recognising their commonality as in it was they who were trapped in poverty, they who were harassed by police and always they who were ending up in jail; they sparked off from one and other via a shared love of music and hash.

Their musical instruments were four-string prototypes of the bouzouki, and between them they developed their own slang, their own dress-style, and their own particular swagger. They had their own taverns where they could sing, dance and smoke marijuana to their heart's content, and when laws against the smoking and sale of hashish were introduced and started to be enforced by police, they simply became more closer-knit so as to protect themselves from prosecution.
Those who lived the anti-authoritarian lifestyle to the full were called 'rembetes' or 'manges' and were defined not only by their defiance in the face of poverty and repression and their refusal to be submissive before the police but in their conspicuous generosity, their spontaneity, and their knowing how to enjoy themselves.

Rembetika was urban folk. The expression and the mirror of working class life, dreams, loves and sorrows as experienced by the Greek sub-proletariat. Gail Holst compares it to the urban blues of New Orleans, Chicago and Harlem but to widen the field of reference, it could just as easily be compared to many other forms of music or culture born from the working class. Meaning, rembetika was R&B, rembetika was Rap, rembetika was Soul, Garage, Oi!, Grime, etc, etc. Rembetika was Punk - Greek style.
Being a musician herself, in her book Holst focusses a lot upon the actual music as in the instruments, the scales, the metres and the rhythms. Half of her book is taken up with the translations of the rembetika lyrics. She does, however, touch upon the relationship of rembetika with politics and the observations she comes up with are interesting.

Holst points out that there is less publicity about the sufferings of the Greeks during the second World War than about other Europeans. During the years of Italian and then German occupation, for example, not only did the entire Jewish population of Greece perish but hundreds of thousands of Greeks died of starvation. During the following Greek civil war and the interference of the British and later American governments, the witch-hunting of communists became open warfare with even napalm being used against them. According to Holst, it was rembetika songs that were sung all over the country by a population which felt them to be an expression of their collective suffering and rage.
During the dictatorship years in Greece (bolstered, it must be remembered, by America) rembetika wasn't tolerated at all. Ostensibly the persecution was against hashish smoking but because of the association between hash and rembetika, musicians were given much harsher sentences than other offenders. Even the Left had no time for the rembetes and were as rigid and intolerant of them as the Right-wing establishment, essentially because they were not organisable. The rembetes, the manges and rembetika was ungovernable.

Rembetika then, is clearly not just a form of music but more a state of mind and a way of life. Holst explains, however, that once the record companies got involved and rembetika became popular with the mainstream of Greek society, it lost its power to represent that state of mind. The musicianship became much more sophisticated and the association with hashish watered down. The form became vulgarised and associated with merely the smashing of plates and drunken dancing in expensive clubs and bars.
For all that, the spirit of rembetika had been cast in stone and every decade or so its tomb would be raided by younger generations seeking inspiration and something a little more real than what they might have on offer to them at the time. Moreover, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the spirit would suddenly appear in some other form besides music; be it in working class literature, art or film. Or even as riots against austerity.

That same 'spirit of rembetika' is, of course, not totally unique to Greece but can also be found within England, emanating primarily - like in Greece - from the working class. In England it might be referred to as the 'spirit of Albion' and, just as in Greece it's neither of the Left or the Right but is instead ungovernable. When it has appeared as, for example, in the form of Punk, like rembetika it too has been assimilated, watered down and sold back as a commodity for mainstream society though not before sending out shockwaves affecting the whole of society.
When next it might appear and in what form is anyone's guess but that's the beauty of it. Music, literature, art, and film can all be used as 'an expression of the artistic potential of the masses of the sub-proletariat' and can occur at any time. As can riots, uprisings and insurrection erupting throughout the land...
John Serpico

Monday, 17 April 2017

Junky - William Burroughs


Ever wondered how William Burroughs started his career in heroin? No, me neither. In an interview recently with Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones conducted at The Strand book store in New York, Jones revealed that he wasn't a great reader. No surprise there, really, but there was more. He went on to say that he's only ever actually read one book in his life and even now he couldn't say what it was about. And that book? Junky by William Burroughs.
Was Steve Jones being deliberately funny, I wonder? I mean, if you pick up a copy of Junky and you've never seen it before, there's a bit of a clue going on in the title as to what it's about. Or am I just being guilty of judging a book by its cover?

For the record, Burroughs first came into contact with heroin in the early 1940s when he was asked if he knew of anyone who might want to buy a stolen tommy-gun along with five one-half grain syrettes of morphine tartrate? Like Jarvis Cocker in Common People when being told by a girl at St Martin's College that she'd like to sleep with someone like him, Burroughs replied "I'll see what I can do."
In such circumstances it would have been rude not to have sampled the goods but road testing the tommy-gun was out of the question so that only left the morphine...
Before too long it's all pills 'n' thrills and bellyaches as Burroughs develops a healthy heroin habit and starts regaling us with tales of hustling doctors for prescriptions, robbing drunks on the subway, pushing 'the product', and encountering fellow denizens of the drug world.

All good stuff, of course, especially to a teenager or if read decades ago when this kind of subject matter was considered 'underground'. Unfortunately, in this day and age when you're viewed as being weird if you don't do drugs it's all very quaint and dare I say, innocent?
Might I also say that perhaps nowadays Junky should be kept in the 'Teen' section of any public library because reading it isn't going to entice anyone to experiment with heroin and in fact if anything it's going to put you off: 'I felt a cold burn over the whole surface of my body as though the skin was one solid hive. It seemed like ants were crawling around under the skin.' You'd be better off with a cup of cocoa, a biscuit and a quiet night in.

Junky was William Burroughs' first published novel and gives not the slightest hint of the experimentation and subject matters of his books to come. There's certainly nothing in it to suggest the Naked Lunch was in the offing. Then again, he hadn't yet killed his wife and in fact, she's even mentioned in Junky after he's arrested for possession and she gets him a lawyer and medical help when he's going cold turkey.

'Once a junky always a junky,' writes Burroughs but is that really true? I guess for Burroughs it was and for some, heroin is the end of the line and the only way out for them is dead but then for others it's just another gateway drug. For Burroughs, heroin led to yage, and as he puts it: 'The uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk.'
Yage (along with the William Tell incident with his wife, and the meeting with Brion Gysin, it should be said) opened out Burroughs' writing into the full-blown mind bombs of his later works and as Norman Mailer put it, for Burroughs to become 'The only living American novelist who may conceivably be possessed by genius.'
These later works of Burroughs were years ahead of their time and in fact, I would argue that the world is still trying to catch up. But as for Junky, it hasn't really stood the test of time and this is accentuated by the inclusion of the glossary at the back of the book containing such gems as: 'Cat... A man. Chick... A woman. Dig... To size up, to understand, to like, or enjoy. Hep or Hip... Someone who knows the score. Someone who understands 'jive talk'. Someone who is 'with it'. Square... The opposite of hip. Someone who does not understand the jive.'

Are you hip? Do you know the score? Are you with it or are you square? Can you dig it? To the public library with you if not, to the 'Teen' section and pick up a copy of Junky. You've got a long way to go but you've got to start somewhere. Bear in mind, however, that cultural elitism is now passé. It's out the window. Anyone can now be hip, anyone can be a Sex Pistol, and anyone can be a junky. The future is yours. Or as the great philosopher Arthur Daly once said: "The world is your lobster"...
John Serpico

Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Plague - Albert Camus


In an obscure, nondescript town on the Algerian coast, rats suddenly begin dying; crawling out from their hideaways onto hallways and into gutters where they spit blood and convulse before being trodden underfoot without due care. The numbers of these dying rats rapidly escalates causing murmurs of concern due to the nuisance of it all and the lack of any action from the municipality in dealing with clearing away the carcasses. It's only when people also begin to fall ill and start dying that the idea that there might be something more serious going on starts to take hold.
It's soon obvious that both rats and people are dying in the same horrific manner though it's only when the number of people dying escalates exponentially that it's decided this might be an emergency situation but even then a significant number are still loathe to believe it. By this time, however, it's too late and plague has taken hold.

The thing about the works of Albert Camus is that they never age, they're never out of step or irrelevant to the times they're being read in. When first published in 1947, The Plague was read as a metaphysical novel with the plague being a symbol of the German occupation of France during the Second World War. It can still be read this way, I guess, just as it can still be read as a straightforward narrative but this is 2017 and we're all living in a new age where a vote on membership of the European Union has led to Britain being delivered on a plate to the hard Right and where in America a sleazebag, millionaire, sexual predator has been made President. Both of these events, particularly the latter, begs the question: Are we living in neo-Fascist times?

There's a lot going on in The Plague and though some of it is unambiguous, most of it is subtext and between the lines, most notably the pursuing of some of the common themes found in other books by Camus such as the question of suicide. At one point, Camus describes a sermon as delivered by a preacher in the midst of the epidemic: 'If the chronicles of the Black death at Marseille were to be trusted, only four of the eighty-one monks in the Mercy Monastery survived the epidemic, and of these four three took flight. But when he read that chronicle, Father Paneloux had found his thoughts fixed on that monk who had stayed on by himself, despite the death of his seventy-one companions, and, above all, despite the example of his three brothers who had fled. And, bringing down his fist on the edge of the pulpit, Father Paneloux cried in a ringing voice: 'My brothers, each one of us must be the one who stays!.'
If, as suggested by another character in the book that plague is 'just life, no more than that', then what the preacher is alluding to is that one should not try to escape from life but to remain within it. Suicide is not legitimate.

At another point in the book, Camus describes another character reading what is taken to be a detective novel: 'I was thinking of people who took an interest in you only to make trouble for you. Only I've been reading that detective story. It's about a poor devil who's arrested one fine morning all of a sudden. People had been taking an interest in him and he knew nothing about it. They were talking about him and he knew nothing about it. They were talking about him in offices, entering his name on card-indexes. Now do you think that's fair? Do you think people have a right to treat a man like that?'
Detective story? Is Camus talking about Franz Kafka's The Trial here?

Elsewhere in the book, another character describes a conversation overheard in a tobacconist's shop one day: 'An animated conversation was in progress and the woman behind the counter started airing her views about a murder case which had created some stir in Algiers. A young commercial employee had killed an Algerian on a beach. 'I always say,' the woman began 'If they clapped all that scum in jail, decent folks could breathe more freely.'
Clearly, this is in reference to one of Camus' own books, The Stranger. All these things (and more), however, are academic and for students of philosophy and literature to pore over because we're all now living in a new age and what's of greater interest (to me, at least) is the symbolism of plague to the election of President Donald Trump.

Since Trump's election victory there's been much talk about Fascism and whether we'd recognise it if it arrived tomorrow? It's a good question because Fascism is not going to come knocking at our door in jackboots, Sieg Heiling, with a Swastika on its sleeve. No, it would come in another form. In a suit and tie, probably, but just as ugly. And would it announce itself to be Fascist and wear the name like a badge of honour? Of course it wouldn't. So how would we know of its arrival or if, as suggested by some, that it's arrived already with Trump? The answer is that we wouldn't.
Like the rats appearing in Camus' novel, the signs would be there but we wouldn't pay them much attention. We would turn a blind eye and put up with the inconveniences until such a time that the truth is just too discomforting to ignore but by then it would be too late and plague/Fascism would have taken hold.

In Camus' book, when the town's gates are closed and a ban put in place to prohibit people entering and leaving, consternation ensues as people suddenly find themselves cut off from their families and loved ones. The situation is made worse by actually closing the gates some hours before the official order is made known to the public. The similarities to Trump’s Muslim travel ban and the subsequent chaos that ensued at airports is strikingly similar.
What Trump did that day was cruel and inept, serving as a warning shot of what his Presidency was going to be like. The subsequent protests triggered by the ban served, however, as an inspiration and as a sign of what might be expected as a response to such actions. Or as Camus puts it: 'What's true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you'd need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague.'

Elsewhere in the book, Camus contemplates what the future might hold if the epidemic spreads: 'We may see again the Saturnalia of Milan, men and women dancing round graves,' he writes. 'Saturnalia', however, is how Margaret Thatcher described the inner city riots of 1981 that blew up in practically every major city in Britain two years after she came to power. So, might we be seeing whirlwind riots across the USA soon?
'We learn in times of pestilence,' continues Camus 'That there are more things to admire in men than to despise.' This is true, but if history teaches us anything it is that such concepts are not enough to prevent a nation state sleepwalking into Fascism. Once there, however, just as important as knowing what to do about it is to understand what led to it so as not to ever have it repeated. Or as Camus puts it: 'We might try to explain the phenomenon of the plague, but, above all, we should learn what it had to teach us.'

The Plague by Albert Camus is considered by many to be his finest book and I tend to agree. It's certainly his most beautifully written. It's a book that is unlikely to ever age and to be always relevant to the time it's being read in. It's organic and its symbolism applicable to all kinds of things: Nazi occupation of France, Ebola in Africa, turbo capitalism, the absurdity of life, and so on and so forth. Even the election of Donald Trump. It's a classic of world literature. Profound, astonishing, thought provoking and unquestionably brilliant.
John Serpico

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

My Fault - Billy Childish


If I was to vote in one of those Greatest Living Englishman polls, for me it would be a toss up between Mark E Smith and Billy Childish though I suspect Billy Childish would win it by a whisker which, when taking his moustache into consideration, would make sense. It certainly wouldn't be Sir David Attenborough or Stephen Fry, or even Nicholas Parsons for that matter.

What makes a man an artist? Or rather, what makes a man a great artist? Must you suffer for your art or must you have suffered? If so, does this explain Billy Childish? Picked on, beaten and bullied by his father and elder brother. Shat on, spat on and made to eat soap. Betrayed by his mother, dragged into school and yet more misery where - as Childish puts it - 'specialness' is destroyed. The world of nature, innocence and imagination erased. Then raped by a friend of his family.

Childhood is a horror show, no better exemplified by Billy Childish's account not of his molestation and rape by an older man or the physical and psychological violence inflicted upon him by members of his own family but by the cruelty that children themselves are able to inflict through the bullying of their weaker classmates and through the torture inflicted upon lesser creatures. A case in point being his description of him and his friend glueing matchsticks to wasps then burning them alive like some sadistic Japanese prisoner of war camp game, followed by Childish demanding his friend (whose father is a vicar) spit on a cross: 'Come on, God’s kid, fuckin' spit on it, you fuckin' Christ lover! Jesus ain't gonna save you now, so spit on it! Spit on it, you wanker!'
Suffer little children to come unto me.

Billy Childish is an artist, poet, writer, photographer, film maker and musician; and despite being diagnosed dyslexic at the age of 28 has published more than thirty poetry collections and three novels. He's recorded over one hundred albums on a variety of record labels and exhibited paintings all over the world. According to the late, great John Peel he's 'a cult-rock icon'. Billy Childish is a one-man art movement and My Fault is his memoir of his childhood and teenage years.

'All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental', as it states in the disclaimer at the start of the book but clearly that's not the case at all. Tracey Emin, Childish's ex-girlfriend, for example, can be identified fairly easily and the things he's got to say about her are... interesting, to say the least. No wonder she'll no longer talk to him: 'There's nothing that bitch liked better than a thick one up her arse, looking over her shoulder, mascara like a spider. Then I'd pull it out, feeding it into her mouth, and she'd take it full in the face, laughing and coughing through the sauce,' he confides to the world and its mother. It's the kind of confession that might sour any relationship, you'd have thought? Or maybe not?

Other episodes are equally identifiable such as him relaying a conversation conducted among workmen at Chatham Naval Dockyard one day as they sit drinking cups of tea and reading the newspapers:
'"Lucky for me I ain't got kids, but still, in front of my wife, six o'clock, it's bang out of order!"
"Fucking disgusting!"
"But this idiot in here, it says he kicked his TV set in, two hundred quid's worth! It says it here in black and white. Here, take a look for yourself, read it! What do you make of that? Two hundred quid's worth of television, it's a bloody joke! The man's an idiot!"
"I'd have just switched it off."
Without mentioning them or going into any further detail, Childish is clearly referring to the Sex Pistols and the Bill Grundy incident that made headlines in 1976, catapulting them to world-wide infamy and without realising it himself at the time, planting a tiny seed inside of him that would inform everything he would do in the future. By this I mean Punk Rock and the spirit of independence and 'do-it-yourself', where art and creativity are guiding lights and the highest ideals for man to attain to.

Other episodes in the book are - if not identifiable due to being local to the area Childish grew up in - familiar due to almost everyone having experienced something similar. He mentions, for example, the destruction of the woods at the back of his house where he and his friends played: 'The woods, our woods... They moved in and flattened the lot! Crushed to the ground! Without so much as a 'by your leave'. Age old and noble. There's no doubt that those woods belonged to us kids, us kids, the dickie birds and the occasional adder. One day rabbits, spiders and birds, the next: bulldozers!'
I feel the same about the Stonehenge Free Festival that was so violently smashed by out-of-control police in the summer of 1985, known now as the Battle of the Beanfield. Unleashed by the Thatcher government in the wake of the miners strike the previous year. It still makes my blood boil after all these years. I still want it to be avenged.
'People have no rights and kids have less than none. They knocked down our world with no warning, with no consultation. Their only emotion: contempt! An atrocity that should never be forgotten. I write it down, here for all to see, to be documented for future generations. The holocaust against our friends the trees, the grasses, the flowers and all their myriad of friends and relations, four-legged, six-legged, eight-legged, and wings of the sky. I swear to Christ, it makes me see red, even after all these softening years...'

For Childish, however, this event led to his involvement with the Walderslade Liberation Army, a highly disciplined ecological terrorist unit comprised of him and his gang of fellow eleven-year-olds, led by a political mastermind called Goldfish. "We need guns and we need politics!" Goldfish would declare as he wiped the snot from his nose "The politics of our situation!"
Armed with crude, home-made guns made out of old metal pipes and real bombs made from chemicals stolen from the school lab and typical bomb-making materials such as weed-killer, sulphur and saltpetre bought from any hardware shop or chemist, Goldfish led his men into battle with the developers who were trashing their woods. "The first thing an army needs is discipline! Discipline! Food! Guns! And Glycerine!"
I wonder what became of Goldfish? What did he grow up to be? I wonder if Billy Childish even knows? Maybe he went on to form Class War?

My Fault is funny, disturbing, brilliant and harrowing all at the same time. Within its pages are echoes of Charles Bukowski, Knut Hamsun, Dostoevsky, and Henry Miller - and that's a very good thing indeed. Billy Childish is an example to us all. An example of triumph over adversity, of art over commerce, and of integrity of intention. An example of creativity being the heart and soul of mankind.
And Billy Childish gets my vote for the Greatest Living Englishman.
John Serpico

Sunday, 26 February 2017

City Of Spades - Colin MacInnes


Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes comes highly praised and as touted by Paul Weller among others is 'the mod bible' but I'd argue that actually City Of Spades is the superior book. It's slicker, better paced, and less stodgy and so subsequently more engaging.
Apparently, MacInnes spent a lot less time thinking about City Of Spades whilst writing it than he did with Absolute Beginners, and this shows. The names given to the characters, for example, are the kind that might come in a flash of inspiration but if mulled over for too long might be dismissed as being too colourful: Billy Whispers, Jimmy Cannibal, Peter Pay Paul, Ronson Lighter, Karl Marx Bo, Alfy Bongo, Moscow Gentry, Norbert Salt, etc, etc. How could you possibly go wrong with such names?

As for the title, 'Spades' means black people but any suggestion of racism regarding the term is dismissed very early on in the book in an exchange between the two main characters - Johnny Fortune, who is black and Montgomery Pew, who is white. It's Johnny Fortune who uses the term himself when talking about black people, with Montgomery Pew questioning if it's alright to use such a name? Johnny dismisses it as only a name said with some degree of cheekiness and no more insulting than the term 'jumble' that he uses for white people - 'jumble' meaning 'John Bull'.
So, City Of Spades means literally 'city of black people', the city being London. And that's largely what the book is all about: London as lived in and experienced by black people in the 1950s when immigration from Africa and the West Indies was a new thing.

The story is told through the eyes of two people, the aforementioned Johnny Fortune and Montgomery Pew, though the main protagonist is Johnny, fresh from Lagos and arriving in London to study meteorology. Montgomery is a Welfare Officer at a government Colonial Department, employed to give support and advice to immigrants though he's inherently less qualified than those he's meant to be helping
Johnny's journey through London is followed; revealing an almost secret, underground metropolis to not only himself but Montgomery too, who had no idea such a world existed where cultures simultaneously intermingle and clash against a backdrop of music, drugs and the crumbling of Empire.
Johnny's story is of a fall from grace; from pride and enthusiasm to world weariness and imprisonment, as he's battered and bruised by the ghosts from his father's past and the struggle to simply survive in the strange landscape of 1950s Britain.

Why City Of Spades has never been made into a film is anyone's guess. It's there for the making with even a good twist at the end with Johnny about to get on a boat that will take him back home only to be informed that his nemesis Billy Whispers who wishes to see Johnny dead has just got on board also. It was decided instead to make Absolute Beginners into a film and a musical at that, starring Patsy Kensit. It bombed, and deservedly so; it's only saving feature being the Bowie song of the same name - and possibly Ever Had It Blue? by the Style Council.
But I'll say again (and argue against Paul Weller) that City Of Spades is actually the superior book and would make a far better film but then compared to Absolute Beginners as directed by Julian Temple, that wouldn't be too difficult a task.
John Serpico

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Telling Stories - Tim Burgess


What do we want? Sex! What do we want? Drugs! What do we want? Rock'n'roll! When do we want it? Now! What have we got? Telling Stories by Tim Burgess! What do we get? Scrapings from the barrel of a career in pop gone awry!

I was never enamoured by the Charlatans and equally I was never enamoured by Madchester, Baggy, Brit Pop or any of the other genres the Charlatans were associated with. I admit, I liked various songs from those times and (I admit again) I liked the drugs but as scenes I always felt they were too contrived and each overly desperate to be perceived as 'a scene'.
As ever, the music press and the music business seemed to be categorising and labelling a mixture of bands for their own ends; dividing and ruling, building 'em up and knocking 'em down. The Only One I Know by the Charlatans was good as was Polar Bear from their Some Friendly début album, along with Tim Burgess's collaboration with the Chemical Brothers on the track Life Is Sweet but apart from these I never followed the Charlatans at all.

So why read Burgess's book?

Well, I read an interview with him not long ago - it may have been on the Quietus website? - where he was talking about his love of early Eighties punk rock and naming a bunch of bands that revealed a knowledge of them. In the same interview he said he was also an old Crass fan who used to buy all their records and go to their gigs.
This piqued my interest because I also happen to know that he's had Crass writer Penny Rimbaud reciting a poem on one of the Charlatans' albums and has had Crass artist Gee Vaucher design that same album's sleeve.
Was there another side to Tim Burgess that had been kept hidden by his pop star image, I wondered?

Upon reading Telling Stories, he does indeed tell us about his old punk rock records and how Penis Envy by Crass altered his attitude toward women for the better. He mentions also how as a teenager he would walk around his local village with the words 'Who killed Liddle Towers?' painted on the back of his jacket; which is quite amusing because a lot of kids at that time did exactly the same but with different slogans and messages.
In the Anton Corbijn-directed Joy Division film there's that scene showing Ian Curtis with the word 'Hate' painted on the back of his coat. Nowadays, of course, it's only brand logos that people sport on their clothes - the ubiquitous 'Rockface', as an example. A sign of the times, I think.

All of this, however, is mentioned only very briefly in the book and is almost lost in a blizzard of other musical influences ranging from Kraftwerk to Gram Parson to Bob Dylan. Burgess is a music fan. First and foremost, above anything else.

Burgess comes across as a nice guy without really having a bad word to say about anybody, not even the Charlatans' accountant who fleeced them for £300,000. Enthusing about favourite bands and people, however, doesn't really make for riveting reading which is why it isn't until when Burgess dishes the dirt on Radio 1 DJ Simon Mayo that it starts getting interesting.

Mayo had made The Only One I Know his Single of the Week and had called Burgess to tell him he had to call in to the show at six in the morning for a chit chat on the radio. Burgess declined and Mayo was apparently furious, saying that Billy Joel had called in from New York the week before when he was given Single of the Week. Was Burgess claiming he was bigger than Billy Joel? Or bigger than Simon Mayo?
'You'll never be played on Radio 1 again,' Mayo told him. You've got to laugh, haven't you?

The book peaks with Burgess's confession of his band's penchant for blowing cocaine up each other's arses so as to get a better hit a la Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks. Now, call me old fashioned but doesn't everyone who's serious about their drugs get to a point in their drug career where they're keen to get the most out of their investment?
Most people simply progress to more exotic cocktails of drugs or to the needle or whatever but there's no mention of any of that in the book, and for a northern industrial drug taker such as Burgess was, it seems a bit strange.
Like the scene from Trainspotting when Renton visits his dealer and he's asked if he'd care for a starter and Renton replies 'No thank you, I'll proceed directly to the intravenous injection of hard drugs, please.' Did Burgess simply bypass needles and pipes with a 'No thank you, I'll proceed directly to the cocaine up the arse, please.' Which makes me wonder which method is deemed the most controversial? Intravenous injection or up the arse with a straw and a funnel?

For all this, however, I also wonder if Telling Stories is actually deserving of all the plaudits laid upon it because it's not that good. Near the end of it, Burgess mentions his Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle LP and how he bought it from his pocket money and how it's now signed by Sex Pistols' guitarist Steve Jones who he counts now as a friend. 'He drew a cock on it,' he tells us. Which is rather juvenile, puerile, childishly offensive and immature - but also brilliant! It's exactly what you'd expect and what you'd want from Steve Jones. It's a sort of confirmation of how you perceive someone to be.
It's just a shame that it's probably the best bit in the book...
John Serpico

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Proudhon His Life And Work - George Woodcock


Is there anything to be learned from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon these days? Is there anything he can teach us? Is he still worth reading? Well, let's read a book about him and see, shall we? Pierre-Joseph Proudhon His Life And Work by George Woodcock. That'll do. First published in 1956.

According to Woodcock, Proudhon was the first man to call himself an anarchist, this being in his first major work, What Is Property?, published in 1840. The term 'anarchist' had been used before but only as an insult and to demonise. Proudhon happily applied it to himself and adhered to it until his dying days.
What Is Property? is the book wherein Proudhon put forward the answer to his question that became the statement for which he would become forever known: Property is theft. But what exactly did he mean by it and has he been misinterpreted? For a better understanding of anything like this, it's always best to just go straight to the source, so to quote Proudhon from the opening passage of What Is Property?:
'If I were asked to answer the following question: "What is slavery?" and I should answer in one word, "Murder!", my meaning would be understood at once. No further argument would be required to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality, is a power of life and death, and that to enslave a man is to kill him. Why, then, to this other question: "What is property?" may I not likewise answer, "Theft"?'

According to Woodcock, what Proudhon meant by 'property' was what Proudhon later called 'the sum of its abuses' and what he was denouncing was the property of those who use it to exploit the labour of others without any effort on their own part. Property as distinguished by interest, usury and rent, by the impositions of the non-producer upon the producer.
Regarding the right of a person to control their dwelling and the land and tools needed to work and live, Proudhon had no hostility, deeming it to be a necessary keystone of liberty. His main criticism of the Communists was that they wished to destroy that keystone. For Proudhon, it was clear that neither communism nor property were suited for a just society because communism was the rejection of independence and property was the rejection of equality.

And what exactly is the significance of all this in this day and age, you might ask? Well, it's hugely significant, I would say. Particularly if you're living in London and you're being priced out of the rental market let alone the buyer's market due to an extortionate economy.
Isn't gentrification great? We've seen what it's done to New York and we've seen what it's doing to all the major European cities such as Amsterdam and Paris. And now London where it seems that nowadays you have to be a Russian oligarch to be able to afford to live there. And you can be sure that what happens in London will soon follow in our smaller towns and cities such as Bristol and even Exmouth.
It's coming I tell thee! You're going to be evicted out to the edge of your town or city (if you're not there already?) where you'll scratch out a living on a minimum wage and be expected to be thankful for the privilege.

Proudhon's other big statement was that 'God is evil', meaning God as a sort of freedom-restricting altar to bow down to. No gods and no masters, and all that. His actual declaration is a semantic conundrum but at the end of the day - though using the word 'evil' was probably just a way of causing maximum impact - he wasn't wrong.

Another big idea of his was for the establishment of what he called the 'People's Bank', which though it failed at the time to be implemented in France, came about years later in the form of credit unions and Lets schemes. Credit unions are a good idea but from my experience of Lets schemes, if you offer something useful such as plumbing, plastering, or painting and decorating then you're in big demand and build up a lot of credit. All you get back from most other participants, however, are offers of dog walking, house-sitting, or even cactus plant-sitting... From each according to his ability, I guess?

Proudhon His Life And Work is a badass motherfucker of a book in its turgidity. No bodice ripper, this. Though it must be said that George Woodcock certainly did his homework, poring over Proudhon's diaries and letters it would seem. I applaud him. It's a labour of love and I couldn't have done it. I don't read French for a start.
So, is Proudhon still worth reading? Personally, I'm rather partial to a turgid badass motherfucker of a read every once in a while but what I'd say is that it would probably be better if those of a curious persuasion went to a book that summarised the best of Proudhon rather than Proudhon's own books or George Woodcock's take on him. A kind of 'Winnie The Pooh A-Z Guide To Proudhon'.

It should be said that whilst ploughing through Woodcock's book a few ideas of Proudhon's stood out from the page demanding attention: 'Individuals cannot live on their own - there is no such thing as an isolated being or fact', for one. 'The proletarians are our strength,' another. This being exactly what George Orwell was to repeat many years later with his 'If there is hope, it lies in the proles'.
It was put to Proudhon by some of his contemporaries that he was a 'representative of peasant radicalism', as if this was a criticism - as if it was a bad thing. And yes, Proudhon was from peasant stock and was self-educated but in my eyes this is a good thing. Something that as we all know, hasn't ever been enough of, particularly in this day and age where if you've not been to private school then your ideas and opinions are somehow not worthy or are 'uninformed'.

For all this, the most important declaration Proudhon ever made and the one that he should really be remembered for is 'Whoever puts his hand on me to govern me is an usurper and a tyrant; I declare him my enemy'. A maxim that is as relevant now as it was then. A maxim that if you carry with you through your life then you won't go wrong.
John Serpico
Anarchy on a stamp - for real