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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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,
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
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
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
Swedish ambient Punk, Devo, Blondie, H G Wells, Hawkwind, Michael
Moorcock, Joseph Conrad.
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
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
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
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
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
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...
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
'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
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
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
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
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
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!"
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!"
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
'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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
'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
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
It's just a shame that it's probably the best bit in the book...
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
'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
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
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
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
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