Thursday, 29 November 2018

Post Office - Charles Bukowski


When I first read Post Office by Charles Bukowski as a teenager I didn't really rate it. Reading it again years later, however, I appreciate it much more and am duly impressed. Why might this be? Age and experience, I presume? As a teenager I would have had little concept of the world of work apart from the fact that I didn't wish to get too heavily involved in it. Having now worked at a variety of jobs of the kind that Bukowski writes about in Post Office, I can now understand where he's coming from. In addition, now that I know a bit more about Bukowski and thanks to YouTube have now heard his beautiful voice, I appreciate him much more as a writer.

Post Office is a book that probably everyone should read, particularly those stuck in low-paid, menial, exploitative jobs. And believe me, that's a lot of people. Bukowski nails it again and again by highlighting all the small but universal things that come with having a crap job. The low pay (of course), the impossible hours, the petty rules, the strict productivity, the impossibility of saving anything from the low wages, the overtime to make ends meet, the mealy-minded managers, the constant tiredness, the resultant ill health, the high turnover of staff, the cretinous work colleagues, the constant fear and threat of dismissal, the repetitiveness, the stupidity, etc, etc.

That's not to say it's all doom and gloom because when you're working in a low-paid, menial job there is always a dark humour to it. For those who have a sense of the ridiculous there is never ending laughter to be had either at your own expense or the expense of those in job positions above that of your own.
And so it is with Bukowski's Post Office. There is a sense of humour that pervades the whole book be it when he's writing about his job or when he's relaying comic tales from his social life. Alongside this there is also madness, sadness, celebration and hope. All the stuff of life, essentially.

Bukowski weathers the storm and at the end makes his move to a better life by resigning from his job after enduring it for twelve long years. Not to move into better employment but to move away from employment altogether for the sake of his health, his sanity, his soul – and for the hell of it.
'Maybe I'll write a novel,' Bukowski thinks to himself. And so he did, and he called it Post Office.

There's a quote by Charles Bukowski where he says: 'How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 8.30am by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?'

Is this not a universal truth? There are jobs that can be enjoyed, of course, and there is such a thing as the dignity of labour but when you're talking about low-paid, menial, exploitative jobs this all goes out the window. The tragedy of it is that a huge swath of people have no other option but to work in such jobs if they wish to survive in the world. You work or you starve. You work or you lose your home. You work or you die. Or so we're led to believe. The even greater tragedy of it is that still to this day nothing is very different to how it's always been and in many ways is actually even worse now.

It's just the way it is, you might say? And you wouldn't be wrong. But does that mean it's just the way it's always going to be? Does that mean it must only get worse, with all those stuck in the drudgery of rubbish jobs being ground down ever further year after year, generation after generation?
There must be some kind of way out of the poverty trap, surely? And there is. For the individual – on their own – there are indeed ways to strike out for a better life. In Post Office, Bukowski writes his way out using the subject of his job at the post office as source material, along with tales of his life in the gutter as he looks up at the stars. And that's fine. That's all well and good. But rather than individuals escaping one at a time, what is really required is for there to be a mass breakout, for everyone to escape en masse and for there to be no-one left behind. For until all are free, none are free.
That is the dream...
John Serpico

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Under Exmouth skies (Part 46)


It seems like only last week when it was summer and I would at the end of a day sit and watch swallows fly into the setting sun...

Friday, 16 November 2018

Twisting My Melon - Shaun Ryder


I'm sorry but when I look at the cover of Shaun Ryder's Twisting My Melon autobiography all I see is a nose. It's a very weird nose he's got, don't you think? Like a proboscis monkey. I wonder if the vote on whether or not to use this particular photo for the cover was unanimous? I mean, if you're going to have a photo of Shaun on the cover of his autobiography then surely it should be the one of him inside a letter 'E', as featured once on the cover of the NME? The publishers obviously had the same thought but they've opted instead to use just a part of that photo for the back cover. I wonder why?
And if you can manage to tear your gaze away from Shaun's nose for a moment, what is that look he's giving? Is that his 'come to bed' eyes? His 'come hither' look? Thanks, Shaun, but I think I'll sleep on the couch tonight if you don't mind?

There's something incongruous about the cover as well, as in the banner headline at the top declaring 'The Sunday Times bestseller'. Maybe it's me but my perception of the Sunday Times and my perception of Shaun Ryder are at complete odds with one and other. I don't understand at what point the two worlds meet. I just can't imagine Shaun telling us how much he appreciates the Sunday Times aesthetic when it comes to art and their approach to it, and how his weekend isn't complete without digesting the thoughts and political insights of their columnists. Just as I can't imagine the Sunday Times writers applauding and pontificating over the merits of petty theft, drug taking and tales of growing up on a shitty council estate in Salford. All over a few glasses of Pinot Noir and some little saucers of nibbles.

There's a clue, however, in the quote from the Sunday Times displayed prominently on the cover where it says 'Fantastically entertaining... a seamless, authentic, exhilarating read'. It's that word 'authentic'. It's a very middle class word, I think. It's the kind of word used by middle class writers when they describe something or someone they like but would never choose to inhabit the place where that same something or someone is coming from. It's a word used to recuperate something (or someone). And it begs the question: Is the Sunday Times advocacy and promotion of Shaun Ryder's autobiography a way of recuperating an aspect of working class culture?

Am I making too much of this, I wonder? Well, possibly not because Shaun even touches upon it himself when talking about the Wrote For Luck video: 'The Manchester Evening News would never really touch us as a band, before we made it, and part of that was because we were the sort of people that they would cross the street to avoid if they were coming out of a pub late at night in the centre of town. A lot of people in the media were a little bit frightened of what was happening at that time, because they just didn't get it'.
Not that Shaun could care less about such a thing so long as he was being paid top dollar for it. More fool the media, if anything.

'Come hither...'

As almost to be expected, Shaun's story steps up a gear when the E starts making an appearance in the summer of '87. Up until that point Happy Mondays were just another Northern Indy band struggling to establish themselves in the wake of Joy Division and New Order. Rather cruelly but succinctly, Julian Cope summed up the Mondays at that time (dressed up in their anoraks and cagoules) when he said of them: 'Who do they think they are, the fucking Undertones?'. An observation the Mondays didn't take very kindly to.
The E, of course, changed everything and being right in the middle of it, Shaun's take on the whole subject is a valid one: 'I knew idiots who would go out and fight and stab people, people whose whole night was about going out and kicking off in a bar and having a fight, or going to the match and kicking off. That's what it was all about for them, but once they started taking the E, that fucking shit stopped. It's a cliché, but it's absolutely true. You could see everyone really loved up, and yet at the same time you're reading in the press about this killer drug being the downfall of society. It was complete bullshit and it just makes you wonder about what other bullshit they are feeding you'.

It must be said, there was no great meaning to the Happy Mondays. No insights, no pertinent message, just hedonism essentially. The Happy Mondays were a vibe, a groove, an attitude, a nod and a wink. Represented perfectly by Bez, a man whose sole contribution at first sight seemed only to dance on stage with them whilst shaking some maracas but in actual fact was the key to the band. The Happy Mondays could have been a silent disco. In fact, if you watch a Happy Mondays video (such as the one for Wrote For Luck) with the sound off you get just as good an idea of what they're about as you would by watching the video with the sound on.
And no matter what Tony Wilson said about Shaun's lyrics on a good day being are on a par with WB Yeats on an average day, though he possessed a distinctive voice he was no great lyricist. Never did he come out with anything on a par with (for example) Higher Than The Sun by that other great 'E' band, Primal Scream. Or even anything by The Shamen, come to that. Shaun's lyrics were psychobabble. Words strung together simply because they sounded good. And Shaun's happy to admit it, so it's not a criticism at all.

I saw the Happy Mondays that time when they played Glastonbury, when it was the mud bath and they'd snuck a photocopier in so they could duplicate back-stage passes for their entourage. They were a suitable shambles but then if they had been slick and professional they wouldn't have been living up to expectations. The funniest thing about them, actually, was their fans in their flares. It was the most unsuitable trousers for such conditions as you could get. Caked in mud, their flares must have weighed a tonne as they dragged themselves around the site. Suffering for fashion, I guess, but as Joe Strummer once said, 'like trousers like brain'.

Twisting My Melon is over 400 pages long so it isn't just a quick read. It would obviously be beneficial when reading it to be a Happy Mondays fan but if you're not, it's a bit of a challenge. For all that, it's an entertaining romp if scamming, crack cocaine and an unspoken fear of the working class is your bag. Which might explain why the Sunday Times like it so much...
John Serpico

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Notebooks of a Naked Youth - Billy Childish


I admire and respect Billy Childish – the man, his music, his art and his moustache. He also still gets my vote for being the Greatest Living Englishman. Unfortunately, there's something about Notebooks of a Naked Youth - his sequel to his début novel, My Fault - that makes it inferior to it's predecessor rather than being it's equal or even its better.
There's a sense about it of being a work in progress, as if there was no clear aim as to where the book was going to go or of even what kind of book it was going to be. It starts off as if this time Childish is playing it for laughs and effecting a style of writing that displays his somewhat dark and twisted sense of humour. It ends up as a sort of bastard child of William Burroughs and Henry Miller.

The narrator's voice is that of an imbecilic child inside the body of a young adult, or of someone with Aspergers who doesn't know how to properly relate with other people. It's rather like the Paddy Considine character in the Shane Meadow's film A Room For Romeo Brass. Is it an affected voice, I wonder? A fictional voice utilised to relay the story? Or is it Billy Childish's actual voice? I don't want to give offence but it's hard to tell. Either way, though it's a disturbing voice it's noticeable that it's not such an intense voice as that heard in My Fault.

Between the comical narration there are indeed plenty of disturbing episodes such as when the author is stalking a 15 year-old girl, or when he's stopped by the police and they see he's wearing a trick toy ring water pistol – and they ask him if it contains drugs? Or when he's about to have sex with 'the Jewish lady' and he suddenly remembers lying in bed with 'uncle' Norman who's tugging his trunks down round his knees and whispering 'Can you keep a secret?' Or when he's on a bus and he accuses all the other passengers of having 'mind mirrors': “You think that I don't know that you've all got mind mirrors?” he shouts “You think that I don't know that you can look into my darkest thoughts? You think that I'm mad, that I'm sitting on this bus amongst you strangers and that I don't know that you all have mind mirrors! Go on, cross your gangrenous legs and hold your newspapers to your noses like I'm invisible, all the while secretly studying me with your hideous, disrespectful, hypocritical mind mirrors! Ignore me then, damn you! But don't think for one minute that I don't know all your names and addresses, you scallywags!” We've all met this person before, haven't we? On the Underground, at the shopping centre, or even on the bus? The person we try to ignore and keep away from in case he turns his attention explicitly upon us?
Billy Childish is that person.

What is even more disturbing about the book, however, is the blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality, and between fiction and fact. Did Childish really fuck a dog? Has he really killed a little girl and her tiny, bird-like body now lies hidden in his blue cardboard guitar case? Who knows? It's feasible. Is this a work of fiction or a memoir? The edges are so blurred that it's hard to tell.

Billy Childish is an extremely interesting character which makes for anything he creates being equally interesting; be it art, music, poetry or prose. For all its faults, Notebooks of a Naked Youth easily falls into that same canon.
                                                                                                                                        John Serpico