Saturday, 2 July 2011

Best Things Ever #15


"You are so blind! You so do not understand! You weren't there at the beginning! You don't know how good it was, how important!"

I like funny. There are a handful of shows that I have seen dozens of times, know almost every line, and yet still find myself roaring with laugher at. Jeff’s rants in ‘Coupling’ and virtually everything that Malcolm Tucker says in ‘The Thick of It’ are two examples. However, for no other comedy is this more true than the cult classic, ‘Spaced’.
‘Spaced’ was broadcast over two series on Channel Four between 1999 and 2001, running to a total of just fourteen episodes. It tells the tale of two twenty-something underachievers, Tim Bisley and Daisy Steiner, who meet in a cafe and fake being a couple in order to rent a flat in North London. Tim works in a comic book shop, but dreams of being a graphic artist. Daisy wants to be a writer, but uses every distraction as an excuse for not doing any work (a character I can completely identify with). A small band of friends and associates join them in a series of mundane adventures which, through the rose tinted filter of pop culture reference, take on a whole new level of excitement.

It is the pop culture references which drive the show. There are simply too many to name every film and TV show that ‘Spaced’ references or pastiches, but they include ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, ‘Fight Club’, ‘Robot Wars’, ‘The Omen’, ‘Scooby Doo’, ‘Rhubarb and Custard’, ‘Terry and June’, ‘An American Werewolf in London’ and ‘Platoon’. In the ninety second opening to the episode ‘Change’, ‘Spaced’ manages to reference ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, ‘Dawn of the Dead’, ‘Back to the Future’, ‘E.T.’, as well as every war film ever. It is a geek’s paradise, a rich vein and a rare example of a TV show that assumes the intelligence of its viewer rather than dumbing down to serve the lowest common denominator. If you don’t get it, well that’s your loss.

What makes ‘Spaced’ unique amongst its contemporary sitcoms is its reliance on more than merely its script and performance. Since the beginning of television, most sitcoms have been recorded in a studio with a two or three camera setup and the comedy comes from the individual performances of the actors. Even modern, verite comedy like ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘The Office’, which use hand held, one camera set ups, are still largely reliant on an interpretation of the script in order to generate the laughs. The script for ‘Spaced’, written by Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes (Tim and Daisy), is brilliant, as are the performances of all involved. However, the devil is in the detail and what elevates ‘Spaced’ to comedy gold ('Fried Gold', to use Nick Frost's phrase) is as much to do with director Edgar Wright’s use of camera pulls and wipes, which give ‘Spaced’ a style all its own. What other show references ‘Evil Dead’ by having the camera make a series of graded, staccato movements from top right of the set, to top left, to bottom left? Or has such confidence in the strength of the script that it can afford to underpin so much of it with a contemporary soundtrack and trust that it won’t distract or detract from the plot? 

Comedy has an important social role to play in allowing cliques to gravitate towards each other and coalesce. Great comedy is repeatable and quotable, like some form of arcane language. As teenagers, my friends each had scenes from Holy Grail and Life of Brian memorised and would rattle them off at a moment’s notice (“Found this spoon sir.”  “Well done Centurion. We’ll be back for you. Weirdo.”). In ‘An Audience with Billy Connolly’ (a video tape I wore out through repetition), Connolly talks about the parties he used to go to in 70s, where people would sing songs. For us, it was always the comedy routine, from Python to Red Dwarf to the Fast Show, that we would perform for each other. We were not drama students, none of us went on to be actors (although some of us did dabble in Media Studies). We were just bored, working class kids with too little money and too much time to kill and this was how he kept ourselves entertained.

Later, it was through ‘Spaced’ that those same friendships were reinforced and a whole new set formed. As good as shows like ‘The Office’ are, their appeal is so broad that a common love isn’t conducive to long-term, lasting friendships. It’s like saying you like to eat bread: It tells you nothing. A mutual love of ‘Spaced’ doesn’t guarantee mutual understanding, but it’s a better barometer than most. I have friends in the States that I have introduced to ‘Spaced’ by watching it together over Skype. When I came to write the short story, ‘Re:JJ13h’, I used ‘Spaced’ as the catalyst for two of the main characters becoming friends. I could think of no more effective a shorthand for geek friendship.

In terms of sheer quotablity, ‘Spaced’ must have the highest density of quotable lines of any show. Its idiom has become such an integral part of my vocabulary, that I’m barely aware I’m even doing it. “Hello you.” “Skip to the end.” “Oh my God! I've got some fucking Jaffa Cakes in my coat pocket!” Whenever someone returns from an holiday or an event, I feel compelled to ask, “So how was it kitten, was it magic?”

Yet because ‘Spaced’ doesn’t dumb down, the viewer is rewarded for their knowledge. The ‘Star Wars’ references are often so obscure that only a true sci-fi geek would notice them. “How’s it going?” “Same as always.” “That bad, huh?”: “Ok, well take care of yourself Tim, I guess that’s what you’re best at.” Not to mention the entire plot to ‘Change’, where Tim gets sacked for shouting at a child for wanting a Jar Jar Binks doll (and vocalising the general disgust that we all felt at the abysmal prequels). Or the coup of having Peter Serafinowicz, the voice of Darth Maul in ‘The Phantom Menace’, repeat, verbatim, Maul’s lines in the guise of Tim’s nemesis, Duane Benzie.  

In fact, ‘Spaced’ has an impressive list of cameo appearances from the elite of British comedy. Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith from ‘The League of Gentlemen’, Jo Scanlan, who would go on to play Terry Coverley in ‘The Thick of It’ and co-write the darkly funny, ‘Getting On’. David Walliams of ‘Little Britain’, Paul Kaye, Kevin Eldon, Bill Bailey, even a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by Ricky Gervais. It also launched the career of Nick Frost, who hadn’t acted before, until playing Mike.

However, perhaps the greatest legacy of ‘Spaced’ is its big-screen spin-off, ‘Shaun of the Dead’. Following on from the episode ‘Art’, where Tim takes speed, stays up all night playing ‘Resident Evil 2’, causing him to hallucinate being under attack from zombies, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright discovered a mutual love of zombie movies. They therefore set out to write and make a parody of the zombie movie genre, with the usual rugged hero replaced by an incompetent slacker (played by Pegg). ‘Shaun of the Dead’ brings with it all of the same subtle references and attention to detail that made ‘Spaced’ such an exceptionally good show. ‘Shaun of the Dead’ was followed up in 2007 by ‘Hot Fuzz’, Pegg and Wright this time satirising the buddy cop genre. A third film, ‘The World’s End’ (working title) is due to be made at some point in the future.

Watching ‘Spaced’ a decade on since it concluded, it has dated surprisingly well. Some of the references, like those to ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Sixth Sense’ are very much of the time that it was made in, but there are enough other references to previous decades that they don’t stand out so much. And while I know every line, there are still bits I roar with laughter at, no matter how many times I see them. Daisy moaning about trying to find a flat in the opening episode, crying that, ‘Every morning I wake up and it's the same. I get up and I buy the paper, and I circle them all, and I phone them only to discover they've been taken by a bunch of fucking psychic house hunters’, makes me laugh every single time. It’s all in Hynes’s delivery. I like funny, but I love ‘Spaced’. A few shows have since come close, but it has yet to be bettered. It’s unique. A one-off.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and bogle to Aswad. Research. >>Skip to the end.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Bloomsday 2011

Today is Bloomsday. To celebrate the day on which James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ was set, 107 years ago, I have written a trilogy of new pieces. Happy Bloomsday! Enjoy (click on images to enlarge):

Ulysses Prime

Like most things in life, I came to ‘Ulysses’ late. I was twenty five, in the second year of an astrophysics degree (I’d also come to university late), but having serious doubts about what I was doing. Astronomy was something I’d had a passion for since I was young. I’d spectacularly failed to apply myself at school, but having done a foundation year in physics and maths at night school, working my backside off in the process, I talked my way onto my preferred course at Cardiff University. Once I got there, I didn’t really a have a clue about what to do next.

So, after an indifferent first semester, in which I just scraped through exams, I did even less work during the second and flunked almost every subject. Taking re-sits over the summer, I did a single night’s revision for most subjects, managing to pass everything but the Theoretical Physics module and had to wait a year before I could sit the exam for a third time. I shouldn’t have gone back, but once I did, you’d have thought I’d have learned my lesson and applied myself. But no. I was spectacularly failing all over again. And these were the conditions under which I first read ‘Ulysses’.

It took three weeks that first time. I should have been studying Schrodinger’s wave equations and logic circuits, but instead I was playing ‘Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time’ on the N64 and reading ‘Ulysses’. My reward for finishing a dungeon on Zelda was that I got to read a chapter of ‘Ulysses’. An odd way ‘round to do things, I know. I probably didn’t understand one fifth of what I was reading (I missed the Blazes Boylan subplot entirely), but I knew that what I was reading was a revelation. Countless times people had told me that such-and-such a novel or play was a masterpiece and I had read them and always felt let down. It wasn’t that they weren’t great works, but appreciation is a matter of expectation and if you expect genius and find merely brilliance, there’s an sense of underwhelming disappointment. ‘Ulysses’ was the first book I read that exceeded those expectations.

In many ways, it is an experience from which I have yet to truly recover. I dropped out of university soon after. Astronomy may have been my first love, but another obsession had been creeping up on me those last few years. What I really wanted was to be a writer. It was something for which I seemed to have a talent. I think I thought it would make a good career. I’d had no artistic pretentions, the life of a hack would suit me just fine.

Reading ‘Ulysses’, all I could think was, “You mean you’re allowed to do this? Why did no one tell me?” My literary third eye had, to paraphrase Bill Hicks, been squeegeed clean. A whole new world had opened as to what literature could achieve. You weren’t limited to telling a story at the surface level, the syntax and associations of the words you chose to employ could tell another story entirely.

I worked for a year, then went backpacking around Europe (another late first), taking ‘Ulysses’ with me and reading it again. I read Joyce’s other masterpieces. When Jim Norton’s unabridged reading of ‘Ulysses’ was released, I listened to that and got a handle on the few chapters that were still troubling me. And all the time I was teaching myself the skills that I thought would make me a better writer. I knew that I would never be as good as Joyce, but that was fine. Joyce was (and is) my high water mark. Joyce is an unscalable peak, always ahead of me, reminding me to never stop climbing.

It is therefore no coincidence that in making one of my first attempts to write a short story, I turned to both Joyce and Greek legend for inspiration. In ‘Eden Stir Her Laceless Veil’, I borrowed Joyce’s switching between the passive and active voice in ‘Eveline’ (from ‘Dubliners’) and appropriated the myths relating to Jason and Medea, performing the same Viconian transformation that Joyce had made on the legend of Odysseus when writing ‘Ulysses’.

Giambattista Vico was a 17th/18th century Italian political philosopher who theorised that all of human history moves through three cycles, The Age of Gods, The Age of Heroes and The Age of Man, before the Ricorso, the time of chaos before everything resets itself and begins the whole cycle again. In ‘Ulysses’, Joyce transforms Odysseus into Leopold Bloom. Whereas Homer’s hero is a brutal hothead, Joyce’s ‘Poldy’ is a thoughtful pacifist. God’s and nymphs are replaced by the ordinary men and women of Dublin and great signifiers of power and virility become objects of the commonplace.

In writing ‘Eden Stir Her Laceless Veil’, I studied the legends connected to Jason and Medea in great detail and sought mundane modern equivalents to their key events. Ultimately, I don’t want to write like Joyce. As brilliant as he is, his later works are so opaque and obscure that they put most people off. Few people read the classics as it is and I’d rather find a happy medium between art and popularism. I want to be read. That said, I wanted to write a short piece where virtually every word had meaning: where, like Joyce, no other word would do than the one I had chosen. For a first effort, it’s not bad, although I’ve written better since (you can read it here: along with some companion pieces).

‘Ulysses’ remains not only my favourite novel, but my favourite work of art, period. With each successive reading, I discover subplots that I hadn’t noticed before and new nuances to the text. It is the book that just keeps on giving. ‘Ulysses’ had a profound effect upon me on that first reading and I am still reeling from the effects over a decade later. I may spend the rest of my life as an enthusiastic amateur, eeking out a living from writing reports, but it’s a life affirming path with some breathtaking views. And there’s always the next reading of ‘Ulysses’ to look forward to. I envy anyone reading Joyce for the first time.

Ulysses “Seen”

As should be readily apparent by now, I love ‘Ulysses’ and all things Joyce. Since his works were first published, it’s from the United States that the most interesting and enlightening Joycean work has come (ironic, given America’s significance in ‘Finnegans Wake’, representing the afterlife to Dublin’s Egypt). From Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson’s book, ‘A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake’, written in the years immediately following the book’s release against noises of general derision, to ‘James Joyce Quarterly’, published since the 1960s by Tulsa University, Oklahoma, American scholarship has embraced Joyce like no other country outside of Ireland. Maybe even more so.

Today, the most interesting interpretation of Joyce’s novels is still coming from the other side of the Atlantic. In Philadelphia, a small group of artists and scholars have set themselves a task that has something of the Herculean rather than Odyssean about it. Robert Berry, Mike Barsanti, Josh Levitas, Janine Utell and Chad A Rutkowski of Throwaway Horse have set out on the epic quest to translate ‘Ulysses’ into comic book format. ‘Ulysses “Seen”’ is the result, published online and through its own iPad app. The project is still in its infancy, with only two chapters so far completed, but that’s one of the many exciting features of ‘Ulysses “Seen”’. There is so much more of it to look forward to.
Partly, one wonders why no-one has thought to draw ‘Ulysses’ before. It is after all a book of the senses, every page alive with sights and sounds and smells. ‘Ulysses’ is also a great sprawling novel. Despite being set on a single day, it veers wildly off course in time and space and reality, before returning to the streets of Dublin, 16 June 1904. You can therefore appreciate why no-one’s been brave enough to make the attempt. It would be all too easy to make a mess of the entire venture. Spend thirty minutes in the company of ‘Ulysses “Seen”’ and you realise that the book is in very capable hands.

Of course no comic book, no matter how beautifully rendered, can substitute an actual reading of the novel. Yet, for first timers, ‘Ulysses “Seen”’ is a splendid introduction to a challenging novel. For those of us who have long since put that first, difficult reading behind us, rereading and rereading until we know its passages so well, ‘Ulysses “Seen”’ brings a new twist to an old favourite. Reading any book is an act of symbiosis between writer and reader, the one sketching out an outline, the other filling in shadows and colours from their individual experience. Yet there is so much going on in virtually every word, clause and sentence of ‘Ulysses’, that a visual production is an ideal way to illuminate a number of key passages in the text. TV or film couldn’t quite manage it, too much would still get lost between the gaps. The comic book format, with its traditional mixture of images and thought bubbles, is a much better bet. 
We can get an idea of why this is so by considering a number of panels from ‘Calypso’ in ‘Ulysses “Seen”’. Leopold Bloom has popped out to the butchers. As he makes the first of many journeys across Dublin, he thinks about his wife still lying in bed, nymph like, behind him in Eccles Street. Molly was born in Gibraltar and as Bloom’s mind drifts, thinking about the track of the sun, Dublin is transformed into a Moorish scene of minaret and casaba. Bloom daydreams about faraway lands, his black suit and bowler hat transformed into bright yellow robes and green turban. Then we see him think, “Probably not a bit like it really.” and the rounded Arabian skyline returns to the flat tops of Dublin. 
The series of images here make me think of an episode of ‘Mr Benn’, although I appreciate this association is meaningless to anyone not brought up on 1970s British television. The scene is one of many visual jokes, one of many Ulyssean comments on the chasm between perception and reality that can get lost in a purely literary reading of the novel. ‘Ulysses “Seen”’ manages to tease out some of the detail and obscurities. It can’t catch them all and nor does it try. Yet there is more than enough here to entertain and enthral and send the viewer back to the text with a fresh appreciation of the genius of James Joyce.

‘Ulysses “Seen”’ is a joy to behold and I look forward to the chapters that are to come. I can’t wait to see what they do with the newspaper headlines in ‘Aeolus’ and the gigantism of ‘Cyclops’. I can’t wait to see Bloom’s coronation, his trial, his transformation into a woman in the Mabbot Street brothel of ‘Circe’. And at the end of it all there will be Molly Bloom and her unpunctuated soliloquy. There are many years and adventures ahead of us. If you’re a fan of ‘Ulysses’ or the comic book genre, head for See now!

Ulysses Found

I was born on 2 February 1973, exactly 91 years to the day after James Augustine Aloysius Joyce. So, at the end of January 2004, I set off on a pilgrimage to find his grave.

It didn’t start well. I could have just flown straight to Switzerland, but that would have been too easy. Instead, I decided to fly from Liverpool to Paris first, spend a few days in the city where Joyce finished writing ‘Ulysses’, then catch a train to Zurich.

I spend the night before departure with my cousin and her boyfriend over the water in Birkenhead. In a rush to get out in the morning, I manage to leave a pair of jeans behind, with my bankcard in the back pocket, and have to use a credit card for the rest of the journey. Then I nearly miss the bus to John Lennon, a bus which seems to need to travel almost 360o around the perimeter fence before it can enter the airport. Still, I’m Henry Rollins like in the speed with which I fly through customs and in the end have thirty five minutes to spare.

Fuck me, I think, as we fly south, how can people do this day in, day out and not convert to Buddhism? Before today, I had been on a grand total of three flights. The first was an internal British flight when I was about eight months old. The second a 1950’s Cessna with no door. I jumped out of that with a bit of canvas strapped to my back. The third flew from Madrid to Liverpool, me with a girl terrified of flying who had to drink almost an entire bottle of vodka before she would even contemplate boarding. Luckily it was pitch black outside, but I still spent most of the three hour flight trying to keep her calm.

At 29,000 feet you finally realise why so many of those men who went to the Moon didn’t come back quite the same. The plane’s silhouette is cast upon a bank of cloud cover, backlit by the sun. Doughnut shaped rainbows are projected by the cabin windows onto the ruffled hills beneath, which are thrown like a duvet thrown across the world. And then a break in the cover and geodesic fields are revealed beneath, dusted with snow. Motorways cut into landscape. Man’s order imposed upon nature.

Over the channel, the merest flecks of clouds are all that stand between me and the deep, dark waters below. They’re so small that for a moment they look like wakes left by fish or other marine creatures. The French coastline already fills the view ahead. Ten minutes is all it takes to cross the channel and the clouds, now more like soiled nappies, return to engulf us. I hope this isn’t an indication of trouble ahead. We begin a slow decent.

An hour. That’s all it takes to reach Paris. It takes me longer to get to work in the morning. I need to fly more, I decide. By the end of this journey, I will have doubled the amount of planes I have been on in my life. It’s good for the soul to be this high up. Flight widens your horizons and expands the scope of what seems possible. Not good for the environment though. Maybe I should take up hand gliding. Or ballooning.

It takes an age to get from Charles de Gaulle to Paris, especially when your hostel lies in an arrondissement on the opposite side of town. It’s strange being back here in this city and this hostel. The last time I was here, four years ago, I got drunk with two English guys, had an in depth conversation about the Beatles and then the three of us spent hours trying to find somewhere that sold take away food. Not a Parisian speciality and we ended up buying crisps and other junk from one of those walled in, windowless mini-marts that are a feature of most French towns.

I love Paris. I love travelling on the Metro better than any other underground system in the world. It’s the aroma of engine oil that I find so romantic and a perfect metaphor for love: Overpowering and not exactly good for you. I love the handles you have turn to open the carriage doors. I love the pharmacies every three shop fronts and the newsagents that don’t sell tobacco. A concept alien to the British. News. Nicotine. Can they not see the obvious connection? No, they put their tobacconists inside cafes. The Gallic idiots.

I check in, dump my stuff in my room, take the Metro over to Montparnasse and just start walking. Anywhere, it doesn’t matter. I pass the Jardin du Luxembourg on my way, a place that almost every writer who came here to live in the 30s speaks about with such passion. I’ve never really understood the fascination. The Eiffel Tower calls to me in the distance. Draws me in like an old flame. It’s nearly closing time and I just pay to walk up to the first couple of levels. In the chill of the January gloom, it doesn’t seem quite the same. When you’ve been here in love, it’s hard to return to alone. Too many memories. C’est la vie. Abandon the old and stale. Let’s look ahead to the new.


Day two and another inauspicious start. At the Pompidou Centre for 9, only to discover it doesn’t open ‘till 11. So I wandered aimlessly back to Notre Dame to find Shakespeare and Company, but that’s shut too. A lot more aimless wandering and eventually I find the Picasso Museum and hey, third time lucky, it’s open.

I’m never quite sure what to make of Picasso. He used to do nothing for me. And then I went to the Reina Sofia in Madrid and saw ‘Guernica’. I was blown away. In the interceding years, I have grown to love much of Picasso’s earlier works, particularly from his pink and blue periods. Yet much of what’s on offer in the Picasso Museum in Paris is his later works and they’re all a little samey. It’s a museum that seems to pander to the stereotypical view of a Picasso work, too many cubist works, not enough variation. I prefer Dali. Lot’s going on. Subliminal and subconscious. Or Magritte. Simple, but grandiose. A true surrealist. Maybe Picasso’s not pretentious enough for me.

By the time I return, the Pompidou Centre has been open for an hour. Huge. Just about every modern artist you can think of is represented. Chagall, Miro, Dali, Magritte, Warhol, Matisse and, of course, Picasso. It’s not something to be absorbed in one visit. The Louvre in miniature. I’m there three hours and by the time I come out I felt like a futurist painting: shattered. Now Picasso’s futurist paintings I do like.

Late lunch and on the Metro to Montmartre. The Basilique de Sacre-Coeur is my favourite building in the whole of Paris. It has the best views, but they’re a hard won reward. The climb to the top leaves one exhausted. But it’s worth the aching lungs. Great Byzantine teats protrude from the smaller domes, framing the view from out of the main dome. The Eiffel Tower stands astride the narrow world in the distance. Worth climbing every worn step and squeezing past every person heading in the opposite direction.

I go back via the crypt. Weird. There’s a carved image of Christ lying in his tomb, which despite being in bronze and black, is so lifelike that you half expect him to resurrect himself at any moment. There’s also an huge statue of a former Bishop of Paris holding the whole of Sacre-Coeur on the tips of his fingers. The arrogance of religion!

When I was here first time, I sat on a stone bench at the base of Sacre-Coeur, by a water feature, and read from ‘Ulysses’, feeling very pleased with myself. However, it’s the nadir of the tourist season and the street artists and sellers of cheap tat here are desperate to reel in any chump. Not a time to be hanging about.

Saturday morning, La Défense McDonalds, listening to the first Elbow album. It’s my strongest abiding memory of this time in Paris, sat here eating rubberised meat for breakfast, listening to ‘Bitten by the Tailfly’. I only ever patronise the evil arches on holiday, it’s the only way to ensure that the meat is incinerated properly, especially in France. I came up here first thing, just to have a look at the arch, which is ok. There’s a lift to the top, but it doesn’t seem to be open. Still, you can see all the way back to the Arc de Triomphe from the front steps, which is good enough.

I seem to spend most of this last day in Paris reading ‘The Garden of Eden’ on the Metro. It’s one of Hemingway’s less well known novels and one of the few I hadn’t read. I read over a hundred pages just travelling under Paris. The plan is to have it finished and be rereading ‘A Portrait of the Artist’ by the time I enter Switzerland (“Ooh err” as it says in my journals from the time). Did I succeed? Stay tuned.

Leaving La Défense, I head for the Museum of Science and Industry on the opposite end of Paris, spending most of the rest of the day there. I pay extra for the Planetarium, but the soft voice of the French woman doing the voiceover is so relaxing that she nearly puts me to sleep.

Then I finally get to visit Shakespeare and Company. The original Shakespeare and Co was run by Silvia Beach, the woman who first published ‘Ulysses’. The shop that now bears that name is in a different location and, to my surprise, mainly sells new books. It runs some services for writers, but in the winter of 2003/2004 I was no more than a dreamer and to me it is nothing but a shop selling books for inflated Parisian prices (at the original Shakespeare and Co, Henry Miller was apparently notorious for returning borrowed books late). I buy a copy of Kerouac’s ‘Dharma Bums’, complete with Shakespeare and Company stamp, and a postcard, now framed and propped up against one of the many piles of books I have stacked up, very much in the tradition of Shakespeare and Company.

I want to visit one of the Parks of Paris. I pick Viciennes, but when I get to where the Metro map says it is, it isn’t immediately evident where I should go. I wander around lost for quarter of an hour, give up and leave. Someone has a heart attack in one of the other carriages coming back, delaying us for half an hour until the Paramedics arrive. I change some money for Swiss Francs on my way back, pass Invalides without going in, and go back to the hostel.

I’ve enjoyed being back in Paris. It’s a good city in which to acclimatise to the continent before moving on. The hostel is virtually deserted that last night, but apart from a few gaggles of children on school trips, it had been throughout my stay. This is not the time of year to expect to make new friends. January is as off season as it’s possible to be. In Zurich I am to be staying in a hotel, so there I can expect even worse. I have a CD player, a long wave radio and James Joyce with me. I’ll be fine.


The French countryside rolls past the window. Paris lies two hours behind. Very tired. I lost count of the amount of times I woke in the night, panicking I’d overslept. I had to be up for 6.30 and my phone kept slipping out of reach. So the routine would go: Arrggh, what time is it? Shit, where’s my phone. Can’t find my phone, can’t find my phone. Oh thank fuck, there it is. 3.38. Shit!

When I did have to get up, everyone else was still asleep in the dorm and it was pitch black. I spent 15 minutes just trying to get my sleeping bag back in its bag. I got a new one especially for this trip, but seem to have bought a child’s size. I’m quite short and yet I can just about fit the hood over my head. When I did eventually get the bloody thing in the bag, I remembered my money belt was still in it and I had to start the whole frustrating process from scratch.

The train left Gare du Lyon at 8.10 and I finished reading ‘The Garden of Eden’ by 9. Not Hemingway’s best book, not his worst. Graphic in places. Ménage a troi between the two girls and the Hemingway character. Yet what I love about Hemingway is that what he doesn’t say is as important as what he does. He is as a writer should be, recognising the symbiotic relationship between writer and reader. He assumes a level of intelligence in his reader and leaves them to fill in the gaps. Which is the antithesis of modern culture, where everything must be explained and re-explained ad nauseum, to the point where it ends up saying nothing. God forbid that anyone should think or exercise their own imagination.

Despite sitting in a reserved seat, a seat I reserved before I left Britain, the guard informs me that the back few carriages don’t go as far as Basel (where I have to go through customs and change trains), so I have to move to the front of the train. Glad to see that it’s not just British train companies that operate without rhyme or reason. Joyce and Ani DiFranco’s ‘Educated Guess’ accompany me past Alpine chalets and snow draped hills into Switzerland.

Ah Zurich. I only quite like it. My first impression is the same as of all cities: a harsh industrial and commercial town, peppered with the classical beauty of previous ages. It’s not Paris, but it has its own charm. There are two things people tell you when you mention Switzerland; that it’s ridiculously expensive and ridiculously clean. Guilty on both counts.

I’ve been seven hours travelling and with a long day planned tomorrow, I need to chill and get an early night. However, I head out and wander in my same aimless style for a couple of hours. Mountains hang on the horizon, snow capped and imposing. Lake Zurich fills my vista as I stroll over to the waterfront, snaking away into the distance to meet the mountains at their foothills. I try to comprehend it all. That Joyce walked these same streets eighty years before, that great swathes of ‘Ulysses’ were composed on these same avenues. Of course the same is also true of Paris, but here it is even more so. I am following the ‘Ulysses’ trail in reverse. If I had the time and expense, I would head for Trieste, where it all began. Ah well, I’ll have to content myself with being in the place where most of the book was written, and, of course, where Joyce died and is buried.


Bourseday. There’s some texts waiting for me when I wake and a couple of cards to open in my bag, but it feels weird being hundreds of miles from anybody I know today. With a little investigation, I find the Joyce Foundation. It only opens Tuesday to Thursday. The museum beneath it doesn’t open ‘til 12, so I head for the Modern Art Museum. That’s shut on a Monday as well.

By now I am totally fed up, but find an internet cafe, discover that Joyce is buried in Fluntern Cemetery and head for Tourist Information. I’m told to take the no 5 tram to Fluntern. The tram leaves from the other end of town. The trams in Zurich are odd. You pay not for a journey, but for a period of time. It’s the supermarket sweep of public transport: get as far as you can get in an hour, go! The tram goes up a steep hill, where I jump off and ask a woman in a kiosk for Fluntern. “Joyce?” she asks. I nod. Get another tram up to the zoo, she tells me, but looking on the map I can see a huge park marked, Fluntern. The cemetery is on the edge, easily within walking distance.

Just before 1pm on the 2 February 2004, exactly halfway through my trip, I stand before the object of and the impetus for this journey. A dark grey slab of marble lying in a sunken pit, cut away in the turf. The grave has been cleared of snow, but still covers the ground around it. A statue of Joyce sits off to the right behind the gravestone, right ankle resting on his left knee, cigarette in his hand, walking stick resting against hip, gaze off in the distance to his right.

Not only James, but wife Nora, their son George and his wife Asta are buried here. ‘James Joyce, Dublin 2 11 1882’. Hang on, what? November. Joyce was born in November? No, that can’t be right.

The whole plot is given over to the Joyce family grave and there’s bench at the opposite end. I sit down and dig out my copy of ‘A Portrait of the Artist’ and check the notes. 2nd February 1882. Oh thank fuck. What an anticlimax that would be to travel all this distance only to discover that I’d gotten it wrong.

Then it clicks. For reasons best know to themselves, the Swiss have put the month in Roman numerals. Not 2 11 1882, but 2 II 1882. I feel an enormous sense of relief. I send some texts, take some photos, then read from Portrait and feel immensely pleased with myself. It may not be the source of the Nile, but it is the source of much that is important to me (see Ulysses Prime).

I don’t know what I hoped to find when I got here. I think in my head I half expected to find the girl of my dreams laying flowers at Jim’s grave. I am nothing if not a hopeless fantasist. I stay an hour, but no one else shows up. I guess Bloomsday is the major event in the Joyce calendar. At least it happens in summer rather than the dead of winter. Helen, who I stayed with before flying out, was born on Bloomsday. My brother was born on St Patrick’s Day. A proper Irish family. Well actually, no, asides from having Irish ancestry and a few accidents of birth, that’s about it.

For the rest of the day, I revert to my default state and wander aimlessly around town, listening to ‘Blood on the Tracks’. Down to Lake Zurich to take some photos of the Alps, then up to the Botanical Gardens, which are more like an allotment. Then back up the hill to find the FIFA building: A complex as soulless as the organisation it houses. I manage to get lost on the way back down and walk for hours before finding the right road. Yet before long I am sat in a cafe, back by the shores of Lake Zurich, eating sausage and half a chicken.

Our birthday ends back in my hotel room, having my first alcoholic drink in six months (vodka and coke) and watching the UK Snooker Championship on Eurosport. The holiday would end, after a day in Geneva and a 6.30 flight the following morning, with me watching the final of the snooker in a coffee shop in Amsterdam. But as Amsterdam has nothing to do with James Joyce or ‘Ulysses’, that’s a story that can wait for another time.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Best Things Ever #14 Bruce Dickinson: The Chemical Wedding

”’Have you read Harry Potter, Stew, and the— and the Tree of Nothing?’ No, I haven’t. I haven’t read it, but I have read the complete works of the romantic poet and visionary William Blake. So fuck off.”
         Stewart Lee

Nebs. That’s what the Indie kids called us. After Knebworth Park and the Knebworth Festival. Yes, even though heavy metal wasn’t really associated with Knebworth. I guess logic rarely penetrates the mind of a fifteen year old.

Metal was the first scene I got into. It was the early 90s and British Heavy Metal was going through a resurgence. Kerrang Magazine were calling it the Second New Wave of British Heavy Metal, with bands like The Almighty, The Wildhearts and Thunder coming to prominence. Iron Maiden went to number one with ‘Bring Your Daughter… to the Slaughter’, and their future singer, Blaze Bailey, first inspired me to want to be a writer through his rants in the fanzine of my then favourite band, Wolfsbane.

I had the leather jacket. I had the drainpipe jeans and studded belt. I made the pilgrimage to the Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donnington that all good Nebs were required to make (the Indie kids should have called us Dons!). Friendships were formed based on the bands that we listened to and many of those friendships have endured to this day. And even after I’d discarded the long hair and denim waistcoat cluttered with band patches, metal still held the power to energise me. By 1996, my tastes had widened and I was listening to Supergrass and Chumbawamba. Yet when my dad died a month before exams, it was the music of Metallica, Dub War and Rage Against That Machine that drowned out the world and lent me the strength to focus on revision.

Fast forward a decade. Up in Sunderland to visit my brother (a dedicated metalhead). He gives me a copy of Bruce Dickinson’s 1998 album, ‘The Chemical Wedding’. Bruce had spent most of his career as lead singer for Iron Maiden, before quitting the band in 1993 (and rejoining in 1999). He had released a series of solo albums, all different styles, from trad. rock to grunge, but all with something to recommend them. I hadn’t heard his last couple of offerings, but Rich sent me home with a copy and a wink that said, ‘trust me’. I arrived back and loaded the disc into the five CD changer that I used to use when reading. Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley, 'The Basement Tapes', Miles Davis and the like came and went from the mix, but ‘The Chemical Wedding’ remained. Over the days and weeks, I came to see it as the epitome of everything that had attracted me to metal in the first place.

I like music that is about something. We all have trash hiding away in our collections, and I am no exception. Yet while my tastes have diversified over the years to take in most anything from Shostakovich to Slayer, I’ve never been able to tolerate mainstream, manufactured pop. That’s because it’s about nothing. Words plucked out of the air, arranged into some semblance of order and wailed over a tinny drum machine. Add a full orchestra if you like, it’s still of no value. And yes, I know pop music is for dancing to. Sorry, I don’t dance (not in front of other people at least). Good music is be listened to and appreciated on a constant loop, until every lyric, note and cadence is memorised. And then you write a two thousand word article about what you’ve heard (sarcasm).

‘The Chemical Wedding’ is about something. It’s about a lot of things. Dickinson initially set out to make an album about alchemy and transformation, but found that after the first few songs he had blown himself out. And then he turned to the poetry of William Blake. The album takes its title from ‘The Chymical Wedding’, a seventeenth century alchemical text, but it is Blake that lies at its core. I used the planned writing of this article as an excuse to go and read Blake’s works in their entirety.

I had read a lot of Blake in my youth, most of it from earlier works like ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ and ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’. Yet it his longer, prophetic works that inform much of The Chemical Wedding: Songs with titles like ‘The Book of Thel’ and ‘The Gates of Urizen’, as well as spoken passages from ‘Milton’ as voiced by Arthur Brown (of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown fame).

I must say that when I first set out to read ‘The Book of Thel’ and ‘The First Book of Urizen’, I was confused. They seemed to bear no relation to the songs that bore their names. Blake’s Book of Thel is about a young girl drifting around a garden (possibly the Garden of Eden) and conversing with anthropomorphised forms of nature; the lily, the worm, the cloud. Dickinson’s Book of Thel is about human sacrifice. Was I missing something?

Then I found an old interview with Bruce on YouTube, broadcast on ITV around the time the album had been released. He talks about, ‘trying to borrow Blake’s spectacles’; that ‘the album had a mentor’, with three or four new songs immediately pouring out of him upon reading Blake’s works. The album had entered existence as a meditation on alchemy and transformation, but through Blake the lyrics had taken on the additional themes of renewal and rebirth. Listening to the interview,
the scales fell from my eyes.

Blake’s prophetic works are reimaginings of contemporary events and biblical tropes. ‘America: A Prophecy’ and ‘Europe: A Prophecy’ retell the recent American and French Revolutions, with their generals and kings transposed by Blake’s own mythical forms, Orc, Albion, Enitharmon: Giants of antiquity that sleep for millennia and do battle from across oceans. In ‘The First Book of Urizen’, ‘The Book of Ahania’, ‘The Song of Los’, through to Blake’s last epic poems, Creation itself is replayed, bearing little relation to the original biblical texts. Blake was constantly defining and redefining his own mythology, drifting further and further from the sense of his initial prophecies. Urizen as found in ‘Milton’ bears little relation to the ‘self-closed, all repelling’ shadowy figure of The First Book.

Taking all this into consideration, it is of course appropriate for Dickinson to have borrowed Blake’s spectacles, appropriating the names of Thel and Urizen and remoulding them in his own image in exactly the same way as Blake had done. Bruce’s own Book of Thel even contains lines borrowed from ‘Macbeth’ (‘By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes.’). But then, if any artist plundered the past for ore with which to shape his plays, it was Shakespeare.

Yet even as Bruce borrows from Blake, so he returns the favour in kind in that eternal cycle of renewal and rebirth. On ‘Jerusalem’, Dickinson takes the words of Blake’s most famous work and expands upon them. Blake provides the verses: Bruce adds chorus and refrain.

I’ve always had a problem with ‘Jerusalem’. It’s its jingoistic associations, its dreary appropriation by the Church of England, its arrogant assumption that Jesus had somehow made a pilgrimage to our ‘green and pleasant land’. Whenever I hear spoken or sung its series of rhetorical questions, I feel compelled to offer my own commentary:

Blake: And did those feet in ancient time, Walk upon England's mountains green?
Me: No.
Blake: And was the holy Lamb of God, On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
Me: No. No he wasn’t.

And so on.

Los, aka Blake
And yet once you start reading Blake (and around Blake), a number of things become readily apparent. For a start, the poem isn’t called ‘Jerusalem’. The words commonly known as ‘Jerusalem’ actually form part of a short preface to the longer poem, ‘Milton’. This preface is written in part prose, part verse, a classical form to be found in the works of Seneca, Dante’s ‘Vita Nuova’, and even ‘The Chymical Wedding’.

Secondly, Blake had a habit of writing and printing prefaces to his illuminated works, that he would then discard at a later date. ‘Milton’ is no exception. Only two extant copies exist of this preface and it is therefore ironic that perhaps Blake’s most famous lines were regarded so cheaply by the artist himself. It is also ironic that ‘Jerusalem’ is such a popular hymn in the Anglican church, given that Blake was a member of dissenting religious sect which despised the priesthood and its substitution of virtue for pomp and privilege. Moreover, Blake was a republican (as were many of his contemporary poets), with ‘America’ and ‘Europe’ depicting the rebel angels as heroic in the face of the tyrant Albion. Think about that the next time you see a member of the aristocracy singing about not ceasing from Mental Fight, and allow yourself a smile.

Also, once you start reading the actual ‘Jerusalem’ (‘Jerusalem, Emanation of the Giant Albion’, Blake’s longest completed work), you realise that Blake isn’t talking about Jerusalem as an actual place existing in time and space. Blake experienced visions (suffered, some might say) throughout his entire life and claimed to regularly converse with angels. His poetry and artwork are the manifestations of these visions. Jerusalem is not England, it is not even London. It is wherever Blake walked, hence why the centre of the universe in his final epic is South Molton Street, the address where he spent many of his remaining years.

The issues that I had with the poem commonly known as ‘Jerusalem’ meant that for years it was the one track on ‘The Chemical Wedding’ that I used to skip. Knowledge brings tolerance and with a greater understanding of it lyrics, ‘Jerusalem’ regains its visionary charm (it is certainly less offensive than some of the passages in the actual ‘Jerusalem’, like where Blake addresses the Jews: ‘Take up the cross, O Israel, and follow Jesus’). Dickinson’s version reinvigorates the sterility of the hymn and gives it back its energy. Not only do I leave ‘Jerusalem’ playing these days, I’ll even find myself singing along. There’s progress.

I suspect that Blake would have been appalled by some of the other themes on ‘The Chemical Wedding’. In ‘Trumpets of Jericho’ for instance, the trumpets sound, but ‘still the walls remain’. Although in true Blakean style, the lyrics have little else to do with the Joshua of the Old Testament (and archaeology informs us that Jericho had no walls). The song also references the opening lines of Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s ‘The Social Contract’: ‘Man is born forever free, but is everywhere in chains’. I wonder if Bruce realises that despite being the father of the French Revolution, Blake came to condemn Rousseau along with Voltaire and Newton for their trust in reason above belief (“Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau: Mock on, mock on: ‘tis all in vain! You throw the sand against the wind, And the wind blows it back again”).

Newton, scheming, face turned from God
However, it takes more than a decent set of lyrics to make a great album. What makes ‘The Chemical Wedding’ the epitome of heavy metal isn’t just its morality plays or its references to Satan; it’s the apocalyptic openings of its songs, the duelling guitar solos, the contrasts in Dickinson’s voice between the melodic and the air-raid siren. It has the same grinding rhythms of any metal album. The same bass runs and drum fills. It can also be accused of being as clichéd as any metal album. And yes, there are clichés here too, but you know what? There’s nothing wrong with a good cliché. I’m not claiming ‘The Chemical Wedding’ as the greatest album ever made. If I want to listen to musical perfection, I also have Johan Sebastian Bach in my collection and he pisses all over every other composer in recorded time. Yet if you want to know what heavy metal music is about, with all of its energy, exuberance and excess, you could do much worse than to start with ‘The Chemical Wedding’.

‘The Chemical Wedding’ may not be the greatest album ever recorded, but in the same way that Alice in Chains’ album, ‘Dirt’, defines everything that the word ‘grunge’ conjures up for me, so ‘The Chemical Wedding’ represents everything that I hear when I think of heavy metal (right down to the Spinal Tap-esque mandolins on ‘Jerusalem’). It is metal’s epitome and its apotheosis. What elevates mere entertainment to the level of art is its ability to open the doors of perception to new experiences. If you haven’t read Blake before, Bruce offers you a way inside the troubled mind of genius. Blake wasn’t perfect, but he was brilliant. As with Blake, so ‘The Chemical Wedding’.

Bruce Dickinson interview on 'Faith and Music'
Harry Potter and that there Stewart Lee

Gylypso Weekend

“The accordion and steel drum.” Rich said. “Not two instruments you naturally associate with each other. I’m not sure how this is going to work.” I didn’t either, but given that this was Helen, we agreed that it just would.

Friday night in Mello Mello, Slater Street; a little bit of New Orleans transported to the heart of Liverpool. Helen had brought me here once before in the daytime. Now though, herbal tea and cake have been replaced with bottles of Sol and Staropramen. The joint is a long, narrow bar with seemingly only one entrance. To reach the stage area we have to walk halfway up the street, enter, then walk all the way back, despite there being a door at the bottom corner, blocked off by the stage. I hate having to do the same thing twice.

Yesterday was Rich’s birthday and he and Caroline are down from Sunderland for the weekend. Ruth is out with mates, but is coming to join us later. Jez, Helen’s new squeeze, is also due to pop along later. They’ve been together three weeks today and in deference to the absent John (Sensei to windup merchants everywhere), I make Rich and Caroline promise me that at some point they will both say to Jez, “I understand that congratulations are in order.” “Please,” I implore them, “if you won’t do it for me, do it for John.” I haven’t seen John in a year, but he is still a bad influence on me. There’s a plastic banner in the window of a house across from mine that declares, ‘It’s a girl!’. I’m having to steal myself from knocking on and saying, “So go on then. What did she have?”

We are here for a new art exhibit that the cafe is displaying. It’s opening night and ‘The Helen Maher Ensemble’ have been asked to perform a forty minute set. Helen’s guitarist, John, had given us lift down from her pad up by Lark Lane. Walking in, each carrying a piece of musical equipment, I am immediately struck by the phrase, Scouse Orleans. At a worn looking upright sits a guy who I instantly decide came to Liverpool to study (probably music) and has been here ever since. He is apparently Jez’s flatmate, but it’s the guy accompanying him that catches my attention and triggers ‘Scouse Orleans’ in my mind. If you saw him on the street you wouldn’t differentiate him from half the men you witness in these parts: bull neck, bald head, shell suit and black trainers.  Yet you would be dead wrong, because what separates him from the herd is the trumpet he blows, the colour of battered silver. In the last year I have slowly started to approximate a jazz aficionado and I recognise much of what he plays as stuff I have heard Miles Davis perform. I couldn’t tell you what any of the songs are called, but I do remember a classic skit from The Fast Show:

Louis Balfour: What are you going to play for us today, Jackson?
Jackson Jeffrey Jackson: Trumpet.
Louis Balfour: No, er, what tune?
Jackson Jeffrey Jackson: Tune? This' jazz!

And as Richard Feynman’s father said to him as a boy, “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird.” So I guess the name of a tune is largely unimportant (which is probably why my team always does so terribly during the music round of the Cornerhouse Quiz every Monday night). All I know is that the me of even a decade ago would be appalled at the thought of actively listening to jazz. Jazz used to make me physically ill. The me of the here and now however is very much in love.

Most of the art on display, I have to say, leaves me cold. Most of it looks like upturned car bonnets stuck to the walls and asides from a sign reading, ‘God Slave the Queen’ (which strikes me a glib),  most of the rest is instantly forgettable. The one piece that I like is a series of butterflies cut out of what look like wallpaper designs of various sizes, stuck to the wall. They look like they belong here anyway.

Besides, there are far more interesting things to observe here. Like the faux entrance behind the stage. It’s built in to a hollow cylinder and the glass front has ‘open’ written on it in reverse. A palette sits atop of it, its slats painted in red and black stripes, which might be part of the exhibit (actually, is the entrance itself an exhibit? I wonder). The stage is a foot off the ground and cluttered, with a stepladder propped up at the back (next to the fire alarm). The walls are mainly a pale yellow (fooling me into thinking that the place is called Mellow Yellow), and the lighting from the mini-chandeliers is, well, mellow.

Oh, and then there are the toilets, which are like something out of a David Lynch movie. You go down several flights of stairs to the basement and into a room of peeling walls, smelling of stale piss. One of the cubicles is taped off, with a sign saying, “This toilet is completely out of order.” I wonder what it did. But it’s the mirror that gives rise to the feeling a being in a Lynch movie. It’s bronze and ornate and looks completely out of place in these otherwise grotty surroundings. I half expect to see the ghost of Dennis Hopper looming out from behind the taped off cubicle to tell me that I’m completely out of order. I more or less flee back upstairs and send Rich down to have a look.

The place was rammed as we arrived and even though we manage to get a table right next to the stage, there aren’t enough chairs and half of us end up perched on the end of the stage. Then Ruth arrives, sat next to me on the edge of a speaker, and while we have plenty to chat about, as always, I figure that I get to see a lot more of her than Rich or Caroline do and I give up my seat so that they can catch up. Sometimes, just sometimes, I can be quite generous and thoughtful.

And then, finally, time for the gig. There seemed to be some problem with the P.A. that required a lot of fiddling, because the band seemed to start much later than anticipated. It’s also supposed to be a three piece, with Helen and John joined by Paul on double bass. But in a classic example of a phenomenon known as, “The Helen Maher Effect*, she has also drafted in steel drum player, Clifton, at the last moment, prompting Rich to ask, “I’m not sure how this is going to work.” But of course it did and in a single evening a new musical form was born. ‘Gylypso Jazz’ me and Rich name it, after a couple of abortive attempts to find the suitable phrase. I love the way that Helen conducts the soloists with barely a tilt of her head and the way that Paul grins and laughs throughout, thoroughly enjoying himself. I thought that jazz bassists were supposed to be solemn, brooding figures, but I guess I’ve been influenced by Miles’s description of Charles Mingus (‘Mingus Ah Um’, what an album!).

The gig finishes and the throng thins out and by the time Jez makes an appearance, there are more than enough chairs for everybody. Well he’s a musician and I love music and my current obsession is P J Harvey’s new album, ‘Let England Shake’, which even though it’s only March I have already declared album of the year. It’s just that good. No, not good, an absolute masterpiece. Jez has heard it once, but agrees and from there we quickly hit it off (Helen later telling me that talking about P J was inspired). And before long it’s 2am and Jez heads home (Ruth already having left) and me, Helen, Rick and Caroline bundle into the back of a black cab bound for Aigburth.

John Mayall’s ‘Empty Rooms’ plays as we sit around, chatting, head’s nodding, and before long there is a splintering into three and a traipsing to Slumberland. ‘The Now Show’ plays on Helen’s Mac in the back bedroom/study as I drift to sleep.


I first came to this place six months ago, shortly after Helen moved in. The second I laid eyes on it, a converted coach house nestling behind a block of Georgian houses, I thought to myself: Yup, she’s not moving from here anytime soon. It is very Helen. In ‘A Woman of Conviction’, I constructed for her fictional self, Helen Marr, a Dutch barge, complete with antique furniture and oriental furnishings. Curse you reality, you have outdone me.

You enter from the side of the flats backing on to the coach house, through a wicker gate and into a garden area too small to be of any use to anyone but the pixies. Herbs grow out of pots. Enough shrubs and creeping plants fill the periphery of the short path to make it seem as if you’re entering Alice’s wonderland, half expecting to find yourself much taller by the time you reach the two perpendicular doors at the opposite end. Both black, one leads out to the back alley, the other contains the stairs up to the flat proper.

The stairs bring you to another door, which opens into the living room. As a writer, you become obsessed by small details and minutiae. There is a Yale lock to this door that you can turn by ninety degrees and it locks in place without having to press down the usual button switch. Rich and Caroline state at me like I’m mad when I try to explain the genius of this, not helped by my having been drinking and smoking, nor by the fact that the bloody thing experiences what kids today call an epic fail when I try to demonstrate.

Details, details, details. Each of the alley-facing windows are made up of five glass slats, slid into place in upward steps. The windows run the length of the corridor which travels from living room to kitchen, passing doors to the main bedroom, bathroom and study on its way. The walnut piano that Helen, her dad and me went to pick up from Crosby one Sunday afternoon (Helen playing it in the back of the transit all the way home) sits in one corner of the living room, next to a sideboard of modern speakers and old fashioned phonograph. Fights threaten to break out over the hogging of the paired down rocking chair. It’s too damm relaxing and too much fun. The sofa bed that forms out of the L shaped sofa provides one of the most undisturbed sleeps  I have ever had. Once you clear the sofa of the infestation of cushions that breed wherever women nest, you discover that it is the colour of olive green.

Caroline has noticed that the flat has no TV. For me, this is such a familiar feature of a visit to Helen’s, that I barely notice it anymore. Aside a couple of shared houses, I can’t remember Helen owning a TV. It’s one of the many excellent reasons for paying a visit. I’m not a hippy, I don’t believe in ‘energy’, except as a physical concept (kinetic, potential, chemical etc), but coming here is a break from the norm and a retreat from the stresses of modern life.


To paraphrase Michael Palin, if it’s midday on a Saturday in Liverpool, then it must be time for the Albert Dock. It’s a running joke within the family. Whenever we used to visit the Scouse branch of the family as kids, we always ended up at the Albert Dock. Even as adults, we come here of our own free volition, despite no one seeming to have noticed that aside from the myriad cafes and restaurants and the souvenir shops selling tat (and not even Liverpool specific tat either), there really is little to do here. Oh no wait, there’s the Maritime Museum, which as children of ex-naval parents is another recurring joke. Dad was obsessed with ship modelling and as kids we spent half our lives being dragged around modelling exhibitions. So of course it is outside the Maritime Museum that we are to meet mum.

Likesay, there not much to do, certainly not enough to fill an entire afternoon, and by the time we’ve been around the Maritime and Slavery Museums and looked in some tat shops and taken tea on three separate occasions in three separate places, it’s a matter of killing time. Helen is at Clown College for the day (“That advertisement had absolutely no effect on me whatsoever.”), but meeting us for dinner at Kimo’s with Ray, Ruth and Paul. So we take a spin in the big wheel. Ferris Wheels always have the power to strike acrophobia (not vertigo) into the mind of even the most rational. I can stand on the edge of a cliff face and feel nothing. Stick me in a glass box, spinning at an inconsistent speed in a variable wind and I feel deeply uncomfortable. All four of us feel it. I think it’s the lack of control. At the edge of a cliff you are reliant on your own sense of balance, feet firmly planted in the ground. Not here though.

Still, you get three spins and the views of the three graces and the Mersey are fantastic. I can’t help but look out over the river and think of the A.L.P. sailing out at the end of 'A Woman of Conviction'. Bring the ship back Andy. I want a turn now.

Eventually boredom overwhelms us and we drift up through Liverpool One (a soulless complex imposed upon a city with such character and energy) and over to Mount Pleasant, arriving at Kimo’s much too early. The restaurant only accepts cash, so we have to retrace our steps to find a cash machine. We find one back in the town, next to the NHS walk in centre which I imagine will be doing a roaring trade in a few hours from now.

I like Kimo’s. It’s cheap and cheerful, but has a certain charm, with ample space and a cool interior that’s a relief after spending most of the day in the sun. The food and the furnishings are Middle Eastern in nature and you can picture the smoking of hookahs going on in here before the smoking ban was indiscriminately imposed on all public establishments. My culinary tastes have expanded over the last few years, but this afternoon all I want a burger and chips and something soft in the way of liquid refreshment. We end up sitting at a long table, four either side, a business meeting of the family Maher, bubbles of conversation that expand and merge and pop and form new bubbles, before the obligatory posing for photographs. The bill is settled, the meeting adjourned and we head out into the evening air.

There’s eight of us and only mum has come in by car. Me, Rich and Caroline have Saveaways, so we decide to catch the bus, while everyone else travels back in the car. Of course, we wait an age for a bus and when one does eventually arrive, it’s a Stagecoach and they do their own version of the Saveaway (Stagecoach: Taking you home, while we take the piss). I can’t be bothered waiting any longer so I just pay us on before any one has time to object. Everyone else has to walk back to Albert Dock first, but we’ve got the keys and still need to pick up booze. There’s only so much time to waste.


Later. The parents have taken tea and taken their leave. Only the kids remain. Wine has been imbibed and pipes consumed (an entirely different sort of tea). Jez is here, as is Sarah, Helen’s mate from the flats and the allotment. Me and Rich take turns as DJ, moving from Rodrigo y Gabriella, to the Crow Soundtrack and, eventually, to P J Harvey. It’s a mellow end after a full couple of days.

Sunday lunch is taken at the Moon and Pea, after a brief look around the shops on Lark Lane. I revert to my usual gleeful state outside the second hand bookshop and come away from it with works by Virginia Woolf, Flann O’Brien, Zola and Pullman. The Pea is as busy as ever (and there’s five of us to accommodate), but we get a table eventually, and after a gentle stroll in the aid of digestion, it’s time for Ruth to walk back to her place on the opposite side of Princes Park and for Rich and Caroline to start the drive home. I wave them off with Helen and after a brief chat about the enduring ghosts of relationships past, it’s time that I too was making a move. I am cat/chicken sitting at Mike’s for the week and it’s going to take two buses and two trains to get back. I have a long journey ahead of me...


It takes three hours and when I return, I discover that the front door has been deadlocked with a key I don’t have. Rick has been up to check on the chooks and assumes I hold copies of all the keys. I try ringing him, but City have been playing and he’s in the pub and quite drunk. Me and a neighbour have to smash a pane of glass in the backdoor to get in. It’s a frustrating end to an enjoyable weekend, but just one of those things.

 *A much better band name IMO, it has something of ‘Jazz Club’ about it

Thursday, 2 June 2011

And Another Thing... Never Say Never Again

"No wonder the country's fallen apart, no one says 'forsooth' anymore."
                                                                                                Mark Steel

I love the English language. It is probably the most versatile language in the world. And not because it is the language that I speak, but because it is the convergence of a nexus of older languages (Saxon, French, Greek and Latin), liberally sprinkled with myriad words from other languages (Sanskrit, Arabic, Urdu, German, Yiddish, Spanish etc) to swell its vocabulary to well over a million words. It is elastic and it is constantly evolving. The English of Shakespeare is different to that of Chaucer; the English of Mary Shelley different to that of Alice Walker. It had myriad dialects and variations, with a kaleidoscope of shades of meaning. The idiom of Jane Austin is drastically removed from the slang spoken in African-American ghettos, yet they remain essentially the same language.

English is also a rare example of a working class victory, with the dialect of the serfs having usurped the French spoken in the forts of knights and kings, absorbing and overpowering it in the crucible of the Medieval marketplace. And even after China becomes the dominant economic force in the world, English will probably survive in one form or another (being the language of international business), as a mishmash of English and Chinese. It started life as Anglish and will probably end up as Panglish.

That said, I believe that there are certain words that should be given special protection and only used in certain circumstances. The words ‘genius’ and ‘tragedy’ are two examples. The constant need of journalists in the English speaking world to sensationalise every trivial event has come to mean that these words are far too often abused. Lionel Messi, for example, is certainly a very talented footballer, but he is not a genius. Michelangelo was a genius and no matter how much spin Messi may be able to generate on a football using boots specially designed for that one purpose, at the end of the day all he’s done is score a goal. If you’re impressed by that, go to the Accademia in Florence and take a look at Michelangelo’s David: It’ll blow your fucking mind.

And this isn’t snobbery either. I’d say Newton was a genius, but not Einstein; James Joyce, but not Shakespeare. I can’t exactly define why I think this, but I think that it has something to do with Newton and Joyce having a fine grasp of complex ideas, while Einstein and Shakespeare seem to have guessed and hoped for the best. I suppose that I associate genius with the action of having a grasp of what it is that you are doing, rather than taking a leap of faith. William Blake attacked men like Newton for trusting to reason rather than belief, yet to me reason is what makes Newton a true genius. However, this theory is open to debate (like any good theory) and I’m not entirely convinced by the weight of my own argument. Einstein and Shakespeare are still godlike to me. And I’d always considered Bob Dylan to be a genius, but given that he has always claimed that he has no idea where his lyrics come from, I have just rendered him ineligible for consideration.

The word tragedy is believed to come from ‘tragus’, the Ancient Greek word for goat. Tragic plays developed from songs composed during festivals to the god Dionysus, when goats were sacrificed as an offering to the god of wine, theatre and fertility (amongst his other patronages). From these songs came the great tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides, where the tragic hero’s fate is already sealed by the gods long before he was born. The classic tragic hero of course is Oedipus.

Two and a half thousand years later and now every time some teenager dies of a drug overdose or a soldier is killed by an IED in Afghanistan, it is referred to a tragedy. As sad as these events are, they are not tragedies, but statistical probabilities. We should perhaps not refer to them in such cold and unemotional language as ‘statistical probabilities’, but to resort to the opposite extreme is just as ludicrous. Unless it was prophesised by a soothsayer that such deaths would occur and the victim’s parents had done everything in their power to send the victim away at birth and prevent the event from coming to pass, then they are not tragedies. If you want to read a true modern tragedy, read Donna Tartt's 'The Secret History', where the victim's fate is declared during the novel's first sentence.

It barely needs to be said that when our forces kill civilians during drone attacks, these deaths are put down to ‘human error’, or, as George Bush I said of the ‘accidental’ bombing of an Iraqi fallout shelter filled with woman and children during the First Gulf War, a ‘PR disaster’. We don’t mean to kill civilians and so no one should make a fuss when we do, as if carelessness is any less a crime than directed terrorism. By application of the word ‘tragedy’ to the deaths of our own troops, we can gloss over the very real truth that their lives are worth as little to the architects of the War on Terror as the hundreds of thousands of ‘non-combatants’ that have been killed by ‘our’ side.

(As an aside, we should always be suspicious of words like ‘non-combatant’. They are the Orwellian equivalent of phrases like, ‘Don’t think of an apple’. The first thing one does is think of an apple because the clause, ‘Don’t think of an apple’, contains the sub-clause, ‘Think of an apple’. Similarly, ‘non-combatant’ contains the sub-clause, ‘combatant’, immediately planting doubt in the reader’s mind as to just how non-combatant these so-called ‘non-combatants’ are. Politicians are practised distorters of the English language and should be guarded against at all times. Our first defence against their dissemination should be simply to turn them off and judge them purely in terms of what they do, not what they say. Our second line of defence is to always to ask the question, ‘What are you really up to?’.)

However, the word that is misused by more people than any other, the one that really gets my tragus, is ‘never’. I hear it being abused in one form or another on a weekly, if not daily, basis, in some form as thus: “I’ve never had chips since last week.” It makes me want to scream: “Well then you have had chips! LAST WEEK FOR A START!!!” ‘Never’ is an adverb meaning at no point in the past and at no point in the future and is in fact a contraction of the adverbial phrase, ‘not ever’. If you say, “I’ve never been to Rome before” while you’re stood ouside the Coliseum, that’s just plain wrong. However, if you say, “He always wanted to see Rome, but he never got the chance” over the grave of your recently deceased father, well that is correct (but not indicative of a tragedy).

I’m as guilty of misusing ‘never’ as many other people, but I’m trying to consciously replace it with ‘haven’t’ or ‘hadn’t’ or some other appropriate word or phrase. There is a certain laziness creeping into our language, with verbs like ‘do’ and ‘got’ replacing more descriptive phrases, even among the academic community. Sentences like, ‘We’ve made a series of calculations’ are being pushed out by more simplistic phrases like, ‘We did the sums’, as if we’re all still in primary school. The shades of meaning in our language are being lost in favour of extremes. What will we do when a true genius comes along or a true tragedy takes place? How will we be able to convey the state of something not ever having taken place when we have disabused our once noble language of all meaning? And does anyone else care?

Like the Newspeak of Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’, the loss of descriptive language robs us of the ability to express complex ideas and emotions, which is all the more essential as we become isolated from each other through the loss of common experience. Technology was meant to bring the like minded together and yet it seems more and more to me that its real purpose is to divide and to subdue. All the more reason to protect from cultural erosion the keystones to effective communication.