Subject: Last night in the ruins I heard
Date: 5 October 2014, 17:57
I’ve been thinking a lot about Gihm lately – that internet ghost I discovered during my solitary stint in The Lang, just before you moved in and QC returned after piecing himself back together at his parents’. It was great when the three of us were there. I miss those days! And we still feel guilty about abandoning you that summer when the bad people broke in. Not sure how you survived so long there by yourself? When I was living there alone I’d come back and do all my bodily human things in the disabled toilet downstairs, so that when I got into the room I could shut the door behind me and set up the G4S (a long bit of two-by-four wedged under the door handle) and then not leave again until the morning, when I would sneak out at the break of dawn. That was the time of urinating into a Lucozade bottle – I won’t tell you how I disposed of this, but it involved telling myself that everything is energy. Plus upcycling was very much in fashion then…
Anyway, one night when I was there alone, I followed a link beneath some band’s video to a cover version of one of their songs. I clicked on this black and white image of a young guy in a surgical mask holding a guitar and within a few notes I was blown away. And I’m still not sure what it is exactly that gets me. Maybe it’s the level of technical skill, or the sheer intensity with which he plays, like he really means it. Or perhaps I should say concentration, as he channels the energy of an entire band through this one instrument, taking great care as he reduces it down to its very essence, and with the picking of a few strings conjures a summer you hadn’t realised you’d forgotten. With his face always obscured beneath a blindfold/bandage, wrapped in a scarf, or peeking out from beneath a hoodie. The camera is close enough for you to see the speed at which his fingers move, to witness their poise in brief silences, yet far enough away to reveal a few details of the room he is sitting in. The cosmos of a bedroom. And the glimpses of objects in the background – a Game Boy in the bottom-right corner, an open laptop, a small chunky TV in the top-left corner, or the bright, white square of a window – become essential to the whole performance. But he also plays with the logic of this space, in one video appearing to defy gravity by flipping the camera ninety degrees. In another, in the last few seconds, the image converts into a pen graphic, so that he and the guitar become the same substance. And then there are the cheeky clues in the form of words scrawled on his guitar, or the reveal at the end of one video, the text across his T-shirt, which we see as he reaches towards the recorder to turn it off: “Kill Rock Stars.”
Apparently there used to be more covers but a few years ago Gihm deleted them along with his profile. The only reason some of these videos still exist is because one or two fans made KeepVid rips of them which they then reuploaded with the disclaimer, “If you are YouTube user Gihm and want this removed, please let me know. This is in no way an insult to you – it is for everyone to enjoy your talent. I hope everything goes well for you.” And the comments section is full of people being thankful that these videos haven’t been lost forever, as well as concerns and rumors as to why Gihm suddenly disappeared. I never saw any of the originals, only the copies that are still online. So maybe this is what gets me: that the faded, grainy quality of these videos makes you more aware of their material data. It makes the digital somehow precious, like the paper of an old photograph.
In other news – Now, no one wants to talk about redundancies… But thanks for asking anyway. I’m safe for the time being, apparently, although effectively what I do is going to be outsourced in the near future. The understanding seems to be that they’ll find something for me to do under the new title of Collections Assistant. I missed the chop because they don’t know exactly how I will be replaced and so are waiting to see how it will all pan out. Or to put it another way: there’s no point getting rid of me before I’ve dug my own grave, otherwise that’s another task that will need to be outsourced. Don’t worry, I’m going to dig a particularly deep one, get ’em on a technicality – “You told me to dig it but you never said how deep…” And I don’t intend to stop until I hit the molten centre! Others higher up the food chain won’t be so fortunate. Meanwhile the Agency staff – significantly more of them than I ever imagined – wait to be hoovered up when their time comes by James Dyson’s latest device, which will become a mainstay of our skies, poised to collect each Temporary Associate once a project is finished and deposit them at the site of the next job. A generation set to eat, sleep and fall in love inside energy-efficient micro-pods en route to their next contract (the cost of these conveniences being deducted from one’s pay before tax). And the way they’ll sell this life to us is to link it in our minds to a false nostalgia for the odd-jobs man of the past, the lovable scamp going from town to town, doing whatever, always with a story to tell, a smile on his face. Our children – not you and me, I think it’s impossible for us to reproduce, although they do say there’s no smoke without fire – will be the lovable scamp generation 5.0, but with more teeth, or maybe fewer teeth if the Agency want their workers to have that rustic look. But not having had the chance to read Of Mice and Men, the first of many books to have been struck from the syllabus, our kids will just have an image of this life with no voice to connect it back to. Fear not though, unemployment will still operate between 5 and 8 percent officially, with many new jobs being created along the way, such as the brand awareness ambassadors for the neo-hobo workforce. And there’ll be an ever-increasing need for crowd/party-makers, culminating in a grand ball conjured out of the ether of surplus capital, where it will transpire that there are aren’t any unpaid guests at all, and as midnight falls not even a host to make the final speech, just a rented space full of people doing different kinds of work in order to make an event happen. And in a flash this generation too will be gone, leaving those that come after to paw over the images and wonder.
I hope the carpet tiles haven’t started moving under you…
Subject: Distant Voices, Still Lives
Date: 9 November 2014, 00:02
I think you’re right about the shift from ’80s man to ’90s man in films. If ’80s man was capitalism with a smirk, then ’90s man was capitalism with a smiley face. We went from stockbrokers to PR gurus. Charles ‘Be the Worst You Can Be’ Saatchi, with his flock of creatives, being an interesting case of someone who straddles the two. But another reason why so many of us hung the DJ, so to speak, after art school, was the evident gap between the works we were seeing in shows, the things being said, the performance of it all, and our own increasingly strange experience of life. But of course it’s always more complicated than that, and I’m afraid it can’t be broached without the requisite amount of broken glass – as what comes reeling back is not always the same, but is dependent on how softly you tread, and how well you fix your gaze on the reflections in the shards. So to make this easy for us, I’ll begin in the middle (always begin in the middle) and let you know that the YBAs played a crucial role in my development, one far greater than I could have imagined.
One night when I was fifteen my mother broke down, and this can be seen as either the beginning, or the molten centre, of the protracted decline in her mental health (although I have since come to understand the extent to which this was actually a relapse). At the time she was a psychiatric nurse and one of her patients committed suicide. I remember not knowing quite how to console her. When a family friend had died a couple of years earlier from cancer I remember her crying on my shoulder, but this time there was no outpouring that I was aware of.
The beauty and tragedy of domestic space is that it allows for doors to be closed. And during this time I became accustomed to fortifying myself in my room, listening to music and getting on with homework, which was the main escape route for the education x3 generation. I listened to the same angst-ridden stuff as most, and was beginning to be enthused by garage. But for some reason during that time I also listened to this Sum 41 album with unquestionable faith. It was incredibly smooth, both in production and affect, echoing more rebellious music/feelings/times but stripped of any real voice, void of any real depth. My image of the ’90s is and always will be that of a place that’s constantly sunny, looks like the rolling lawns of American campuses, sounds like Supergrass, and is full of hope. But by the ’00s I knew something was up, yet was too in the middle of it to know exactly what, although the memory of watching Cherie Blair crying on Newsround during her buy-to-let flats scandal has since served as touchstone into that moment. And the fact that at the turn of the millennium a CD a friend had burned for you would flow from Public Enemy to Jay-Z, or from Nirvana to Sum 41, is quite telling of the cultural wash that was passing over us.
About the same time my father was in a protracted breakdown of his own. He hated his job, which he says treated him horribly. He once hit his boss, and I’ve never found out why – the only answer he gives is that he kept being told what to do… I have a feeling that that’s probably not the whole story. Anyway, he was madly trying to set up computer stuff of his own alongside his job, determined to pay back the mortgage in double-time and set himself free. It was during this period that he and my mother divorced, which damaged them both financially as much as anything else. A friend’s parents in a similar situation resolved to stay together because they couldn’t afford to be apart. But my parents separated and this happened to coincide with my father being made redundant as the company he worked for was bought out and the work outsourced. So as much as anything else it was the financial pressure – the fact that the house needed to be remortgaged etc., that grand schemes needed to be hatched, that I had to succeed at all costs – which filtered down to the riot of my mind.
And it was during that time that I decided I wanted to be an artist. I used to stay late after school, giddy in a space that was about ideas, and enthralled by the stories of Saint Martins in the ’60s that my art teacher, Mr Frankland, would tell. He used to have this guitar case which he’d decorated with a painting of peacock feathers that Jimmy Hendrix had taken a liking to in a pub. Hendrix asked if Frankie could paint him one, which he duly did. Frankie brought it to the same pub a week later as agreed, only to find out that Hendrix had died of an overdose, and so he sold it to someone else. Then there was the one about the studio visit. Frustrated with the other students in his year and thinking that he was way beyond them, he decided to work on his own in the college basement, where he could devote all his time to making wedge-shaped objects that would balance and teeter on top of each other, taking photos of the various arrangements. Once, when Anthony Caro brought a group of students down to his studio, Frankie threw a length of two-by-four at him and they all scurried away. He lamented that if he’d have hit Caro, then he would have been famous. But more than that he lamented shutting himself away, something he warned me not to do.
Yet in the same breath as I was vowing never to do this, I was already on the path to self-imposed isolation – already on course to be as smart as I could while also dumbing myself down. I saw the history of art as an even development and so forsook more progressive, older works for newer, more conservative ones. I thought of myself as radical while becoming wholly apolitical. I was certainly delusional during this period. Isn’t everyone? Yet I was moving how you do through a space that’s laid out before you – through its channels and in its very image. And there’s a reason why there are so many self-help and motivational gurus; there’s a reason why the central crux of Fight Club is the invention of an imaginary friend – “You were looking for a way to change your life, you couldn’t do it on your own, so you invented me…” Because to do anything (to succeed), unless you’re part of the lonesome percentile, involves an incredible amount of energy and faith, and whatever you use to propel that ambition, if it begins to work for you, becomes canonised and is then the sacred thing you return to. And just as all of this was nailing itself to my thoughts, so too were the YBAs cementing the end of the millennium as their moment, one which I believed would pave the way for me.
I’d bought the dream of the ’90s, sold on Jerry Maguire’s personal touch, void of any precautionary tale. And even when such a tale was offered, as in Dead Man’s Curve, the film in which a group of college students kill their roommate and make it look like suicide, as they’ve found out that the school’s policy on grief is to give them a top grade point average, I found a way to turn this into ammunition for my dreams. Perhaps it was the slickness of the campus lifestyle, or the fact that academic success provided the route out, or perhaps it was the way the conspirators are ultimately revealed and yet get away with it, or maybe I was just hearing what I wanted to hear – but I began to memorise without any irony the poster on one of their dorm room walls, which read “You Don’t Win Silver You Lose Gold.” And there was an incident with a loan shark as well as two moments where I almost did something very stupid that I don’t have time to go into here. For now all that needs to be known is that I wanted to make it at any cost and I vowed to leave home and never return.
One thing about moving back home is that you tend to not go out at all, and so end up watching a lot of TV. The only upside is that you find yourself rewatching films that you haven’t seen for ten years or more, revealing things long forgotten, which must have been lodged deep in the subconscious somewhere. Do you remember that in Back To The Future Doc Brown is assassinated by terrorists? And the words on his lips just before he meets his end are: “Oh no, they’ve found me… The Libyans… The Libyans that got me the plutonium! They wanted me to build ’em a bomb – I said I would, but I lied!” Then the Libyans screech round the corner in a VW camper van, guns blazing, red and white checkered tea towels billowing in the wind.
The one that hit me the hardest though was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. When I watched this as a nineteen-year-old I took it as a prime example of the slacker movie genre. It is more complicated than that, although the plot is very simple: Ferris convinces both his girlfriend and his best friend to bunk a day off school, telling them that at the end of the summer they’ll be going off to different colleges and won’t see each other as much. They proceed through a day of ups and downs, epiphanies and escapes. At one point there is a parade going through town and Ferris finds himself on one of the floats surrounded by women in lederhosen, leading the crowd in a chorus of Twist and Shout. The scene becomes increasingly out of step with reality, as the parade flows into a group of black dancers in brightly coloured shirts on the marbled steps of some conglomerate. And then the cut that makes sense of the whole film – up to Ferris’ father’s office. The parade is seemingly taking place just outside the building, or in close proximity, and the volume is loud enough to carry all the way up to the father’s desk. In a light grey suit and stripy tie he gets up and goes over to the window and begins to dance to the music. The viewer is supposed to see the humour in him dancing to his son singing, whilst his son is supposedly at home sick. But this isn’t all that’s going on. As the narrative unravels, the parade, along with the film as a whole in fact, comes to resemble more and more the father’s extended and elaborate daydream. After all, films that fetishise that moment of leaving school are not made by eighteen-year-olds, nor are they really for them. Really, they are for the parents. And so Ferris’ day continues to play out with the charmed perfection of a dream, the perfect day of an eternal eighteen-year-old, which Ferris’ father will conjure up day after day at his desk as he fills in forms.
Subject: More large wayward wet flakes falling
Date: 25 January 2015, 10:32
Sorry to miss you the other night. I’ve been up in Birmingham again clearing out my grandparents’ house. And with this departure being a very definite deadline, the usual opening-night-panics have ensued – where you muddle the things that actually need doing with the neuroses of perfection and stuff that’s completely irrelevant. My brother and I almost came to blows twice over this, as we butchered the stairlift off its rails, and I refused to cut the lawn as it was far too long, and he proceeded to stubbornly clog up the mower with a single line of grass, which stood out like an inverse-mohawk shaved into someone’s hair. Realising there was no way the lawn was going to happen, he went about it with a pair of shears, squatting on the ground, trying to blend in the line in case anyone who came to view the property and looked into the garden was deterred by the man-sized slug trail now running through it.
The better, less painful – in every sense – moment in all this, was the treasure trove of old photos that we found. Including some of my grandfather with his workmates at the Cadbury factory, which looked like press shots of some model worker at a brand new machine, happily toiling away.
I fear this weekly dash up to Birmingham has become my life. Where I play Laurel to Bert’s Hardy – or perhaps more Paul to his Barry – each weekend being the ‘final push’ towards emptying an entire house. It’s funny you should mention the good cop/bad cop thing. The week my grandad decided that he would move to The Home to be with Grandma, I was zero-hours, so told work to “do one” and went up to spend it with him. The intention was that I’d help him pack and Bert would turn up at the weekend with the car and do the business. Maybe because I was there for a whole week, or because I really didn’t want to force Grandad into anything, I became de facto good cop. I bought beers, cooked him his favourites, pottered about the garden, and listened to his stories. The stories are now in remix mode, but since I’ve heard them many times before, I can remember the original tapes that they’ve been lifted from. Of course I was recording him on the sly:
“I wouldn’t work over… The gaffer knew to ask everyone else before he asked me. I wouldn’t do it…”
“And I rowed that barmy bugger round the other side towards the shore… He was a bloody fool… I said, you can’t get to the land in that tide… Would he listen? The heavens… I got him as close to where he said he lived as possible, and who got soaked helping that blasted sod get onto his private land, I ask you?”
“That man that cuts the hedges, he looks blooming ridiculous…”
“They’ve got nine kids, so we all know what there favourite game is.”
“I said I didn’t want to have the gas, and what did the dentist do? So when I came round I knocked him out…”
When Bert turned up on Saturday we’d only managed to pack five pants between us and were already onto the whiskey. Grandad kept saying he wanted to do this his way, and I for one wasn’t going to stop him. Bert though was a really good bad cop, so by lunchtime we were set, and my grandfather knew he was going to The Home. In a way it was strange because we’d rehearsed this about six months earlier when my grandmother was in respite care. My grandfather had to go in with her for a week until she was strong enough to leave. I was with him that day too and he kept saying that once they’d got him into one of those places he’d never get out. I reassured him that it was only for a week but he couldn’t see it. The process of locking up the house took about an hour. We went into every room because he needed to check something, into the garden because he wanted to see something. It was his way of saying goodbye to all of this. And I kept thinking about what it must be like to know that your world is about to be reduced to a finite number of rooms, and eventually one room, the strange and final outpost, beyond which the whole world, even the memorable scenes of one’s life, become the same uncharted map. So this time I was expecting him to do the same, but he didn’t. At the end of lunch he just stood up, poured a drop more beer into his glass, raised it slowly, his hand quivering, Bert and I anticipating the wisdom he was about to expound… Then he said, “Here’s to your sister’s cat!” And downed his drink.
When we got to The Home he announced himself to the staff with the salutation “The prisoner has arrived.” Then continued with variations on “and they let the condemned man have one final cigarette before they shot him,” as we all walked together into Grandma’s room where they’d put his bed as requested. There wasn’t much time for anything else and Grandma became anxious that we’d get home late if Grandad kept talking so we hugged and shook hands, before slipping away into the night, crawling back down the motorway to our outpost.
Subject: Tepid Drizzle, Great Depression
Date: 2 April 2015, 22:48
Three days into the grind and my eyeballs want out. Fortunately Signet is now closed for Easter, so I’ve a little moment of exuberance before the return to the great bureaucracy in the sky (well, the fifth floor anyway).
Thanks for the link to the Burial interview. I’ve been reading snippets during my breaks but have just managed to read the whole thing. He makes some good points. I remember I went through a phase of listening to Street Halo when skulking back to The Lang from Waterloo at night after a long shift, or leaving The Lang close to witching hour, and traipsing through Borough on my way to Constance’s place. The three tracks on that mini album were the perfect length for the walk. And the suppressed stomp of the baseline, beneath faded pulses of synth and broken beats, with one or two lines of filtered vocals – voices stretched or cut mid-word rising to the surface before falling back into the mix – all seemed very attuned to those underlit and empty streets: Peabody estates, Almshouses, building site hoardings, boarded-up pubs with black marker on the chipboard saying “Brilliant – you knock down a lovely boozer and build another glass piece of shit,” abandoned restaurants, railway arches, plants sprouting between dank bricks, the red lights of cranes, a rusty sky. Read these.
I never thought of Burial’s London as the near future exactly; for me he’s the present, or the present as a future which never quite arrives. Friends from home call him Night Bus music – so if there’s water in our dystopia, it’s not a Drowned World but a few streaks of tepid drizzle across the windscreen, carrying distorted images of the city beyond. Although we’ve all used Ballard to describe places like Lang or Tintagel, and other dwellings of our property guardian friends, these spaces are never as total as Ballard’s visions, always more mundane: each shell of a building living on the borrowed time it takes for paperwork to be shifted from a desk.
Burial’s sound makes sense now, reading about how he didn’t have enough kit in his bedroom to make the “drums and the bass sound massive,” and so, to take his mixes to that darker place, had to do it with the vocals, the cut-up voices of jungle and garage tunes he was lifting from. And I always thought of him as the echo of a lot of the garage I listened to with friends during my mid-teens. The music was always handed down from someone’s older brother and I have a distinct memory of being in a friend’s bedroom and this Dillinja track playing, and we were messing about with a webcam, trying to get this girl to show us her breasts (all memories are broken glass), and the room was really blue and the speed of the vocals was incredible.
I guess when any subculture breaks through and appears on the surface, there is a big groundswell of energy, and once it is in motion there’s no stopping it, especially in times of increasing rates of co-option. And so in this case, the honed sounds of 2-step, garage, dub etc. started to be heard in adverts, in sitcom intro sequences and on music channels performed by increasingly prefabricated acts, along with the cleaned-up sounds of some of the original artists who’d clung for dear life to the perfectly packaged shuttle as it broke away from the rocket to begin the slow arc of mainstream consciousness. And I always think of Burial as the fallout, the fragments, the parts that are still pure energy, dematerialising as they fall back into the atmosphere.
This is the descent – back to the surface and then underground. It also reminds me of some of the youth clubs I frequented with many of the naughty boys and girls of yesteryear. In one, there was a microphone and some decks (possibly?), or maybe just the same baseline from a tape-player over and over again, and other kids – not I, sadly – would be trying to spit over the top, and it was mostly white and suburban, and moderately dangerous until about 10:30pm when we all had to be home. At one point I remember this guy Sean, who was massive and usually very quiet (very much the Silent Bob), got up and did a surly-faced, flat rendition of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’, which brought the ceiling tiles down. So I couldn’t help thinking of these spaces when reading parts of the interview about kids with depression, and the closing of many of the youth clubs in and around London post-2010. And the continuing effects of this. And the lives and energies of people that I used to know. And those streets with orange street lamps that spiked out like stars if you looked at them directly. And returning to the universe of one’s bedroom.
Subject: My Nephew’s Fourth Birthday
Date: 28 May 2015, 16:38
A little gem for you –
Don’t tell me to shut up
Don’t say shut up to him
Control your woman
Don’t tell me to control my woman
Don’t tell me to shut up
Don’t say shut up to him
Control your woman
Don’t tell me to control my woman
This was the remarkable loop we heard while queueing to pay for the car park at Legoland yesterday. The result of having turnstile barriers at the exits, leading to carnal fears of being trapped and the worst kinds of behaviour. There was also only one gate big enough for pushchairs, and even that wasn’t working properly, which led to one muscular guy and ‘his woman’ cutting up another muscular guy and ‘his woman’, which led to the above conversation, which was heightened in its absurdity by the two guys squaring up to each other, fists clenched on their respective pushchairs, which acted as a fragile barrier between their puffed-out chests. The whole argument swept up other voices in its path as it spun towards the car park, carrying with it the ruins of the day; searing holes in polyester pockets that had been taken to the cleaners by The Merlin Group.
By the time all this was out of earshot, Bert and I had got to the front of the queue to find out that the machine had eaten someone’s bank card, which we learnt from a hapless member of staff had been happening all day. Then through the crowd the swiftest of rumours about a possible escape route: if you had correct change you could give it to the person at the exit and be released. There were two other members of staff on the scene, although they were half in a storage cupboard pretending to count things, which of course didn’t stop them being sought out as the oracle that would confirm the rumour. Finally Bert and I got in the car, drove to the barrier and were greeted by this stick of a kid in a sail of a red polo shirt and a face like a plasterer’s radio. We handed over a five pound note, which he folded up and put in his pocket before lifting the yellow bar – thus revealing how obscure and lawless the whole process was. How would anyone know who had paid and who hadn’t, that this wasn’t all a kind of scam? Perhaps these kids, disgruntled beyonds words, had, as a collective, broken the ticket machine – perhaps they do this every day, which would be a fuck you to The Merlin Group as as much as to us, the lumpen masses of consumption. As two former Thorpe Park employees, Bert and I found this act of proletarian revenge almost heartening.
I came across Clerks at either the perfect or worst moment, which was when me and my classmates all started to work at Thorpe Park during our first epic summer just after GCSEs. I was definitely in the Dante school of employment. But looking back, I’m not sure what this meant. Treading glass, I remember eking out the last five minutes of lunch break, and I must have looked pretty miserable because this guy, who I guess had been working there a long time, came up and asked me what was wrong, to which I bluntly replied “I’m in this place,” which took him aback, and he said “What’s so bad about that?” and walked off.
I was young and petulant and wearing it. The way I felt was real but my actual disaffection was not. Mostly because it wasn’t connected to anything other than a sense of my own self. I plan to come back to this, and music, and my slacker period, but am aware this email needs to fly soon or the day will have been for nothing.
Subject: What’s a ghost to do?
Date: 9 July 2015, 18:50
Did you ever finish The Pale King by the way? There is an amazing ninety-page stretch consisting of one character telling the story of how he joined the IRS, and the events of his life that led up to that point. David Foster Wallace talks a lot about two different post-war generations: the baby boomers and their kids. The narrator in this chapter, the son, is a self-described ‘wastoid’, someone drifting with no direction, no purpose, and with no excuse for not having one. The book is partly about the conformity of nonconformity, and the point at which rebellion became fashionable and was eventually commodified. So the dad’s baby boomer generation get on with the greyness of life and the kids just drift along. It reminds me of something my US history teacher said to us in sixth form: if the parents are conservative, then their kids are the opposite – but then their kids also go on to do the opposite, and so revert to being conservative, and so on. I wonder if this is a weak generalisation: rise and fall, boom and bust, an era rich in public money followed by ‘austerity’. Wallace is talking about the late 1970s going into the 1980s. Wall Street greed followed by slacker culture and the anti-capitalist movements of the mid ’90s. I’m not sure how our own moment fits in with all of this. After the millennium everything got stranger: neo-con, new-labour, nu-metal. What I can see though is that Bert’s generation were the last not to pay tuition fees, us being the last to pay £1,000 per year, and now all these kids are going to leave with US college levels of debt…
I guess I never thought of the other side of the coin when growing up. About the ‘squareness’ of Bill and Ted’s parents, or the fact that the kids’ idleness is completely dependent on the hours their parents give in the most mind-numbing and soul-defacing of jobs. It’s not the whole picture of course, but where does it leave Jay and Silent Bob from Clerks (or Randall and Dante for that matter)? I guess the film never tells you. Looking back on it now I can see how Dante and Randall’s crisis of masculinity, or crisis of life station, is played out in Fight Club: “Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables – slaves with white collars.”
I think what is telling is that this conception of proletarian revenge ultimately amounts to a form of opting out by militarising, by forming an underground army, which leads to them blowing up ten glass towers of high finance, producing an image, which turns real half a decade later. The image splits the world in two, and the members of Fight Club split themselves in two, carrying on in their demeaning jobs by day, and by night going in search of their lost sense of self – or some inflated Hollywood notion of themselves as men.
Dante and Randall’s crisis in Clerks plays out in a much lower key, but the logic isn’t totally different. Apparently Kevin Smith first got Brian O’Halleran, who plays Dante, to shave his goatee, but after seeing him without it changed his mind. O’Halleran had to grow it back, which is why in the early scenes it looks a bit straggly. And there’s something about that goatee that’s very much tied up with how Dante is both appealing and repellent as a character – something humanising but also a bit despicable about it. Another telltale sign is his ex-girlfriend Caitlin’s engagement to an ‘Asian design major’. The fact that an Asian geek, emasculated in American pop culture, trumps Dante, only adds to the humiliation. In this age when work seems anything but heroic, when exhaustion means twitching under fluorescent strip lights rather than sweating next to the glow of a furnace, only Caitlin and Veronica (Dante’s current girlfriend) are able to chase the American dream, hoping to graduate from low-paid service work to fulfilling or high-earning professions. It’s sad we don’t learn more about them, about their hopes and dreams. While the boys joke and whine, are the girls getting into Riot Grrrl, as well as studying for exams?
I think that is enough to chew on for now. Perhaps we can meet up next week when I’m back.
Subject: The Twelve Mortal Men
Date: 28 August 2015, 20:07
I agree – Martinspeed came at the right/wrong time for both of us. Thorpe Park definitely came at the right/wrong time for me and my friends. It was the first gloriously long summer and we were all going slowly mad inside this theme park – inside the arcade specifically – listening to the same machines for twelve hours a day. So much so that when you tried to sleep at night you’d still hear them.
I think you’re right to compare the syphoning off of coins to press-ups etc. Both are a way of ‘giving the time a function’. But in answer to your question, what used to happen in the arcade was: the machines were old and crappy, so coins would get stuck in the mechanism all the time, and someone would complain and you’d have to open them up to unjam the coins and give the punter their go again. At which point you could drop the coins through the slot into the money box. I mean you could do that, you really could, or, you could just sneak them into your pocket… I think I was the last one to cotton on. Some kind of moral code or civic duty kept me good for a little bit, but once it was apparent that everyone was at it – supervisors, managers, all over the park, in every department – plus working twelve hours a day at £4.10 an hour – then it was literally a no-brainer.
What we did was, we stored the coins in that secret compartment that all smart trousers seemed to have back then – the shallow horizontal pocket running along the inside of the main pocket – which was pretty tight, so they didn’t make a sound when you walked. Then, when you had enough for a tenner, you would go up to one of the kids – we knew a few of them who used to play the fruit machines – and you would drop the coins into the bottom tray where the winnings would come out. In fact, you would drop £11 or £12, depending how much you liked the kid, the extra £1 or £2 being their cut, and they would take the coins over to one of the teddy-winning games and change it up with a ‘colleague’ who was working there. Those guys always had a £50 float of various denominations on them and they used to smuggle it out by the bucketload, they really did, and in ingenious ways too, my favorite being in a plastic bag sellotaped to the the underside of the penis. A few of the ‘supervisors’ on the game stalls even used to play a game where on the way back from lunch they would go to the edge of the water by one of the rides and throw money in. Whoever threw the most in won – simple. It would start with coins and go up to about a fiver and that would be it. But one day this guy throws in a fifty pound note to start proceedings and that just about killed everyone. Anyway, the kids who we sent out to get the coins changed up would come back and shake your hand – all very unnecessary but it added a kind of hustling element to the exercise – and you would take the note from their hand and stick it in your pocket. Then, when you got the chance, you would go to the toilet, open up the back of your phone and hide the note behind the battery.
Another genre of film we should probably add to the mix, although I have absolutely no desire to watch one now: the gangster film – Scarface, Goodfellas, Casino. All of which we watched at that time, as well as listening to a lot of ‘gangster rap’, some good, some awful. I think this was my Taylor Swift – in that, being young, you seek empowerment wherever you can get it, in places which are sometimes fairly questionable when you look back at them, or at least very complex to unpick. Some of that music really was great though, and throughout a twelve-hour shift, the odd lines from Nas would drift through my riot:
Even though we know somehow we all gotta go
But as long as we leavin’ thievin’ we’ll be leavin’ with some kind of dough
So, and to that day we expire and turn to vapours
Me and my capers’ll be somewhere stackin’ plenty papers
Keepin’ it real, packin’ steel, gettin’ high
Cause life’s a bitch and then you die
If you really want to hear about it, what it was like working in a stinking place like that I mean, you should have seen some of the phonies coming into that place – right, I’m gonna stop with the Holden Caulfield lilt. I finished it very recently having never read it before. The Internet says he is to the 20th century what Huck Finn is to the 19th. And you can probably book-end these two with Bartleby (the Scrivener who would prefer not to), and Dante (the Quick Stop clerk who’s not even supposed to be working today). Bartleby opts out of the system by a series of refusals, starting with not wanting to work anymore, then not leaving his job when they try to fire him, after that not leaving the building, and then, when he’s removed to prison, refusing to eat. Huck and Holden rebel by opting out and drifting, literally taking a journey, but this solution can only last so long. Dante doesn’t have the resources and connections to do a Holden. He could perhaps do the Huck Finn. He could steal a load of money from the till and disappear, but he knows how far he’d get. Instead Dante neither refuses nor flees but just gets on with it, living through the heroism of turning up day after day, even on his day off.
Gangster rap, the stories of Biggie and Tupac, are the American dream of the ’90s. They went from the streets to riches – and the timing was perfect. I remember friends at school spending an entire double IT lesson printing out conspiracy theories about them, and these sheets of A4 circulating in the playground at break, the most eye-catching conspiracy being that the FBI were behind their deaths. I’m not normally one to go in for these crypto theories, but it’s not the wildest of ideas. The one thing I would say is that they were killed at the height of their powers. This was 1996 and 1997 and hip hop was certainly not the same afterwards.
There’s the well-trodden cliché of the ridiculousness of white suburban kids listening to gangster rap. But like most clichés it misses the point, which in this case is a natural inclination towards something other – seeing everything around you as stuffy and boring and this other thing as incredibly exciting. Our adolescence coincided with a time when gangster rap went mainstream, became co-opted and was everywhere. But we also weren’t as naive and vapid as the cliché suggests. Many of us were reading Malcolm X at the time. And this inclination towards something radical coincided with Britpop, which was mostly apolitical – Noel shaking Blair’s hand being the touchstone here. So we turned to rap not just for our fix of sex and danger but also our fix of the political. We wanted the affect of that kind of empowerment/disempowerment, where you ‘boost yourself up’ by hanging about in a gang, grabbing a kind of fictional power for yourself thanks to nothing more than attitude, breaking the law, rage etc. We wanted all of that and what it looked and smelt like but without any of the danger or trauma. So this was our rebellion – a rebellion without content, in essence the cultural logic of late capitalism – and it went on to shape the disillusion that came to hang over me and a lot of my friends. Because like all young people we wanted to change things – but couldn’t see that in chasing a fetishised image of a counter-culture we weakened it with each successive aping of the form, and so too weakened ourselves. And this is why I can’t listen to Changes by Tupac anymore. When it gets played and people are dancing about, it is like a blow to the stomach.
I think the important leap here is self-involvement, self-improvement, self-betterment through the only means that mattered – $$$. The philosophy of hip hop in the late ’90s, like that of gangster films, like that of Wall Street, is empowerment through the procurement of as much wealth as you can stash down your pants, or behind the sofa, or under a dodgy floorboard, or in a tax haven.
In The Pale King, one of the many central theses is that paying your tax is a form of civic duty, and the erosion of this sensibility during the restructuring of the IRS in the 1980s was a key part of Reagan’s programme. Wallace notes that America is literally and symbolically held together by people paying taxes. The Laffer curve (the sword that neoliberalism lives and dies by) describes a theory whereby tax cuts (especially at the top end) will cause a trickle-down of this untaxed wealth, which is thus supposed to stimulate the economy to raise sufficient revenue to cover the cost of the original reduction in top-end tax.
It’s a bit like the Thorpe Park of my ‘supervisors’: if no one is playing by the rules, then there is nothing that binds us, only our own pursuits and what we can get out of it… I really didn’t care. I was a son of the ‘all you can do is what you can do’ attitude, which I wore on my sleeve for the next few years.
Then we were spat out the other end of the university bubble into a London reeling from The Crash. To put it lightly, Martinspeed (the art handlers) was an existential moment for me. Firstly, there was the boredom. Plus an ever increasing disillusionment with the Art World. Together they were like two dead weights on my chest. Although there were some funny moments in that place. I remember this massive Anselm Kiefer turning up. We were moving it off the lorry and branches were protruding everywhere, and one guy goes “What the fuck is that?” and the guy on the lorry stops directing us, the mass of arms straining under the weight, and he looks straight at the guy who just spoke and says, “It’s a big pair of bollocks! Doesn’t matter what it is, just get it off the fucking lorry!” Wonderful. The whole thing though was kind of like living in that moment at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where they wheel the Ark into that warehouse full of crates. They say a type of depression is finding absolutely no meaning in the world plus the infinity of this, the infinity of the meaninglessness. And that’s kind of where I was in that moment.
It made me think of kipple in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: “Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers… When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more… No one can win against kipple, except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I’ve sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But eventually I’ll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over. It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.”
And it got me thinking how art school is a cog in a wasteful society, whereby a load of crap gets thrown on the street or in a skip, and then a load of art students salvage this crap, and it fills up studios or finds its way into a piece of work, and some of it is put on display. Then a load of people come and look at all this crap in a room and then it all goes back in a skip or is bought and is put in a wooden box and stored in a warehouse, with loads of other boxes of crap.
I was listless and falling. Post-Frieze, there was a slump in the workload, so I spent a week tidying up an area under the lockers. It was full of junk which hadn’t been touched for years, and no one had any idea what was under there. Through the dust and a mind eating itself, I kept at it. At the back of all this stuff was a box of wine. Without thinking, I took a bottle and stuck it in my bag. It was the same logic as Thorpe Park: stealing as a way to give the time a function, to do something risky, to feel alive. My mistake was that I didn’t hide the box thoroughly enough after I had finished tidying. It was on show amongst the skates, tools etc., and someone must have gone past and thought “Ah, some wine,” and decided to share it out amongst the office staff at HQ, but when they opened it up thinking the box was full, they got a surprise. My bag got searched and in the words of Forrest Gump, “Just like that, my days of moving crap from one place to another were over…”
What’s strange is that I can’t quite describe the level to which I really didn’t care. It was a silly thing to do but I was inconsolable about the world, and in the circumstances this was utterly meaningless. In hindsight I feel sorry, not for nicking the wine, but for the old guy, Albert, who gave me the sack. In many ways, he was very much like my grandad, from a world of doing things by the book, a time of moral codes. I remember the way he did it. He took me into the staff room and asked me if I recognised anything. And of course the wine was sitting on the table. I didn’t speak. He said, “I think you better go.” I didn’t quite have the nous to say “I’d prefer not to,” but I think my nonplussedness shocked him. Like senseless vandalism or violence. He then said, “If you’re skint, I would have given you one of my bottles.” He wasn’t lying. He was embarrassed for me. He was showing the emotion that I couldn’t muster. I’d crossed over into a dark place, one which reminded me of an earlier time when I was a thief amongst thieves.
This was certainly not Robin Hood. And it certainly wasn’t a gangster thing. It was a postmodern thing: doing something for the sake of doing it. There was no content to my act other than my own disillusionment.
My other lasting memory from Thorpe Park is one of the songs that I couldn’t get out of my head. Thankfully, it wasn’t one from the arcade. It was in this area over by the Tidal Wave, where those guys used to throw money into the murky depths. They used to play all these snippets of ’50s songs on a loop. I’m not sure if it was ironic, or how knowing or intentional it was on the part of those on high, or if at the time I realised any of this. It was probably in the wash of my brain somewhere, the wash of co-opted fragments of culture. But looking back on it now, it kind of floors me to think of all of us being there, all day long in the summer heat, doing those kinds of jobs, in a giant arena of organised fun, listening to ‘Chain Gang’ by Sam Cooke.
Music with a history.
Date: 10 December 2015, 23:05
Sorry for the K.O. It wasn’t my intention to leave you face down on the canvas gathering your wits and teeth at summer’s end. If it’s any consolation I kind of knocked myself out in the process. So think of the time that’s elapsed since our last exchange as the fragile eternity between rounds.
“Sad how the years have gone…” My grandad says, and then nothing. With my phone placed slyly on the side table I try to capture something from the depths. I ask him about the time he was thrown in the snake-pit at school. Nothing. I persist and ask him what he did next. “I got out of there as quick as I could…” comes his reply in a Brummy lilt. As the seconds roll by on the phone’s audio recorder, I get myself used to the fact that this isn’t going anywhere. But I’ve stopped short before and then a gem has risen out of him to be lost forever. So I continue to provoke his memory, wanting to get back to the part where he, aged five, climbed out of the snake-pit and chased the older kid who had pushed him in around the field, until he finally got close enough to whack him with a stick, breaking the kid’s arm. But I say the punchline for him. And my grandad looks at me – there is a stillness, that imperceptible engine noise within oneself – and then he says, “Aye…” Then silence. I stop the recording knowing full well what I have: a recording of myself hounding it. Having neglected the secret, that the charm is always in the delivery. So I fear with this project – one I’ve started way too late – that all I’ll have at the end are tales of his life with his own voice emptied out of them.
These past few months I’ve continued to be tied up with helping out my grandparents – specifically helping Bert to sell their house in order to pay the fees for the care home. Back when my grandad was digging his heels in and swearing that he’d never leave, one thing he kept saying was, “Once all your money is gone they’ll strip it off the estate.” And so this was it being stripped. An ordinary house, with ordinary-sized rooms, a garage for a car, or work bench, a decent-sized lawn and behind that a similar space divided into rows for growing things (perfect for playing hide and seek when we were kids). And within a morning of viewings it was effectively gone. We accepted the highest bid that evening, and so with the wheels already in motion we went up the following week to clean it out for the last time and hand over the keys. About a month before I’d sworn I wasn’t going to go back (they do say never go back). Selfishly fatigued by the whole business, I couldn’t see why it would need both of us. Anyway, Bert insisted, and so up we went to find that in the time that had elapsed, what little kipple remained had gone forth and multiplied. So we spent yet another day at each other’s throats slotting things into his car, tessellating forks and spades, saucepans and teapots, until we were going back and forth with a solitary object, scanning the assemblage in the back to find an empty space to match the exact shape of the thing we were holding. The noble Bert and the feckless I were at odds as to what we should or should not leave in the garden. He decided to uproot this giant bird feeder, which was basically a lance with curved branches near the pointy end to hang columns of seeds and nuts from. But rust, or my grandad’s stubborn spirit channeled through this chivalric instrument, held it firmly together, so that it couldn’t be broken down into its component parts. But Bert wouldn’t let it go. So I clambered into the passenger seat of his Ford Fiesta, holding the bird feeder under my left arm which was dangling out of the window, the pointy bit of the feeder extending well beyond the front of the car, ready to set off into the evening air, charging at smokestack visions and tilting at new-builds.
Sadly, we only got as far as reversing out of the driveway before reassessing things, so the bird feeder was left in the front garden, and we slunk off to leave the car at the Travelodge before going in search of curry and beer as a fitting end to our labours – an indulgence that always seems such a good idea at the time but you forget how bloated it makes you feel. After sating our appetites, we left the restaurant, a pair of toads minus a hall, and staggered up the road to the Packhorse (the hallowed patch of spit and sawdust that had become our second home over the last year or so) for one more. But three sips into a Fursty Ferret and Bert pipes up saying that the other day he found the graves of Albert and Harriet Sadler, my grandmother’s grandparents, whose house it originally was that we’d just sold. And that he should show it to me before nightfall. With the light vanishing, I sunk what I could and floated balloon-like up the lane after him, the darkness spreading with each unsteady step. By the time we opened the church gate there were stars above our heads. Bert reckoned he could remember where exactly in the graveyard their stone was (apparently three of them were in the same patch, maybe four), and I followed him into the spooky shadows of the spire and moss-grown stone, thinking that if anything scary were to pop out, the joke would very much be on them, as I’d definitely burst with fright and they’d be covered in my bhuna entrails. So that is how we spent our celebration/commiseration evening, waddling around in the dark from headstone to headstone unable to read any of the names, finding neither grave nor ghosts. The passing of wind forever keeping our spirits up.
Subject: Oh Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!
Date: 30 March 2016, 21:27
It was great to see you the other weekend. Perfect weather for taking to the streets. And the housing demo was probably the best way for all that energy charged up at the previous night’s gig to find its way into the world. I hope you enjoyed the rest of your Sunday. Mine ended as another tale of two cities – is London ever anything else? I also had to do the mad dash for the last train again, which is the constant downside of living back at home.
I guess the other difficult thing about living back with my dad are the frequent yet never uplifting pep talks. I know I will probably miss these exchanges someday, so I always persist through frustration and raised voices, trying not to ignore the infinity of my father. When his ire is aimed at Bert though, it is easier to see the funny side – the desperate logic of it all. So I often end up stoking the fires, for there is nothing quite like telling on your thirty-six-year-old brother for drinking cold milk before bed. My favorite rant though is when, every time Bert returns from work and installs himself in front of the TV, usually watching some American sitcom, Dad goes into the living room and says, “Hey! Stop wasting your life sitting on a sofa watching other people sitting on a sofa!”
He’s got a point. And listening to to this tirade from my bedroom, I often wonder what effect growing up watching Friends had on successive generations: watching six people live out their twenties and thirties renting the same two apartments. One of these apartments is scripted as being Monica and Ross’ grandmother’s place, which means that, thanks to her long lease, it is subject to rent control. The grandchildren and their friends/partners ‘illegally sublet’ from her, which explains how Rachel, who works as a waitress, and Monica, who is often between jobs, can afford such palatial dwellings. And it’s funny how this subtext, invented to explain a configuration of space which owes its scale to the conventions of live-audience TV shows, has subconsciously gone on to inform the expectations of young people twenty years later. The characters go to work, come home, hang out, get by, the world keeps turning… I wonder what truths are buried under the bright colours of that projected life (I seem to remember purple and gold being the dominant colour scheme). For the generation that grew up watching Friends, is it any wonder that debt – ‘living beyond your means’ – is the natural condition of life these days?
But sometimes worlds collide, or rather sometimes, when you go back, you go back further than you intended. And being back here is like living in the projected image of a moment before I was born, existing in a ’70s barrel of laughs as the Son to my father’s Steptoe. For in recent years he’s become a bit of a rag-and-bone-man and I’m now his reluctant apprentice, spending afternoons figuring out how we can attach a fridge that someone no longer wants to his amusingly small car, forever arguing at the same pitch of desperate logic as we go. The most recent topic is his idea to remortgage the house, since he can borrow at a better rate than Bert, so then maybe he can help Bert buy this bungalow up the road that has been empty since the floods a couple of years ago, and thus help him onto the ladder so he can stop landing on snakes. And he always seems to want to engage in these things while manoeuvring something heavy. The conversations usually go something like this:
“What do you think?”
“You should probably ask Bert.”
“Are you interested?”
“No, that is the last thing I would like to get involved in…”
“What do you mean no! You’ve got to do something… Otherwise you’re just wasting your time going nowhere.”
Then I bite.
“It’s not just me! My friends are in the same boat…”
“That’s no excuse. You can’t just say you’re in the same boat as everyone else, wasting your life. You need to jump out of the boat!”
“Oh! Wonderful! And then what do I do once I’ve ejected myself from the boat?”
“Start something new…”
“With all the money that’s swishing about in the ocean…”
“You keep reading that book Earth Into Property – you must have some ideas?”
“What do you mean? That’s about the history of colonialism. It’s not a user’s manual for exploitation and land ownership!”
“You’re wasting your life…”
The shouting gets louder until we both fall to silence. We tug on the ropes that are holding the bookcase to the top of the car. Both windows are open and the rope is looped under the door frames. The doors cannot be opened so my dad climbs into the front seat through the window. I tell him to be careful. He drives off at ten miles per hour, one hand out the window holding on to the bookcase. And I hope that the young couple he’s delivering it to, who rent a flat for an extortionate amount in the town I swore never to return to, appreciate their role in all of this.
After our most recent argument I skulked upstairs to get on with these prints I’ve been working on, but couldn’t even bring myself to get the inks out. So I decided to ditch my own stuff for the day and go in search of the old art school building. On the train into London, I studied Google maps for a while, staring blankly at a collection of roads that all looked the same. But it’s funny, as soon as I got off at Fulham Broadway something took over and I just followed it. When I got to Bagley’s Lane, I went from new development to new development as Goldilocks did through that house she once squatted, each time convincing myself that this must be where it once stood, then deciding it wasn’t right, questioning the age of the railings, the proximity to the waste management site, and finally finding it at the end of the road, with a blue plaque on the old Victorian bit that remains.
I was only at that place for three months though, in the autumn of 2004, because after Christmas we were relocated along with the other three corners of Chelsea College of Art and Design to the megastore on Millbank. At the time we were all quite excited by the move. I believe a similar fate befell your art school too, and didn’t you live close to the old building at one point? And do you miss the old building at all? I certainly miss the one in Chelsea: the dankness of those Victorian spaces, the very cold walls of white paint, the outbuildings, one of which had a hole in the ceiling where we would stash stuff – I can’t remember what! All the bright-eyed us learning to negotiate uneven terrain. And then we were thrown into the brand-spanking new facility – well, kind of new, it was once a hospital – where each of us was given our very own bit of 8’x4’. Mathematically divided space… a ratio of bodies to the square inch… 90% of our students go on to professional practice… Everyone striving to find their niche version of the same expression… A building full of hundreds of start-up individuals awaiting investment. The perfect storm of successive generations told they can go to art school and make it big. And we all did our fair share of beguiling technician work along the way. For to stop striving to become a professional was to give up and return to how you were – the person you were back at home, back at school. And the energy of all these art schools found their way into the blossoming bespoke coffee shops, as well as the booming temp market. Thousands of people happy to be on temporary contracts with no benefits because it promises the opportunity of flexibility, and the chance to work somewhere that aesthetically isn’t Starbucks.
Happy St Pay Day. Drink soon?
Subject: Into the void, filling in the gaps
Date: 22 April 2016, 15:42
Sorry again I couldn’t make it the other night. Time passes differently here in the suburbs, in the outer rings of the whirlpool – so I’ve no doubt my apology will seem like it’s coming from the past. There’s a very intriguing argument going on between two sets of neighbours opposite that I’ve been observing unfold ever since my return. They are currently facing off either side of a waist-high wall, holding their mobile phones up to record each other’s actions and threatening to show the footage to the police. Trust me, when I get to the bottom of it you’ll be the first to know.
Anyway, recently my grandmother broke her hip and I took my granddad to the hospital to see her. She was still quite out of it from the anaesthetic and kept calling for her mother, then telling us to get out and save ourselves because of the fire. I’ve still no idea what she was referring to. I know the first place she was evacuated to during the war got bombed, but I also know she’s spent many years watching television – so it could be a memory from either.
Grandad was stood next to her supporting himself by holding onto the metal rail. Every time some strange utterance left her mouth, he looked down and shook his head slightly. My grandmother tilts towards him and says, “Tell Mr Brown I’ll be in on Monday…” Again he shakes his head, then raises it, looking at her as he takes a breath in. “You haven’t worked there for twenty-five years Gwen…” But this didn’t seem to put her off, so I promised to tell Mr Brown in the morning. And Grandad and I just looked at each other. Then she began again, saying, “I wish I could’ve had him home. I tried to have him home. I should have had him home.” Grandad raises his head slowly, and says, “You did what you could… You’ve only got one life Gwen… There is only one life.” Before looking sheepishly up to the heavens and adding, “I hope.”
And I couldn’t help thinking about my other grandmother, who also ended up in a hospital bed speaking to the past. Relatives who went to visit said she would speak to her husband and his father as if they were in the room with her. I never met my Malaysian grandfather, nor, unsurprisingly, his father. Most of what I know about these two comes from one of my uncles going in search of our Chinese lineage and retelling what he found out in three different languages around a kitchen table that Bert, not I, was present at. My uncle had met up with our distant relations, who kept a family scroll detailing five hundred years of family history. It begins during a time of war between the dynasties. There was a peasant uprising in 1644 that took Beijing and lead to a brief rule by the Shun dynasty, before it was overthrown by an alliance between the dynasties of Qing and Manchu. There were other localised battles during this time and my ancestors backed the right warlord (I imagine people studying the form of each warlord as they would do a horse). Anyway, they picked the winner, and for their loyalty were rewarded with some land. Two hundred and fifty years later they were relatively prosperous, which lead to my great-great-grandfather being kidnapped by bandits. My dad, whose brain I briefly picked while helping him to read the gas meter just now – he’s convinced he’s being overcharged – seems to think it was part of the wider Boxer Uprising, which sought to resist imperialist expansion and the spread of Christianity in China. But the way I heard it, he was kidnapped by bandits, who nailed his feet to the floor and issued a ransom to the family. Somehow he managed to escape though. And I can only imagine that he prised the floorboards up – these still being attached to his feet – and as he was being kept up a hill, managed to ski down to safety, leaving the bandits waving their fists in the air and promising to build their lairs underground from then on.
The end result was that my great-great-grandmother was scared for the safety of the younger family members and sent them all away to make a better life for themselves. My great-grandfather (her youngest son), and his family, ended up on a tiny island called Langkawi, off the north west coast of present-day Malaysia – quite how they made it there no one knows. It was a place full of mangrove swamps and he invented a special kind of kiln to smoke the mangrove wood and turn it into charcoal, the kind that burns with a blue flame. My dad has just drawn me a picture of how it works and I think you’d appreciate the simplicity. Dad worked there as a young man, and the first time we went to visit Malaysia he took us to the factory where the kiln was, to give money to the workers. That was when I learned of the curse of Langkawi, the details of which will have to wait for another time, but which is supposed to last for seven generations – I’m either the seventh or the eighth, I can’t remember!
Britain had been interested in Malaya since the early days of the East India Company. And after capturing the west coast from the Dutch in 1795 they were the main occupiers. That remained the case until the Japanese invaded in 1941. The British thought the Japanese would attack from the south and east by sea, so they put all their defensive guns in Singapore pointing outwards. But instead they came from the north, through Thailand, on bicycles. Britain beat a swift withdrawal and set about funding and training the MCP (the Malayan Communist Party – set up in the 1930s by Chinese workers who had been brought over by the British in a wave of forced migration, along with Tamils and Indians, to work on rubber plantations and in the tin mines). During the war the MCP became the MPAJA – the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army.
During this time my great-grandfather’s charcoal factory was put into the service of the Japanese war effort, although not without remuneration. The Japanese printed a new currency known locally as ‘banana money’, which as the war went on kept being printed in ever-increasing amounts and notes of larger and larger denominations. All of the money that the charcoal factory made was kept in the loft of my great-grandfather’s house. Despite being urged by his wife and daughter-in-law (my grandmother) to use the money to buy land, property, stuff etc., he kept hoarding it up there. When the Japanese surrendered, this money was suddenly worth nothing. And so, not wanting any evidence of colluding with the occupiers (not that there had been much choice), my grandfather and great-grandfather burnt it all. The sound of both men crying and the smell of the ink as it went up in smoke lived long in the memory of everyone in the house at the time.
Back in Birmingham, visitor time is almost over and my grandfather is determined to kiss his wife goodbye. Still clutching the railings with his big paws – hands that were put to work from the age of fourteen – he somehow manages, although not without my assistance, to clamber up on his tiptoes and arch over towards Grandma, who in her pretty immobile state says, “Stop messing around Kenneth, you’ll make the boy late.” He inches closer to her and lets go of the rail with one hand, so I take more of the strain, and with his free hand he can just about reach behind Grandma’s neck to bring her head slightly closer to his. In my crouched position I see her face between the railings craning towards him, puckering up, and I imagine Grandad is stretching his lips to just about their limit, and my back is about to break under his weight. And with their lips maybe an inch or two away from each other he concedes, saying, “Nope… It’s not going to happen.” He clambers down and I get my breath, and my grandmother looks dazed. I then wheel him out of there, the both of us now hunched in a way that must have looked like a kind of bow to whichever ghosts happened to be in the room.
Subject: If vital light
Date: 29 April 2016, 00:34
Once more into the void,
And Gihm is on my mind again. There haven’t been any more covers reuploaded since I first started listening to him, so I guess unless someone has a stash and is waiting for the perfect moment then I’m afraid this might be the lot for our lifetimes. Maybe two hundred years from now someone will stumble upon a dusty laptop amongst a load of kipple and after researching how to get the blasted thing open, a treasure trove will spill out before them… I’ll just have to be content with the 15 or 16 videos that remain – like the 35 or 36 Vermeers left in the world. Come to think of it, both Gihm and Vermeer spent their time doing the same thing as everyone else but managed to turn their space into something more. Except Gihm wasn’t part of an art market. In fact, the bit that really gets me is that all the songs he recorded were gifts. One was a Christmas present, one for someone he liked, and one a thank you to the original artists. All of this I’ve gleaned from the comments sections, in-between getting lost in the rumors about what happened to him: “He died in the Tsunami... He had a breakdown after the death of Jason Noble from the band Rachel’s…He’s actually from Sweden not Japan and didn’t like the attention from trolls… His last blog post from 2013 says he went to live in the mountains… Is Gihm Dustin Wong?” And one person’s bad English leads another to respond, “Hey! How do you know he killed himself???” Which leads Dr Van Nostrand to backtrack and reply, “I know nothing of his personal life. If my first post gave that impression to you or others, I’m sorry. I just wanted to say, I’m concerned for his health. I hope he’s doing good and still playing his guitar…” I’m not sure we’ll ever know. All I can say is that when I started watching his covers each video had a few hundred views. These have now increased tenfold, and so too the speculations – more disciples joining by the day, each of of them out with lanterns.
Sorry, I’ve sent us round the houses again, and it’s far too late to go knocking on doors. The main reason for this message is to tell you that the person my grandmother could no longer have home was her grandfather, Albert Sadler. Her mother had died when she was young and her father was a decorator who had fallen off a ladder – I have an image of a scene from the film Distant Voices, Still Lives, where the same thing happens to a guy and his uncle, and you see in slow motion two men in white overalls tumbling from somewhere and falling, slowly and forever into empty blackness. They don’t know whether my great-grandfather fell due to early onset Parkinson’s, or whether the illness set in after the fall, but either way he couldn’t work again and so he became an early beneficiary of The State. Grandma told me once that people would come round to check that he wasn’t able to work and these checks would include a search of the house, so they could never have anything new when she was growing up, not even presents. And she remembers having to give these new bed sheets they received as a gift to her grandparents Albert and Harriet Sadler in exchange for their old ones.
Albert Sadler was a gardener, known for the things he grew in his allotment, until the people who owned the ground beneath developed it. Albert’s wife died before him, and so in old age he was looked after by my grandma, who was also looking after Uncle Frank who was born with learning difficulties. In broad terms, my grandmother’s generation was the one that was bombed and built the welfare state, whilst mine was the last one to go to university paying £1000 tuition fees, before scraping through the housing crisis. Yet in our early adulthood, my grandma and I shared a common experience: that of madly dashing between places, looking after people, whilst trying to keep one nostril above the water. I think back to a time when I was getting the train down to the coast to look after my mum after she’d had another setback, trying all day to encourage her to get up and leave the house, eventually going for the slowest walk imaginable up the road and back, and then dashing back to London on an over-lit carriage, only to be spat out the other end aboard a similar vessel, to go up and look after my grandparents in Birmingham.
And I think of myself doing this and my grandmother cycling through the lanes of that city, up and down the hills from work to home to look after people. We also share the guilt of not being able to keep this up anymore. Whenever she could, she escaped to Portsmouth to see my grandfather, her soon-to-be-husband, who was doing his National Service in the Navy. He chose the Navy because he thought he’d be able to see the world but he never got to leave British waters, something I’m sure haunted him, knowing his brothers got to go to Egypt. But part of me is glad that Grandad didn’t go overseas during the late ’40s, when Britain was fighting against various independence movements, many of which like the MPAJA they had earlier trained themselves – extrapolating the blueprint of counterinsurgency tactics in Palestine (destroy all the homes) to Malaya and other colonies, trying to flush out the ‘bandits’. And while the world was still reeling from Nuremberg, the British were responsible for the massacre of a Malaysian village. So I’m thankful that Grandad wasn’t made to participate in any of these atrocities. But instead spent his time getting up to mischief on a boat, rowing officers up and down the coast after dark for an extra allocation of rum, then trading this rum for cinema tickets, and so forth…
I’m sorry I’ve sped things up again, when what I meant to do was to slow them down, to focus on one image within the whirlpool, to give life back to that one thing – to remember that the story is always in the telling, that the secret is in the delivery. And I think a little bit of my mind will always be in the garden of our grandparents’ house, the one we sold. It will always be there on a certain afternoon. Grandma is standing in-between the rows of vegetables instructing Bert which things to dig up and which to leave in the ground. Grandad is sitting on the bench telling one long-winded story after another, in a continuous monologue that just pours out of him, making the most of having the company of the three boys. And Patrick, my younger brother, is sitting with him, taking his turn listening to the barrage, trying to stay awake, trying to nod and say yes at the right moments. And I’m lying on the lawn, neither helping with the digging nor the barrage, knowing that it’ll be my turn to be bored to death after dinner. It is an immaculate summer’s day. The sounds of lawn mowers in the distance, a few bees maybe, Bert digging, Grandma’s footsteps on the paving stones, Patrick nodding and saying “really?” every now and again, and grandad going through the repertoire, and me thinking, surely he’s got other stories to tell, surely he must be holding back. But he continues about the time he used to work in the Cadbury factory. I can see out of the corner of my eye that Patrick can no longer even bring himself to nod. And Grandad is talking about the day that a new machine was brought in and they were shown how to use it, and what not to do, and especially not to put your finger in a certain place otherwise it would be trapped. And my grandad asks Patrick, “Well, do you think anyone ever got their finger trapped in it?” Patrick looks on blankly and says “I don’t know…” and my grandad replies in an instant, “Of course they did… You can make something idiot proof, but you can’t make it wanker proof!” The look on my brother’s face. The bead of sweat on Bert’s brow. Grandma’s voice suggesting a tea break. And me in bliss on the lawn, delighting at the opening of a world.