Who was Joke-()-phine?
My father figure—a secondary head of modern languages who took early retirement, and a sculptor in wood of raptors and big cats, that died aged ninety early in 2014—was a poorly constructed excuse for a woman (or neologism) that took the signs and display of his female identity or alter ego very seriously.
He performed sexuality – and the supercilious drag of paternity – alone in his first floor bedroom that looked out over the hedge on a six acre pea green, girls’ public school lacrosse field at the far end of which were several square hundred yards of pinetum, obscuring the Tudor-cum-Jacobean-style school mansion and its grounds – where a quietly iconoclastic and prickly princess had been schooled til 1968.
A milky turquoise pool lay somewhere in the centre of the pinetum, beyond the spikes of monkey puzzles, walls of rhododendrons, and a maze of concrete paving stone paths, that we were lucky enough to be able to use with a permit during long, childhood summer holiday afternoons – bobbing and doggie-paddling, buoyed by persimmon plastic water wings, and listening to the judder and boing of the springboard as a diver described an arch…
His wife did allege, before she died in six weeks from diagnosis to death in ’97 of liver cancer (a bitterly contested move), that many years previously he had performed sexuality in character, fully attired, with her present – no doubt with a well-thumbed copy of The Collected Works of Melanie Klein on the nightstand in case of emergency or the need for references.
Maybe with a clunk of the tautly-sprung lever, thirty degrees to the right, on the upright Akai 4000DS reel-to-reel tape deck, and the quivering blades of the VU meters might cut a passage between the wow and flutter of verdant green and illicit red, through uncharted waters, to the strains of Tristan and Isolde.
At my mother’s hospital bedside, after my birth in 1963 (she alleged), he chastised her for a failure to fully empathise with his predicament as an artist lacking the embodied, reproductive and creative capacities of a woman – a prescient example of “check your privilege” way before its time.
In Dina (see previous post: “Property”) I had seen, rightly or wrongly, a character that seemed to transcend both parody and preaching to the choir, to transcend the predictable and – of course – the closet; the real closet or numerous metaphorical cupboards.
One cross-dresser was a real one, the other was a fake?
What an idea.
It smacked of conceptual gymnastics, of arbitrary signs and correspondences – made-up worlds that mightn’t get very far except towards making their fans feel good and better than others by moving sets and signs around on a stage.
One was ordinarily, courageously, out and out and out funny and enjoying himself and giving joy – and by the looks of it doing something personally fulfilling – by making characters and worlds in an act of both invention and self-revelation.
He was rehearsing an openly flimsy, fake-believe world made up out of pop cultural items and particulars and both making it come alive and drawing attention to its fictionality, its materiality, the stage—or his own—character’s constructed and imaginative nature, and its familiarity and predictability, in a way that was both movingly self-parodic and side-splittingly antic – not to say piqueing.
He was the joke, its performance, and the dead frog of a joke vivisecting itself. Successfully.
The other wasn’t out or offering of himself or his fictional world and imagination to scrutiny – or embrace – on a theatrical, or social, stage.
An out and out, sucker-punching psychosexual bully, desperate for attention. Paranoid, perverse, and out to get one in behind closed doors, he aimed to ridicule hard and to ridicule first – so high up his own behind at just how hideous and dismaying he could sniggeringly be.
To protest was merely proof of resistance to the idea that you liked the dog-in-a-manger’s cruelty.
Or, worse, evidence of resistance to the idea that you deserved more than this eccentric’s stampede – the village Trump or L.Ron Hubbard in the living room; the pointillist, pixel-brick grand dam of a gauzy small screen character, an augur ever ahead of the shifting curves of twittering murmurations above cow fields and playing fields – lighting up the other cavity walls of the gallery around him with the mottlings of the cathode ray tube.
But then, with a bedside manner, through a lambent Anthony Hopkins impersonation, a cigarette end selflessly ministering some kind of arcane wisdom to an unfortunate navel-gazer, or the Wild Boy of Aveyron, he’d act for all the world as if he were a priestly D.W.Winnicott—or moist-lipped eavesdropper—with a shaming degree of empathy that undressed and stroked you with looking glass eyes behind half-moon tortoiseshell spectacles.
Or holding a lens to the Stalinist or Hitlerite stone gargoyle—or beast with genitals for brains—you really were, spouting received ideas either blindly or opportunistically; re-enacting history in microcosm.
Joke-o-phine disturbing the comfortable.
Comforting the disturbed.
Most people want to get away from pain, can’t be fully present in the presence of pain, or listen to it. They want to forget.
And even as he spat out such words and pictures, he realised they were true.
Because anybody was a goon with a cordon sanitaire around them who was suicidal with despair at the decades of organ-exposing ambushes, truculent and throat-tearing odium, the endless emotional, physical and social squalor – and, hopelessly drunk on their own ego, wanted to help to change it, to put it right.
Or to stub it all out – on ashtray, navel or forehead – and leave, never to return.
And at roughly three hours after having shut the door of the latest second-hand, motorised mobile representation of your make-up—the magical divination of the thoughts of André Lefèbvre’s tin snail or Volkswagen’s air-cooled contraption in the pebbled clay lane—and opened the spavined wooden gate on a loose post in the holly hedge, minded the overhanging thorns, walked up the metre-wide, still-cooled and raked river of the concrete front path, crossing the one acre garden to the front door, stepped through the Janus face of Orchard Cottage, and having met bitter censure or satirical lampooning of either your musical enthusiasms and gigs or recordings, of your friend, your girlfriend, your sister or mother, your trip to Thailand or Tyne-on-Tees or Tesco’s, a glitteringly surreal Moscow nightclub, a non-smoking, L.A. sushi restaurant or a Burbank TV studio (the shame of having such a spineless social tree climber for a son, a gadding hologram), your gift of a single malt or singular virgin olive oil or tragicomical London pub gig anecdote, of your undergraduate fascination with the radical impact of the digital on the humanities or history, or (when his Stakhanovite wife had passed away), of your effort to clean up the grime, the memento mori—the sharp and drip-nosed caricatures brought to life with a purity of hand-wringing anguish and the pert, incisored hiss, heat, sizzle and crackle and pop and advert-fresh primary colour and ripeness and juiciness of a TV chef behind a TV screen in a TV land determined not to be upstaged by the everyday—he’d insinuate that he wanted you to do just that:
to jolly well f*** off and leave him to dress up and/or carve wood or sing Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin song cycle – bulging, rosy chorizos brushing the keys of an upright rosewood Bechstein on curling cork tiles in the pool of the studio building behind factory-sized glass panes.
Or add to the shelves on the sides of walls or Dormobile dashboard – with 1mm galvanised steel wire, finishing nails, Araldite epoxy resin glue, half-inch ply and a couple of wall brackets.
Another tenement for the brood of flora and fauna guides, spectacles, lieder scores and Duralex glasses of Valpolicella.
An occupied territory of released, silky-soft and open-skirted, loving creative play and honest work.
If there were anybody else around, he’d torture you with a William Hague—or Harold Wilson—impression – Tibetan overtone sounds of gurgly gravitas and languid, expansive gestures completing the picture of a young grandfather surrounded by scampering tweens, patting them on the head.
An overalled over-man who rotely slapped and shelved everybody else with the sticky barcode of consumer drone unable to cope with imperfection, as a sucker for the air-brushed and the made-over, the fashionable, the gimmick or—in the gastronomically-challenged British Sixties and Seventies, in a house lucky enough to have a wonderful cook and her kitchen garden with a rich variety of greens under plastic netting, who understood nutrition, had great skill and tireless enthusiasm for fresh, Mediterranean food and homemade soups, and quince, damson, medlar and marmalade jams, tomato chutneys and fruit liqueurs made with eau de vie—with the epithet of dog’s palate; grotty little tykes blind to the delights, simple pleasures and superiorities of unadulterated, un-processed, diverse and authentic fruits of the earth.
Like two saccharine stirred into his tea and coffee with a pinging, duplet flourish on the rim of the spode, floral-patterned porcelain.
And Sarson’s malt vinegar, sugar and sunflower oil dressing on a white iceberg out of a Tupperware salad spinner—to the side of a canned, cubed chicken Vindaloo—whipped up after the biblical storm he’d blow on the rare occasion when he found he was left to the job of fending for himself.
Out of nowhere would come the cluck-cluck, the spitting, and then the screaming of a Suzuki two-stroke, 50cc dirt bike at full throttle, airborne – if you said no: you’d eat the speckled – not the squishy black lizard of a banana on offer.
Yet more confirmation, if that were really necessary, of the blight he had to put up with and that ruined his free-range wilderness.
The next morning at six he might swap the cuculiform call for an electric chainsaw’s – just to alert us to what non-airborne excess hayseeds and slow, sleepy bumpkins or scarecrows we were.
For the sculptor of work in the Naive style, of depictions of the cat and bird family capturing or signalling simplicity and frankness—and signalling something that could never be found in his marriage nor in any other relationship, nor in music, dance or song with others—the folk music of Ireland and America, with its bursting joy and melancholy and simplicity (and, more recently, complex substitutions for simple chords and ever more intricate rhythms, cross-rhythms and melodies borrowing from Eastern Europe, jazz or African music, the tunes overlaid with intricate, lilting ornamentation), was just the kind of melody, harmony, rhythm and song that quite frankly, quite simply, signalled the derivative or simple or cocksure or monomaniacal character of the player or devotee. The mob in miniature. Fake, made up tradition from an illiterate, backward bog or desert with no pedigree nor aesthetic worth.
Unless it came from the Auvergne.
In which case the folk and peasant euphonies, the voices with their rich, earthy Occitan twang—that he’d heard a few bars of, introduced by an urbane France Musique radio presenter, a signal that accompanied the appearance of another bird of Western Europe in the woodland—were both as rooted in the soil of authentic social and historical tradition and as clean, as pure, and as sparkling and clear as that snow-capped mountain region devoid of petty paces we could gaze at with binoculars through a shimmering blue haze – from the top of the hill above our three hundred year old second home, nestling in the thick red clay and limestone of the Causse de Martel, amidst walnut groves and vineyards and not far from subterranean caverns on whose walls roamed bison, aurochs and wolves snagged in serpentine lines and stipplings of charcoal, ochre and metallic oxides, a few miles north of the Dordogne valley.
But—as the sulphite-powered sociocultural broker was reminded and humbly conceded, after having paused work on an osprey nesting beneath the rings and whorls of a trunk of walnut in the cicada sunlight, laid down his 40mm bevel edge steel butt chisel and beech club mallet on the waist-high bench bisecting the black square of open barn doors overhung with drooping, brushwood eyelashes dappling broad bronzed shoulders, walked up smoothly cratered steps under a canopy of vines sheltering a terrace atop a subterranean limestone cistern, and (the ionosphere whistling the same snatch of Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata No.2 for the tenth time that afternoon) shuffled in Clarks brown leather sandals through the door past two foot-thick quarried walls over the threshold onto the bumps of the stone flags of the farmhouse kitchen beneath a steep, uneven slate fish-scaled ski-jump resting on seventeenth century walnut joists, the kitchen as cool and quiet, and as riven by a dusted shivelight promoting chiaroscuroed peace, as the Byzantine churches he liked to disappear into with a Praktica SLR all over southern Europe and Asia Minor—people need entertainment and diversion.
To maybe divert all those self-uncensoring analysands from the appendixes and concrete, sink estate cul-de-sacs of the narcissism of small differences.
The curious thing for him was how the inert, thin filigree of black scrawled slurs, crotchets, quavers and rests and bar lines and thudding, clanging acciacatura, the largactil largo and the pipsqueak and prattle presto, the dead, lagging or over-eager time signatures that left him cold—in the score that he grunted or groaned at on the page in front of him—were actually able in voice or on an instrument to add up to the likeness of a true, live musical culture that in fact belonged to somebody else and that you were a piss-poor imitation or transcription of – bare of integrity, originality or spark.
As I was at pains to point out, any good stab at “inducing effects” was enabled by learning from your body, by ear from others, and from memory, and improvising in live situations where the music was constantly changing as it was passed on and exchanged.
Not just by reading off the musical or cultural page—the eyes, the mind’s eye and the limbs tethered to marks on paper, and in pursuit of a work set down by an author or origin that one might not be embarrassed to be reading or reproducing.
If Alter-Mitty, the inverted saint, was consummate at baiting and swooping—for all the world as if he were a Tinto Brass or eagle-eyed Orson Welles, a drecknicolor bad dreamcoat, a dark, insurrectionary carnal master of the old in-out-in-out of titillating victims with the sublime, orgiastic porn of their own abjection and gulling—and if he delighted in presenting an empty void or a sick bag into which one sicked up desperate pleas and righteous anger at the crossly-dressed pseud’s torturing of his wife and children with the sight and smell of their own nose in the dirty, stinking nappy of their own craving for love and someone better to be around than this…
If he did this as a matter of routine for years – convex graphite ends of sculptor’s oval-shaped 7B pencils for eyes, paunch bloated on an overcooked cobbler of sacred cows, pickled in Johnny Walker or Soave – with fists punching and elbows elbowing and feet kicking at the babbling and self-absorbed babies clinging to the skirts and petticoats of platitude, their spines blistering and rending beneath the seized lorry transmission of the disposable ‘The God that Failed’ story product, without the courage to face their nursed but un-acted thoughts and desires…
If he did, then only once did I, as a young adult on another ever hopeful but futile home visit from London, watch him look wide-eyed with alarm as I rolled my eyes in deaf disinterest at the spectacle of rancorous trolling, taunting and harrumphing.
And as he then slammed another empty glass down, disgruntled – broad bear shoulders hunched over man boobs cupped in leather-patched elbows folded on the stripped pine table, gazing at Orion’s Belt through branches of the ten foot high wild hedge silhouetted against the night sky through the kitchen window, that mirrored his full head of salt and pepper, flyaway Ted Hughes hair kept in streamlined formation with a rake comb in a chest pocket – it was then that the waste of emotion and energy, the slime of jealousy, the fear and proprietariness, the gimcrack grand narrative and Rich Tea biscuit and breadcrumbs this bricoleur smeared over the Arts, music and performance—that a passive, sinking misery brought into relief—became too wrist-slashingly awful to contemplate.
Was I, prim as ever, demonstrating by my weariness a resistance to a truth inside me I was too self-deceiving to own up to – like the other mediocrities?
God forbid one might have an idea or emotion or make a physical gesture that wasnt seeking a gallery, an Art or Literature or Drama award – or just to seduce.
But such a thing could only be close to Communist kitsch – a vain imitation trying to pass itself off as an everyday original, a found object, an innocent, humble particular pretending to no plinth.
A symptom of contemporary shallowness – as depthless, as dumbly solid state, as the drive to display ourselves digitally.
Not unlike the barnacled detritus and dark brown and orange tanks or containers, struts and girders, their edges and bolt holes serrated by potassium and sodium salts in the the sea air and picked up by the artist with callused grabs in reach of the nuclear power station and in view of the red flags – during days birdwatching for terns, bitterns, linnets and smews on the sea kale-, catchfly- and shingle-covered expanses of MOD firing ranges littered with blown up military ordnance, west of Dungeness on the south east coast of Kent.
They were loaded into a red leather interior and, as yet oblivious to the runnels of rain on a windscreen under a concrete-grey, cottonwool canopy, transported twenty miles to their new home – to the beatbox sputter and putter of the black Morris Traveller.
After being assembled in the studio workshop, they’d be brushed with bright orange pantone and air superiority blue oil paint, varnished, and life blown into them as uncanny Modernist abstractions and medicine men and women, with painted pebbles and rusted nuts for eyes and monkey or fish moue mouths.
They spent their old, unfashionable age out of view in the dark damp of a parallelepiped woodshed along with my chemistry set and smooth, carved wooden monoliths – rudimentary beings emerging from the Earth, that nodded to Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, brimmed with a sense of an inchoate or grand mythical past, and had perhaps one or two or three holes in them – smooth, unembroidered voids you felt like putting your fingers through.
(As is well-known, to those in the know, Hepworth was an educator too and thought sculpture should be touched and loved, and without secrets. According to her grandchildren, Hepworth encouraged them to roam and interact, to get involved with the works in her workshop. She also accommodated fans who turned up on her doorstep.)
I wanted to be a self-sufficient science hobbyist. But bombs made with sodium chlorate (weedkiller for the garden) and two dog food tins, one sheathed over the other, only fizzed and fell off the fence posts I sat them on and spun, whooshing a lit jet back through the fuse hole instead of exploding.
The only success I had, as a thirteen year old, was syphoning a pint or so of home-made elderflower wine from the row of demi-johns—on the terracotta tiles bordering the Aga in the kitchen, glass airlocks plopping in broken rhythms—and topping the gallon bottles back up with water, then scuttling back to the shed and a configuration of flasks, funnel, cork bungs, meths burner, test tubes and quarter inch glass tubing snaking across the view through the cracked window pane of the slit-slotty-eyed shiplap bird hide posted at the brow of an apple and pear orchard running down the hill away from the garden.
The reduction was so watery it took several further goes – until there was almost nothing left of the stolen measure. The brandy tasted awful even to an excited teenager so I didn’t drink it – but maybe I’d have been young enough to get drunk on the tiny distillation.
Our cardinal sin as a family was in fact the failure to configure ourselves as either useful idiots or ideal spectators for the wild manhoodie of Scorneo’s socio-psychoanalytic prognostications; tongue clucking at those buzzards slavishly in thrall to a big, wide but meaningless world beyond. As if—even in the days before the internet—the subversive, Promethean or samizdat message were about to go viral – if only the bleeping Sputniks in orbit would oblige.
In the years before my mother died, such were the operatics of a fifty year marriage—marked ever since I could remember by planned, drunken character assassinations of my mother and/or her children as she cooked, by psychical stabbings, by games, by in-jokes nobody in their right mind would want to be in on, and proxy wars that one was dragged into again and again, by showdowns that would “finally” lead to divorce—that at any moment spitting gravel and driving out of the right of way to escape the frenzy one might expect to smash into a painted wood and plaster wall depicting a horizon flanked by trimmed hedges, rhododendrons and rosebeds.
To spy out of the corner of the eye a cheesey-grinning suit hard at work delivering to other consuming but unseen fictions sales pitches about hi-fi electronics or Black & Decker or Zoloft (or Gaviscon Antacid) – the suit being bundled out of sight into the bushes as the clueless, gurning naif—or automaton—gone on rogue or mercenary walkabout materialised where he ought not to.
A paranoiac’s fantasy of social and creative mastery; a ludicrous stand off between competing imaginations; Platonic Caves borne by vast tectonic plates, with all the self-aggrandisement of the campaign trail or fractious team-mates competing for leadership and membership on a reality TV show.
Broad horizons indeed – movie billboard- and sound stage-broad.
And you stupid enough and well-meaning enough—the way sons and daughters tend to be—to take it all as worthy of study and respect.
Ever mindful of not being so extreme, so intolerant, as to perforate the elaborate image.
Ever guilty of failure to be in the sneer- and jeer-leading Delphic braggart’s VIP box – or looking up at it.
Reading you like a book – with a drunk, shaky-cam, prurient leer and rictus titter or twinkle.
Reading you like a book.
Out of a book.
The great secret may’ve been that the ladies’ underwear – or contrapuntal undersong – came not from the Grattan mail-order catalogue but was knocked up with papier-mached pages ripped from Artforum and ‘Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious’.
His only accommodating friends were cats and, to a lesser extent, dogs – he spurned the I-love-myself look on their soft, licked, black wet noses.
Some time in the late Eighties, after moving to London in ’82, aged nineteen, I broke up after five years with a Geordie working class hero. She bore a resemblance to Juliette Binoche and that spark that transcended appearances. And the lustrous crop of sometimes short hair and her bone structure made her compare well with the pop-romantic Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet – proportions and symmetries in need of no make-up.
Fusing personal and political expression, she had finally removed that revolting phallocratic ego from between her legs once and for all and grown up to join the cadre of socialist lesbian feminists – and after some winnowing (or bold, predatory cruising) she found a lover in the form of an avowed ex-IRA member from the North of Ireland.
The soulmate had the caché of having been a “political prisoner” and her tower block council flat in Finsbury Park would occasionally serve as a halfway house for a couple I met there—when I went round for a cup of tea—who were apparently en route to reconnoitre Dutch airfields. She did allege—and one hoped not merely to impress—that her flat was a way station for the Special Branch on their interrogatory rounds too.
It made me look around myself and up and out at the stalks and cross-pieces of aerials on the roofs and tiny black rectangles of CCTV cameras looking down from eaves and lamposts in a whole new way – a way that was all too familiar in its strangeness.
Some clear-sighted and scandalised people amongst the radicals, sniffing the wind, wondered if the queen bee were not in fact friends with the Special Branch. Scandalised – but perhaps a bit jealous at not being so well-informed or close to the centre of things.
Another bulky, squat character, with a large hairy mole on her chin that only served to enhance the smile, she had a twinkle in her eye and—in the palm of her hand—the lilting butterfly of a mellifluous, Six Counties’ delivery. And she did write and sing songs with a guitar full of passion and childlike charm enhanced by a rawness, a lack of smoothing technique, that belied an idealism that elicited warm feelings about future social possibilities.
We were in Bethlehem again, every time, plucked out of the world and inserted into story, and she was down with us in the nativity play too, playing herself, as words took on the quality of music – a sonata of political change.
The garb desired by so many freeing the dumb beat, mercurial harmony and technocratic, diatonic notes to be who they really were – the vibrant dots and staves of a re-enchanting, living and breathing congregation uniting note and flesh.
Or a new musical species breaking out of the shell of self-harmonisation.
She could hypnotize her left-wing, English, middle class acolytes – and me, the pathological non-joiner – with a prepossessing folksiness. And then, once she’d gained their gratitude and confidence, about turn and tread as she hectored the Brits, community betrayers, sell-outs and patriarchal apologists amongst them – to show the guilty above and below in no uncertain terms they’d been told. A marriage of heaven and earth to make the damned tearful with gratitude as they made their way to hell.
You could catch her hunched in a corner of a humid North London Irish pub, glottally coughing nervously and blowing smoke into the table (the dry ice that lacked an audience), and disgruntled because someone else held court in her place, because she could not dazzle and haze with stories about Sinn Fein or with faraway-eyed homily about the struggles around the world.
Or, more significantly, when she lacked the presence of an adoring partner – the one to give the bigwig the confidence to clear the spit ‘n’ sawdust floor and build a flash community in the blink of a twinkly eye, deaf to any whisky-soaked wag in another corner mimicking the kind of attention she craved: “And who’d win in a fight between Karl Marx, James Connolly and Germaine Greer?”
One day around that time, driving east across North London back from Harlesden High St with a gay, republican, fellow band member in the passenger seat—hot on the trail of my bisexuality—I was stopped by the police twice in the space of thirty minutes.
In answer to the question “where have you been, what have you been doing?”, I said “buying electrical equipment”.
We had the guitar amplifier as evidence.
I still don’t know if by using that phrase I was trying to wind the police officer up. It seemed a close thing as to whether we were about to end up in custody. (Perhaps just to punish me for the insolence of my clown outfit.)
On another occasion, after disembarking from the ferry from Harwich in the port of the Hook of Holland, we were taken to a deserted warehouse and surrounded by several very polite, Dutch, bullet-proof-vested policemen with machine guns who gutted my beat-up bronze Rover SD1 (the car the Metropolitan Police drove at the time) and removed for inspection the electrical equipment inside – the violin, guitar, accordeon, penny whistles and amplifiers and microphones for an incendiary tour of folk clubs in Belgium and Holland.
The tours—apart from this brush with anti-Irish anti-terrorism—were a welcome respite from the crush and cacophany of London pubs and being treated, in the cause of human rights, like low-wage skivvies by people organising fund-raising gigs for the Miners’ Strike, the Birmingham Six, A.I.D.S victims or the Guildford Four campaigns – organisers who both valorised and kept an aerial watch on mercurial imaginations flashing far below, irrigating the fields under the international sun.
The neat and tidy Dutch towns, the polite and appreciative audiences, the hospitality of those that gave us a bed—and the warmth and appreciation of a capable, ex-patriate Geordie man who took such good care of us as our agent—mollified the bitterness of our Northern Irish Protestant lead singer and guitarist.
An Anarchist of no fixed social abode, he’d torch any lazily opinionated barfly larva within range once several shorts and pints in the proper order had given him some full canisters to play with – segueing smoothly from softly-spoken, Lennon-spectacled mousiness to Old Testament fury and scorn that appeared to set light to the bristling shaved head and Abrahamic ginger beard.
Ignited spirits did not transform his guitar accompaniment from soggy dirge to carefree, dancing linnet o’er the bee-loud glade – except when he sang a haunting slow ballad with a heavy hint of menace and irony, as Jackanory met the sectarian nightmare of The Troubles within and bore a terrible beauty in the form of a hoarse and gravelly yet lyrical Belfast baritone full of portent, singing lyrics more often than not affirming dream or imagination in a dark, traumatised or imperfect real world.
The duck legs of the dream whisperer, on peaty Guinness pond, paddling furiously underneath in what they perceived to be the direction of a Peace Prize.
There we were bottled up inside the condensation-beaded, yellow tarred walls of pubs and this man projected the aura of being able to sell the deaths or spectres of innocence and sanctimony better than the producers of the Hilltop Commercial for Coca Cola. Mefistopher Robin did used to work for IPC magazines.
But he’d rip up the ennui by setting the stage on fire and tearing down the house, the latent fury powering a coruscating comic talent, stamped with a wriggly smirk – rattling your soul with the glinting, coarse beauty of another Luke Kelly.
An escaped angry goat, hopping up a shale-strewn mountain side of theatrical dazzle and scuzzy spit ‘n’ sawdust rock ‘n’ roll.
Or delivering from the coastal path of Holywood, Co.Down a missive to shake down a sensible, intelligent but unwary man or woman to their intimate magma. A core that might erupt from under the dikes of a carefully husbanded Dutch history of integration and compromise.
The one thing that might’ve danced to one of the dance tunes was a plaice off of the North Sea shelf – its flips, spasms, tics and twitchings on white tiles in the marketplace slowing inexorably, as it eventually suffocated, flat as a map, from lack of oxygen.
One could be watching Andy Warhol’s factory-produced Empire State Building popping out from the dusky canyons of Manhattan.
Winking and rippling with pinhole, chromatic detail and inscrutable gesture.
Using the inner ear and learning even just a few tricks, merely to enhance the raw talent and energy one already had, to transform emotion and experience into performance—either by using the technology of going out and looking and asking or having the cochlear nerve to listen to recordings of people better than you, and as a uncommodified, independent gift to your fellow musicians to lighten the load, in order to really set things alight in the marginal confines of an outdoor music festival or radio studio—would’ve been wagging the tail of the innocent dolphin of freedom in a way worthy of Leni Riefenstahl and her ein volk-vizdom fantasias.
In pub music, if you found the virtuoso technique of holding your drink or forth with homily in the key of life—or withstanding the nasal sear and the tic- and twitch-firing jolt of cheap cocaine cut with Anadin, amphetamine and Mannitol, gelding oneself against tin-eared harmonic paralysis, or the bold, ball-busting and truth-telling inability to recognise in from out of tune, a coruscating off-beat guitar stroke from an over-eager shovel shoved into a cement mixer rebounding into your jaw, a Timelord from a sonic screwdriver torturing the temples, or flat and sharp speech-level singing trying to break the bonds of slavery by stepping through the fourth wall of melody, timbre and phrasing—all quite eye-wateringly tedious and narrow and smacking of a cluelessness buttressed by the eminence grise and great, grey, greasy Y fronts on the outside of an ideological figurine: well, that was yet another symptom of the way you captured, killed and ate or misrepresented the aleatoric masterpiece that was the social ecology; deaf-blind blowhard without nuance that you were.
Hanging, drawing and quartering the puppy of soul—or punk and pissorderliness—with the unsympathetic magic can opener of a generic understanding of the relationship between feeling and form, idea and execution, musical tastes or heroes and the present necessity of making and spinning a shape, an ensemble, an audience, entertainment and diversion.
Everybody with a finger on the pulse knows knowledge, experience and competence in the performing arts is a defence mechanism and about denial. The labour to produce stillborn offspring. The cruel, blinkered suppression of genuine encounter.
And that all audiences that all look the same to us are really looking not for music but a one-note, sloganistic melisma, disappearing into the dot in the distance, to fill the uniform spiritual emptiness inside them.
We remained in contact after breaking up but my ex’s inquiry and head-squaring caucus continued at every meeting without prompt. It was the Social Olympics as well – she’d batter you with questions to prove what a people person she was, with no bourgeois interiority, so interested in what was outside her. Having shredded your misplaced devotion and care with her own rat-a-tat-tat, she’d then drool and coo over your paralympic solipsism.
The Geordie’s social conscience was also exercised by me refusing to grow up, to be straightened out and groomed as a gay man – a willing proxy of politicised identity and conscionable—and easily reproducible—sexual intimacy and desire. To be tattooed, adorned and beautified along with the other streetwise designers of colourful social fabrics and unembarrassed bodies of theory – nipping and tucking, exfoliating and highlighting, chopping, thinning and texturing the grass roots of the psyche sat in the progressive salon in front of the defining mirror.
Like the make-over she gave those Soledad Brothers and unsung gay revolutionaries, the Kray twins, who further politicised her non-existent ego’s awareness – when that biopic came out starring the Kemp brothers from Spandau Ballet.
Which was the greater transgression – and therefore brave act of political resistance? Ronnie’s and Reggie’s torture, murders and myth-making and their matriarch’s indulgence? Or the overwrought film, its Docklands City Airport runway semaphore portraits and its lascivious gaze twerpishly lapping up the terrible twins and the fluids they spilt – in a supposedly widely misunderstood underground (cinegenic) social system of bonding and exchange?
Is nature being obscene a defence of obscenity? It all reminded me of stormin’ Norman Mailer and the Vietnam War – parsed avidly along with Featherstone, Greer, Friedan, de Beavoir et al.
Around the time of our break up, Joke-o-phine’s cat—a placid, long-haired, sprawling splat of a cat, like black candyfloss—had died.
Sight unseen (Joke-o-phine visited me in London not once, for nothing about multicultural London or my life in it would’ve interested the meta-narrator more than anything he’d imagined, said or authored already), he was eager to replace his cat with our loved and loving, small, thin, black and white half-Siamese suffering with a nervous disorder in London.
Her male twin had gone missing, in the transitions surrounding the end of the relationship, and she was licking and gnawing at the fur at the root of her tail, almost down to the bone.
I was eager to affirm Joke-o-phine’s generosity.
Relocating to the west Kent countryside, the affectionate cat—so deserving, unlike his spoilt children—thrived and transformed from mewling shut-in who spent life perched on your shoulder into svelte, agile, mewling ball.
She cut a swathe through the common rats, dormice, twittering coal tits, chattering chaffinches and robins and their Heifetz-esque Hollywood soundtracks in the hedgerows, orchards, cow pasture and farm tracks surrounding Orchard Cottage, pushing up teasels, cow parsley that sang along to BBC Radio Three.
The anachronym renamed the new Minnie-Me.
As “Bobo” – with a snigger, after his youngest son. A clanging allusion that the entrance sign for femininism—tongue rolling and stopped up behind the bilabial aperture—could barely give voice to, let alone explain to the outside world – almost as if his new familiar had given Joke-o-phine a feline stroke, a palsy, that somehow rendered him unable to enunciate the name of his pride and joy.
The Geordie and I—or maybe it was me, obliquely protesting at the wires, the galvanometer, and the thermometers parked in every orifice—had named her Gogo – a throwaway joke after we’d had a blast seeing a gently mirthful staging of Beckett’s play on the Dublin Fringe – one of the infrequent times we spent time together with a work of art that did not feel like a stillbirth, strangled by the umbilical of prescribed language and discourse.
This in turn was a small ocean away from the stark production that the pin-drop and hum, black and white, BBC studio of my imagination had produced both from the text and, weirdly, from listening to sanguine young Mr Cragg who liked football and could talk about the ephemeral in pop music (to over-serious Led Zeppelin rock fans) and the state of play for English Literature.
The way he talked, it seemed like it was humanity’s premier league.
The head of English, my housemaster, did not coach team sports. A gentle, liberal attitude, a pair of large, thick, rectangular-framed spectacles, and a John Major-ish voice, planted in Birkenstocks, that padded around the corridors behind the study doors in our ’60s brick and white aluminium-clad boarding house, belied the potential of a hirsute, six foot athlete.
A cat with a liquid whip that could return a squash ball three inches from the floor and wall in a back corner of the court, redirecting the spherical rubber bullet at a hundred miles an hour towards front, back or sidewall from where it rebounded four times around the court in a second.
The Brownian motion of your own game then losing its kinetic energy in an instant at the base of the tin crown at the bottom of front wall.
I was both desperate to join in and recoiling in horror at Beckett’s blithe tramps in a theatrical landscape stretching to infinity – that seemed to elevate banality to the level of venerated dramatic Art, holding court and hogging the T in the centre.
Mr Cragg’s niceness—and invitation to me to act in Godot—just made it all worse.
The feline soul wasn’t polluted with fractionated and noxious, addictive hydrocarbons, napthenes and aromatics from the breakdown, refining and emissions of language and imagination – so why not make a life-affirming joke about her—an innocent with no sense of time—born Waiting for Godot too?
Bobo was just the kind of character—perfect for those wishing to sound socially savvy—that the working class hero would seek out to press-gang into a program of ideological re-construction – bringing signs to life.
The hot metal she’d been stamped and squashed under needed modernising or even being made redundant with outside labour and new processes – especially at his merest hint that “social” – not to mention ‘6/8 time’, ‘B flat Major’, ‘learning to drive’, ’empathy’, ‘phoneme’, ‘technology’, ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘close reading’, ‘picking your nose’, ‘Kant’s categorical imperative’, ‘watching ducks’, ‘korma recipe’, ‘life-drawing’, ‘David Bowie’, ‘spectator’, ‘Pop Will Eat Itself’, ‘London Transport’, ‘talking to the checkout woman’, ‘Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy’, ‘phlogiston’, ‘The Flintstones’, ‘having a drink with friends’, ‘Lee Krasner’ – and even ‘Samuel Beckett’ – might not be a synonym of “socialist”.
Or at least they could be – if they really wanted to be reclaimed by socialist-feminist investigation.
Even ‘cant’ could find its escape from banality, crawling mechanically to Bethlehem – a readymade to the byre gallery borne; a humble, manufactured good, revolutionising the conceits and facades of art, craft and soul-murdering consumerism.
Or to Wapping.
Perhaps accompanied by the Devil’s interval of the Diminished Fifth – the restless, dissonant Tritone diverted from it’s usual role of dividing perfect octaves.
Everything was a very intimate matter of class struggle. One could maybe only admire the village explainer’s efforts to translate everything into a Marxian Esperanto. Or perhaps one had no option – on pain of being a pre-meditating murderer of the innocent or the unborn.
Or having my wires ripped out when this mechanism, that some presence higher up was tapping code into, failed to produce the correct 3D print-out with the Turing-tested thoughts, properly copy-edited speech, correct narratives, sexuality and behaviours urgently required. A re-drafted Vitruvian – awake, fully conscious, fully present, and prepared to do battle both with himself and the forces without.
Her failure, or her being forbidden, to argue her way out of a paper bag—when an incandescent, bug-eyed glare was finally met with an equally immolating, nothing-to-lose demand for scrupulous argument and (self-crucifying) impartiality—was authored by patriarchy, capitalism and the middle classes.
Refusing to argue, with the redundant modifier of honours degree in English and Education that she did have (she re-trained as a car mechanic maybe because a revolutionary attitude as a woman in Trades was easier – easier than being flipped about in the ins and outs of bureaucratic policy or staffroom politics), she’d instead morally blackmail and humiliate this philosophy undergraduate, an academic year beneath her she’d found at North London Polytechnic in ’83 – a suitable candidate to put on the fast track of a pikestaff-plain crucial re-education.
I did drop out, torn and unhappy as I was, which pleased her because otherwise I’d have been even more intellectually threatening than with a secondary education and a reading age that approximated my chronological one.
The prospect of the power and its perpetuation gifted unfairly by a higher education in philosophy and critical thought, a barefacedly exclusionary and oppressive institution, was just unacceptable – to this trainee teacher hanging decorations, pinning up work, barnstorming and barn-building and fostering solidarity among the Flauntleroys, down at Back End of the Class Struggles ‘r’ Us.
Building doors and opening them for people.
The insinuation by a backward Amish like me that gut instincts might not—at least in some instances—be identical with the elephantine heft of an empirical world or effective critical or practical thought was a conspiracy that her own grassroots, DIY sociology of knowledge or social science fiction was destined to expose; as the artist expanded the boundaries of her individual and hewed, chiselled, sanded and waxed autonomous, multi-part, invertible contrapuntal imaginations, without damaging agendas – from us, for us, and in us, on the level poker card table of identity politics that doubled as an improvised workbench; as versatile as a Black and Decker workmate.
The unacknowledged legislator.
If Art was irrelevant, if it were bourgeois, then one had to ask why she was moulding and constructing objects in her own image, or derivative ones of others’ – objects that felt irrelevant.
But politics was about people – and actually calling assertions—or accusations—to account with impersonal, equal opportunities examination was anti-social, anti-life and anti-women and showed a lack of humanity.
An insidious courage of lack of convictions or beliefs.
Any more of that unclubbable scepticism and she might be out on her arse along with P.T.Barnum and his personal Forer Effects – dumped by someone who was loathe for it to appear that the woman he was so attached to only made his own misery worse in a self-serving way; a sorry end to her efforts straining on tiptoe to make it look as if the dynamic were quite the reverse and that no one could survive outside Big Sisters’ and Brothers’ House (or ‘I am Making History – Get Me Out of Here’) – the big wide world beyond the fourth wall everybody else lived behind.
A big beautiful wall – worthy of Valerie Cherish’s screened life in ‘The Comeback’.
Voting with my feet would be stealing the sheen and glamour of a Spartacist slave rebellion anyway – and pooping on the glee of using a boyfriend as a social engineering experiment.
Or as a psychiatric case study on display – something from R.D.Laing’s shop of horrors. Or an asylum in the Gulag – where the mental was Marxistical.
“At least I’m trying” she’d blurt, after another attempt as a Bolshevik Walt Disney to draw pooh and poohing as a political act and animate a platoon of my oppressed spoor as my nemesis – the guff propelling me into a suicidal abyss, the gap between the personal and the political; between the unmediated, sparky personality and the prosthetic punching dummy deaf to the smack of her lips as she dished out the Glasgow kisses it deserved, closing the gap between actor and observer – in the course of her workout on the scored and bleached, pale blue and white lino tiles of the damp basement kitchen in the terrace at 22 Norcott Road, Bloke Stewington.
In the quest to make (or highlight) a difference, and un-split the atom, she tracked and second-guessed the conversation of anybody she came into contact with—for a sign they were in fact a double exposure or a millimetre to the right out of sync with her framing—and ostracised comrades from far left to dead centre or sisters in a consciousness-raising group (middle-class lesbian feminists drawing particular opprobrium) if they contradicted her – or just made her feel out of place or wanting.
Wanting as a reader of two dimensional characters in an allegorical novel – trying to link private experience to public, dystopic imprint.
The certainty about what “people” were going through was a bit like Uncle Genre, the stock character and image racer, fulminating on women. He knew all about, he second-guessed “Woman” – because he’d done the research of entering Everywoman’s psyche; inhabiting her, speaking her, speaking for her, wearing her, being her, fashioning her, reproducing her with her baby in endlessly repeated Madonna and Child sculptures.
Like the People, Woman had much to learn. Or ape.
But his wife was probably the only particular instance of the democratised universal Woman he’d ever known intimately, apart from his mother and elder sister. And sexual intercourse had almost certainly been disinvented—in the taboo-buster’s universe—not long after my birth in 1963.
He was reduced to wagging his clay slurry-glossed, Freudian middle finger-tail at his family – a backside prison tattoo sheathed in a twitcher’s anorak flashed open at random in scenes he probably thought were more daringly furcoat-no-knickers.
If my mother had got a bit of real, unashamed joy and filthy, banged-up baseness in the bedroom behind closed doors now and then, together with the man she had fallen in love with and married—instead of sophomoric spade-calling, leering and chess piece-chasing—maybe she’d have looked less like a remote control freak or prim and martyred Muffet the sandalled bunk inspector liked to go “Boo!” to and emotionally and intellectually rape and whip into shape – along with his children.
A routine he’d lashed together years ago in those edited, fifty minute hours filled with free-associating, tummy-stroking truthiness.
Always up with the lark in Nature, he spent more time out of the nest birdwatching – listening to their poetry and song; answering the chorus of Nature.
My mother was a strong and exasperatingly controlling personality—in later life standing shorter, marbled with arthritis—who was not physically warm but loving, supportive and gregarious.
Her mother was the daughter of a ship’s cook, and after my mother’s father’s death and several marriages she finally found the love of her life in a distinguished captain of ICI and decorated hero of Monte Cassino.
And she could have made Margaret Thatcher flinch with her imperious profile, her impeccable, tweedy couture, and enviable Forties British film star looks and inflection.
I was angry when Diana died. Who the hell cares, I thought – tutting and rolling my eyes. But watching Helen Mirren in The Queen, Stephen Frears seemed to me to have breathed life into and humanised a story I’d cared nothing about – the tension between two versions of royalty, Tony Blair’s go-betweening, and what it had meant as regards the specious notion of the national psyche.
But watching so far away, ten years ago, in the comfortable area of Botafogo in Rio de Janeiro in my landlady’s fifth floor Sixties apartment, why did I suddenly care? Because all the Brazilians around me in front of the television knew more than I did about the Royal Family?
Or because looking at Mirren’s queen, breaking down, heart torn, in the presence of a wild stag she and her family routinely shot for sport, was like looking at a ringer for my mother?
Bunny, my grandmother, had liked to party and dance in London’s high society as a young woman – which was captured in beautiful, large format black and white pictures on stiff, anniversary card-thick photographic paper, kept in the drawer of a gorgeous Queen Anne hutch and commode in our sitting room upon which sat a brass carriage clock.
She was repulsed by the liberal arts intellectual and artist her daughter had fallen for. The beachcomber in turn hated her, her aloofness that belied a vacuity (material for his alter ego to work with, no doubt), and her Sloane Square and Hampshire G&T-set life.
Layers of Precambrian loyalty and persistence—no better illustrated than by my mother playing dresser to The Alter Ego when it got out of honest Wrangler denims, pale green, sagging cardigan, or medium blue fisherman’s smock, and bobbled, thick black nylon socks and burnt umber leather slip-ons and into instant character—were worth little more than for chipping away at with a small rock pick to reveal the woman who gifted him the personal, human touch as the graceless fossil that had already given up its meaning in one of his handbooks.
Trinny or Susannah embarked on an Open University degree in Humanities around the age of forty, studying in between working and holding a family together unaided. The spam and soup can-hoarding, wartime rationing spirit and remote control-freakery served a purpose.
She went on to be a schoolteacher specialising in dyslexia and autism and inner ear problems, helping children at various points on the spectrum for whom words and letters are silent animals changing shape, jumping around, and kicking up dust on the ground, refusing to give up accurate meanings and secrets – or just looking deceptively complex and over-imaginative.
In a word: stubborn…
But she had a talent for friendship…tsk…
If the Salieri of the art of womanhood liked trying it on, why couldn’t she? Why could she not add a bit of horizon, a bit of education, a new kind of role? Look a little bigger in a new outfit? Teach, or be taught to look at, herself a little differently? Make up a new story, with new people? Learn about Emil Nolde and Expressionism? Paint in oils? Instead of an eternal audience with one haughty bum sat on a seat so clueless as regards what to wear and what not to wear.
Or by having her own life—outside of a social, emotional, cultural and intellectual basement closet—was she in mortal danger of not being a Real Woman? Or real mother?
Or was Daddy the real Mummy we never had – forever left in the box and unwrapped?
The amateur anthropologist—also closely acquainted with Desmond Morris’ work of pop-ethology “Manwatching” and with his acclaimed television series—no doubt clashed with the native over the accuracy of her local knowledge.
Who could he blame for the fact that he had contaminated the fieldwork by frazzling and check-mating his ethnographic informant so much that she wasn’t the best person for this Eliza Doolittle to learn about speech patterns and body language from?
When we had been partners, hadn’t the Geordie ire-brand enjoyed defending her identity? In knock-down banter with the Kentish middle-class charmhands who were so patronising—but tolerant—of her jocularity? She put them in their place good-naturedly and no mistake – signing, sealing and delivering with a broadly telegraphed wink, a feint and a handshake.
She’d remove the gloves and un-sheath the claws when she had the floor behind closed car doors in the ninety minute journey back to London – when she had the time to reflect and analyse out loud, point by point, everything that was just so wrong about them. And then, as she drove the sand glow Austin Minivan down the long, straight, Garden of England motorway tarmac, with her peddle down she also drove the tarry Truth down to the bottom of the young master-mouthpiece’s throat—ignoring the panicked oncoming traffic—in order for Little Lord Flauntleroy’s voice to get to where she was going.
The as yet un-reconstructed business class passenger – whose soggy, un-business-like fairness either in the pre-Internet Second Life of political opinion or in the everyday was in fact a self-serving or self-deceiving facade or apology for the Omaha Beach-like eternal present of sexism, racism, homophobia and class exploitation.
A partner, an auto-mate, mixing business with pleasure, in a very special NPO indeed.
If I’d been less concerned about keeping things cohesive—or not being more bovine—I’d have taken a leaf out of her own version of ‘The Prince’ and recited lines out of something like Szasz’s ‘The Myth of Mental Illness’ just to get her off my back. She’d’ve been overjoyed that I was laying the blame for any unhappiness at the door of Society—the hegemon that duped people into a sense of personal pathology—and not anywhere else too problematic – or too close to our present home.
But like other tyro bosses, she’d never have then been able to trust me – suspecting me of playing her at her own game.
Bullshit a bullshitter and you were lost. Even if they were gratified—at the flattery of imitation—they’d always need to be a step ahead of you. The only one allowed to be doing it for the right reasons was the sophomore.
The few times I ever walked in her shoes, more to see what it might be like than anything else, it elicited a furrowed brow, searching looks, and finally recourse to righteous censure for being “so right on!!” – as if I’d infringed her artistic and intellectual property rights. One bullshitter telling their would-be protégé to be honest – otherwise they couldn’t play.
(If she was so concerned about authenticity she might’ve taken a long, hard look at her larcenous admission pricing structure.)
What the monopolist meant by “right on” was reciting scripted, calculated party line or formulation face to face – as if in the proper, unalienated world there were no formulations. And real Being—i.e. social existence—was apolitical, participatory, and unadulterated by language or examination – or policy detail. An inner and outer space returned to indivisible origin and possessed of unmediated, transparent community and knowledge.
As if somehow, the squabbling, the back-biting, the back-stabbing, the personal vendettas and grievous personal and psychological fallout in amongst and between the various leftwing groups and freely assembling associations she frequented did not exist. Or was not what it and they and he and she and we and they looked like – in the world of the speculator and insider trader of social market futures and derivatives.
And the point was to change the world, not to interpret it. (Unless you were reciting the right text, singing the right note or daubing a true simulacrum of commitment and belief.)
If I’d pretended suddenly to believe in UFOs, reiki, pre-cognition, conspiracies or astrology, or to study Laozi, Lao Tzu and Lao Tse’s Dao Day Ding, and other sidekicks to the game of status quo, she’d’ve been overjoyed – just because I’d then entered an alternative universe – the universal, social or communal consciousness outside the mainstream, beyond the signs and dead form; philosophical openness to a secret—and both common and elite—idea that things weren’t what they seemed.
With that potential for enchanted shared meaning and knowledge, with that wonder, with that faith, the Marxian dialect teacher—the magical, empowered and knowledgeable view from nowhere—would’ve had a lever or toehold giving purchase.
She could have made headway with hope, edging me away from the limits of the occult and conspiracy theories towards the audacious predictions of ‘scientific’ historical materialism. The road and map below her bright horizon with the likenesses of human faces attached.
Or maybe even shared her personal – or community – access pass to the ghosts of Rosa Parks or Rosa Luxemburg.
As long as I stuck to scrupulous argument—misdirected by her lessons of history—I never looked too long and wondered if she was not all she seemed – sleeping uneasily with my mouth close to the fleet, four-toed serif of marxism-feminism-republicanism-oneirism – with a fragrant culture all of its own.
Both too smart and too stupid.
And too full of faith.
I got a clue to something when a while after our break up she supervised a match with a friend of hers – a fierce, freckled and fair-skinned nurse with long, wavy raven hair and a tough Dublin keen. A gem-like, indivisible woman, her eyes shone and white teeth flashed, and she came from a family of many, many brothers. I was five or so years younger and she regarded me as such. She was in the Socialist Workers Party – and looked up to that family unquestioningly.
She was also recalcitrantly heterosexual—despite mounting pressure that made the straight die wobble with embarrassment—and hunting for her man.
This firebrand was convinced, on word from the Geordie—who in my presence pumped the Dubliner with impish nudges, winks and crashing innuendo in order to learn about our progress—that I was a badass, a Divil, secretly socially armed and dangerous. This was on account—I pieced together—of two humiliations or excitements the Geordie had apparently experienced at my hands in all the five years we’d been together. And I am pretty sure they were not in the bedroom.
The Dubliner waited patiently for this bantering bad boy to turn up – especially in the sack. He was the real man, not boy, who was going to give her the honest, grown up, uncomplicated seeing-to and Divil’s Music she wanted. She’d yell at me to come on!!! And really give it to me!!! Yeah Dan, oh yeah!!! Fook me, like dat, yeah, fook me HA-RRRRD!!!
I was seeing and hearing things – it was great for her but I was casting around for the crowd with the right diagnosis who’d interpret how it was for me.
I really wanted to oblige her and she had a spectacular figure. But given recent experience, I could not, despite the compliment of being wanted by such a lusting—and mischievous—woman, get out of my bell jar head the tone and style of the air guitar of chanted Party slogans.
This was a collective enterprise – football, unabashed protest, a slave galley, an inspirational day out with a deserving crowd of the disadvantaged, whalers at work…or folk singers pretending they were whalers…..gah!!
(Cut me some slack – I was only twenty four or five.)
The Geordie pastor found her own home-made, not-for-profit brew delicious – she’d presided over the set up, the mess up, and the right and proper deserved ferment, breakdown, distillation and bottling of a heterosexual relationship.
Would that I’d had more badass, kickass or jackass sense of humour more often about such petty sexual and class politics and personal betrayal; and the absurdity of those who wrought personal damage to the tin-eared tune of rattling and clunking elastic couplings and universal articulated joints in motion, floating giddily on a fragile suspension of disbelief.
But it’s HA-RRRD to act mischievous or devil-may-care when they demand that you take them so f******—or fookin’—seriously.
In reality, I knew sex was a widely occurring seismic disaster – it would’ve been better if we’d all united to call to account the designers and their social engineering responsible for so many untold, blameless victims – instead of just selfishly, blindly giving in to the problem or pretending it didn’t exist or perniciously smoothing it over.
I’d intuited as much but buried the knowledge years ago at the age of sixteen when a girlfriend’s sixty year old engineering professor father—was generous enough to offer to mentor me too.
He opened his home as a refuge for me from both my home and from the local boarding school which I had selfishly—against my father’s wish for his own space—revolted against living in any longer.
Those pastoral efforts to be the alternative father figure and tutor in unconditional love and affection every boy dreamed of, and to get me to trust those who did mean well, unfortunately did not end in the surrender that, in blinked-back desperation, I avoided.
He was a socially well-connected, plummy-voiced cherub with unkempt, curly silver locks and a well-rehearsed twinkle in his eye that had served him well working in a boarding house and at Imperial College.
Mired in me-me-me narcissism—blinkered by the distrust in my own family and prattling on about it—I could not break out of the prison of my wants, awake from my slumbers, and submit to the healing available by opening up to the very social body politic that the name-dropping professor so keenly desired to offer me. I lacked imagination.
Keep still moving images alone in the dark
As the forever gobsmacked Geordie knew so well from her own experience of the distortions, barbarities and violations during years in a heterosexual relationship (as do other self-sacrificing young warrior leaders, trying to roll back the alienating and mediating effects of secular, technological modernity on the human soul), great inner strength, true intimate bonds and community come only from great humility and a lack of bourgeois pride, selfishness or scepticism. They are the only way to allow the personal to connect with the wider picture.
The professor’s daughter said she was disturbed by the closeness between me and her father. Sexually precocious, maybe she had seen it all before – a knowledge, (other than carnal, I’ll never know), belied by her hippie-chick ease and aloofness. But it may have explained why she so often rolled her eyes so often at me and my desire for her.
Maybe she had more imagination.
I met the Dubliner some time later – she was kind to this middle class dweeb and introduced me, with an air of both contentment and pity, to the new-found love of her life.
It was not a woman.
Unrepentantly retrograde as ever, she’d found a six-foot builder. By the looks of him—I imagined—he was a man’s man. He’d be steady, loyal and uncomplicated – and the business in the bedroom.
Like the other working class hero, I’d like to have been there when he was giving it to her so emphatically and she was transmuting or fusing those energies into epiphanies on the Easter Rising or ‘Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder’ – it would’ve been an intimate education; amongst friends.
In the flesh.
Our eyes and ears open to any instructions from the backseat lovemaker-in-chief to halt or check the mirror or check speed or watch for pedestrians.
Or political enemies.
Lewis Warholl’s Alice
If Miss was in a wicked, badass mood, perhaps with a nod and a wink and a devilish giggle we’d’ve been given permission to find imaginative things to do with a rolled up copy of one of Lenin’s pamphlets – just to selflessly sanctify it all the more; rather than to violate. And learn how to know the difference between sexing up a document and telling it how it is – in a playful, nurturing environment.
After we painted the town red and overturned vehicles and faced down the batons, riot shields and surged as one in a duel with sparking hooves on the tarmac surrounding Trafalgar Square.
And broke open the department stores and the fire hydrants – the underground network of waters unrepressing themselves; all by themselves, spontaneously, unconstrained by narrative or image.
Sorry, no, that’s America. Political movements aren’t a television drama or a commercial for coffee – making waking life, courage and necessity into a cliche and commodity. Are they.
But presumably the builder—-someone who laboured hard and probably with little time or inclination for intimacy with texts—would also never neurotically perceive mixed messages, ruminate over gender, pussyfoot around, dick around, and not hear and not give the Dubliner what it was she (misguidedly) wanted for fear of giving offence.
And fail his test.
Some time in ’91, there was a postcard from the Geordie singing with joy at the sense of solidarity, directness and trust all around her, working in the coffee plantations. She’d just finished a period of volunteering organised by the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign
Shortly after, or even before I received the card, a rip tide swallowed her (the Act of Nurture didn’t use the passive voice), in probably shallow waters, off the shore of Nicaragua. The male comrade she was with on the beach five thousand four hundred miles away had reportedly failed to warn her of the likelihood.
There were bureaucratic nightmares, there were tussles with the Geordie’s mother over getting the body back, and there were speeches from the queen bee back in Islington as she pronounced and capitalised on the ongoing situation – to the extended family of activists sat in her flat who came to pay their respects, day after day.
The funeral in Durham was a stand off between two parties who wished to lay their claims: the guerilla lover and a posse from the Geordie’s women’s running club versus the mother and family from her mining village. (The lack of solidarity or gratitude must have wounded and goaded.)
Her mother was a tall, shrewd and indomitable nurse – the controlled explosion of her presence announced by a rockfall of precisely elocuted, North East consonants and vowels. And with whom she’d formerly disagreed with over the Miners’ Strike, the socialist republican paramilitary cause, and sexuality.
Some time before the period in Nicaragua, on a visit to Finsbury Park, and enquiring about Marie, I was told that she’d been down recently and had swung ferociously without warning at her daughter on the hypodermic-, beer can- and sweet wrapper-strewn concrete of the estate warren in daylight.
Unsung Clown Planners
In the West Wing, against a backdrop of anaglypta (a sly, self-deprecative self-parody of working class identity – apparently), whatever lay behind the actions of this sadly undeveloped, unevolved woman was painted over as a bemusing mystery – as if the customs of some faraway but barbarous culture.
Marie exchanged insults with the ex-inmate of the Women’s Prison as they sat side by side in the front row of the crematorium chapel.
They came to physical blows and then the Republican threw herself, with a public display of ownership and a neck-prickling vixen’s cry in an inner city midnight, at the coffin – before it disappeared behind the curtain.
‘Imagine’ by John Lennon—chosen by Marie—played over the chapel sound system.
Myself, my girlfriend at the time, and one of several of the working class hero’s excommunicated friends from college and an erstwhile consciousness raising group, served as spear carriers.
Marie greeted me and her daughter’s former best friend from college (who’d pipped her to the post in coming out), a catering manager in the public sector, afterwards. She had always been fond of us, she assured us – a grief-stricken and harried woman whose relationship with her difficult daughter, with her tearing rage and burning to act, had always been fraught and who she’d never intended to put on the stage.
There was an open rally in London some days later – in the entertainments hall at the back of Finsbury Park Labour Club. The rough, unvarnished boards of the three foot-high stage were bedecked with tables, end to end, a narrow-gauge mountain train draped in a flag (can’t remember quite which colour or design), and behind it sat several activists who deferred to the keystone of the station arch presiding in the centre. And many speeches from both the stage and the floor, taken in turn, about the Geordie’s staunchness, bravery and other inspirational qualities—that did transport us from sorrow toward hope—were made.
I played guitar and sang a ballad that was beautiful to me and had a mini nervous breakdown; torn between personal loss, bitterness, and fellowship in the midst of those around me clapping and cheering at the end, hugging me afterwards, and willing that I too shared their noble feelings about the noble fallen comrade so beautiful to them.
They looked at me from behind upside down, chin-mounted and pointed proscenium smiles that had parsed and scored through those lyrics and music, remedying errors, blindspots and improper symbolism or metaphors.
Another former friend, another former nurse too—and another mature alumna of the Polytechnic—gave a well-judged speech that lilted lightly from peak to trough to peak and calmed our tides of feeling about the fallen Geordie’s steadfastness in the name of struggle and spoke of the need for the legions to keep struggling.
And she spoke for everybody expressing sympathy for those who had got burnt out or self-destructed on the way, beaten down by the damaged world we find ourselves in – and she looked fondly in my direction with fecund brow.
This was a woman, daughter of a postmistress, who had routinely brought tears to my eyes with her warmth, her ex-Catholic generosity of soul and County Cork grace, and won my heart with elfin bossiness, disarming humility, and with a bug-eyed, scampish smile that hooked and dragged you into a whirlpool of love and ambivalence; and anti-racist self-questioning.
She had been someone who could make you feel excited about ideas once more and their capacity to change the world and we looked in the mirror, copped that we weren’t so diminished and irredeemable, not mere hollow and portentous fifths, and saw the picture she helped us draw with hopping, skipping, dancing and joyful saccades – and how our countenance could be altered and augmented with the right guidance, tools and skills.
And she could make you believe—like Billy Connolly—that not Jesus but, yes, even Neil Kinnock—the prolix, big-hearted but misguided scourge of Militant, dividing the Labour Party—played for Tottenham Hotspur.
And that even Billy Connolly, the Glasgow spark, played for Revolution FC.
The Geordie had several years before blown the whistle on her as a middle-class class enemy. But, typically, this former nurse, who always thought the best of everybody, had always sung the praises of the Geordie. A left winger serial killer with excess kindness, a Yea-sayer not to be trifled with.
No wonder the Geordie had segued in a few years from Archimedean infatuation with her friend, united against common enemies, to sullen begrudgery.
She couldn’t compete.
The nonsense they made of Death.
In the early Nineties, I began training in the sport of combined striking, kicking, grappling and wrestling in which the Brazilians and their own hybrid Jujitsu were dominating in the new amateur and commercial reality-based contests. The new Mixed Martial Arts were kicking the kickboxers, who dissolved in a clinch or on the ground—or white pajama-ed, dojo-born and bred martial arts experts, who had only demonstrated their skills before on admiring accomplices—into touch.
The Brazilians later found their match in former Amateur Freestyle Wrestlers, often Russian or American, whose Olympic sport was so superb at the technique of zooming in to grab one or both legs of a kicker and puncher trying to keep a striking distance, and taking the opponent to the ground and putting them on their back. If the bull-shouldered, Freestyle Wrestler juggernaut was often not so superb at the striking and locking techniques necessary for a knockout or a tap out in submission. They struggled against Brazilian Jujitsu stylists whose very game was partly based on fighting from on their back – four octopodal limbs able to engineer a submission or reversal of position from—to the untrained eye—the most crushing predicament.
I ran half marathons up the canal and back, in east London’s Lea Valley, and up and down the stairs of council tower blocks like a maniac til I dropped—savouring the vertigo at the top for a brief moment—and getting a fetching split lip and black eye or two every now and then in three-hour, no-holds-barred sessions, three times a week, with sparring partners like the Daves and the Keefs; on the wall-to-wall, artichoke-green, plastic-coated foam mats of a fug-filled, sweat-drenched sports centre basement to the right of Belgravia, a short walk round the back of Victoria station.
And, later, batterings from a good-hearted Yorkshireman out of the National Judo Squad, a stone lighter and almost a head shorter, who appeared to dance and sting like Ali.
With the implacability of a twin-armed JCB, he also grabbed, spun like a gyroscope, and hurled this mannequin over his hips and shoulders repeatedly, slamming it supine onto the mat, pinning it in place with one grab and tying it up or beating the &%#@ out of it with the other—until the cataclysmic, expert onslaught ceased to fatally hurt, stop or make me tap out and he was left gently scratching his head as to strategy—in relentless, non-stop, thirty to forty minute bouts, twice in two small national tournament finals in Nottingham, six months apart.
At the unanimous decision in our first match, and the fair and square, final arm-bar submission—or near broken elbow—in the second, he would then hug me, cackling, in salutation – a long-dead language resurrected: “That wuhrra right good ol’ scrap we ‘ad, Dan, weren’t tit?”.
In the semi-final beforehand there was barely a scrap at all to satisfy the crowd – it was silent and brief. I put an imposing figure probably nearly a stone heavier than my seventy two kilos on his back – and choked him out from on top, with little finesse, after maybe five or ten minutes.
His uncanny silence throughout, that made him difficult to read, and his look of resignation on losing, stood in stark contrast to my apprehension at his size and potential – and I was filled with a sense of apology as we shook hands and I tried to catch his eye and smile reassuringly.
On reflection, the big, tubby bear with a black, pudding basin haircut may have been as apprehensive about facing me as I was at the prospect of facing Fred again.
And Fred won the second final in not just the seventy two to seventy nine kilo weight category but the sixty five below us, too.
If I’d ever actually managed through weight training and eating offal and protein shakes and pills to gain some weight, chasing the grail of growth hormone and testosterone replacement therapy like so many other men and women—instead of boiling and burning muscle and fat away on the Walthamstow Marshes, in the pee-stained, twenty four storey, concrete stairwells, and in the pungent, slippery crotches and armpits of the Queen Mother Sports Centre—I might never have faced him.
After the second final—with post-fight, post-mortem admonishment from my team-mates—I remembered the one instance in which I had plodded through past the pistons, forced the JCB backwards and pummelled Fred to the ground and gone in for the kill.
The whistle had stopped the fight momentarily – because in the blind heat of zig-zag, up and down battle we’d strayed over the duct-tape margin of the vast matted area onto the shiny, sealed, composition block hardwood floor.
I had not properly registered the wide-eyed look of real fear, before the whistle, on his usually half scowling, half grinning face.
In a fairly well-rehearsed, if halting, gnarled sentence, I had passed from the inside of his guard position in which we had smashed into the ground—him on his back, me over him, kneeling between his legs—to then lean backwards, and, as his arms and legs flailed and the rogue wheelbarrow desperately tried to wriggle away, to grab one of his quite easily manhandled, spindly legs in order to then move to jam the small serif of his foot in the vice of my armpit and brace his calf upwards with my wrist to a full stop, parrying the odds and sods of his frantic light legs with my own thicker thighs, shinbones, calves and heels.
A forgetful Aladdin, I was deaf, in a fugue state, to the yells of my team-mates pointing out this weakness as the fight was then quickly restarted, back in the centre of the thin, pink, interlocking foam mat arena – by the proud and immensely encouraging referee and organiser.
He was another fiercely jovial man, an ex-Hong Kong police inspector and Japanese Ju-jitsu black belt and instructor – a vocal and passionate figure in the burgeoning scene of amateur MMA tournaments in the UK.
The referee was all the more full of both respect and gratitude for the exciting showcase we were providing that drew roars from a large crowd he had primed in a crescendo of hyperbole and anticipatory pep over the public address system beforehand that summarised our previous meeting in claps of thunder.
(A few days later after I’d got back to London, the phone rang in the early morning. Elbow aching, struggling to prise apart both my sticky eyelids and the knots in a bunjee of plastic coils, I came to with a sizzling, sharp, ferocious voice down the landline demanding to know who exactly he was speaking to and proceeding to drill and harangue me with compliments and appreciation for fighting like a lion!!)
Before the second final, the authoritarian personality quaked outside the fire exit in a flapping skirt of viscose, maroon running shorts over black lycra cycling pants and a holed, pale green Marks and Spencer’s T-shirt (and violinist’s ponytail), awaiting entrance into the sports centre, to then go and meet Fred, coming from the opposite end of the hall in a thick, crisp, bright, white cotton judo gi, in the centre of the matted arena – ponytail swaying slightly in a tide of applause.
I don’t think it was ‘Eye of the Tiger’, but something similar played over the tannoy as we made our entrances – and there were rotating, flashing, blue, red, green and white spotlights too.
I had been so convinced of his invincibility.
But perhaps the fearsome, black belt Judoka, who had also trained in close quarters kung fu and who knows what else—his kicks and punches landing with all the dumbfounding thwack, sting and bone-juddering thud of invisibly-swung steel pipes out of nowhere—did not know his leg-locks, and how to defend against them, quite as well as us shootfighters and submission wrestlers.
Knowing Fred—the agile, supremely physically talented sprite, with a seemingly supernatural strenth-to-weight ratio—he would have smartly put that right later – after the trouble a grimly dragging upstart and hanger-on like me gave him.
Whilst not very self-harmonising, at least the wins, defeats and possible mistake in these tournaments did not make me squirm or feel that I’d been mugged or loomed over by a begrudging coward or liar – or that my heroic thrashculinity had tangled with a narrow-minded bad loser, a chest-beating winner in a Nietzschean rutting contest, or a left-witted ideological bully shunting the moral goalposts every ten minutes whilst pretending they are the beating heart of humanity.
I hadn’t had such a blast—in that national competition with unknown outcome—maybe since I spent an evening as a ten year old at a professional wrestling show—with masked villains, blonde heroes and goodie/baddie tag teams throwing each other in and out of the ring, and as we screamed “Oh, la vache!! Vas-y!! A
rrête-le!!—one grasshopper- and cicada-filled summer in a village outside Angoulême in south west France – staying, and bonding a bit, with a family of Parisians, their château-bound country cousins, and their village friends.
Some time around this time of hard physical training, Joke-o-phine—so against violence but not averse to using the squat menace of his bulky presence or randomly mugging you with a hurled epithet apropos of little but Schadenfreude—sent me a Sunday supplement cutting by post.
It featured a silk pajama-ed, Chinese Shaolin monk on a mountain top.
The monk was making beautiful lines in rosy fingers of mist. And he had condemned himself out of his own mouth – the Observer reporting him as saying that a warrior monk’s sensibility is a cross between that of a humble virgin and a fierce tiger.
The Dadfly demographer’s gnomic dig at his acronym of a son: the “bobo”, the bourgeois bohemian, the cartoon of priggish anger and self-deluding, black and white-writing decency. All that antiseptic distance from the Real.
Or from the artful image or narrative so deserving of attention.
(Maybe Nuncle John had meant “fool” – the English translation of the Spanish word “bobo”. But then it never really mattered – it only mattered what he got you to read into it. A leery, fearsome fifty minute hour but seen by Hammer.)
Arse-picking perversity enough to transform anybody into a philistinic windbag – desperate for some reliable directness and less pretension in their intimate and social lives.
Ready without warning to launch a spit-flecked stream of invective at oily molehills like Lucian Freud’s taxidermic vision of one of his sitters in the Tate – or an anarchic upchuck of poorly-improvised comic turns to relieve the tension with any embarrassed—or maybe delighted—companion; alarming the Tate gallerygoers minding their own business.
If we’d named her Pogo, maybe that would’ve given the gorgonian provocateur something to jump up and down around his handbag about, spit-flecked and dyspeptic.
Anything but those creepie-cruellie games.
Strength through joy – as the misanthrope, whites of eyes in a fruit machine, liked to sigh when you showed a bit of resolve; a bit of pro-life, life-is-too-short independence – optimistically wagging your I-love-myself tail in front of him.
Julie – Prue’s much-loved and very smart Border Collie Cross. 1984
Gobsmacked and too pathetically hurt, I did not reply to the magazine cutting that he’d created a cartoon, a virtual doll – a simulacrum he released into the world that maybe he thought was either all the more interesting for bearing little mimetic relation to reality at all—not unlike a performance artist with exaggerated features created with cosmetic surgery—or that was as timeless, as archetypal, as penetrative of the fragile, misrecognising self straight down through to the collective unconscious, as one of his primitivist sculptures of the big feline beasts of Nature.
It paralleled a near-maniacal obsession with the Oedipus Complex, illustrated by a series of twelve bas-relief pieces sculpted in clay, cold cast in a resin mixed with bronze powder and daubed in hydrochloric acid to give them a verdigris patina, an instant ageing – pieces depicting scenes in the life of the monomyth. If he was frustrated and inadequate as a man and father, at least he could gain weight and potency as a symbol in an eternal trope, replete with inescapable influence, for good or ill – rendering everybody else ciphers in his tableau of the big “O”, as he emptied them of tears and filled them with melodramatic despair at the overweening conceit.
Or am I riddled with the same self-mythologising memes?
Making the horrendous mistake, in my late twenties, of disclosing a brief—and tragic—infatuation and the discovery of the wonder of lovemaking—rather than the disposal of desire with a genital sneeze—I might as well have been describing Big Daddy writhing on the plain weave canvas and biting Giant Haystacks on the ankle in a 1970’s British Pro-Wrestling bout—or Big Daddy feigning unconsciousness after being slammed again and again against the ring corner by Haystacks—to a child pulling rank at having already discovered that it was a corny, fixed spectacle – crowing at any idiot so caught up in it.
His own antics and dressing up were no doubt both more truly competitive, spontaneous and artful – and both a better spectator sport and more alluring secret behind closed doors.
The authoritative news from the Ray Mears of the Kama Sutra that shattering, mutual multiple orgasms and post-coital transcendence might be forgeries, or pornographic derivations or kitsch corruptions of a Platonic Form—or idle, vain, bourgeois luxury and constructions one should not be able to afford—had me beetling off crimson-cheeked to discover more – more repentance and hot air about why a doomed affair with someone married—that’d hit me like beer kegs coming off the back of a lorry, conceived in creamy stout-sodden, incestuous social chaos—had run away down the drain in the cellar of The Auld Triangle.
Should one focus on the news? Or annoy the origin (a consummate artist at grabbing deplorable pussies by the short and curlies) by getting more satisfaction elsewhere? The more girlfriends I had—most of them fortunate enough not to encounter the style manual, detached copy editor or art critic, at least not in the bedroom—the more the London tube train tunnel seemed to rattle and roar in misdirection.
I did not reply to the cutting that, despite living in the world as an adult and with a woman for nearly fifty years and fathering three children, he’d forever trod a line between a mincing, fading, floral-patterned, Betty Crocker or Stepford parody of womanhood Betty Friedan attacked in the Sixties—the MILF, the Me-I’d-Like-to-Fuck, the witless replica of his own desires—and a sexually menacing, charlatanous psychiatrist.(The MILP, the Me-I’d-Like-to-Psychoanalyse – probably a usurpation of his own erstwhile shrink.)
Another role he was jealously inadequate to play: the cod-Freudian as biographer, the teller of lives.
But maybe hideously pretentious self-parody was the point – possessing and controlling the joke that was Woman, that had so much power over him, such that she would vanish into a point on the printed or painted horizon..
I had not once called my father names for what he did in the bedroom or aped him – all that had ever seemed to matter to me was the fallout in the desolate, twitcher’s paradise of their marriage and how he stranded us there.
Not who put what where, how, with whom, why, and in what context, wearing whatever they did wear (and whatever the @$#& it did mean for a semio-sexual).
People send up the tensions between private, personal sexual desire, sensual appearances, and public discourses and political morality – send-ups that nurture a scepticism about ideas of either biologically or ideologically constructed sexuality and identity. Send ups both conservative and progressive, that both reveal and obscure—and parody constructed gender relations, stereotypes and performance, skewer vanities of any shape or colour. Men and women like Dina Martina do it in burlesque and cabaret.
Professionally trained actors search themselves and work to inhabit and realise many complex, written roles throughout their lives using the imagination, the world and the people around them for empirical research, as well as the text.
They generally don’t, I suspect, play—or seek to embody—a stereotypical cartoon or inflated archetype and identify with it as their alter ego. And perform it to an empty bedroom where the soul can make lines and shapes and dance like nobody is watching – or like an indulgent, but chaste, companion is.
(Kids do, though.)
Unless it is part of a well-written script, story and production – a space of becoming.
But illiberal Nazi and neurotic macho martinet and backward and sociopolitically illiterate and repressive hack that I am—a pussy tied up in the tentacular reeds of type, mere reproduction of genital (or phallocratic) sexuality and secretly so timorous and so wet or too low down or stuck up to join with those who have the balls and the ovaries to charge through the fence and to dare to walk upright over the border to the transforming wild side—I fail to give any quarter to the work of the redemption of the anima, the inner feminine, the inner child, the gender and identity politics, Art or the hipster.
Or my own grief.
Or the scorched-earth tactics of the brat determined to both lay claim to and to raze every last word, every ventriloquised opinion, to the salted ground.
Joke-o-phine would have held his nose and sneered at any LGBTQRSTUVW progressive politics that tried to recruit him to a trans cause or to the missionary position of transmogrifying sexuality into political manifesto, lived sexual life into so much more enchanting, interesting and sophisticated sign; the sensual, the expressive, and the embodied into a bolt-on, cut and paste, drag and drop, shot/reverse shot, edit, and zoom combination of political abstractions and collective values.
Dina Martina – mere empty sign-maker, prop-mover, entertainer (and a performer with some generous humour) – would have elicited both jealousy and belittlement.
Just as I did as a young man too – also on a stage, a musical one – awakening and vulnerable to the limitations of life, the generic parochial absurdities and injustices—and menace—of both my domestic existence and those of the wider world.
Except: in half-moon spectacles and glue- and wax-flecked, pale green cardigan, the feisty sculptor—as he set his glass down carefully on the stripped pine table, my mother, in front of the Aga, one hand clutching an iced gin, eyes lowered to the black and white lino-tiled kitchen floor—had once intoned Nietzsche’s words, or some slurred translation from the deep, dark depths: “when you go to Woman, you take your whip!”.
The Nietzsche groupie met his feisty, fluid and flexible match in the form of an example of the maybe Nietzscheanised Feminist Left.
She once, after a protracted firefight, said she wouldn’t leave because he might top himself. This was not a believable vision to me until later, as an adult blithely taken into his confidence, he told me about the pest poison he’d kept hidden in the rafters of the old garage reached by the right of way, round the back of Orchard Cottage, that had housed the Morris Traveller estate – a dark brown corrugated iron and wooden shed that had long been demolished.
He recounted the story as if such problems were long gone. I did not feel reassured but was too angry to poke around in what had been sicked up down my front.
In the midst of my mother’s abandoning of him in ’97, and anomic and ennui-saturated as he was, it suited the self-styled “Old Bastard”—seeing as he wasn’t about to condescend to go out and date—to hold his nose and, in his misery, procure the companionship—if not love—of his deceased straight wife’s best friend and co-worker of twenty odd years, who had dazzled and delighted with her wit, her clever stories and her mimicry of their colleagues.
And who after waiting and watching patiently for many years was lightning quick out of the traps next to the deathbed.
The protective, inspirational character gave the impression to the children that she’d rebuffed the misogynist’s demands and advances, having planned it all ever since she saw her chance the moment my mother fell ill.
They got together—never f******, always fighting—for his last decade and a half alive, his children finally retreating; the last threads of care and obligation frayed by shame, exhaustion and disdain for their own scent.
(Or mewling self-pity – the shrewd dog tail-wagger might have observed.)
Signs and props subordinated to the greater picture of a fumbling, bumbling brewery piss-up of local performance art, ideology and social engineering.
I had driven up and down three times a week or more from London during my mother’s short illness and death in ’97, only to be greeted with remarks like “this is a nursing home” – as if I really had little right to be there.
A nursing home out of the headlines – where the dying wife was in relentless screaming matches from her bed with a husband in high dudgeon at her thoughtless exit. The screaming reverberated throughout the whole house up to the point that she was finally unable through medication or illness to speak.
She was even, on her deathbed, driven to ponder and then conclude—like the embattled young woman she had once been, endlessly rehearsing the same problem—“Oh, yes, he does love me…doesn’t he. Doesn’t he?…”
The morning after the afternoon she had died, I awoke in my childhood bedroom next to my father’s on the first floor of the house to hear him giving a report to some unknown interlocutor: “…and Daniel was late!! Got here half an hour after she went…” – he spat into the phone.
If I’d ever once received a phone call from him, I might have got there earlier – and I had been too exhausted to take him to task—or headbutt him—for not bothering when I saw my mother lying there, gone.
Prue’s bedroom 2015
Gritting teeth and kicking against embarrassment, I howled over my mother’s shrunken, burnt sienna body in a white cotton dress with a floral pattern on her single bed in her first floor bedroom overlooking the six foot diameter pond with circling goldfish overlooked by a pale blue stoneware ornamental cat with sapphire eyes, in the back garden.
All I could do was let out some anguish, ritualistically. We had got even further apart as she was dying as I was unable to show any sign of warmth—or she me, as she hurriedly, dutifully put her affairs in order, clearly worried about our fate after she’d gone. Any closeness or final words of reconciliation were out of the question inside that nightmare.
It was Scylla and Charybdis at home in London as well, with a girlfriend who felt unfairly overlooked at not being at the centre of an experience.
My father looked on, over shoulders, as per usual. Once I’d finished, my older sister then kindly attempted to engineer a group hug between the three of us there, to create some semblance of a family together, reconciled in the face of Death.
The defenceless mockingbird or starling offered no resistance – but showed exactly what he thought of my sister with a bemused snort and twitter.
The smirking socialist lesbian feminist got her second marriage certificate, adoptive daughter status, half the house, a large supply of pocket money, and—like a squeaky-dirty, subversive anti-hero—she did do her best—according to accounts by family friends—to quicken the demise of that ailing “vile man” by availing him freely of the pills and the booze.
It is fair to say—as she indulged his cross-dressing behind the blinds or curtains of the kitchen or sitting room, until she went home to her own cottage, a cottage he thought he was paying the mortgage on—that she had him hanging on for sexual favours (“a bit of—you know—hetero”, he confided on the phone to my brother) and the promise of intimate terms she’d never allow – or at least stand by.
(While they were at it, he could’ve turned on the voice recognition software and produced his own version of a quixotic classic.)
As the former social worker and former private girls’ school mistress and self-styled gatekeeper for the gels to a big, wide, more sociopolitically aware world had many years ago impressed—in tones with memorable gravitas—on this hideous, dead, white, male teenager so desperate for meaning, foundations and respite from the screeching asylum or mental, maximum security prison of this family “life”—or so scared of plopping into a self-protective stupor, barely alive—she knew only too well that all males (or, really, those reassuringly compliant ones like Joke-o-phine for whom sex is theoretical, those who can only think with their eccentric theses) are rapists.
Intimate with straight cliché, and baulking at the denial all around her, her gut instincts probably told her too that that the flailing for security—and for the oxygen of diversity, in amongst anguished, perverse people torturing each other, day in day out—was just more narcissistic, undeserving heteronormative and patriarchal nest-feathering too.
Another example of the petrification of the soul by an anonymous, paralysing gaze ever keen to spy and throw covert shame and violence on the failure to play the right role.
Nothing like the off-the-peg frock, apron and multi-tool Swiss Army penknife—on a string, hanging off a belt loop—taken from the trench doctor’s surgical bag of critique to make a personal world so grandly, so passionately engaged.
And brush and touch others’ lives, guilt monger and emotionally blackmail in the process.
And on one or more occasions the emancipatory mother of two by a previous marriage, in her sixties, took the metonym for the heteronormative patriarchy by the ear down to her metonynm for institutional critique (the solicitor) when it looked scandalously like her youthful drive and idealism might be in danger of not fully disinheriting that nuclear family of his for the good of the sisterhood.
However Colonel Imp had, with natural authority, reportedly put a comrade sister-in-arms firmly in her place at an eightieth birthday party for that “vile man”—where he had doubtless through the pressure of drink and nerves reverted from creamy smoothsayer to odious type—honking in chastening, circumcising contempt for the more fragile, the more confused, the less dedicated: “I married him for the money!! Stupid!!“.
A virtue signal to inspire Nietzscheans – and memoir writers – of every stripe.
(Or, as Josephine—long-time subscriber to The Humanist, yet more Nietzschean-than-thou—might have remonstrated with the mobile army of metaphors and sleepwalking ideologues on the move, devoid of empathy: “use your *&%#&%$*&^%$#ng im*g*n*t**n!”.)
At the time of our mother’s death, none of us—my elder brother, elder sister or myself—thought that she was explicitly doing what she turned out to be doing. It would’ve been too horrifying to countenance after the years of putting up with him. We gave her the benefit of the doubt and hoped she would provide him with some security, love and sanity. My brother mediated countless times between them over the phone from the South of France where he worked and lived—and worried—with his own family – not realising, or just not wanting to think, that she was cutely playing everybody, one off against the other.
The jealousy and sense of being caught short fuelled outbursts not long before and not long after my mother died in ’97, after the whip wrangler and his bolt of black lightning got together with the witty misandrist. It turned out that the feckless bobo, at some indeterminate place on the social, cultural and musical Asperger’s or autism spectrum, without an idea in his head was not—and maybe never had been—the credulous listener, and Ebay surfer hungry for pronouncements on Freud, humanism and the authoritarian personality, he so deeply desired.
Or the son was, like Audrey Hepburn, a shill – one only pretending to have no substance.
And the leatherjacket’s larval habitat was under threat from an unecological developer keen to capitalise on the silence and divisive sense of shame and embarrassment all around by curling her unopposable thumbs and articulated joints around the fingers on the triggers – a soft, guiding, invisible presence.
He’d regarded my study at that time for a BA in History and Politics in London as if it were the plague, poison, plagiarism or a fiction. He then boned up from recent, revealing post-’89 histories of Germany, the Soviet Union and Europe—by victorious historians that had been able to write fuller accounts as archives opened up, and to flesh out the genocidal details of the Soviet and German pasts for us—in a bid to catch up. Or remember.
To catch up with someone not so interested in a pissing contest about history or sociology behind the door of the gents as in a conversation at the kitchen table with someone that had forever advertised themselves as more knowledgeable and more curious.
A conversation—informed by the study of the interpretation of the past—with the tawdry ambition of bridging a gap between two people so at odds – and who had endured the death of a wife and mother; the family glue.
A pissing contest that arose all because I had been re-enacting the study of history and politics like countless others both simultaneously, before, and after me; others with countless, different viewpoints.
Not an uncanny repeat of the Weimar Republic, the collapse of a fragile, liberal polity or the snuffing out of a cultural renaissance.
The supposed re-enactment of the tumults of mid-twentieth century mass politics threatening civilisation in his own house served only to highlight the hollowness of his derision for my mother’s enthusiasm for the subject – and it was plain that the blame for the outing of the flimsiness of his vision lay at the door of her OU Humanities degree.
Hiding his ignorance of quite ordinary, old and widely known debates and agendas—as he tore strips off me for a lack of deference towards a work of armchair anthropology, that pre-dated the collapse of the British Empire and the development of modern social science, with all the social and institutional critiques that that entailed—had him fit to bursting with umbrage.
All whilst sat next to the ex-social worker, the paper second wife, watching, silent, her elbows on the stripped pine table, her cool eye avoiding mine and, as it turned out, more focussed on his estate.
A naked tableau leaving my flat, blank slate of a mind upended.
His younger brother, that I hardly knew, who was also at Oxbridge, did German – so maybe his knowledge of European history was another clue to the erasure of the study of the subject from the family story.
Does the ditching and disposal of bad readings add up to an Oedipal slaying? If so, the Geordie working class hero was really a father in disguise.
And history seminars are really violent, Sophoclean bloodbaths – or the class struggle in drag.
How exciting – as an underlying warp and weft.
I think I’ve done the reading—and not of just books—without being so ridiculous as to think this local story is something grand with huge sociopolitical sweep.
The sexy, arousing lie that tells a truth.
One or two Christmases after Trinny or Susannah—laughable, over-earnest champion of my educational progress—died, a gift of “Why Cats Paint – A Theory of Feline Aesthetics” bombed at a gathering of family and friends.
I’d found it by accident in a bookshop, thought it hilarious, and wanted to share the joke with him by making a present of my aleatory gifts.
Maybe the equation of felinity and artistry felt like a parody or maybe he perceived me as a postmodern vandal – or, to be plainer, cruel ironist – taking all the fun, meaning, value and mystery out of him in company.
A weird hybrid – considering he also liked to treat me like a dumb, thick animal.
Too satanically smart and too stupid, all over again.
Maybe the problem was the ersatz quality of either Art or cats and the hubris or terrifying meaninglessness of submission to play and laughter.
Pretending to be someone else.
But, as with Haystacks and Big Daddy, it wasn’t real humour or laughter – not if he hadn’t got someone on the end of it in front of the panto guests, giving him a warm feeling in his corselette-sheathed lower belly.
Bobo – Self-Portrait 1985
As the cat-literati like to say in Cat-Lit studies about the Bobo Novel, to ape the manners of the genre of humanity, and to reclaim a shameful phrase: “me-ow”.
On his last day, in February 2014, the second wife drove up the lane for an infrequent visit. By this time even she was having little to do with him, empty and sold out of ideas as she was, and unable to weather the hydrochloric acid throwings of spite.
On registering at a hundred yards the spectacle of her alcoholic, diabetic benefactor and message in a bottle being wheeled out of Orchard Cottage into the ambulance, the lady then remembered, U-turned, and drove to a more pressing medical appointment.
The robust bigwig and coifed sisterhoodie, twenty years his junior—who had taught an instrument herself and liked to make sly asides about the “Very Pathetics”, the peripatetic music teachers—died, of a split intestine (or maybe fell and banged her head on a mute, verdigrised, three finger-holed ellipsis in her right of way that didn’t give a fig whether it was showing or telling), a few months after he did.
Hardly a reversal of fortune – more like the same f****** story.
The dotty, board-treading sign for archness got out of the wings too late to stop the misandrist smartly transforming that nuclear family home into a more mercurial medium.
Chink, chink, scrape, clunk, clunk, whisper, tap…flash…
As a dedicated teacher, Joke-o-phine would’ve been satisfied that the Empathy Exam had not been cut from the Humanities curriculum.
I remember nostalgia.
He remembered us in his will while he was alive – elegiacally: “In your childhood…”
And we specially performed mourning for it, just for him.
Just for Mr Whyppy.
Dead, self-vivisecting jokes that we were—sadly not quite so lucky as to have found the space for summoning laughter in the face of pain, like Dina; explaining ourselves, from year dot, to a caricature.
Now that Ms.Language Hat, the avant garde model of gender and language deconstruction, has made that brave transition, now that s/he’s real dead-eyed and all-seeing—instead of out from under the spell of a pro-wrestler’s little death—s/he can eternally contemplate those blow-up childhoods that s/he liked to sketch and colour in by numbers and then sodomise, in a parody of a childhood past, in a greater peace than when s/he was alive.
Inside the text.
As Billy Connolly could have it, blowing a Glasgow kiss to homily: in a funny way, you know, Dragmannermous, though pinned and snagged in a tentacular tattoo of pixels, is probably still punching upwards, at the babies, platitudes and petticoats – and at the soft underbellies of ruminants out of place, lowing in the wilderness of the cyber fields.
An undiscovered aleatory work.
Sometimes I just knew. But I could not face the fact that the vicar of the sect of the gimcrack Freudian Slip—of the mud and clay, of the liminal, of the honest effluent of the psyche peppered with citrus pips beneath the twitteringly hypocritical voices of manners and euphemism—could have reformed, educated and made something out of a tiny, cruel, sanitised cell of a mind…
If only he’d been allowed.
And like a closed-minded, ruthless idiot – or fickle audience – I had turned away and rejected him.
As Colonel Imp explained—in a letter to the solicitors acting on behalf of John/Josephine’s shattered and increasingly horrified children, and investigating the probate, the fate of his (and our mother’s) estate, and the husband and second wife’s both mysterious and shambolic financial dealings in the last fifteen years of “married” life (was it a life of louche, Weimarian languor and liberality – or knowing burlesque?) before he died—we children broke his heart.
Not an unseen, unsung hero then. Not guided by greater good. Not misguided either.
Just plain self-serving and devious and nasty. And then some. And then a magpie’s nest of conjunctions.
All tucked up in the same sentence.
Do I feel better after all that prop and sign making and moving? That bolting and riveting and cutting and pasting and close up and zooming in and out?
The whistling – and cranking – in the dark lorry park?
The Creative Non-Fiction 101 from School of Tool? The ear-bashing, shoulder-juddering report and recoil? The performance of sincerity? The purity of anguish? All those Anglo-Saxon—but neither secure nor particularly candid—four letter words? Have I made any admirers? For the totalled work of Art? The bitter laughsmanship? With low wit in the service of a clumsy claim?
Have I materialised as more sparky and human by strongly ignoring Strunky and Whitey?
Do these tracks make a safer bed for lying in without getting eaten or run over?
Do I want to bond over a piping, steaming hot written cup of disgust, grief and disabusal? To make a ‘we’ and answer the call of Nature? To impersonate a cause?
Look through the keyhole, the viewfinder, the cone-shaped cells of your Benthamite imagination – your own private victor’s version.
Have an optic and cochlear nerve.
Look through the lens.
Move along – nothing to see or hear there.
Imagining Jokeophine appropriated by Andy for a Happening in the Factory