Category: Pointless Nostalgia


I’m talking to some people in a bar the other day about the Spanish Civil War (a relative of mine travels to spain in the 1930s to fight against the fascists. He’s wounded and captured and spends some time in one of Franco’s concentration camps…) and things get a little heated and some meshuggener lets off with something so plain f**king stupid…

I won’t even insult you by repeating it. It’s a desperate moment.

Anyway, the thing is, I get so annoyed I lose my customary cool and call this shmuck an asshole (like it’s necessary?).

Bad move. For the next three days I’m haunted by this routine Bill Burroughs wrote before I was born:

‘Did I ever tell you about the man who taught his asshole to talk? His whole abdomen would move up and down, you dig, farting out the words. It was unlike anything I ever heard.

This ass talk had sort of a gut frequency. It hit you right down there like you gotta go. You know when the old colon gives you the elbow and it feels sorta cold inside, and you know all you have to do is turn loose?

Well this talking hit you right down there, a bubbly, thick stagnant sound, a sound you could smell.

This man worked for a carnival, you dig, and to start with it was like a novelty ventriloquist act. Real funny, too, at first. He had a number he called The Better ‘Ole that was a scream, I tell you. I forget most of it but it was clever. Like:

‘Oh I say, are you still down there, old thing?’

‘Nah I had to go relieve myself.’

After a while the ass start talking on its own. He would go in without anything prepared and his ass would ad-lib and toss the gags back at him every time.

Then it developed sort of teeth-like little raspy in-curving hooks and started eating. He thought this was cute at first and built an act around it, but the asshole would eat its way through his pants and start talking on the street, shouting out it wanted equal rights.

It would get drunk, too, and have crying jags. Nobody loved it and it wanted to be kissed same as any other mouth.

Finally it talked all the time day and night, you could hear him for blocks screaming at it to shut up, and beating it with his fist, and sticking candles up it, but nothing did any good and the asshole said to him:

‘It’s you who will shut up in the end not me. Because we don’t need you around here any more. I can talk and eat and shit.’

After that he began waking up in the morning with a transparent jelly like a tadpole’s tail all over his mouth. This jelly was what the scientists call UDT — un-differentiated tissue, which can grow into any kind of flesh on the human body.

He would tear it off his mouth and the pieces would stick to his hands like burning gasoline jelly and grow there, grow anywhere on him a glob of it fell.

So finally his mouth sealed over, and the whole head would have amputated spontaneous — (did you know there is a condition occurs in parts of Africa and only among Negroes where the little toe amputates spontaneously?) — except for the eyes, you dig?

That’s one thing the asshole couldn’t do was see. It needed the eyes. But nerve connections were blocked and infiltrated and atrophied so the brain couldn’t give orders any more. It was trapped in the skull, sealed off.

For a while you could see the silent, helpless suffering of the brain behind the eyes, then finally the brain must have died, because the eyes went out, and there was no more feeling in them than a crab’s eyes on the end of a stalk.’

So, listen, take it from someone who knows: the next time you’re in a conversation with someone who’s talking crap, accept that he or she is an asshole and, if you must say something, call him or her a shmuck.

You know it makes sense.

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As far back as I can remember I had one desire that transcended every other: I always wanted to be a human being.

Things worked out fairly well, to a point.

But there was this constant, nagging knowledge that I wasn’t quite making it.

After a while I stopped fighting, gave up the ghost. It became obvious that I was never going to be like my peers; my Dad or my Mom; my sister; my cousins; my uncles; my kids…

They always told me that there was this line, the crossing of which would take me to a whole other place, where nothing I had learned in my life — on the ‘right’ side of the line — would apply.

Of course, the first thing I did was cross it. I tried it once, then twice, then again…

After a while I was crossing that line every day.

I still do.

Because, you know what?

They were right, bless them.

Have you noticed that the older you get the more dead acquaintances you collect? It’s a sign of maturity, I guess.

In my twenties I knew one dead guy. His name was Steve. Married a Welsh girl. Two years later he was dead. Was it the food, the Celtic temperament, the weird sex, the in-laws, the heroin? My guess is that all of those factors contributed but it was the opiate that knocked him over the edge.

Then there was John Begg. He died of AIDS when I was in my mid-thirties. I’d known him as a living person since childhood. We grew up in the same Scottish tenements.

Which reminds me, Steve wasn’t my first dead friend at all, that was John’s brother David, whom John murdered when they were kids. It was something to do with religion. Real Catholic shit. Neither of them stood a chance.

Their father, a degenerate gambler, tried to kill himself by getting drunk and going to sleep with the gas on. He failed of course: spent so much money on booze he didn’t have enough coins to keep the meter fed.

Anyway, John never forgave himself for murdering his brother. At Her Majesty’s Pleasure he became an amateur psychopath. Then when they finally let him out he went full time, became a petty gangster and heroin addict — AKA The Knife Man — and served a manslaughter stretch of 7 years, with the usual discount for good behaviour and an HIV positive blood test.

Dirty needles and a jail-house tattoo, that’s what did for Johnny boy.

Of course if I’m really picky the first dead person I ever knew was my paternal grandfather, who split before I was born and, to my knowledge, never took drugs (unless you include whisky in that category).

And then there was Mr Kinair, my English teacher, who died of syphilitic brain disease when I was struggling with my A Levels. The short sighted, selfish bastard just couldn’t stay away from naughty prostitutes. But he never took drugs (at least that’s what he told me).

But you know, I’m no peasant: included in my list of dead friends are a couple of rock stars.

Dead rock stars, don’t you just love them?

They take care of you through the difficult adolescent years and, just when you reach that disillusioned stage, you know, where you’re starting to doubt their validity as useful icons (growing up) they let you off the hook by dying, usually of heroin overdoses, alcohol or sex. Saints that they are.

My first was Billy Mackenzie, patron saint of the Warbling Romantics, voice of an angel on crystal meth, the man behind the Associates. We were brought up in the same town, only he didn’t come from the slums. We never met in our native environment but first crossed paths some years later in Kings Cross, London. I interviewed him for an article about Celtic New Romantic brats, which I was trying to pitch to the NME.

I told him: “No Billy, I’m not that way inclined, you know…” And he said: “Fuck it, never mind. Just give me a few lines out of that wrap and I’ll take you to a nice club I know.”

That was in the early 80’s. Come Christmas 1997 he was dead by his own hand.

I blame myself.

Perhaps if I’d shared my Charlie with him that night, instead of telling him to “f**k off I need this to get up and go to work in the morning”, he wouldn’t have gone out and scored some smack and gotten to like it so much that it eventually depressed him to the point of suicide.

Because that’s what heroin does for you.

My other dead rock star acquaintance was Stuart Adamson. I met him when I was ligging on Big Country’s first UK tour. Their chief roadie, who shall remain nameless, sold me one of Stuart’s guitars — a lovely black Gibson Les Paul — for a gram of good Bolivian and a Turkish hooker called Tanya…

Of course, Stuart was never a smack-head; he was just a piss-artist.

So, it’s a lazy Tuesday and I haven’t chased a dragon in ten years. The bastards don’t even flirt with me anymore.

Anyway, gets to noon and I can feel them beneath my skin — even after all this time you don’t forget.

So I take a cab, walk up the hill and buy a parrot.

Then it’s a lazy Wednesday.

I take a cab, walk up that hill and buy a parrot…

Beef

One day in the early 70s I was walking through the grounds of a mental hospital with my maternal grandfather, Simon.

He had been on the run from the Military Police since 1946. My mother, my two uncles and my aunt all ate well through the conflict.

Simon was a butcher.

We talked about the difference between living with war and growing up in peace. There was really nothing to discuss. The former is simple — you live or you die. Peace is slightly more complicated.

In the end, however, everyone has to eat, and those who eat last die last.

It’s her optimism that kills him. Makes him happy and desperate at the same time.

In the morning.

Saying goodbye.

He’s still in bed, waiting for the neighbours’ dogs to start up or someone out back to continue building that fence or begin chain-sawing that tree or kango-drilling that patio.

She breezes in: pink linen jacket. She looks fatter than yesterday. “Oops. I almost fell in there with you,” she giggles. He turns over and tells her “goodbye,” in his over-voice. His under-voice tells her “f**k off you stupid cow.”

It amuses him but he’s disturbed: because he loves her and it disturbs him that his under-voice has so little respect.

It’s her optimism that kills him. He’s sure sometimes that she hears his under-voice but chooses to ignore it. Such strength of character she has to do that. Perhaps she hears it but believes it’s an hallucination, symptomatic of her own psychosis.

As he hears her leave through the front door he wants to call after her: “Look, you stupid bitch, it’s real and I mean it!” But the dogs have started up, someone out back is hammering and a tree is being noisily executed…

Of course, he never blames himself for the rail crash. But when he speaks at the funeral his guilt rings in all of his voices.

I remember a slum front room on a rain-broken morning. Weak sunlight filters through cracks in a raffia blind, throwing feint patterns onto a worn fireside rug.

A young woman sits on the rug with her knees drawn up supporting her face-down head. She’s crying. An occassional tear escapes and falls to the rug.

On a bed in the corner of the room a man half sits and half wants to leave.

“I must have turned over in the night a hundred times,” he tells her, his tone one of a strangely constructed question, “but I can’t remember saying ‘I love you’?”

************

Anthony is slowly

Disappearing.

“It’s this present tense experience,”

He says.

His foot faded away

Yesterday

And became

Nothing.

“History,” he tells me,

“Is what was present in the past.”

Now he’s footless

In the future

And fantasy

Free.

************

Conversation from an alley at the rear of the Rainbow Theatre, Finsbury Park, London, circa 1978. Speakers — quality and quantity — unknown.

Great band. What an act, man. Shark Fin Tsu and The Fishhead Gang…

— Little bit of this, little piece of that…

— We gonna back stage, yeah?

— Sure. Good ol’ frien’ a mine, Shark Fin… from the early days.

— Primo’s got a new drug… market research, get it?

— Well…

— Totally new, man, designer high, like wearing the synapses on the arse of your pants. Know what I mean?

— Human Secrets Agency (HSA) got it all sewn up… the whole market. Got human feelers out disguised as punks and rent-boys, soaking everything up.

— So, Paul Zanzibar is waiting for a cab… take him to the gig. Takes a new pill to pass the time.

— No sense no feeling…

— Blood simple. Arrives at the gig talking total nonsense…

— …and ‘ero’s trying to fin’ ‘er way out a chapter one!

— No mercy no surrender…

— Blood simple cry tough…

— Her real name is Amanda…

— Sure, I’ll have a mandie…

— Yeah, Shark Fin Amanda. Try to make it with her once but Human Secrets Agency has her all sewn up…

— No mandie no deal. 

The cab at the top of the rank is a beige Escort, 80s registration. The driver, a black guy in a loose fitting shirt and sun glasses too big for his face, is sitting in the back listening to a Gecko Turner CD with the bass cranked up too far for the speakers. I nod through the window and sit in the front passenger seat.

The car reeks of palm oil and something I can’t quite place. The smell brings back the sick feeling that started with my non- existent breakfast and the early morning hangover realisation that I was back in London against my will and my better judgement. I put it to the back of my mind.

Sure, I didn’t want to be here, but if I was close to some kind of truth I had to find it, possess it, write it down, study it, pull it out of shape, stretch it, write it again until it fitted. That was the science: you started with a secret then you worried it until it became true. If the truth was there you found it in the end, like finding the punchline to a joke.

Holloway Road, Upper Street, The Angel, Old Street undergound, some back streets, blank faces in doorways, shuttered-up shop fronts, bagel bakeries, curry houses… back into traffic, turning into Whitechapel Road. We Pass the Blind Beggar, the Mosque on the right… History: A funeral cortege through Bethnal Green. It’s not a good day, a day full of rain and guys waiting for money nobody can afford… there used to be a cinema on that vacant lot – Scarface. Al Pacino, romance memories, movie gangsters, fantasies in the dark on summer afternoons collapsing into reality like flowers on a bamboo blade.

I get out of the car outside Stepney Green underground. London is a city of stations. Stepney Green, the Ocean Estate. Decay is everywhere, it’s the air they breathe and it stinks.

The Ocean begins on the eastern corner of the intersection of the Mile End Road and White Horse Lane, a wall of phantom grey concrete blocks ten levels high, with windows so small you can’t make them out, don’t realise there are windows there at all until you cross the street. Latticed metal fencing protects the street from them. It’s rusting: fifty years of keeping the dogs off the highway.

My father talks about the dogs, in the early hours when everything is still, in the monochrome moments when there are no jokes left, when the only important thing is to keep life running away from the east end, from the past, from poverty, from crime. That is his motivation: not to be like the dogs. And he never quite lives up to it. The dogs can conceptualise, the dogs are instinctive, the dogs are responsive, the dogs are reactionary — he too is all of those things and he feels what the dogs feel: comfort and warmth, pain and hunger, cold and fear, he knows the nights and the early mornings and he knows the city all of its secrets, its unmentionable odours and its unpublished skin. Years later he tells me, as he relaxes by the pool or gazes from the patio out across the bay, he imagines he can hear the dogs thinking.

                                  *                                 

Her hair is black, cut short like a boy’s. Soft rain on the shoulders of her jacket shimmers amber in the streetlight. Just for a few seconds the distance separating us diminishes. I see her face up close and sharp as if we are together in the same room with no glass mediating. Her eyes meet mine and there is a feeling of oneness between us. For a half breath of time I know her, really know her, and my consciousness of her knowledge of me is so intense that I feel naked.

                                   *                                  

I take a dive into the Global Lounge. It’s changed: used to be a spit and sawdust pit; now it’s gone all Continental bar, with video screens and an espresso machine.

I order a large Irish and it’s gone quicker than it takes to pay for. So I order another and take it to a table by the window. This one I approach with more leisure, sipping and smoking as I look out across the street at the Ocean. My mind goes back to New York and the last time I saw Tommy alive. Then a bit farther back than that, to when I first met him.

There’s something about Tommy, I remember thinking, that fights against his own gifts and talents: in a way it’s like this… thing, whatever it is, denies them completely. Oh sure, he has that magic intangible alright, that indefinable something that makes certain men out; but he also has the tragic flaw. It’s a kind of death wish and it has always been there, I guess. It’s in his eyes and in the muscles of his face, in his words, gestures, every nuance and each subtle movement. His success is his ruin. I remember going to the washroom and telling my reflection in the big mirror while I’m rinsing my hands: “It can’t ever become mine.”

As his writer my job should be easy; I could just let the scripts write themselves out of my perceptions of him, write his real character large, like they did with Hancock. He should be his own material. But he doesn’t want it that way.  Pretty soon I start to hate him for it, for the fear of what his search for “a new kind of comedy” might do to me and my career.

Enmity: there’s just no reasoning about it. If tragedy is the comic in slow motion then comedy is adversity speed-ed up. You can make comedy out of any human situation. Take any abomination: the holocaust, war, cancer. If you write out the solidity, the fear, the hate, if you distort the shadow you can make it funny. The public will laugh at the serious or the tragic if you invite them to; all you have to do is take away the fear.

But it’s in the hands of the writer, not the comedian. Tommy takes the comic too seriously, he becomes a freak, a grotesque.

Look, it’s like this: the public laughs at the contrast between the body and the shadow, at the difference between the character’s invented self and the actor’s psychological reality as it is perceived within the context of the character. When Tommy starts to play himself too closely, the comedy disappears.

                                                                                  *

Ruth is important. I push Tommy into a closet and try to get my mind back to the present, trying to figure it out, Nico the static boy speed-talking, words flailing out like chain-shot.

I Sift through the pieces of conversation I can make immediate sense of, leaving aside the misty for future analysis. Eventually I get the kid reduced down to a chill-dude-wear-a-pork-pie-hat image, reflecting the street history of his cultural stereotype. in reality he is a closely shaven head with a hood, a long black leather coat and a penchant for knives.

She’s at the centre of his life, that’s one sure thing. He calls her Aunt Ruth but he doesn’t know whose sister she is. He just goes there when he’s had too much of the cold air on his face, when he becomes too conscious of his own ricochet, when he doesn’t have a good enough reason not to go there.

The room she keeps empty just for him. He has his own key and she calls him Nicodemus and he doesn’t show that he minds answering to a cross-worshiper’s name. She’s always pleased to see him, any time, day or night, and she never asks questions she doesn’t know he’ll want to answer. She is sensitive to the secrets of youth, it’s her gift to him, a space in her life which is his, and there is nothing she expects in return but his company every now and then, a few words over sweet coffee or a glass of white rum, the gentle violence that warms her when his young breath commingles in her front room with her old treasures.

The night and the dogs always find them out. There are no secrets from them. Those caches they all try to keep hidden in the folds of their flesh or under the bed clothes, nestled snugly in with the unmentionable odours and the unpublished skin…

The kid told me about the loose floorboard in Aunt Ruth’s secret room, beneath the sheepskin rug.

You see, Nico hasn’t killed anyone yet, so I guess he’s still salvageable. Sure, he’s hurt people — stabbed them or cut them — but he’s never shot anyone at close range, has never bundled some guy into a car, taken him to his mother’s house, stripped him naked and blown him in the mouth while mummy stands there crying and begging and wondering how the f**k is she going to clean the blood and brains off the new carpet, the recently hung wallpaper and the unpaid-for furniture.

“Because I’ve got a little bit of heart, you know,” he tells me. “I turn away when them kinda things happen. But it happens and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Turn away? Somewhere is a little grieving girl called Shanella.

I feel like I want to leave but the lies fascinate me.

Then he lights a cigarette, blows out the smoke and stares at the floor and I know what he’s thinking. One day his name will come up and he’ll have to do one.

“Otherwise it’ll be me with a hole in my face.”

That’s the way it is. You can’t remain a foot-soldier for ever, you either have to move up into the inner ring or they make you take a fall and spend a long time in prison to protect one of the higher-ups. And if you refuse you get blown away and somebody else goes to jail.

This is his life for the last four years:

At 14 he leaves school, no certificates, nothing, not even an encouraging word.

His father is a junkie, f**king low-life, robs betting shops and liquor stores and goes down when Nico’s 12.

He never sees the “lovely life – nine to five, kids, settle down” –- only the grime. “Yeah man that’s what we call this life, the grime, and this is all there is. I’m on the run, lived in fifteen places just like this in as many months.”

“This is it: Slumberdop.”

Slumberdrop. It’s like a bunker in a battle zone. There is a bed, a busted suitcase full of clothes, rubbish on the floor, a small black and white television, the remains of a pizza. No carpet on the floor and no furniture except a broken up old foam rubber sofa with no upholstery.

Slumberdrop. This is where they do everything, count the money, sell the drugs, stash the guns, carry out enforced conversions.

Slumberdrop. They’re an affiliation of gangs, known collectively as the Muslim Boys, beginning to fan out beyond London now. They hold up banks and post offices, deal in guns and tax drug dealers.

Slumberdrop. Things used to be different. You could hook up with a crew and get out any time you liked. Now that’s all over. It’s a cult thing, it’s for life, that’s what it’s all about. It’s their way to keep a hold of you. You can’t just come in and leave the next day like you could before.

“Now you either get wasted or step up to the hard core — if they want you.”

There is one other way. He knows about a couple of the guys who’ve done it like this:

“You do a certain amount of murders. You know, sensitive deals, things no-one else wants to do. Then you can get out on the last one and you got respect. Maybe they set you up with something nice, like a little club or something, or a cab stand. Then they leave you alone, you’re home free.”

But you have to do the first one, let them know you’re up for it, that you’ll do anything, kill anyone: women, kids, whatever. Whoever they need to blow away for whatever reason.

Slumberdrop.

A literary hit-man

I used to write scripts for Tommy (Fatboy) Devine. Tommy Devine is ugly. You want to know how ugly he is? I’ll tell you.

When he’s born (series one, episode two) the midwife, a twenty-eight year old gay word puzzle enthusiast from Ohio, threatens to assassinate his mother. When he sees the kid he just falls apart; it’s like he takes it personally, you know? Like little Tommy has rained on his parade and it’s the mother’s fault.

“How could you do this?” he pleads. “I mean, how?” He tosses his face mask and surgical gloves to the floor with a theatrical flourish. “I mean, at some point during the last nine months… well, you must have had some idea. Surely you couldn’t have carried that around and not known, suspected even…? Couldn’t you have done the decent thing?”

The mother, a giant hover-fly, passes out. Her wings collapse, creating a huge draught, which blows the anaesthetist off his feet and scatters instruments, swabs, wipes, anything that isn’t tied down, all over the room.

“Ho hum,” sighs the midwife. “You chase a horse and you catch a dog. Story of my life.”

Tommy plays all the parts, it’s Fatboy world: every character in every show looks like some version of Tommy.

That first script earns Jonny Hilltown — a.k.a. my good self — a personal assistant called Dragona Hartley. Dragona believes in absolutes and, like Tommy, she likes to generalize.

Did you know that gangsters use the word “f**k” more than any other, with the possible exceptions of “money” and “no”? That gangsters in the main don’t have what you might call a good command of the English language (the same can be said of comedians)?

“You know why?” asks Fatboy. “I’ll tell you why,” breathing cigar smoke and garlic all over my new wool suit. “It’s because they’re all spiritual Italians and Greeks. Ok, some of them really are Italians and Greeks. But the ones that ain’t, actually are, in that spiritual sense. You get me? It’s that cultural thing about body language that the spiritual Italians and the spiritual Greeks share with the Italians from Italy and the Greeks from Greece: the hand gestures and stuff. It’s the same with accountants: spiritually they’re all Jewish.”

Then his eyes narrow, his head tilts to one side and he looks me square in the face:

“You want to know something about writers? I’ll tell you about writers. All writers drink in the afternoon. Did you know that? All writers are spiritual drunks – even the ones that don’t drink.”

Waiting too long for somebody in a crap bar is an absolute pain in the arse. I’ve been doing it all my life.

“I don’t believe in absolutes,” she says. She has the makings of a movie hitman’s mustache. I decide to call her Mustache Petronella, but not to her face.

“Don’t killers believe in absolutes?” I ask.

“You think death is an absolute?” She flicks her cigarette so the ash just misses the ashtray. I can’t help thinking this is a deliberate act.

“If the act of causing it is a deliberate move, with intent, with extreme prejudice, then I think it is, absolutely,” I tell her. Then I go to the washroom, where an accomplice has previously hidden an unregistered lap-top behind a cistern.

I come out typing.

But she is gone; in her place sits Nico, with the lithe body and the smooth-skin-high-cheek-boned-oriental look. He’s a static boy from the other side of Snake River who loves his knives and his brothers. He talks lingwo, spits out words and phrases like bursts from a MAC10.

I get straight to the point: “What about the kid?”

“Yeah, always knew him. We grew up knowing each other. Went to school together. All that thing.” His eyes never meet mine while he talks; only in the pauses.

“Then why did he die?”

“Because his name come up! It’s easy to get blowed. Word is he got mixed up in this Muslim Boy thing, did something that doubled back on his people. Maybe it was meant, maybe it wasn’t, maybe didn’t even know what he done. I don’t know. Anyway it doesn’t matter, it’s happened… he’s gone and that’s it and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. They killed him, shot him in his mouth and throat. Tomorrow it could be me or you.”

I don’t write scripts for Tommy Devine any more.

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