Boiling a Kettle Coldly
By Richard Cabut.
These photos are of the punk band Brigandage taken by Joan Geoffrey for ZigZag magazine in the early-mid 80s (erstwhile ZigZag editor Mick Mercer places it in 1984; I’m not sure). The location is definitely Camden Town — outside the tube station, and inside the café next door, which was an occasional meeting place.
I suppose the pictures offer a tantalising peak at Camden before it became the youth-theme-park-cum-alt-shopping area it is now. We can’t actually see much of Camden in the pics, but if we buy into Walter Benjamin’s theory that art has an aura (sod the mechanical reproduction part of his idea) then from these photos, which are most definitely art, we can feel the 1984/NW1-ness of it all. Yes?
Back then, of course — and this will pique the interest of the seekers of untrammelled urbanity and unreconstructed grime, the so called psychogeographers, or it might be hauntologists now (hauntographers?) — Camden was typically dark, dank, dystopian, and many of the other Ds, too. It was closer to the crumbling 1969 Camden portrayed in Withnail and I (a film Brigandage singer Michelle and I saw at the Hampstead Classic and empathised with tremendously — we would argue about which of us was Withnail and which was I) than 1990s Britpop central).
It wasn’t unknown, in 1984, to come across the sort of mad Paddy that featured in Withnail: ‘I’ll murder the pair of yous!’ In the Camden backstreets, the boozers were fading testaments to times past, and water passed in the form of piss up against the proverbial wall — and smelling much the same.
But Michelle and I — I am the lovable spikey top in the pictures by the way — were oblivious to any of this. We were certainly not poets of the dispossessed. We strutted our Billy-the-Kid sense of cool — bombsite kids clambering out of the ruins — posing our way out of the surrounding dreariness. We were living in our own colourful movie (an earlyish Warhol flick we liked to think), which we were sure was incomparably richer, more spontaneous and far more magical than the depressing, collective black-and-white motion-less picture that the 9-5 conformists, or those that stumbled around with their booze-fuelled regrets, had to settle for.
We lived in a hard-to-let housing co-op gaff about ten minutes walk from the tube, up Agar Grove, near to York Way — on the way to Pentonville Prison or Kings Cross, depending on which way the chips fell for you.
Our rehearsal studio was up there, too, on St Paul’s Crescent. There, the female receptionist had a thing about NME writer Paul Morley. She sent letters to him and he replied in his excitable, frothy prose enthusing about how he would like to take her to the park for some wine and a talk — no doubt about his great concepts and theorems regarding modern pop. I’m not sure if she actually did meet up with Paul, but she did become dissatisfied with her boyfriend, who she stopped shagging — but, weirdly, kept giving blow jobs to. Such was the powerful effect of Morley’s words — either that, or she was living in her boyfriend’s flat and felt obliged to recompense him for bed and board in some way. It was a scenario worthy of a song, but we didn’t write it — too close to home probably. Anyway, she used to pass Paul’s flowery letters around, to general amusement. Even better, she was mates with Martin Glover, Killing Joke’s Youth, who would bring back cassette tapes he’d made in New York of the pirate hip hop stations — which were fantastic.
Our house was around the corner, the shoddy shell of a three-storey affair that’s worth more than a million now. Other inhabitants included a drama student, his girlfriend and Toby Nuttall, the son of late beatnik Bomb Culture author Jeff, whose brother Tim would soon join our merry Brigandage band. And if we thought that the mad, the bad, the sad were outside in the gaseous pubs and on the claustrophobic Camden streets, then we should have looked a bit closer to home.
One drunken night, the drama student, jealous that his girlfriend was getting on too well with some South American guy, got up and went out of the living room where the three of them were talking and drinking tequila. He went purposefully to the adjoining kitchen. There, on the rusty cooker that had seen its best days in the 1950s, he boiled a kettle. It took a while — he tried not to watch. He did this calmly. Coldly. It was, perhaps, the only known occasion when a kettle was boiled coldly. When it was steaming, whistling at 210 degrees F. When the water was seething in the same way he secretly was, the student dramatically took the kettle, first putting a towel around the handle so he wouldn’t scold his delicate actor’s hand, and carried it into the living room. There, as his girlfriend sat on the sofa, the stuffing popping out of it, laughing at some joke, he stood above her — how dare she laugh at someone else’s jokes? — and calmly, coldly poured the scorching water all down her front.
Strangely, her hideous screams did not wake us up for we had gone to bed long before the actor had decided to play this, his most insane role — one that melted his lover to the core. (Years later I saw his name in the cast of some BBC period drama. While she, after botched reconstructive surgery, became someone who looked up at you with the eyes of an old stranger if you dared ask if she was all right.)
But then it would have taken a lot to wake us up. We were still young. We were still busy dreaming in Camden Town.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Cabut’s fiction and poetry has appeared in various magazines and books, including The Edgier Waters (Snowbooks, 2006). He has also written for several newspapers and media organisations, including the Daily Telegraph and the BBC. In the past, he played bass and wrote the propaganda for the punk group Brigandage, published the fanzine Kick and wrote for, amongst other music mags, the NME under the pen name Richard North. He lives in south east London, and works as a writer and ghostwriter.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 25th, 2011.