Cabinet of Curiosities #3 – James Miller
Curated by Darran Anderson.
I realised, as I thought about this piece, that it was actually quite hard for me to find five objects that have influenced me. Or at least, it was hard to find five objects that I own that have influenced me. As a writer and an academic, I’ve never had the money to actually ‘own’ much and my most valuable possession would be my lap-top. Anyway, it seems to me that we need to shed our attachment to objects, things-in-themselves and the whole web of false desires around materialism and consumerism. In a sense, then, this is more a record of certain obsessions and inspirations, fears and desires, some of which are incarnated in specific objects and others of which are better understood as part of my general environment or maps into my own imaginative terrain.
I’ve always found gas masks to be frightening, uncanny objects, portents of a rapidly approaching apocalypse. The obsession started when I was a child. I used to love a comic strip called Charley’s War written by the great Pat Mills and published in Battle: Action Force during the 80s. Unlike other strips in the comic, Charley’s War was distinguished by the brilliant realism of Joe Colquhoun’s illustrations and the story-line – instead of being filled with daring heroics – gave some insight into the horrors of trench warfare. I recall one cover in particular: a charge by spear-brandishing German cavalry, but both horsemen and horses were wearing gasmasks and moving through a ruined wasteland. I think that image stayed with me forever: its combination of the archaic and the modern seemed to presage some deeper and more troubling truth about the world that no one was talking about. More recently, as austerity produces unrest, the gas mask has become de rigeur for police and protestors across Europe and the Americas, appearing most vividly in the almost medieval battles between police and protestors in Syntagma Square, Athens (Greek police have fired over 30,000 rounds of tear gas in the last two years). For me, the gas-mask is a symbol of the present crisis, a signifier of the toxic fallout from our discredited and destructive economic system.
The Communal Gardens of West London.
I lived in Earls Court for a while. We lived on a very busy main road, but behind the terrace of stucco town houses was a huge, completely hidden communal garden the size of a small park. It was a great privilege, for the time that I lived there, to have access to this place and for me it always represented a transition from one world to another, a curious juxtaposition of the intensely urban with the almost bucolic. When I was writing Lost Boys, I drew on the tantalising communal gardens of Notting Hill, these beautiful spaces glimpsed between high fences and hedges. What is it like inside those gardens? It seemed logical that my youthful protagonist, Timothy Dashwood, should be summoned by a Pan figure lurking in the trees of such a garden – for me, the gardens stand at the interstices between two worlds; one sheltered, privileged and guarded against the outside world; the other wild, dangerous and abundant with imaginative joy.
I suppose my obsession with reggae music (and all music that derives from Jamaican sound system culture) started around ’99 when I was in living in Tottenham. I was actually renting a studio owned by writer and editor Nicholas Royle, (also one of the first people to publish my work). I’d finished an MA at UCL and I was using the remnants of some inheritance my grandfather had left me to write my first (unpublished) novel. I used to listen to local pirate radio stations whilst I was writing and they used to play a lot of reggae and dancehall. The music touched hit me on a both visceral and spiritual level. It’s actually quite hard to get into reggae because the music is not really about ‘bands’ or individual artists but rather a shared culture of ‘riddims’ with the producer or the studio where a track was recorded being more important than a particular vocalist. So I used to write down the names of the sounds that I liked and then I’d head down to Soho, to shops like Daddy Kools (Soho still had record shops then) and get the tunes. I’m an obsessive, geeky, collector type so it wasn’t long before things got out of hand. I have tens of thousands of reggae tunes, including almost the entire Studio One label, (albeit on CDRs after I linked up with some big time collectors). Some years ago I went digital-download only as I ran out of space. Most of my collection is now stashed in crates in my parents’ garage, God knows when I’ll ever have room for it all – or time to listen to everything again. For me, reggae music is the sound of truth – the history they don’t teach you at school, ‘the half that has never been told’, a genre that expresses all of human life – love and suffering, violence and crime, cogent critiques of the capitalist system and messages of spiritual redemption – and that’s without touching on the fact that small studios in the ghettos of Kingston pioneered almost every innovation in current dance music. Plus I love bass. Drum and bass. Lots of bass. I like a heavy vibration I can feel in my bones. In a world every more saturated with bullshit, reggae music (along with blues, gospel and soul) is a touchstone of authenticity. The holy musical triangle stretches from Kingston Jamaica to New Orleans and up to Memphis. Almost everything worth listening to has its roots in these places, from the struggles of the post-slavery Diaspora. This is the true modern music – almost all the rest is just a shabby imitation.
My espresso machine
Coffee. I wouldn’t function without it. I know some writers prefer to hide themselves away, they like to write in isolation. That’s probably the best way to work, but I need activity around me: things going on, little distractions, people to look at. As a result, I work a lot in cafés. My coffee/café habit really got going years ago when I had a brief and disastrous career in market research. I had no interest in any of the products I was supposed to be researching and at lunchtime I’d hide in a café near the office where I’d frantically write my book for an hour or so. My girlfriend recently bought me an espresso machine to stop me spending so much money on coffee. So now I usually start the day with a couple of double macchiatos. There is nothing like the first coffee of the day; sometimes I get up early because I’m looking forward to it so much.
I have a couple of beautiful Tibetan thangkas that I bought in Kathmandu when I was back-packing around India and Nepal in the late 90s. At the time, I hadn’t cut my hair for two years and was very high on charas. I was a bit of a traveller-cliché, stumbling around in sandals and tatty tie-dyed outfits. I’ve never been back to Kathmandu but the city was magical, unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, narrow alleyways leading to ancient squares adorned with astonishing temples and pagodas. These thangkas have followed me around for over a decade. One is of a green Tara, I think, the other a more frightening deity. Tibetan Buddhism is fairly incomprehensible and I’ve always been sceptical of westerners who embraced eastern religions. In fact, I still am although I’ve recently started to practice yoga and Vedic meditation. I have a Sanskrit mantra and when I repeat it to myself it sends me into some sort of trance and sometimes (not always) leaves me charged with energy and imbued with an intense appreciation of everything. It actually works – and it amazes me, these days, to find something that does. Everyone should meditate: I don’t understand why they don’t teach it in schools and prisons, offices and factories. Oh wait… once you start to meditate you gain a degree of clarity and begin to realise just how toxic and warped our lifestyles have become. If more people meditated, people might be less interested in shopping or working or engaging in all the mindless tasks that fill our day. And then what might happen?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Miller is the author of the novels Lost Boys and Sunshine State (Little, Brown). He is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and English Literature at Kingston University. He can be followed on Twitter via @jmlostboys. Photograph copyright of Camilla Broadbent.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 26th, 2013.