:: Article

Down the Recession Session

By Sam Jordison.

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The Recession Session Live, The Betsey Trotwood, London, 24 April 2009

I arrived at Liverpool Street Station with time to spare before the Beat The Dust/3:AM Recession Session. In a few hours, writers like Stewart Home, Paul Ewen, Lee Rourke, Steve Finbow, Melissa Mann, Joseph Ridgwell, Tom McCarthy (and many others) were scheduled to rant for five minutes each about The Way Things Are in the Betsey Trotwood, Farringdon. But first I had to get acclimatised to the capital. I’d come in from Norfolk and it had been a long time since I’d been to The City. A lot had gone down in the interim. The stock market had gone down. A long way. The price of houses had gone down. Not quite enough. The government’s approval rating had gone down. Even further than before. And so on.

But here in the belly of the beast that had eaten up the British economy, things seemed surprisingly unchanged. On these streets, there were no boarded-up buildings or Closing Down sales. The plate-glass was still so fiercely polished that it cast back the soft April sun as a harsh glare. There were still proud corporate logos on every building. There were still flash bastards standing around wine bars drinking bottles of champagne worth more than a fortnight’s dole.

The only change I could feel was in my head. Fresh from the provinces, I felt small against the pumped up, steroid-huge corporate headquarter buildings, and all too insignificant as I pushed our pram against a sudden riptide of hurrying commuters. I had holes in my only pair of jeans, my new cheap shoes were rubbing the back of my heels and everything around me was too expensive.

I felt a moment of near-solipsism – as if the recession were only happening in my ego. But of course, the sad truth is that plenty of others have got the recession in their heads too. It’s still a recession, even if it’s a recession of the mind. There’s been no sudden shortfall in resources. No less food has been produced. Technology still marches forward. But people are still suffering. The only failing seems to have been in the collective imagination – and the only solutions to the problem lie within the human brain. A good time then, for writers to flex their muscles – if only to provide a bit of escapism. There’s a lot you can say against spoken word events like The Recession Session – but at least it was an attempt at… what? something…

***

That’s what I was thinking before I arrived at the venue anyway. I’d off-loaded the pram and its precious contents at a friend’s house in Finsbury Park, arranged to meet my girl at the Betsey Trotwood, and was getting the feeling of Friday in the big city. All I needed was a hell of a lot of coffee. So I first walked past the Trotwood and on up the hill to the once-pioneering gastro-pub The Eagle. There I drank a whole ostentatiously tasteful Bialetti 3-cup pot of coffee and wondered how it was that this place, this symbol of the wealth that had now fled the country, was still thronged with punters. Were they all trying to party like it was 1999? To pretend they weren’t fucked? What did they have to celebrate with £7 glasses of Rioja? Was everyone everywhere in denial? Was I the only one feeling the pinch? Was London just sucking the life out of the rest of the country? What did this recession really mean to the average punter? I hobbled back down the hill in my agonising shoes, hoping for some answers.

“No one,” Ben Myers explained to me when I met him on the street outside, “even knows what is going on.”

Even before I’d gone inside, I’d had the only truth that I understood about economics confirmed. Myers and his warm Durham voice did the escapism part of my previous writer equation well too. Soon he was telling me about climbing Helvellyn, finishing a novel about Richie Edwards, fishing and the giant transvestite who had convinced him to leave his flat in Peckham and live a better, freakier, life in Hebden Bridge. Adelle Stripe came over and started describing the hoar frost she’d seen in Patterdale at new year, how it hung off the trees like a million white fingers. Paul Ewen bought me a beer and told me how his two-year-old liked playing on swings. My feet still hurt, but I felt better.

But before I could get too sentimental about like-minded literary strivers, Joe Ridgwell, the compere for the evening (and, incidentally, the person who had persuaded me to write this account) bounded over.

“Ben Myers! Adelle Stripe, looking as gorgeous as ever, Sam Jordison, Paul Ewen.” He stuck a camera in each of our faces before turning it on himself and laying down the terms for the night ahead:

“Music, readers, music, readers, dancing girls, music, readers, music readers. It could go on forever… But people will only be allowed to read in five minute bursts so we don’t get too fucking bored.”

“So what do you want me to write about tonight Joe?” I asked during a brief gap in his monologue.

“Just something. Just write any old shit. Then throw it away. Whatever you want to do.”

Then he was gone. It was the first time I met him. He’d come across like a shot of tequila: invigorating, fun, but not entirely helpful – and then gone.

***

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The room beneath the Betsey Trotwood – I discovered – stank. It stank of old gigs and bad things. Stale sweat, spilt beer and, unfortunately, urine.

It looked worse. It was dank and dark and decorated intermittently with unwise psychedelic murals. The stage at the front of the room was lit by a standing lamp with a tassled shade and hung with red velvet curtains. But the effect wasn’t faded glamour so much as the dream room from Twin Peaks gone wrong.

Not a bad place to hold a down-at-heel literary gathering, in other words.

It was soon full and Joe Ridgwell was soon putting his larger than life Cockney charm to good use by making everyone laugh with some inventive swearing. Then he invited silence from the motley gathering for the first speaker Paul Ewen – and silence fell.

Paul Ewen, for those that don’t know, wrote a book called London Pub Reviews, about a series of very normal pubs where very strange things happen. It’s funny enough when you read it yourself but now, having heard Paul speak, I realise that nothing but an audio version can do it justice. His deadpan delivery and New Zealand crossed with Old London accent offsets his skewed worldview like a quality frame. Everyone was giggling even before his story about “tixt messages” to a dog went seriously surreal. It got so that you could hardly hear him for laughs. And so you had to strain harder to catch the story, and the story seemed all the more warped for being received in small snatches, and so you laughed all the more, and by the end it was clear that Paul had stolen the show. Already.

I’m not saying the other readers weren’t interesting, but my attention had already begun to waver. Partly this was because I was coming down off that coffee and hadn’t drunk enough beer to stop me fixating on my aching feet. Partly it was because there’s only so much spoken word I can take in a night. Partly because – as I was also starting to realise – the room had terrible acoustics. Every so often, Circle Line trains rumbled past, the noise emerging from somewhere disconcertingly close to the cellar walls. All sounds from the PA were strangely muffled. The doors at the back creaked. You could hear footsteps overhead.

But mainly, it was over for me because Paul was so good.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the other mic-spots anyway, because you can read what they said on the Beat The Dust website – but I thought I ought to come clean and admit that my mind was wandering and that’s why everything from here on in will be sketchy. That’s not to say the others weren’t good. A person has to have something going for him if he can – for instance – introduce himself by saying “My name’s Darren Anderson, apologies for the hair” and then tell a story about masturbating in front of traffic and how JG Ballard had put him up to such depravity. Will Ashon too managed an impressive rant about the way society views its current scapegoats Muslims and bankers. Jenni Fagan, meanwhile, was impressively sincere. It was worth watching.

The interval came quickly – and finished even faster – as I realised when I took the plunge back into the cellar and couldn’t get in. The room was too full to get through the doors, Lee Rourke, the last act of that segment, was already speaking. I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I had, as the twitter parlance has it, engaged in a fail.

Sometimes I blame my lack of career advancement on the dirty nepotism in the journalism industry, the Bastards Who Have Screwed Me and – I don’t know – the fact that I didn’t go to a very posh school. At other times, however, I have to admit that I have this bad habit of messing shit up. Like, for instance, missing the first public reading from Lee Rourke’s new novel The Canal, a book that might soon come to seem very important, if early notices and the way publisher Melville House snapped it up are anything to go by.

Oh well.

I had at least been formulating some general impressions from the night itself and the problems facing writers who want to push the boundaries. My idea was that it’s now very hard to become an envelope pusher. The few last good taboos got knocked down in the 1960s. Sex, drugs, swearing and rock and roll, they don’t really upset anyone anymore. Least of all the audience in the Betsey Trotwood. These poets, hipsters, drinkers, freaks, angry young men, angrier ageing men, angrier still women and even the confused people who had wandered in off the street were not going to be bothered by the word “fuck”. Shouting it at them seemed like a bit of a waste of energy on the part of the performers.

What could possibly upset this crowd?

Joe Ridgwell supplied the answer: overt and pointless racism. He dirtied the air with talk of “chinks” and absurd portrayals of national stereotypes and soon audience members were tutting and heading out for the cleaner atmosphere of the Farringdon Road. The slurs made his otherwise amusing story of genocidal mania and personal failure lose some of its fun – for me. His prejudice had at least made me confront my own – which I guess was the point. Yet it reinforced the idea that the last taboos remain for reasons that aren’t half as silly as those that were dispensed with at the Lady Chatterley trial. I didn’t know how much had been gained. Still – as Joe might say – at least it wasn’t boring.

The night moved on. Tim Wells gave us an I-remember-the-1970s list to remind us of the three-day week, of kids cramming Fishermen’s Friends into their mouths to prove they were hard and of things that seemed terribly important in his teenage London. People that could remember and did care about such things shouted approval. But I was getting more obsessed about how much my feet were hurting and couldn’t share their nostalgia for a time and place I had never known. I shuffled away.

Soon, there was a lady on stage shaking ostrich feathers to old jazz. I went for a drink. When I came back down and Mark SaFranko‘s voice was piping eerily into the room through the PA, talking about screams ripping through the darkness in a deep American accent. I went to sit down with my girlfriend in a side room with seats that stuck and gripped my trousers whenever I changed position.

Beside us, two intense girls were talking about Robert Frost.

A man joined them. “Hi I’m Joanna ,” said one, “and this is Susan. She’s a writer as well.” As if the fact of her being a writer was already a given.

Was I missing something?

Clearly.

“Sylvia Plath, she’s only famous because she died,” said the man and everyone agreed. I noticed that behind their heads on the wall, there was black mould. My feet ached. These people were silly.

Vic Templar took the microphone and they went to watch. I stayed where I was, amused by his introduction of himself as “Ernest Hemingway”, but even more interested in the two very drunk women who had taken up the now empty seats. They had that angry look that extreme inebriation sometimes gives people. Like it’s confusing them so much it makes them mad. And I came to realise one of them was about to be sick. So I grabbed my girlfriend and we left the corner too, Stewart Home, in turn, taking our place. He appeared to be fascinated by whatever he was imagining was about to happen.

I didn’t see what that was. Sadly, I can’t report on whether she blew chunks on Mr Home. To my surprise, I had suddenly left the building. When I’d stood up, my feet had hurt so much that I’d contracted an overpowering urge to go home. But, somehow, by the time I’d said my goodbyes and got outside the chunder woman had overtaken me and caught a cab. This cab was now pulled over at the junction of Farringdon Road and Clerkenwell Road, flashing its hazard warning lights. She was leaning out of the door puking. The heightened metaphorical awareness induced by the Recession Session enabled me to see that this act too was an eloquent statement on The Way Things Are Going…

So was everything. The absurd expense of the tube. The pale faces of the returning pub-goers on the Victoria Line. The cruelty and chaos of Finsbury Park: evil looks on the street, BMWs racing along pedestrian-heavy roads and hurrying, menacing drunks. I nearly fell over one man, who was sitting in the middle of the pavement, head slumped forward, asleep. There was a slick of water leading up to where he snoozed, like a man-sized slug’s trail. Clearly, he had wet his trousers, then sat down, and someone had dragged him along on his arse. A group of tramps – presumably but not definitely his friends – were dancing to sounds that could only be heard in their heads in a doorway behind him. This was Blair and Brown’s legacy, for sure.

We walked on.

And then I was near pushed off the pavement by Jesus. I refocused and saw it was a man with a big brown beard, braided hair and a faraway look in his eyes. He was naked from the waist up, apart from a pure white shawl draped over his shoulders.

“Did you see what he was holding?” my girlfriend asked.

“No.”

“A big bag full of needles. A see-through bag, full of needles.”

These things too, seemed loaded with significance.

As I limped home it was clear to me that the Recession Session had had some effect. What that was was hard to pin-point. To go back to the early stages of this scrawl – it certainly hadn’t provided any answers. What had it taught me about sorry state of the nation? Perhaps something. Perhaps nothing. But at least it was fun. And in an increasingly grimy world that has to count.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sam Jordison is the author of Crap Towns, Crap Towns II, The Joy Of Sects and Bad Dates. He is a part-time film reviewer and occasional goatherd, and lives in Norwich with his girlfriend, the novelist Eloise Millar.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 6th, 2009.