:: Article

Stations of the Cross

By Darran Anderson.

Last Days of the Cross, Joseph Ridgwell, Grevious Jones Press 2009

“An autobiography is only to be trusted” George Orwell once wrote, “when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” With Last Days of the Cross, Joseph Ridgwell, bastard son of Arturo Bandini and the Artful Dodger, admirably rises (or perhaps sinks) to the challenge. It’s with a mix of bleak authenticity, lunatic ambition but above all self-deprecating charm that Ridgwell creates a gem of a book that will horrify the more faint-hearted of the cognoscenti (but, frankly, to hell with them).

The rich seams of misery and near-ruin have long been mined for literary greatness: Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, W. H. Davies’ The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp. Long is the list of those who’ve sought out enlightenment amidst lives led below the breadline (whether through choice or necessity), using the force of will to survive and somehow prosper through the grimness. In the Last Days of the Cross, there are barrel-loads of misery. Rail-trucks full of it. There’s so much it has its own factories and Five Year Plans with Ridgwell a veritable Stakhanov at the coalface. Misery, debauchery, destitution, thwarted dreams and the burning resolve of the damned. Last Days of the Cross has it all in abundance. It is also one of the funniest books you’ll read this year.

The book recounts the trials and adventures of young Joseph having departed the shores of Blighty, bound for the care-free beaches of Australia and literary greatness. Instead our hero finds himself living in a dosshouse amidst the ramshackle decadence of Sydney’s red-light district, falling in love with a junky aborigine girl called Rosie who robs him blind and periodically leaves him to wallow lovelorn amongst bottles of rot-gut wine, porn cubicles and peeping toms. The twin struggles of finding love and writing his masterpiece propel the book through picaresque encounters with addicts, lecherous spinsters and the eternal evils of the landlord and the boss.

For a writer like Ridgwell who has carved out a reputation as something of a literary pugilist (never ceasing to stir up trouble, intentionally or not), Last Days of the Cross is a surprisingly freewheeling story, being hilariously self-deprecating and quixotic. Unlike many of the hipster free-verse disciples of Bukowski, Ridgwell has learned the old bard’s most valuable lesson; it’s not believing in some sense of smug deadbeat cool that counts, it’s being aware of and utterly honest about your own innate ridiculousness. Last Days… is funniest at its most triumphant and its bleakest (often these moments are indistinguishable); “No longer would I be Joseph Ridgwell, the Bard of Kings Cross but Joseph Ridgwell: Peanut King!”

For all the bravado that you fear may come with its subject matter, it’s an astonishingly open-hearted book in an age when literary games, trickery and dislocation seem paramount, a tender, even gentle, carouse through the gutter. There’s even an openness to the world that marks Ridgwell out as a romantic. Sure enough there’s something in here to offend everyone, with the narrator throwing out casual insults and non-PC remarks continually along the way but it’s done with a disarming charm and more importantly the redeeming fact that Ridgwell fully includes himself in the sorry morass of humanity.

For a book which concentrates on the folly and freedom (to starve) of the aspiring bohemian, there is, not surprisingly, a great deal of focus on the act of writing itself or rather the lack of. Seeking Li Po’s long-vacated poetic throne, Ridgwell soon finds himself at war with the blank page or in this case the blank screen, raging against his laptop and the Microsoft logo “which kept moving in diagonal directions” and which mocks his inactivity (“So you think you can defeat me, eh? You inanimate technological object! You think you can get one over on the world’s greatest living poet, ha, you mug. Can’t you see the odds are stacked against you?”). He labours to write odes inspired by the prostitutes viewed from his window or nature or, in one case, a museum painting. Ridgwell “Poet of Clouds,” Ridgwell “the Brick Poet.” He fails, initially at least, at each.

With an honesty that avoids worthiness, Ridgwell tries to write an epic about “the street kids, drunkards… the lost, the lonely, the marginalised and the dispossessed” in the comically-superior hope his “childhood home” will be “turned into a museum and shrine by the Ridgwell Appreciation Society” and “there would be guided tours of the Cross – Ridgwell drank in this bar, sat on that very stool.” He emerges, it has to be said, with a genuinely great poem Kings Cross at 6AM but conquering art is one thing. Conquering life is not as easy.

The course of love never runs smooth and Ridgwell fluctuates from writing smitten rhapsodies to Rosie to vengeful odes armed with “disgusting adjectives, fiery metaphors and accusing similes.” Occasionally he falls into the nihilism that is the disappointment of the failed romantic, “We could never be together and it was madness to think otherwise… who did I think I was? I was no poet, no artist. Only people with trust funds or inmates of lunatic asylums could call themselves such flaky things.” The love boat repeatedly crashes against the rocks of the everyday, as Mayakovsky’s suicide note went. Heartache and joy and uncertainty inevitably await.

As much a chart of the perils and highs of romance, Last Days… is concerned with the struggle of the modern soul for authentic experience, for solitude and some deeper wisdom, against the jobs, the managers, the whinging realists, the hangovers, the writers block and the long dark nights of the soul which all conspire to derail us. Ridgwell flirts with the dark side, chasing the dragon with his erstwhile lover, “I didn’t care about anything because nothing mattered. Writing was ridiculous; poetry absurd, the patrons of such arts demented and the artists themselves a bunch of pretentious, preening egotists” a happiness that “was filled with resounding echoes of hollow and empty transience.” It’s symbolic of the book as a whole, when all the highs are transitory and have sadness in them because they are so fleeting. Observations in Last Days… come as lightly as they do in life but with a real importance than can easily be missed. Ridgwell talks of mortality and age in movingly simple terms (“how does that shit happen?”). He studies monstrous Ibis birds, “their white plumage blackened by pollution, exhaust fumes, a sorry vaguely intimidating sight. Their strange bills made me shudder; evil. What is it about the city and city life? Look what it does to people and even animals. It brutalises everything.”

On occasion, Ridgwell delivers a startling stop-dead-in-your-tracks turn-of-phrase; “the next day I awoke to find my tiny bed-sit glowing like the inside of a cathedral or an expectant mother’s womb,” commuting to work in a packed train feeling like “a bag of solidified shit” or as said of a work colleague stuck in a deadening job, “no wonder an air of eternal regret followed him around like a sad refrain or wistful lament.” Mostly, there’s an endearing mix of the naïve and the streetwise sides of the narrator,

“Follow me,” he whispered.

“Where to?” I whispered back.

“To the roof!”

Fuck it, I thought. Maybe he’s got a telescope up there and I’d always fancied doing a bit of stargazing…

Up on the roof, Beardy adopted a more conspiratorial air.

Ridgwell’s air of flippant disrespect continues with his healthy hatred of management, referring to his building-site boss as “moustache man” and Village People (“once he’d fucked off I assessed the situation”). The plentiful humour in the face of stark reality is one reason to read this book. Another is to find out the significance of the number 6789. Or how a man can let down the dishonourable traditions of the Poètes maudits by not havng sex with a ladyboy.

Last Days of the Cross is ultimately a lament for a dying world where the joys and miseries of semi-destitution and hedonism are replaced by the simple dulleries of work and streets full of the same coffee shops and department stores as everywhere else, the horrors of gentrification. “The scene was moving on. Junkies were vanishing, drunks and vagrants being rounded up and dispersed… and the people moving in were different – professional-types, city workers… lovers of café society and spotless sidewalks.”

“Where does it all go?” Ridgwell wonders in the end “the junkies, misfits, hookers… drunks,” hoping to follow the drift “to the next frontline because there’s always got to be a frontline somewhere…”

Darran Anderson is an Irish writer and 3:AM’s poetry editor. He has just completed a novel entitled The Ship is Sinking and his poetry chapbook Tesla’s Ghost is forthcoming from Blackheath Books. He is now working on a second novel, a modern adaptation of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita that borders on outright theft.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 31st, 2009.