Truth and Lies at Christmas – a Seasonal Encounter With Mr Luke Haines 3
By Tim Mitchell.
When the young lad had finished restocking the fire, Mr Haines reached down to the table at his side and picked up a mince pie. He signalled to the boy, who approached gingerly. Mr Haines gave him a playful cuff around the ears, which he half-ducked, and then placed the mince pie in his grubby hands. ‘God Bless Us, Every One,’ muttered the poor child. In fact, it was not just his hands that were dirty – his clothes and face, too, seemed to be filthy. Like, in fact, one of the horde of desperate children in their ‘coffins of black’, conjured up by Mr William Blake in his poem ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. I peered through the flames – with, I hope, the kind of keen determination to discover and decipher that, in Dr Watson, would have brought the admiration of Mr Sherlock Holmes. But I had to admit defeat. I could detect no signs of recent brushing in the fireplace. But then the fire had been burning long and hard. If there had once been any evidence to this effect, it had most efficiently been destroyed.
During the replenishing of the fire and the rewarding of the youngster who had accomplished it, I had been continuing to think about Satan Wants Me, Mr Robert Irwin’s delicious work of fiction. And that had led me to muse to myself how Satanists must perforce acknowledge the existence of God in order to oppose Him, and how this must necessarily alienate these enemies of Christianity from all atheists, too. I decided to ask Mr Haines his views on the subject of religion. He gave me a rather odd look at this change of subject but responded graciously:
‘Rod Liddle – who, strangely enough, turns up at my gigs – did this programme about how hardline atheists were as bad as religious zealots – which there’s something in. I’m now under the impression that, where organised religion exists, one has to believe in God – even whilst not being religious, even if there is actually no deity. Otherwise you can’t possibly deny someone else’s faith – there’s madness in that. And if you’re going to have a monarchy, which we do have, whether anyone likes it or not – and I don’t really mind it, I quite enjoy it – and there’s the divine right to rule from the Church of England – which was installed by the monarchy – then I think it’s unconstitutional not to believe in God. I’m coming round to this idea of having some kind of faith, without actually believing in a puff of smoke.’
I asked whether he and Mr Liddle had met and conversed. He confirmed that they had.
‘Rod Liddle,’ he said, ‘told me that when he was editor of the Today programme, which I did once, he had been petitioning to use ‘Everything They Say Will Destroy You’ as the sort of theme! Which would have worked quite well within the context of Today – but obviously being Radio 4…’
‘Ah,’ I said sorrowfully, ‘I can’t imagine Mr John Humphries…’
But at this moment there was another commotion at the door of the public house. The wheezing sound of an accordion accosted my ears. Turning towards the noise, I was met with the sight of half a dozen German youths in lederhosen, jerkins and walking boots, who were making their way towards the bar. Once they had gathered around, the accordion player proceeded to strike up ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, and the Teutonic crew made a noble, if rather guttural, attempt at singing the English words. When they had finished, there was applause from the other parts of the house (although I must say I thought I discerned an unkind cry from somewhere of ‘Jerry mental-men’), and the landlord produced six half-pint glasses for these Teutonic tonsillers – full of English bitter. The singers downed their drinks with barely a grimace and then moved around the floor with collecting jars for the charity they represented, which seemed to be concerned with nurturing German musical youth. When they approached our part of the room, shaking their pots loudly, I moved out to meet them, and reached into my pocket to make a small contribution – on behalf of both Mr Haines and myself. At this point, the most juvenile of the yodellers made a move towards Mr Haines’s chair. Fortunately I was able to intercede briskly, after which I pointed him firmly back towards the door. His maturer fellows – better schooled, no doubt, in twentieth-century Anglo-German history – fully comprehended the gestural language of an English gentleman, and deferred to its message. Within seconds the little group was gone. As the door opened and then closed behind them, it allowed a blast of cold air to sweep through the room. This icy current was sufficient to cause a fluttering amongst a collection of pieces of paper attached to the wall in an alcove to my left. I craned my neck towards them. There was a selection of childish paintings pinned up there in a colourful display of youthful English naivety.
I turned back to Mr Haines.
‘Were there any… comebacks after your magisterial Baader Meinhof album?’ I wondered.
He accepted the praise with the tiniest of nods.
‘Any peripheral Baader Meinhof members,’ he said, ‘would be in Germany…’ He allowed me to ponder this for a second and then continued. ‘A big German rock magazine did a review of the album and a “think piece” on it. The issue was pulped. It’s still… verboten. The album’s appeal or otherwise was slightly limited because they weren’t allowed to release it in Germany, and the German press weren’t allowed to write about it. But every few years I get a bizarre offer from over there. There was one a couple of years ago, some sort of theatre group wanted to do something – something terrible, some sort of interpretation, and did I want to be involved? I don’t think I even thought of answering.’
‘I take it you had objections to the project?’
‘I probably did have objections – but I wasn’t sure what they were… Just the word “interpretation”… I wondered whether it was going to be through the medium of dance…’
In order to rid ourselves of the grotesque images conjured up by this prospect – surely Mr Lovecraft himself, in his wildest imaginings, could not have come up with anything as horrific – we fell to discussing the personnel behind Mr Haines’s magnum opus. I enquired who had played the bass guitar that thumped behind the songs like the tail of a writhing catfish on the block of a sea-front fishmonger.
‘I did,’ Mr Haines replied.
And the other members of the crew?
‘It was pretty much me apart from the tabla player, and there was a kind of string section shift of whoever was available at the time…’
Mr Haines explained to me that he had himself arranged the strings – and that this was the first time he had delved into that particular art. Maybe his compositional skills in this field will be called upon again one day? Perhaps for some Hollywood producer with shedloads of cash? One would like to think so.
‘The string section makes a piquant contribution to the record’s sonic stew,’ I murmured.
‘I was certain of every note and every interval,’ he said quietly. ‘The difference between the cello and the violins… The strings took the longest time on that record and in some ways were the best thing about it. It wasn’t “big strings”‘ – here Mr Haines’s fingers curled in the air like the talons of a hawk – ‘it was just a cellist and a violin player live. Then probably double-tracked in the tiny basement 16-track studio. It was all recorded on tape – probably one of the last records I did that was – and all mastered on tape, too, so sonically it was all very good.’
‘For a record about terrorism, it has a very warm sound,’ I opined.
‘Absolutely,’ replied Mr Haines.
Yes, the warmness helps. An icy sound on such a project would have frozen it. Baader Meinhof inhabits the hot hearts of the gang as well as their cold minds.
At this point there was another disturbance at the door of the public house. The door was roughly pushed open and a herd – I use the word advisedly – of children trampled through it and on to the sawdust-strewn wooden floor. Here a young lady who was accompanying them began single-handedly to corral them, before escorting them towards the bar. This soon began to resemble the drinking trough of a cattle pen as the youngsters were issued with various sugar-filled beverages. The young lady looked across to the paintings on the wall, then cast a look in our direction and smiled. I responded in kind.
It was time for Mr Haines and I to discuss art.
‘Did you ever go to any of the early Britart shows?’ I asked him.
‘I think I went to the original Sensations one,’ he replied. And then a look of some perplexity came across his face. ‘But I might actually have dreamt that,’ he said. ‘I feel like I probably have…’ He looked down at his knee. Pyewhacket, resting there, gave a slight quiver. He continued. ‘I’ve met quite a lot of those people. The Chapman Brothers’ Hell thing is only impressive in the time they spent doing it. Ultimately it’s no more than every schoolboy did in the 70s or 80s with their tiny model soldiers.’
‘And akin to defacing the Goyas…’ I commented.
‘Exactly,’ he replied.
‘That reminds me,’ I said, ‘did Dinos Chapman do some work on your…?’
‘He did the original sleeve for the Christie Malry record… I went for lunch with Jake Chapman because I think at that point Dinos was tied up in the cellar. Jake does the talk, they wheel him out on to Radio 4… It was agreed that the Chapman Brothers would do the sleeve, and I thought, “This is kind of interesting – see what they come up with.” But as it got nearer and nearer to the wire, and the record needed to come out, there was no sleeve forthcoming. After several phone calls I managed to get through to Jake – “Can you get me something in the next two days?” I said, “I really need this sleeve.” And they just did a couple of screen-grabs from the film! I thought “I’m not having this,” so I got my wife to take a photograph of me standing out in my garden with the chalkboard saying “Art will save the world” on it, and then, really badly on Photoshop, just stuck that on Dinos Chapman’s thing and sent it off to the art designers at Virgin Records. The credit was “Sleeve designed by Jake and Dinos Chapman, vandalised by Luke Haines”, which then had to go to them for approval. It went over on a Thursday night and I’d gone away somewhere on the Friday. Then I got this call: “Dinos is not very happy” and I was just’ – and here Mr Haines, most uncharacteristically, punched the air – “Yes!”. I said, “How unhappy would you say he is on a scale of one to ten?” ” – About ten. He’s actually threatening Virgin that he’s going to injunct the record if it goes out with his name on it.” ” – Are they taking it seriously?” ” – Well, the Chapmans have got quite a lot of money, and they’re talking about bringing Jay Jopling into it. I think we’d better take his name off.”‘
Here is a truly terrifying thought. Maybe the Chapmans got the idea for their assault on Señor Goya’s prints from Mr Haines?
‘I’ve still got a pile of the CDs with the original artwork on them,’ he carried on gleefully. ‘If Virgin reissue it, I should try to get them to put that on there, then it wouldn’t matter to me if Virgin got injuncted or not – because I’m not on the label!’
At this point the young representatives of all that is brightest and best about our country’s comprehensive school system left their glasses of sticky liquids behind them on the bar and began to wend their way, transformed into an indoor crocodile, in our direction. At their head was the young lady, her face now positively shining. She seemed to have done a remarkable job of curbing the brats’ more bestial tendencies – this crocodile was tame! Excited whispers – but no more – went backwards and forwards between them as they walked. I muttered a few words to Mr Haines to the effect that a collection of young students seemed to be heading towards us. He peered around the side of his chair and then began to pull on his boots. Reaching down to a part of the floor which the light from the fire had been unable to illuminate, his hand returned into the warm glow holding a large, dark woollen hat – which he proceeded to place upon his head. Flinging his scarves from his frame, he stood and turned. Mr Haines was wearing a black, woollen suit! With his beard, boots and hat, he was the very symbol of defiance of all that Christmas has become in these market-driven, God-forsaking times! He was the anti-Santa. And the youngsters loved him. They clustered around excitedly, tugging at his jacket and making jokes at his expense. Mr Haines seemed to be taking it all in good heart. And then he reached further into the shadows and came up with a black sack, which he hoisted to his shoulder – to the cheers of the children. Ruffling the hair of the nearest juvenile, Mr Haines moved off in the direction of the little picture gallery on the wall that I had glimpsed earlier, and the young lady led her brood in his wake. I brought up the rear.
When we were all gathered in the alcove, I noticed that on each of the paintings had been affixed a large star – either silver or gold. At the centre of the display were the three childish works – a human body constructed from a jumble of geometric shapes, a red lion with a green crown on his head, a girl whose entire face seemed taken up in a gargantuan scream – that had been awarded the top prizes in the school art competition that Mr Haines had apparently agreed to judge.
As he began to delve into his sack, and to produce a series of darkly wrapped packages, each of which was greeted with excited drawings-in of breath – I saw ghoulish masks, fur-covered boots and sets of vampire teeth emerging from the black paper – I left him to his business and returned to the fire.
Taking the liberty, as he was otherwise engaged, of assuming Mr Haines’s chair, I kicked off my boots and began to toast my own toes. Twirling the hairs of my mutton chops in one hand, I stared deep in to the flames – and, I am afraid to say, dropped off.
When I awoke from my nap half an hour or so later, I looked across to the alcove. It was empty. The happy band of young puppies, together with their indulgent but capable teacher, had disappeared. The wall there was bare – they had taken their prize-winning artworks with them. And Mr Haines? Of him, too, there was no sign. But then his twin assignments, with me and the children, had both been accomplished. His duties had been discharged. He would once again be resuming the main thrust of the Hainesian life.
I settled back in front of the fire – content in the knowledge that when it came time to write my account of these proceedings, this time there would be no ignorant ‘writer’ to get in my way.
‘Robertson!’ I bellowed. ‘More ale.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Mitchell is the author of the novel Truth and Lies in Murder Park: a Book About Mr Luke Haines, published by benben press. He has also written books on Jonathan Richman, John Cale and Television. As a musician he has performed and recorded with the poet Jeremy Reed. He is currently completing a novel about spying, and working on another about art and terrorism.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009.