Truth and Lies at Christmas – a Seasonal Encounter With Mr Luke Haines 1
By Tim Mitchell.
It was Christmas. Some months after the strange events regarding Mr Luke Haines that I have described (with some trifling assistance from a “writer”) in a volume entitled Truth and Lies in Murder Park, Mr Haines had agreed to do his bit in this season of goodwill by meeting me to discuss for the benefit of the population at large his musical output, life and world view. Not to mention his opinions of some of those less than talented than he who also operate in the field of “rock and roll”. We were to meet in an inn in Camden — a district of London the keys to which he had long since symbolically been handed. After our successful, if at times rather intense, discussions at his erstwhile rural retreat, Eastworth Hall, we were to indulge in some more relaxed conversation on many of the same themes, in front of a hearty fire. Because there were words still to be spoken, I felt. But there was no ulterior motive to this meeting, no hidden agenda. It would just be a nice chat. And, despite our talk being largely of the past, it would be the spirit of the future, a hazy vision of a time dear to Mr Haines when all men are equal and everyone loves everyone else, that would hover above us.
After kicking the snow from my boots at the door of the hostelry, I made my way towards the barely visible, flame-licked form of Mr Haines. He was well ensconsed in front of the log fire that filled the cave-like depths of the broad, high fireplace. As I drew closer, I saw that in the heart of this veritable furnace — whose benefits, strangely, in such an obviously public house, seemed to be being enjoyed by Mr Haines alone — white-hot wood seemed to shine like the contents of some hellish charnel-house. With his own boots lying untidily on the floor, Mr Haines’s feet were toasting nicely in front of the flames. Despite the heat, though, he was swathed in thick scarves, which dangled down on either side of his chair. The large wreaths of holly, ivy and mistletoe surrounding the fireplace were positively Druidic.
I murmured my pleasure to Mr Haines at this opportunity to renew our acquaintance, and he good-humouredly waved a hand towards a chair to his left. It was at this point that I discovered that I had been wrong about Mr Haines’s sole occupancy of this area. What had seemed, at first glance, to be a casually cast-away coat upon this chair, revealed itself, on closer examination, to be a child. Mr Haines seemed oblivious of the presence of this poor soul. I thought it appropriate to draw his attention to it by a low cough and a delicately raised finger. Mr Haines turned his head a few degrees towards the chair — giving me, for the first time, a view of his newly hirsute, even, you might say, bearded features — and then he whistled, snapped his fingers, and delivered in the direction of this item of furniture what I can only describe as a highly offensive gesture. At this the dishevelled, barefoot urchin who had been sitting there peeled himself from the upholstery and melted into the shadows. I hope that the shiny fifty-pence piece which I managed to press into his hand without Mr Haines noticing may have eased his exit into the colder, darker parts of the tavern.
The season of good cheer seemed to agree with Mr Haines. There was a certain rotundity to him now that had not been in evidence during our meetings at the Hall.
At this point — my heart lifts now as I recall the moment — a joyous sound filled the air, one that immediately conjured up all that is great and magical about our modern celebrations of the festive season. The inn’s jukebox had begun to play Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’. Dragging his reddened face away from the fire, and looking me up and down, while at the same time reaching for the hot toddy resting on a table at his side, Mr Haines must himself have been inspired by the angelic sound, for he was preparing himself for speech. Having swallowed a couple of large mouthfuls of mulled wine, he leant back once more with a satisfied sigh and a slapping of his whiskered chin, and then began our session with a brief musing on the influence of the early to mid-seventies on his recorded material:
‘I keep on going back to a kind of neo-glam sound,’ he said. ‘I think the first things you hear are the ones that stay with you.’ An arm, its sleeve trimmed in white, flopped from his chair. ‘Perhaps you can’t actually move on from that.’
We were away. And straight into Mr Haines’s formative years. I immediately seized this early opportunity to deepen my previous enquiries into the background to the Haines oeuvre, outlook and psyche.
‘And these,’ I said, ‘would be the kinds of songs you were listening to as a nipper? Possibly around the age of five — a time that seems to have been particularly significant for you?’
I was childishly pleased at being able to bring up this subject so soon in our discussion.
‘Obviously I was five in 1972/73,’ Mr Haines replied — as if talking to someone of similar tender years. ‘It’s obviously had an effect. Off the top of my head’ — and here his voice took on a rasping tone — ‘I’m not sure if it does have any significance.’
A draft seemed to have arrived from somewhere and to have fuelled the embers in the grate. They glowed for a few seconds with increased vigour. I pressed on.
‘So where were you hearing that music?’ I asked. ‘Was this kind of thing heard in the Haines household?’
‘No. My parents weren’t into music,’ he replied. ‘They were older, and it wasn’t like now when you’re thirty or even forty and you go out and buy a fucking Blur album. I mean I wouldn’t go out and buy a Blur album, but some people do. I think when you were thirty then, you had settled down, it was a more serious time perhaps, so we didn’t have pop music particularly in the house. They had Jack Jones records and stuff like that, Matt Monro…’
‘Perry Como…’ I murmured, picturing the old chap in an armchair, crooning a Christmas song.
‘Absolutely,’ Mr Haines replied. ‘So it’s probably just from Top of the Pops and stuff like that. Pop music wasn’t banned or anything but it wasn’t part of their lives, so I must have just discovered it myself.’
An urchin girl was in the process of delivering a plate of raw oysters, perhaps recently rushed up from the Kent coast for Mr Haines’s delectation. The great man took the plate and placed it on the table next to him. There was a sorrowful look on the girl’s face. For the briefest of moments a psychological battle was fought as the poor creature’s eyes endeavoured to engage with Mr Haines’s own. But then the little lady’s head bowed, her figure appeared to diminish, and then she, too, became subsumed by the shadows. Mr Haines popped a particularly plump specimen of bivalve marine life into his mouth and began to chew.
‘So would you have been five when you started going to school?’ I asked.
‘Yeah,’ he responded, while his jaws continued their work.
‘That is quite a heightened time anyway, is it not,’ I continued, ‘the beginning of the end of childhood in a way?’
‘The beginning of the end,’ he agreed, licking his fingers. ‘It’s the start of the slippery slope to oblivion. I remember my first day of going to school and loathing it even then. I wasn’t going to be tricked that this was in any way of any use to me. I knew it was cutting into time when I could be doing something else.’
And then I saw the strangest thing. It seemed, in fact, that Mr Haines had taken two oysters from the dish. The second appeared to be lying in his cupped hand, which was angled behind him, into the darkness. And then, perhaps my eyes deceived me, but I believe that I saw a tiny hand reach out from the gloom and take the oyster!
Putting aside my astonishment — and wondering whether what I had seen was actually some trick of the light — I engaged once more with my host.
‘Was your life in early childhood a trifle dull?’ I asked. ‘Did you ever wish for adventures such as those you once told me you had read about in Treasure Island and the works of Mr Daniel Defoe?’
An outbreak of cheery back-slapping erupted suddenly from the twinkling gloom at the far end of the saloon bar, where a group of local ale drinkers had gathered to celebrate the yule-tide. Mr Haines seemed oblivious of the disturbance.
‘No,’ he said, ‘I didn’t think I was living a boring life. If you’re doing some sort of creative thing, what sorts out the men from the boys is coming up with something out of nothing all the time. Because otherwise you’re going down the “one must suffer to create” route. I’m not a big fan of that. Other than living in suburbs, I didn’t have a lot to rail against.’
The sound from the far end of the bar settled back into a murmur. The men’s conversation had turned less mirthful — maybe they were speaking of their uncertain futures in these harsh times. Or perhaps of dark memories of shared pasts.
At this point I delicately mentioned to Mr Haines a book by Michael Bracewell entitled England is Mine. If I may be permitted to quote myself, this tome is a ‘cultural history of literate English rock music’ that ‘doesn’t even mention Mr Haines.’ I had prepared myself for an incendiary outburst, the heat of which would rival that from the fire itself, but Mr Haines’s reaction was controlled.
‘I wasn’t a big fan of that book,’ he said equably. ‘There was some pretty tenuous stuff in there, and he shoots himself down immediately — he has Oscar Wilde as the first pop star. As soon as you start saying something’s the first, it’s “So-and-so was the first fucking punk rocker”, and you end up going back to a guy in a cave as the original primitive.’
In light of this unexpectedly moderate reaction, I felt it necessary to take a further risk — one that could have resulted in serious injury to my person.
‘I believe that any discussion of your own work is sadly missing from this book,’ I said, my hands making a disguised but oiled motion towards the arms of my chair. I was readying myself to take leave of it, if necessary, with the alacrity of a deer fleeing a hunter.
But Mr Haines merely picked out another tiny sea creature and popped it into his mouth.
‘I don’t think I got that far,’ he said.
Then he snapped his fingers. At this, another urchin appeared from the shadows. Mr Haines signalled to him to turn around. The little chap did so, and Mr Haines proceeded to wipe his hands on the lad’s coat tails.
‘I don’t know where I stand in all of this,’ he continued. ‘I don’t really care. But there were points in the late nineties when I was completely written off anyway, probably after Baader Meinhof, which nobody really noticed at the time…’ Here Mr Haines paused to brush a morsel of mollusc flesh from his lap. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that he was equating it with the fourth estate, and that he regarded each as equally deserving of his contempt. ‘There’s slightly more gravitas perhaps now,’ he carried on. And then he mused: ‘I think I instigate a kind of competitiveness in art. Not in terms of wanting to be the most successful, but in wanting to be the best. Because there’s a difference. You can’t actually measure art in terms of success, but you can measure it in terms of the best artist. I think that’s where sport and I kind of fell out. In a sporting way, I’ve never understood the idea of competition. Cricket’s OK because it’s kind of esoteric. I’ve been a cricket fan for quite a few years.’ His eyes narrowed towards the fireplace. ‘I like the interplay and the ritual of it. It’s kind of pagan or something. It’s deliberately impenetrable at times. That’s a good thing.’
‘The spirit of cricket is almost mythical, is it not?’ I replied.
‘So, did this absence from the sporting field enable you to devote more time to reading?’
‘I’ve always read when I wanted to read. I was never bookish but I’m well read. I’ve met quite a lot of people in the publishing industry and I’m better read than most of them.’
‘Was your reading during your childhood and adolescence guided in any way?’
‘I’ve never had much of that kind of thing. It’s almost been a case of being self-taught in quite a lot of things because I don’t think I was very good at accepting being told what to do.’
Something that was borne out, of course, a few years later, when Mr Haines was asked to leave his art school in Portsmouth. The great man laughed when I brought up the subject.
‘There was some idea that my supposed attitude was affecting other people,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t taking it seriously.’
‘What was it like having to move from suburban Walton-on-Thames down to the south coast?’
‘I don’t know why anyone lives in half the fucking towns in Britain,’ he replied. ‘Just leave the fucking place! Move out! And Portsmouth was like that, really.’ Composing himself, he sighed. ‘Kids seem not to want to leave home so much these days. If you have one aim in your life, and it’s to get out of the town you live in and try and go somewhere better, it’s at least some kind of structure…’
I now recalled to Mr Haines something that he had brought to my attention at the Hall — the fact that Portsmouth was the scene of the séance resulting in the last trial under the Witchcraft Act in Britain, that of Helen Duncan. And that prompted us to talk, too, of Mr Arthur Conan Doyle’s involvement in the esoteric concerns of the town’s Literary and Scientific Society, and of his attendance at local séances and displays of telepathy and mesmerism. At which point, conversation turned to Mr Haines’s paternal grandmother, who had been a member of a spiritualist church.
‘I think a lot of people were then,’ he said. ‘If you look around provincial towns, there’s often a spiritualist church. Whether that just amounted to going to a séance every fortnight, I don’t know.’
And Mr Haines’s own experiences of what, these days, is a largely hidden side of life?
‘There’s the First Tuesday Society,’ he replied. ‘They do séances and stuff. You pay your ten quid and you can have as much gin and tonic as you can drink, some sandwiches — and there’s a séance…’
Mr Haines’s attention had wandered. A young woman had come into the public house. The snow on the brim of her red hood was already beginning to turn grey — and her passage through the slush-covered streets had long since removed the shine from the black leather at the foot of her knee-length boots. She was a match girl, perhaps, or some such. Mr Haines watched as she began to attract the attention of the establishment’s male merry-makers.
‘Thrown in?’ I prompted Mr Haines.
He swivelled sharply towards me, staring a trifle wildly, I thought. And then he settled back in his chair.
‘Thrown in,’ he continued. ‘And you usually get some old duffer from the British Legion or something. Doing a speech about how the empire has gone and all this stuff. I’ve been a couple of times with John from Black Box Recorder. It’s a good night out.’
Behind us, a bit of a commotion was now going on. Raised voices. A stifled shriek, the bark of the bar tender. Jeers and catcalls. And then a slamming door. The match girl had been ejected, back into the snow.
Once the interruption was over, people returned to their pints.
Conversations were recommenced and stories taken up again. The girl was forgotten. I turned back towards Mr Haines.
Read Part 2.
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: Monday, December 14th, 2009.