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GOD IS A CUNT OR A COAT: THE CLERKENWELL LITERARY FESTIVAL



"Into the night, Swells surrounded and caged for a while like a literary Hannibal Lecteur, ranting endlessly into a blurry freak-out which was pissing its pants by now -- everyone left with the story etched into bombed-out brains and worn out genitalia . As all the women in the place lined up to be doggy fucked by Manning backstage, someone screamed that they'd seen the severed arm of the Prior of Charterhouse floating like an absinthe green trace light above Leather Lane."

By Richard Marshall

COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


The theme was 'Play', the mood one of roistering and capering -- you've got it, this wasn't your average literary wank fest of the great and the good or the moderate and the middle-brow.Tom Hodgkinson, Idler Magazine provocateur and festival programmer had instead 'brought together a unique group of outsider writers, passionate geeks and talented ne'er-do-wells' -- this was smart, scrofulous and sexy, bizarre, big-mouthed, big-brained and ever so slightly wired. And oh so definitely weird. Venues housed the thrills with panache and a sense of dissenting history from the Café Lazeez, The Surprise, The Foundry, The Three Kings, The Gallery, The Anexo Bar, Turnmills, the Marx Memorial Library to the legendary Tardis Studios, where years ago the strobe light was invented and which was now bathed in an eerie flickering retro sixties psychedelic mood, with zebras, macaws, velvet settees and sequined bean bags -- and on the Saturday afternoon, Bruce Woolley's theremin, high tea, piercing bon mots and a fez or two. Sponsored by Playstation 2's fanzine Pilchard Teeth, Channel 4, La Fee Absinthe, directed by Victoria Hull and patronised by David Bowie, Bryan Ferry and Irvine Welsh, this was what was needed to finesse a counter-culture, underground slacker ethos of original and stylish high-scruff mode-hauteur.

At every step through the terrain the surroundings change North of the Thames -- you wander Clerkenwell, a whitely wanton with a velvet brow. Walk with John Nicholson through the sites of the Great Liberty Riot of 1780 -- all the prisons burning down. The next day you're out with stews and slaughter, the world, the flesh and the devil -- same guide. You're guessing Iain Sinclair's in amongst the casual crowd at the Farringdon Underground station meeting place, just back, no doubt, from a hit of rus in the urbe, and Marc Atkins'll be snapping away at the heels of the sunshine -- the weather good all week -- catching the exorcism, "the only game worth the candle" -- and where the fuck are those bongos coming from? Clerkenwell's where Shakespeare got his dark lady from -- Afro-caribbean whores in the late sixteenth, early seventeenth centuries -- or else, like Burgess, he brought her in from the East -- East End Kray goon imitators letting things out on a leash for a while, flexible and flexing, good for business where all skin is business here, every boy 'The Rising Sun', something like that.

Fran Landesman and Robyn Hitchcock are smiling, winking through the placid darkness of the 'The Three Kings' and you know both that Simon Templar will be there somewhere in a white polo-neck smooching to Johny Pate and Adam Wade's 'Brother On The Run' and that the gold necklace and chain were a good choice. You choose the red room not the green one so you get the jukebox and hope the music covers you. Great Train Robber Bruce Reynolds and comic crime caper writer Danny King take the police and thieves motif out for a drive; later John Nicholson works the paradox of a skivers workshop, and for free but by then Cowcross Street is humming with faux turnbull business whores in flash suits, power dressed, working, goal oriented and moving away from the scene towards Liverpool Street Station and a different class of crime.

Lunchtime and the gangsters are hardly awake. Big cars cruise the Clerkenwell Road, Hatton Gardens is ablaze with the last flare of morning. Janet Street Porter's no longer at home at the corner of Britton Street and Albion Place -- there's a big guy in a suit at the station, London's oldest, terminus of the first underground railway, 3.5 miles to Paddington -- he has a dog the size of a fist but he's stum. Going nowhere near books. Lunch is a liquid that has to be lager -- yellow beer that looks like fizzed piss -- or a throw-away Bloody Mary. Patrick Neate, author of Twelve bar Blues, and Jemima Hunt roll obsessionals into the shot breeze. 'Two loves I have, of comfort and despair/ Which like two sluts do suggest me still…' Some dangerous sound rolls round the library: DJ Shadow's 'Dark Days' drives us all inside, like there's never going to be a way out of the misremembered evocation: 'live in doubt,/ Till the bad angel fire my good one out…' and no one is moving, there's a fear about drawing attention to oneself, a low level sexual disease in the eyes, you know the sort, that red-eyed horn all readers have. Flies hover and buzz then fall out of the air dead. The pleasure of our lives becomes a form of dread, spinning eyes, giant memories we can't even feel yet. This is the retrieval of beginnings.

Can computer games tell stories? Haunted faces arrive, shagged out by an all night dog-wagging on Gran Turismo 3 or a hack-fest role play session on Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance , thin boys, too old to be boys but hey, there's a kind of biological denial here -- time is on pause, the game's saved, the memory card someone stole has been plugged into another game, a wrong level's come up, something has been changed and we're all falling over each other to work out where we are, how far we came, why did we lose the first time round -- or was it just tea time -- there's a sense that Dave Green of NTK is not really there, in the early evening light he shimmers, there are vertical hold lines running up and down him like an aquarium effect and either it's acid or green tea. David McCarthy of Edge Magazine jumps and skips as if there's a glitch on the CD surface, but it seems so deliberate, so regularised there's a suspicion it's a built-in glitch, like a dog killer in 'Alone In The Dark', something just too at home to ever be scared, or it's too late: someone walks in holding a torn-out windpipe and everyone swallows slyly and hopes it's not their own. Charles Cecil of Revolution Software flashes a smile that may or may not be a left-over sound from Moby's 'God Moving Over The Face Of The Water' and James Wallis knows all it'll take is a flick of a switch and everything will disappear. Someone is playing jazz piano in the Gaudi-styled Spanish Anexo bar. A big guy. Or maybe it's just that he's so close-up. McGrath. Lorca. No, you fumble around. McGrath wrote it -- this is David Harrod, Kenneth Haigh, Charles Hodgson, Kim Ismay and Celia Stothard doing a spell of 30's New York Bunuel and Dali or something. Something in the air, in the mouth. You're on your metal. Fascist gangsters killed Lorca. You walk into bright settled sunshine and think London is burning. Look east.

Anyone for anarchy? Anyone for Penny Rimbaud? This is days later. The old guy looks like he might have been made out of something like mahogany -- these lines and shadows all over his face are straight out of Rembrandt, and the talk muscles up to Ed Jones -- more Jazz, the room's hot, we pay our tithe, recall Stewart Home over lunch and his 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess which in the programme has become '69 Uses For A dead Princess', another subtle depth charge, another round of sex and performance focus at the heart of our cultural and organisational exchange, merciless and straight, the mobsters scuttle for cover -- whilst Nicholas Blincoe tries to keep up with his 'White Mice' story of supermodels which seem more like statements of intent coming after the better angel. Pub quizzes followed by The Miscarriages of Justice Organisation click out deathless tales of the fallen and the grotesque failures of law; James McGregor and Don Hale know where the bodies are hidden, where the sick lies and videotapes run in a garish loop -- this is the town without pity, this is where the shaved heads of the halls of justice, the bovver boys of silk get exposed, where The Kinks play a lovely version of 'God's Children' and you remember that only two days before Lucifer was here, Glen Duncan his satanic majesty's amiable host, and there was a hysterical laughter followed by some dangerous mutterings about the Buxton Lit Fest from the back -- 'The Duchess of Devonshire, David Starkey, Douglas Hurd, Shirley Williams, Allen Bennett,' and we knew Satan was playing his little tricks, sweating a frozen smile as the old gent seemed to be farting to The Human League's 'Love Action' as he retreated.

What we all need is a nice cool drink. It's only just past lunchtime and we're half asleep, dreaming of Commodore 64 in a moment of innocence and wake to Swedish underground gurn and a live set from 'Press Play On Tape', Ben Dalglish and some eight bit revolution that hauls ass in a cascadic type of way where counter-culture is literal -- a swap shop event over a counter with Ben Moor and Will McDonald -- the space of our games not so much displayed as put together out of whatever is brought along on the day. It's later by then, we realise, much much later by then. London is where? Clerkenwell folds itself up into a box and some sinister Mr Punch lookalike has it under his arm.

How long before Toby Young will have his kit off to move his new book How To Lose Friends and Alienate people -- the Tardis shifts into miserablisit phase. Demi-monde habitué and writer Richard Strange knows the sweet stench of failure: he didn't even make money out of his role as the executioner in Robin Prince Of Thieves even though the executioner featured in the terrible video shown on Top of the Pops for week after week -- he smiled, drew on his ancestor Q and a sort of Cornish extremism that's about rum, urbanity and the lash, at nine feet tall with a voice going down as far as Ernst Malstem's bombed dots he made it clear he knew all about failure and it would never crush his style. Arthur Smith strips off with Greg Rowland, who doesn't, and talks like John Barry's 'Midnight Cowboy' theme on a pun drug -- DJ John Moore keeps everyone sweetly fragrant in the miserablist manner. The parrot by the bar is cheekily found singing The Smiths' back catalogue -- the whole evening fetches its opposite in Keith Allen -- but that's days later, after Bollywood stars and writers Ardashir Vakil, author of Beach Boy, Howard Lee, star and author of From Balham To Bollywood have strutted their stuff, and after a hip lazy Love Night of inertia, heavy drinking, John Cooper Clarke, Adam Buxton, Kerry Sharp, Josie Bernard, Clare Pollard where the ghost of Dud and Pete's 'Bedazzled' daddioed the anti-glam ultra cool night into a smooze smooch lurve Arabesque Victor/Victoria Julie Andrews Nothing But The Best Alan Bates swinging time glitter fandango.

There's a wolf in the Tardis, sniffs around by the pasties, howls subliminal motherhood stories and never pisses even when Will Self makes up stuff about his gender-bender fatherhood role. He's always been on my list of good guys after he told a story of some bad-mouthing pensioner giving grief on the noise of his children in a restaurant. He took all of his eight foot nine, three hundred and fifty pounds over to the snob ageist and pointed out that he paid for her pension -- quietly. This was someone in touch with his own feelings and did heroin. Liberty, equality and paternity. Matthew De Abaitua was in the afternoon sun of the Tardis too. It was a reprieve of Self's ICA performance on a similar theme but this was Sunday and God was everywhere, and a cunt. Or not. You could decide. An Ennio Morricone soundtrack -- A Fistful Of Dollars -- someone burning money on a remote island, giving away self-published books…

Bill Drummond asked the question 'Is God A Cunt?' On a bridge the question is daubed, with telephone numbers for yes and no responses. Drummond will publish the results later. A call is put through to the new Archbishop Of Cantebury on a cell phone that inexplicably fails to connect to anything ever again, just kind of dies -- theology and a doubt: is this the right question to ask? Is it ever the right question? Someone asked instead 'Is God A Coat?' and had it printed as the true question in the official Clerkenwell Festival guide booklet, but there was no answer to that one. Another early evening -- seven o'clock -- everyone looks scared and someone muses aloud about what story is being hushed up over at The Guardian which is a few hundred yards away at Hockley-in- the -- Hole's bearpit, smut dive and cock pit -- sewer thoughts in the dream-world -- and they're the good guys. 'Is God a Cunt?' sends the crowd running to play Jenga, Connect 4, Draughts, totopoly -- for fuck's sake, anything -- religious radicals turn into soil with political ones in the Bunhill Fields -- Defoe and Blake across the way from Wesley's house -- Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor has a vision in 60 Farringdon Road where three relatively modest spaces -- the café and two reception areas plus lots of glass provide a forum for the past, present and future of news journalism, The Guardian and The Observer swimming out of the gin madness of Hogarth's Gin lane and Beer Street. No one need turn in their graves: the radical underground is still alive.

Johnny Ball keeps ranting like a maniac clock-maker, keeps pulling out this game and then the next -- look at this, look at this he screams, he's never going to stop, he is sweating earthy tears of salt. Something is brewing. After Steve Poole has made a quiet cryptic beginning to the event sitting next to Tom Hodgkinson, never a gin man, more absinthe and beer, although Poole decides quickly there's something not quite decent about the set-up. Something in the atmosphere that's unsettled, Jumpy, won't sit still. And Alex James's steamy beauty shimmers into something primitive, sexual, he can hardly hold the sentences together, his performance is a pun, a blur. It's as if the tracks have all gone missing: the wolf's tail's swept them clean right up to the well on Farringdon Lane, water flowing from the nunnery precinct wall, shit and piss closing it down, lost and then found in 1924, the base of the gin -- Booth's in 1740, Gordon's in 1798 -- he calculates something about quantum mechanics, something about Godel's theorum but it's an aside, a quick marker that there's something flashing, then falls quiet. Billy Childish is the only one who keeps to the trail, instinctual, teasing -- it's about play not games he corrects the assembled -- he keeps listening carefully to Ball and then repeats his complaint -- play not games, the role of play in creativity, then gives us a couple of his examples: playing at being a tyrannosaurus rex and then writing letters to squirrels with his son, and finishing with a beautiful song that released a spiritual solace into the heated, protracted, troublesome discussion like a secret river, underground, mysterious. Here the River Fleet is underground and eerily flowing. Johnny Ball moped his brow and Hogkinson looked relaxed and easeful as if something had been decided -- probably another round. Childish as Van Gogh as zen Jesus.

No pianos. Not even Led Zeppelin even though Martin Millar had been promised that as his entrance. Millar and Mark Manning were joined by Attack! Book and NME genius Steven Wells on a rock night which brought 3AM's Andrew Gallix over from Paris, James out of his single room belfry at Creation Books, Tony White fresh from dealing a deal at Faber. The Tardis was crammed full of punchable nuns, doxies, punks, drabs, blowzabellas and buttered buns -- from Honkers on the Clerkenwell Road with topless waitresses let out to see the three legends -- striptease artists from the Griffin Pub mixed with gay boys hurried out from Turnmill's gay stable 'Trade', American table-top dancers from Venus screamed out at Manning in his fancy white suit as he told his depraved rock tales of New York and caught their knickers between his flashing white teeth whilst Wells offered unpublished splatter prose that had every loft-living Camberwell posh sweating into their sushi. Millar donned an Afghan coat and left with drooling tottie on each arm to 'Stairway To Heaven' sampled through 'Time is Tight' by Booker T and the MC's. Masterful, Mr Millar, masterful.

Into the night, Swells surrounded and caged for a while like a literary Hannibal Lecteur, ranting endlessly into a blurry freak-out which was pissing its pants by now -- everyone left with the story etched into bombed-out brains and worn out genitalia . As all the women in the place lined up to be doggy fucked by Manning backstage, someone screamed that they'd seen the severed arm of the Prior of Charterhouse floating like an absinthe green trace light above Leather Lane where Creation Books kicks out its own versions of 30's kiddy story 'Albert and the Lion' -- usually Japanese hard core porn versions -- and as we retired to our limos with mirror writing we could still hear Swells in the dry ice recounting the story The Guardian were hastily trying to suppress…

"The horrific mass ritual slaughter of the entire Church of England General Synod in a sickening publicity stunt by Tarrantino-crazed Satanic art students…"




FURTHER READING:
George Berger's great review of the Clerkenwell Festival. You can also check out this interesting article in Slampiece.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard Marshall is a talented writer and acts as an editor for 3am.





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