TRICKING THE DEVIL
"Alan Moore talks about Ideaspace… "Maybe our individual and private consciousness is, in Ideaspace terms, the equivalent of own individual and private house, an address, in material space… The space inside our homes is entirely ours and yet if we step out through the front door we find ourselves in a street, a world, that is mutually accessible and open to anyone. What if that were true of the mind as well? What if it were possible to travel beyond the confines of one's individual mind-space, into the communal outdoors, where one could meet with the minds of other people in a shared space?" Neoplatonism, Psychogeography, play, magic, spirituality -- all these things are about making up stuff out of the 'because I say so' subjective interactions out there in Ideaspace."
Richard Marshall reviews Collateral Damage, Bad Wisdom, How To Be An Artist
COPYRIGHT © 2003, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Coleridge and Southey in 1794 hit on a grand scheme to found a utopian community on the banks of the Susquehanna. Their Pantisocratic plan they never made real because in the end they were false to their dissenting cause and became Tory reactionaries instead. Which is a way of saying that they gave up being magicians. They had a feel for it when they started -- a feel for psychogeography and that recurrent playful seriousness that is essential in going against the boring and dreadful materialism which is of course the very Devil. Subjectivity is the key to everything -- lust, love, desire, hope, dreams, ghosts, Gods, poems, stories, paintings, music, dance, oh my … how we'll trick the Devil.
Even when, in the dark, there are evil things that can come crawling, -- the brilliant Paul Muldoon poem 'Freud' -- "Her recurrent dream of a shorn and bloody hawser" -- we can still find powers to trick the devil. You just have to take care not to turn out to be Punch of course, or Gull, or Alfie Rouse etc. 'Freud' is part of Muldoon's 1990 pyschogeographic 233 poem sequence 'Madoc A Mystery' where he re-dreams Coleridge and Southey and takes them to the place they never went to in their own heads, or stopped going to because they lost their nerves when they grew up and stopped playing. Alan Moore is tipped off by Iain Sinclair "… about Coleridge's frequent stumbles down the Holloway Road with a minder to drag him out of chemist' shops and also mentioned that The Garage itself, back in the sixties when it was called the Tempo Club, had been the venue for Jack The Hat's confrontation with Dorothy Squires…" As Billy Childish screamed in 1977: "What you going to do about it?" We're also reminded of Hazlitt's murderously personal and insane attacks on Coleridge as Coleridge stopped playing, brilliantly seanced up by Duncan Wu last year in Oxford.
And it was Billy Childish who made this point about play and deep subjectivity at last year's Clerkenwell Literary festival -- play's a kind of total subjectivity, a giving yourself over to whatever is going on in your head -- think of the little kid pretending to be a squirrel, or little girls make-believing with their dolls. They can do it for hours and hours, I've watched this -- it's fantastic, it's seriously the beauty of being conscious, the best thing. It is what holds us together. When Hazlitt attacks Locke and his atomistic philosophy he is worrying about how, if true, anything could make sense? How can it have a meaning? How can anything hold together? Hazlitt wants us to be those little girls with their dolls, wants us to approach everything with that same deep subjectivity that binds everything together, that makes sense to us. Tom Paulin in a recent performance did the same when attacking the materialism of the current Saatchi artists -- what is there in this stuff but the material body and therefore just hopeless decay, useless doom, the endless ever diminishing returns of sensationalism? -- he asked, looking for the spiritual and the playfulness, the story that will bind everything into a bigger sense with a Divine spark that looks like Dissent to combat this, the very Devil.
Anyway, Coleridge and Southey. Poor bastards. Muldoon rescues them undeserving though they are -- Coleridge gets to ride Bucephalus and Southey he's a South. They trip out on Muldoon's coat-tails. It's about Blake's flight to Gongozoola - "sand grain township of Eternity", about visionary performance, the great language territory that can bounce you around playing games with everything you like -- Ted Hughes in a great essay 'Shakespeare and Occult Neoplatonism' sees this as "…the great genetic common denominator… open on principle to the religious, spiritual and philosophical systems of the earlier world… [where] all known mythologies… were reduced to a single but inexhaustibly rich and compendious language of metaphorical terms, or images -- the vast thesaurus of a new language of signs, precisely defined by their histories, in which the new cosmology could be expressed…"
Alan Moore talks about Ideaspace… "Maybe our individual and private consciousness is, in Ideaspace terms, the equivalent of own individual and private house, an address, in material space… The space inside our homes is entirely ours and yet if we step out through the front door we find ourselves in a street, a world, that is mutually accessible and open to anyone. What if that were true of the mind as well? What if it were possible to travel beyond the confines of one's individual mind-space, into the communal outdoors, where one could meet with the minds of other people in a shared space?" Neoplatonism, Psychogeography, play, magic, spirituality -- all these things are about making up stuff out of the 'because I say so' subjective interactions out there in Ideaspace.
So how far into this Ideaspace dare you go? Bill Drummond and Mark Manning go further than most.
Manning's Collateral Damage came out in 2002 by Creation Books …
"The fact that it was real, that America's tallest skyscrapers had been blown out of existence by a couple of guys armed with nothing more than a set of plastic knives and forks and a sachet of mayonnaise finally sinking in…" The master of speaking from home -- home is Yorkshire -- cracks open the universe with gag after gag -- and we're left gagging at the sheer relentlessness of the bad taste and good timing of the conjurer's rude plain speaking. Plain speaking it may be, but it's without a trace of hard, dry materialism -- this is plain speaking as manly, concrete, physical, half savage, straight -- refusing to see language as either a gentlemanly attribute or as a moral virtue - speaking with a powerful nativist strain that dislikes traditional hierarchical views about language -- Germanic, consonantal, energised, above all, spoken -- momentous, full of sacred vehemence, angry, spitting with the fry of hate, religious, inspired, -- language that can "…kindle my rapt spirits/to such a flame of sacred vehemence/That dumb things would be moved to sympathise/And the brute earth would lend her nerves, and shake/Til all thy magic structures reared so high/Were shattered into heaps o'er thy false head." (Milton, Comus)
Mark Manning writes like the divinely inspired free spirit Hazlitt conjures out of this Miltonic speech. (You'll find this in Hazlitt's 'The Diversions of Purley') It's what makes him one of the great writers of our time and undoubtedly one of the funniest.
Collateral Damage is a swift but penetrating attack on the swooning self-abnegation that has afflicted the USA since September 11th. To many Americans there is nothing more to say about the event beyond howling; thinking has been replaced by feelings, sensibilities expanding upwards like vapours knocking out their brains, and everyone's awash with this maudlin weepy stuff. Americans like this become daft, pompous ham actors, and it would be just pathetic were they not a superpower with Armageddon in their handkerchiefs. In such a state there is an irregular grandeur about the place, an unwieldy power coiled up in its own purposes -- cold, death-like, smooth and prim, despite the tears -- something not ever now at ease with itself nor safe for others to approach.
Manning, however, goes where all others have feared to tread. He scorns the holy atmosphere of the grieving America with a dirty polluting voice. His approach is direct … "To be quite honest I don't really think any of us had given it that much thought. Apart from thinking, like most intelligent Europeans, that those greedy, irresponsible, egotistical, selfish, fat, fucking Yanks got what was coming to them.
We'd all seen it on TV of course.
Laughed at the flying bankers.
Holy broken bones, Batman.
Hoped that there were a few lawyers amongst the numbers of those flailing, tumbling, street pizzas…"
The splenetic 'grey, irresponsible…' etc etc spliced in with 'flying bankers', holy broken bones, Batman,' 'street pizzas'… creates a style that eludes the descriptive with inspired, cruel wit. He cuts to the quick, he gets on with it. To the bone.
This is where Manning begins, then he cranks it up to bring outrage upon outrage until it ends -- by way of arguing which Spice Girl they'd like to marry and rape, participating in a mass wank in a warehouse, doing an anal mongol porn movie, buggering a dog -- it ends with them doing a snuff movie before driving off stage through Death Valley. It's just Rock 'n Roll! And it's the funniest shit ever. His take on Billy Bragg (and I'm a fan) does everything that Manning does well --
"Billy Bragg is everything that makes political dissent completely and utterly unsexy.
A grey, ginger haired, big nosed cunt harassing people outside Pret a Manger, dressed like a tramp selling pictures and badges of cats being tortured by the WTO and moaning about fucking everything…" It's the 'Prêt a manger' name-check that makes the piece so funny; the jamming of the crude vitriol of the opening of the sentence with that pretentious shop name sparks up humour. It's a critical act as a form of creativity, taking the piss out of the shop and its airs -- and those of its customers too alongside the central target of Bragg. It's comic genius at work and its there throughout the whole book. Hectic, driven, improvised out of the spontaneous knowingness of speech. The dissenting nature nurturing this work values the recycled and economical snatch and spike of his performance and he never relents, never lets up, never sinks into something less.
He never weakens… "We were driving through the desert, I almost feel like describing the weather, the shimmering heat, bleached white bones, all that shit.
But if I did, then I would never be able to look at my word processor seriously again, as long as I lived." The resistance to realism is definite, sorted.
It's a journey -- a novel written as a journal -- in the great dissenting tradition of Bunyon and Dafoe. Americans should read it as a necessary wasp sting. Its puncture is a solution to their present crisis of personal identity. But perhaps they should read 'Bad Wisdom' first, because then they'd see everything they need to see to get out of the 'strange disturbed porno wonderland that grew in the shadow of the fifth amendment ' which is Manning's description of where they live!
Creation Books reissued the Drummond, Manning novel of 1996 this year, 2003. On its cover Iain Sinclair, Stewart Home and Jarvis Cocker stake it out with their quick notices -- Cocker: "this is a very beautiful book," -- Home: "Blunt, shocking, uncomfortable," -- Sinclair: "A monumentally sane project carried through, blood and hair, by madmen." They sit around the place like it's a joint they'd like to raid. Good thing too. We all should. It's a template for the kind of book that gives us all a chance. It's that romantic, dissenting distress that comes through again, seven years on, evergreen and wondrous, calling us out of our wretched unimaginative boring lives to get out, delve into our heads, expand our limitless minds and find … the lost chord, Elvis, Jesus… whatever you know is going to be needed if you're to have been worth while. It's a book to make you want to read again. To write again. Live again. Think. It's about more. Just what post 9/11 Americans need in fact.
Last year Sinclair's significant despatch London Orbital has Drummond and Gimpo with walk-on parts. Sinclair, a psychogeographical walking companion of Alan Moore who in turn is a friend of Chris Brook who is a friend of Bill Drummond who met Moore when Brook arranged for the K Foundation to take their film of the burning of a million quid round to Moore's house for a screening, well, anyway, Sinclair knows that his project is a humble affair compared to Drummond's.
"While I dabble with the notion of tracking the line to the M25, the true conceptualist [Bill Drummond] is determined to follow it to the ends of the earth. I'll swing west at Waltham Abbey, after a mere eighteen miles. He'll head south, France, Spain. He'll probably swim across to Africa. The guy has an evil glint when an idea takes root. Already, I can feel our narratives pulling away from each other. Will his version, sharper than my own, published in 1998 as Breakfast with the Unibomber, disqualify my ponderous journal?" There's the humility of a great writer facing one of his sources in this, like Keats on early Wordsworth, like early Hazlitt on Coleridge. It's a kind of love born out of respect and envy.
No one goes to Sinclair for sharp. His books are ponderous in the honourable sense -- they make us ponder, they turn our heads from the fast, flash instinctual movement of car life, using sentences as objective correlatives for a secret, mysterious place he likes to kid us is London -- and holds us there like a lightening bolt might stun us into a shuddering awareness, holds us to brood, pray, hope, research, think, dream, wonder. And this thing he writes. It doesn't exist anywhere else. The sane idea that it might - a widowed romantic hope -- is overwhelmed by the insanity of a duff, bland reality. Where are these writers, where are the landscapes they seem to describe?
"Ponders End is bereft of the 'paitient', models or otherwise. The place is deserted…" he writes. (p452) So often everything is deserted. Everything is nothing. And in the whispering doubts that accompany every attempt to conjure up what might have lain beneath, there's a scandal that maybe there's always nothing, never more than nothing, that Sinclair is the "… trembling refugee, sheltering under the railway bridge, [who] won't admit that the town runs to a café." (p452) He'll call all of it London. But maybe it's oblivion. Maybe just a bloody, boring cunt of a café! Nothing more. The very Devil!
When writing Rodinsky's Room we sensed that he was working himself into the strangeness, the deep weird resonance of the disappearance of Rodinsky whilst at the same time, in the same book, his co-author Rachel Lichtenstein was working to achieve the eradication of that resonance. Hers was the deeper, saner project, tracing an ancestor, getting to the bottom of the peculiar, dispelling the weird. "Rachel was the first person to treat Rodinsky as a human being, a man with a biography and a finite lifespan." (p281) But that accusation of other writers failing to treat the man as a man includes Sinclair, who wrote of the disappearance, the room, Rodinsky, in the London Review of Books years before the book and caught the spooks, the weirds, caught us all up in the frisson of an unsolved, unsolvable mystery. His self-accusation is commendable.
You know the Rodinsky story? Sinclair has it briefly turned, yet again, in his Orbital -- "Rodinsky lived above a decommissioned synagogue in Princelet Street. One day, in the Sixties, he vanished. The room was sealed like a shrine. When it was broken into, years later, the scattered debris of a life - books, clothes, diaries, food, records, maps - were exposed to investigation, public gaze, incontinent theorising. The man was absorbed by the set which had contained him…" (p280-281) You see what I'm saying about Sinclair? Lichtenstein did solve the mystery, finished it all up -- even found the death certificate. But Sinclair doesn't let go, knows that even when it's all done, he can still have the romantic dream that there's something more, always more, that the imagination can still get going. Look at that last quoted sentence "The man was absorbed by the set which had contained him." He's not giving Rodinsky up to the banal sanity of a biography and he turns what seems like the finishing gaze of the hard headed rationalist into a further weirdness.
He can't help it. It goes against what he says "… Rachel solved one of the great mysteries of Whitechapel…" -- always you think there's a part of Sinclair that doesn't believe that. Can't accept that. It's the writing part of him. I would guess the man himself believes it straight. He writes because his writing is romanticism. He writes so not to accept what he thinks is true. He's writing to find out the deep territories he can't find. He's looking for power lines that others might ponder. When critics -- like the one in Private Eye's 'Bookworm' -- ask why he can't write simply about what's there, they're missing the point of why Sinclair writes anything at all. He needs to play.
But he only goes eighteen miles! So he's never that far away. Never really destabilises the senses. It's great stuff -- but it never distresses the chattering classes and never leaves them behind. He sells. Is plugged in to the main lit circuit despite everything. In this respect he's like JG Ballard. Hardcore mainstream. Somehow literary terrorists are sitting at the middlebrow table stark bollock naked with smart bombs ready to burn -- and no one seems to mind!
Bill Drummond is not at the table. Bill Drummond goes further than eighteen miles. How much further? You can begin the calculation. The ratio is 124.5 to 18 at first. Drummond calculates that the M25 is 124.5 miles. But then, with his mate Gimpo, they charged round it 25 times. So that's 124.5 x 25 to 18. And Gimpo stays in the fast lane, which might shorten the line some. Or they'll drive it for 25 days, Gimpo wants to find out where it goes. Maybe they'll take off. And Drummond will follow lines that take him to Africa or the North Pole to answer his questions. Bill Drummond is going further, much further.
So you see, this Drummond - same guy burning a million quid on Jura - Sinclair making it clear that the whole episode was a wimmin thing as much as an art thing - 'quid' is nineteenth century slang for cunt -- this Bill writes out of a romantic perspective that he sums up in the last Idler piece he did. He's offering advice to someone who has a friend who might be going crazy and along the way he writes: "The grand truths that have been handed down to us by those who were in the business of doing such things are wearing a bit thin, that's if they ever held water in the first place. Maybe your nutter of a mate just might come up with the grand truth we've been waiting for." (Idler 'The Revolution Edition'. p52) The thing to notice here is that Drummond is not trashing the idea of 'the grand truth.' He's out looking to make it. To find it. Another one maybe.
He has this in every move he makes, every turn of mind, every journey and nutty project. He doesn't conceive anything, he can hardly critique anything he has done. Or rather, it's not the critique that counts. It's the mud on his boots. In this sense then he is Nietzschian, the Nietzsche who writes ' … our aesthetic has been a woman's aesthetic so far, in so far as only the receptive for art have formulated their experiences with regard to "what is beautiful?" What has been absent in all philosophy until today, is the artist… This is, as I have suggested above, a necessary mistake; for the artist who would begin to understand would make a mistake in this respect - he should not look back, he should not look at anything at all, he has to give -- It honours an artist to be incapable of critique… otherwise he is neither here nor there, he is "modern"…' (Fragments From A Shattered Mind p120 - newly reissued by, who else? - Creation Books)
Drummond begins with the legend: "I am shit scared… Shit scared of almost everything." He is in the state of consciousness of the religious man, the guy who knows God's boredom, which results in God's war on science, God's need for all of us to be badly pissed off, fearful, unstable. Science, all that materialist cause and effect, goes out the window in conditions of abject terror and chaos. Drummond looks to nature to calm his troubled mind but there's power there, and he wants to save everything, to save the world. He reaches out to "… a young elm…" and makes three zen sticks. He is to become a Zen master, out to save "… the whales, the dolphins, the rainforests, Bambi, the whole damn Walt Disney bunch."
The hilarity of the book derives from Drummond's Buddhism. Buddhism doesn't speak about the struggle against sin but yields to reality -- its struggle is against 'suffering'. It goes beyond good and evil: as Nietzsche puts it '"Profoundly differentiating itself from Christianity, it has already put the self-deception that lies in moral concepts behind it; it is, to use my terminology, beyond good and evil. -- The two physiological facts upon which it rests, and upon which it fixes its main attention are: first, an excessive sensitivity to sensation… and secondly, an extraordinary spirituality, an overdeveloped concern with concepts and logical procedures, under the influence of which the personal instinct has yielded to a notion of the "impersonal."… In Buddha's teaching, egoism is a duty." (The Antichrist p35)
But whereas the Buddha prescribes a life of travel, moderation in eating and a careful diet, plus caution in the use of intoxicants and the same caution in arousing any of the passions that produce bile, and fire in the blood, encouraging ideas that breed either quiet contentment or good cheer, what Drummond and his exterminating Zen master companions get up to are sex, drugs and rock and roll carnage orgies of bad taste and excessive everything etc. etc. It's what happens when you have Mark Manning along for the ride.
Whereas Drummond takes a calm Buddhist approach to everything, writing "… I can identify with Wordsworth, the nature boy… I aspire to a quiet, rural life, feigning a veneer of respectability and making do with the common language and the sights and sounds around me for inspiration…" (Bad Wisdom p106) Manning "… identifies with the metropolitan Blake with a tangled and tortured inner Sodom and Gomorrah and glimpses of the shining ideal if he could only grasp that bow of burning gold and grab those arrows of desire." (ibid. p106) Egoism might be a duty to the Buddha, but you fear he never imagined anything like Manning.
It's this clash of different kinds of Romanticism that powers the book, which gives it its yeasty humour and beauty. The Wordsworth/ Blake dispute -- who is the 'heavyweight champ of the Romantics? -- is the explicit contest within the book. It's very funny and very serious. Drummond points out the difficulty he has in arguing his case for Wordsworth against Manning. 'Don't get me wrong,' he writes, "… I love Blake; he sends shivers down my spine. I stand in awe, shuddering with fear at his abstract depiction of the abyss. The trouble is, most of it goes straight over my head I get the drift but then lose the plot."
But the main difficulty with arguing with Manning about this stuff (Manning's known throughout the book as Z after his stage name, Zodiac Mindwarp) is that Drummond thinks "…Z is Los, and Z's approach to his work is the same as Blake's. He is inspired by what he finds in his ever-expanding imagination, whereas I find that when April comes and I stumble on a bank of primroses glinting in the sun, all my senses reach out to the mystery at the heart of Creation. Blake criticised Wordsworth for paying too much attention to the details of nature at the expense of the inner realities. But what can you do if it is through the real, natural 'out there' world that God finds his way to you?"
Later in the book the argument is reconfigured so that instead of Blake vs. Wordsworth it's about living poets (remember this was written in 92 and came out in 96). So they argue whether it's Ted Hughes (Drummond's choice, obviously) or William Burroughs (Manning's). But the texture of the novel remains consistent with the terms of the debate - recording what is there or going inwards and churning up the dark depths of the Manning soul. Anyone familiar with Manning's Attack! Book classic Get Your Cock Out will know what to expect from this earlier manifestation of that maniacal humour. He taps into rape and pillage dramas of Viking Norse God dreamings: a brief passage from Chapter 10, 'Sons of The Horned Ones' is just a glimpse of what Manning brings to the tale.
"Whereas Bill's kill was elegant and almost humane, Gimpo's gruesome butchery was positively bestial. He severed all the limbs from his charges and threw the spurting trunks into the air, drop-kicking them as they landed. The six men were still conscious, and it seemed that Gimpo took great pleasure in their screams of agony. He was wet with blood from head to foot and sodomised each torso in turn, dragging the poor creatures by the hair in a semi-circle around him to…" and on and on it goes. What Manning's dementia achieves is a miracle of bad taste that goes weirdly, perfectly sublime. Ideas of Women and Homosexuality are the source of the anxiety feeding the humour. The humour is found right there, at the moment of mind boggling over-done! If I haven't said it already, Manning is probably the funniest comic writer alive. And you can see the glories all laid out here alongside Drummond's own calmer, but equally hilarious prose. But whether women and gays can forgive the jokes, through tears of their own laughter, well, that's not for me to say. My guess is that they can because there's nothing but love in all of this!!!!
And what determines the success of the book is the style: these are great stylists. They know what they're doing with their prose, they know when to bring in the arcane and when to drop in the mundane. Throughout, the references to pop heroes -- Drummond's musings on Elvis and Keith Richards are highlights of the book -- and all the rest of the junk these thirty-something boyz carried around in their sex and drugs and poetry stuffed heads - are used with consummate care to ensure punchlines are punched and pomposity deflated. Whereas a Nick Hornby makes a big wet fuss over his record collection and all that crap about being an Arsenal fan through implicitly assuming a hierarchy of culture -- what we're now bored with thinking about as the new laddism, where its OK to talk about record collections and football teams because they think it's daring and all that whilst at the same time thinking that actually it is crap really -- these two refuse that ultimately elitist approach.
Drummond's insights into why he thinks Elvis is great are rather like those of Hazlitt recalling some Rembrandts he had seen in his youth. It was the idea he had, what his imagination held of Rembrandt, that Hazlitt valued. The real things, when he saw them again, were nothing really to do with that, and proved a tad disappointing. So too with Drummond's take on Elvis, who he had hardly ever listened to but whom he knows is a source of power - inner heaven, connected to the old Gods -- Odin, Thor, Zeus, Athena, Artemis, Dionysus, Buddha, Allah, Jesus Christ… and there are moments when Drummond sounds like Manning, finding the rape goon within etc . But he aches for things gentler at other times - there's a moment when his contemplation of some sado-porn makes him feel inconsolable, like any well-behaved Guardian-reading pinko liberal. This, juxtaposed with Manning's sado-porn fantasies is also, unaccountably, hilarious.
It reminds me of a story that Ted Hughes tells about Coleridge and Wordsworth. Coleridge had this great mad fantastical idea for a poem and he was going to write the first part and Wordsworth the second and then whoever finished their bit first would write the third part. So Coleridge knocked out his bit at a mad speed and took it to Wordsworth. He was expecting Wordsworth to have been working with equal madness but Wordsworth was still staring at an empty piece of paper, utterly baffled by the whole idea. The primal violence of Coleridge smashing up against the calmer, more contemplative spirit of Wordsworth in this story never fails to make me laugh. I just try and picture the expression on Wordsworth's face…
But I digress. Back to Drummond and Manning. I guess it's the sheer limitlessness of the misogyny, sexism and homophobia that makes the stuff appallingly funny. The verve of the very very badly behaved thoughts. "Most women think men just want to get inside their knickers. Well bitch, you got it wrong. I would never give you the satisfaction of thinking that you got something I need that bad. You either beg for it or I cut you up. Well no, hopefully not that extreme; more, you want it or I ignore you…" You can imagine what the Guardian women's pages would say about that sort of stuff. And there's the gay stuff -- characters with names like Bummer Nigel, Rectum Steve, Cocky Paulo, Shitstabber Jacky, Fellatio Joe -- these are writers who really don't care a fuck about PC.
The book is brilliant because of its sheer nerve and the gusto with which it pursues its manic ideas. And the sheer inventiveness of the whole. What is also intriguing is how it was put together. Some of the chapters are Drummond's log, so you presume that the others are written by Manning. But they combine at times, collude in order to maintain a semblance of unity. Drummond hints at the process near the end "Z, it seems, has started the introduction to his half of the book. Should I wait until he has finished his tale of mystery, debauchery and imagination, so I can read his stuff before I attempt to turn these notes into a work of crude literature?" (p225) There was, it seems, a high level of collaboration and the unity of the book comes not just from the meshing together of incidents, time schemes and so on, but also style. Though Manning is clearly the one who loves extreme dramatic language Drummond is up for that too at times. And both are quintessentially comic in their routines, whether they are melancholic musings (Drummond) or ape-shit carnage dramas (Manning).
So this is an important thing to say about the book, even though it is bloody obvious. It is a comic masterpiece. Both of the guys are funny guys. Stewart Home in his blurb runs an avant-garde line from Swift and De Sade to Burroughs to suggest its pedigree and he's undoubtedly got a point in what he says. 'Blunt, shocking, uncomfortable. A future underground classic' he writes. But it's probably more apt to say those things about his own work, certainly his latest, 69 Things to do with a Dead Princess. Because his own work is much more in line with the Swiftian satire, the Sadean -- there's a hardness, a cutting quality to his writing that is far more uncomfortable to live with than anything Drummond and Manning offer. Home is the supreme po-mo master, the avant garde intellectual writer knowing his avant garde history from the inside. When you read him there's a sense that he's laughing at you, at everything, that his revulsion is a zero that doesn't need to define itself as anything at all. It's just perfectly there, well-rounded (as all zeros are) and like a bull's-eye. You as much as anyone or anything else is the target. It's not funny humour. It's uncomfortable. It's a po mo that Manning and Drummond reject whilst at the same time use: as Drummond writes near the end of Bad Wisdom -- "Why bite the hand that feeds you when you can rip it right off and throw it to the dogs?"
Bad Wisdom is laugh out loud recognise yourself in the worst atrocities and attitudes funny. It's a gentler book than anything Home has written. Warmer. This, I think, is what Cocker is alluding to when he calls it "a very beautiful book." And in writing what they do as they do Drummond and Manning are radically altering the field of discussion about the Romantics and their projects. They are alerting us to the fact that there is humour in them. Perhaps a rereading of Blake will now find that he is actually having a laugh. It's a joke. It's hinted even as you think about 'Urizon' being 'Your reason' once you start jibbering in cockney. And the issue here is not that it is humorous - maybe it is, maybe it isn't -- but that funny is serious. Comics are serious. Because tragedy is hilarious. Death is hilarious. Everything is hilarious. When they got to see the pictures of sexy blonde women chained up with sexy blonde Nazis, butt-naked, in Saddam's love nest, as Iraq fell to the warring US soldiers, the soldiers who found this stuff couldn't help but laugh. It was just so bad, such bad taste, it was funny. That's not to say that Saddam's not monstrous. That Saddam isn't a bastard and so on. But if we deny the humour in things like that, we're lying. And that won't make the truth disappear. The soldiers did laugh.
What the book also offers is a question about its own validity. Because of course it's all a bit cosy to say that everything is funny. That line is a bit self-serving, an excuse for a lad's night out, as Drummond warns himself and his reader. An excuse for just one of those male mid-life crisis things? Well, what the book does is play with the idea that everything in the book happened, and that nothing of it can have happened like they say it happened. It's a piece of writing. A novel shaped out of a travelogue. It ends badly - the appendix is the weakest piece of writing in it -- the jokes are thin and there's a mock seriousness to these pages that just isn't funny. But everything else is a glorious exercise -- up there with Wodehouse, the journalism of Steve Wells and the performances of Eddie Izzard. If it is being self-serving, what all this self-questioning adds up to is a coy recognition that, well, maybe it is and please please forgive them the indulgence. And only a cold-hearted judge wouldn't. In the words of Drummond, rewriting another act of foolish pioneering, such a generous act would be: "One small step for man, one giant dry wank for mankind."
Penklin Burn published'How to Be an Artist by Bill Drummond during 2002. It's another quest novel written by this fine old mouser giving a cat-like, watchful, penetrating look to all he surveys. In stripped down, ordinary language -- nothing flash, a style you don't notice as having a style, it wants to just get across its thoughts and remain invisible. It's the right style for the job - he avoids the portentous monosyllabics of Sinclair at his most runic, where like Coleridge's balloon flights he moves away from 'the plain ground of prose' -- and sports instead the grounded chthonic prose of his hero Ted Hughes -- it's a prose that lives a double life -- the ominous fear of 'Bad Wisdom' is not replaced so much as joined to a more positive seam, like layers of rock. There's a benign sensibility taking this journey that seems less anxious, less trembling than that in 'Bad Wisdom'. It's protective of itself almost in a Biblical, fatherly kind of way. There's still the sinister undercurrent running alongside this -- that 'shit scared' theme -- but it doesn't amount to a calamitous change of inspiration that would lead him to the linguistic pyrotechnics of Sinclair and a full-throttled downer. The story kind of returns us once again to the impulse of the quid burning on Jura, the Bad Wisdom trip to sacrifice an icon of Elvis Presley at the North Pole. This time it's not a picture of Elvis that drives his imagination but a photo by Richard Long, the romantic artist who makes art out of walking and doing things on these walks. He makes stone circles and stuff like that, then makes a photo of what he's done. He won the Turner Prize in 1989 and comes from Bristol.
So Drummond buys -- in 1995 -- a picture by Long called 'A Smell Of Sulphur In The Wind.' Three years later he's bored with it and writes about it. You can find the piece, 'A Smell of Money Underground', in his autobiographical 45. So. "An idea is beginning to surface from my murky imagination. Something is evolving, maybe my relationship to the original work itself, or maybe something totally new. It's getting clearer. I will sell the photo for $20,000. Make a stout wooden box with a strong padlock. Put the $20,000 in dollar bills inside the box. Return to Iceland, find the stone circle, dig a hole at its centre and bury the box. Not only will I have gone to great(ish) lengths to track down the stone circle, experienced blistering feet. Aching muscles and loneliness, but if I wake at night filled with the terrors I can comfort myself with the thought of those 20,000 greenbacks in their strongbox, rotting to a worthless mush. As for Richard Long, if he ever reads these notes, will his relationship with the work change? Would that be good or bad? As he may be the only other person on earth who knows where the circle is, will he be tempted to return to the spot, retrieve the cash and put it to a worthwhile cause?…'"
There's loads to note here -- the notice of the 'murky imagination', the detailed obsessional plot involving money - not burning it as in other versions of such visionary delirium but burying it in a godforsaken place -- and not quids this time but dollars, the romantic need to find wayward, sublime and desolate nature, the 'aching muscles and loneliness' which hint at the suffering of the romantic at the heart of his own experience and also the interrogation of the art and the artist, the relationship of one to the other and vice versa. And we are also to be pondering upon his own status in all this. Is he a romantic artist in this work? Is he more so than Richard Long perhaps? Is that what he is really trying for? Is this an act of one-upmanship? It's a thought that skitters around out of this packed itinery at the start of the novel. What do we make of this character? This Drummond?
That's what the book asks. Amongst a thousand other things. Drummond - "Always trying to find the wilderness…" a man who says of himself "…I'd spent my adult life doing everything I could not to be an artist and avoiding all the monomaniacal bollocks that comes with it. Every day I tried to come up with some justification to prove what I did was not art. But it was getting harder and I couldn't run so fast anymore…" We're in the familiar territory where the traveller journeys into the heart of his true self, a voyage of personal discovery where the interrogation of the world is in reality an interrogation of spiritual autobiography. Pure mental Bunyan.
As he drives North setting up improvised art galleries to show his Richard long picture and try and stump up interest we are showered with asides on art, spirituality, the state of Scotland, Bob Dylan, the Bible, anything and everything that takes his imagination. It's an enormous road movie introspective that is supplemented by a colour photo on every other page of where he went and hung his 'For Sale. $20000' sign and the asides aren't really asides at all but they're the meat and spuds of the whole show. You're listening to a man's wide soul widening. Here is a book where the playful earnestness loves every little glimmer, a cheerful melancholia that modestly proclaims an addiction to his own life and struggle. In the cavorting lunatic normality and sanity of this madman there is nothing the reader feels more than a heartfelt gratitude.
What is radical about the book is his political take on the question of political identity. He does not retreat from questions of deep politics, national identity, state identity, social identity. At the end he writes, "Throughout the drive from Southampton to Dounreay, I never once thought I was motoring up the UK. It was always Britain. Great Britain. In an instant I became aware that the UK was a completely different country altogether. I had driven down the UK.
I now realise that my drive up Britain is the last I will ever make…" He writes this out as a personal revelation. He calls himself at the end a 'UK'n.' 'Pronounce it like a Canadian, Jamaican or Australian, Nigerian or even American, but being UK'n I can dispense with the vowels and just use an apostrophe. "Ich bin ein UK'n' to JFK it." What he's arguing for is a kind of Pantisocratic state, like the Romantics tried to set up America, an all inclusive, non-ideological, state of being which "… never covered the globe in pink, never won two World Wars or a World Cup… never traded in slaves or had just one mother tongue or the sea's most feared navy… never had to pass Norman Tebbit's cricket test.. never had to bear allegiance to the Queen… never had to worry if the beer was warm or wish we had a better national anthem… [where] it doesn't matter what colour, creed, sex you are. That includes Jews, Muslims and paedophiles… and all that Pound versus Euro stuff is irrelevant… All it takes is a wish to live here on these islands with all the mess that's going on." This is how he finishes his extraordinary book -- almost -- and it's a vision that's suggestive and bracing. What is admirable about everything Drummond does is that it is engaged at all levels of being -- he isn't afraid to pick up and run with a political imagination alongside all his other ones! And what he imagines is as confrontational and lively as everything else he dreams up.
He never sells the Long. Instead he carves it into 20,000 pieces and decides to flog each one for a pound. You can buy them from his book or direct from the Penkiln Burn shop via fax or e-mail. Where is this place? "Sometimes the Penkiln Tea Rooms is in a Peruvian village high in the Andes. Other times it is in a shack out somewhere across the Norfolk Fens. On the morning of 8 June 2000 The Penkiln Tea Rooms was on a light industrial estate in Milton Keynes, between a maker of extractor fans and a constructor of those three-wheeler off-road baby pushchairs…" The solidity of detail, of the real, becomes proof of its instability, its proof. As he writes on the cover of the book - "… I challenge you to fully consume this work and not realise that you already knew all there was to know abut being an artist." So is Drummond an artist? Of course he is. Of course not a chance.
The more I read Drummond the more he reminds me of Ted Hughes, the Hughes who wrote 'At every point, a man's deeper sufferings and experiences are almost impossible for him to express by deliberate means,' the Hughes who was aware of how sincerity can sound falser than ever, the Hughes who with his double interest in Nature and in Nationalism, his aliveness to art, drama, and mystic forces that show that "… the main body of civilised verse is a lot duller…", the Hughes who wrote well about himself and about the forces that made him write, who wrote straightforwardly and with a straight face. Drummond too cannot be ironical… "I love Milton Keynes…" "He's just saying that for effect" Sallie might say. She might be right. But I like to think it is more to do with a nostalgia I have for the new town I spent my teen years in and a defensive streak I have for the whole genre than any attempt at irony."
That Drummond is unfashionably serious about the Protestant/Catholic network of themes and ideas that shape his thinking is another connection with the late poet laureate. His approach is that of a sunken neo-Platonist -- which back in the sixteenth century was a project about dissolving the Protestant/Catholic divide into its own great synthesis -- sunken because he rarely alludes to this in any explicit way, rather, it lies beneath everything he writes like a ghostly Titantic, riddling up everything into something not quite what it seems. His dream of a Pantisocratic Society, his UK, like that of Southey and Coleridge, is open to all creeds and colours, and can read at times like the Sufism of Islam, a magical theory and practice that four century's ago became a Catholic heresy, Protestant devil worship and idolatry and rational science superstition. Yet in the hands of Drummond there is a mildness to it, its compost so packed down that it is barely traceable. How to Be an Artist could easily be just a book about a bloke doing a little mad thing in various places along the way to the North and nothing more. He serves a little art criticism, a little personal philosophy and insight, little autobiographical snippets and a few pretty ordinary colour photographs. And that's it. With a sales pitch at the end for a personalised colour of paint (Drummond's 'International Grey') and a few other things. Nothing at all.
But there is a sense in which there is something else going on, that the journey, the names named, the places mapped, these all have a bigger meaning than the one given here. Or rather, that were we to begin to link them up in a certain way using a certain code then there would be something else revealed. Something else known. Drummond's books are a kind of freehand Cabbala, and move between the fixed and the unleashed, between the formal powers of Judgement and the spontaneous powers of mercy, out to achieve a sacred marriage, redeem the spirit from the material and to attain mastery over materialisms power. He structures his story through movements between places and then fixed moments in places. He's constantly making a judgement then trying to take mercy on it. He's always trying to find a way out of seeing everything as just material by meditating on each and everything he turns up. And he holds up art as a troublesome way of keeping materialism at bay. There's good wisdom in all this.
The impression he gives, however, is of something random and chancy as well as organised -- he never leads the reader nose down the road like soldiers heading for their target, rather it's a text that gives us the impression of a baffled kind of conversation, a raconteur who welcomes in his readers rather as Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians -- 'Ye - the Corinthians - are 'our epistle written in our hearts.' It's this that makes Drummond such a readable writer and someone who, despite his gigantic lunar visions, is plain-speaking and friendly.
"I'm even there when you read shitty magazines, learning how to perfect your oral sex technique.
And I love you.
I'm there with every revolting insult that you have to suffer at the hands of people who are not as good, kind, and sensitive as you.
I'm there with your hideous boyfriend, who is rubbish and doesn't deserve you…" is just part of a long passage in 'Collateral Damage' which is an earnest, funny kind of mantra/prayer poem thing by Manning. "What the fuck was all that about? Occasionally Walt Whitman dive bombs my head, forgive me."
With Drummond and Manning dive bombing all our heads, the quest for spiritual karma is becoming as interesting, humane, sexed up and hilarious as it was when, say Manning carved arseholes and cunts over Autun's Gothic cathedral and Drummond made mouth pullers out of Wells cathedral's column capitals between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. As Drummond signs off at the end of Bad Wisdom (before the crappy Appendix thing) "Shantih, shantih, shantih… Yep, the journey has just begun to trick the Devil and get our souls back.
It is raining.
Thanks for the postcard, Z"
Yeah, and the Devil can just fuck off out of here…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall reads too much for his own good and writes too much for any one else's. Having scrawled out many novels not good enough for publishing he likes to sit in the dark dreaming of horrors.