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The Urge to Destroy

By Paul Tickell.

In the film Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry the eponymous hero, played by Nick Moran, graduates from petty vandalism and industrial sabotage to domestic and international terrorism. He’d dearly love to do to the London skyline what the bombers of September 11 did to New York’s. His world-destructive streak derives not from political extremism but from his application of the laws of accountancy to his personal life — not so much for financial gain but to avenge daily the slights and injuries visited upon him by those in authority.

For every debit there must be a credit; and tit must always be for tat in the realm of one’s personal accounts. The ruthlessness with which Malry sets about balancing the books in his own favour make the black arts of the book-keepers behind Enron and Worldcom look amateurish. Whether he knows it or not, here’s a man who can destroy capitialism from within by adopting its own money-grubbing logic.

Malry is a topical-sounding hero but the film was completed 18 months ago, well before Al-Qaeda terrorists and Andersen accountants tripped off the tongue. There are other prophetic elements; the film makes connections between art and terrorism, playing on the the idea of the 19th century Russian anarchist Bakunin that “The urge to destroy is also the urge to create”. The artist seeks to re-make the world according to his own image of it, while the terrorist does the same; however, this more desperate ape of God the Creator works in blood not paint.

The film draws parallels between Malry and Leonardo da Vinci; and now these don’t seem so scandalous after the arrest a few weeks ago of an icon painter from the Greek terrorist organisation November 17. I wonder if like da Vinci Savas Xiros ever painted the face of Christ? And did he know any good accountants? Leonardo did, the best: the Franciscan monk Fra Luca Pacioli who devised double-entry book-keeping in late 15th century Italy. Such codification greased the machinery of early capitalism, when bankers were art-loving Medicis and an urban proletariat was emerging out of the Italian textile industry. Pacioli, who ghosts in and out of the film, applied the laws of mathematics to the chaos of the market-place and came up with an idea so big and simple that we don’t notice it anymore: debit and credit, those two columns which rule our lives, as we worry about being in the red or black.

Pacioli’s colour-coding didn’t stop there. Plagiarising the writings of Piero della Francesca, another painter friend, the good monk rationalised spatial chaos with another big idea, mathematical perspective. How can commerce corrupt art when since the Renaissance they’ve been twins anyway? Even earlier with the painter Giotto these links are visible: rather than the shepherd of popular mythology, he was a landlord capitalising on the wool-trade by renting out looms.

The poet is the antennae of the race, not the director. The topicality of the film has more to do with Simon Bent the screenwriter than me; and even more to do with the novel which we worked from. Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry feels like it’s been written by a contemporary looking back. So it’s BS Johnson who’s the prophet because he wrote the book 30 years ago. He tapped into archetypal aspects of the British psyche and of early ’70s London which still fascinate us, in spite of the changes of those intervening years. Is this why updating the novel and setting in 1999, the apocalyptic closing year of the millennium, wasn’t such a thorny proposition?

Perhaps Johnson was ahead of his time because by 1973, the year in which Malry was published, he was a man out of time. Johnson was an experimental writer but not in some nancy-boy post-modernist way; he’d done National Service and been touched by the iconoclastic spirit of the ’50s Angry Young Man before it turned to conservative bile. Later the openness and explosive creativity of the ’60s suited the playfulness and cosmopolitan feel of much of Johnson’s fiction. He looked to Europe and the Nouveau Roman and Beckett’s prose (then little appreciated here compared to his plays); and to Brecht too who’s quoted in Malry, for Johnson was a man of the left. One of the short films which he made (some of his work was cut by Bruce Beresford) was a diatribe against the union-bashing 1971 Industrial Relations Act, a Tory law which owed much to previous Labour government policy!

So the ’60s dream about a cosmic alliance of workers, gays, blacks, students and holy fools was just that … Into this void crept Malry, a bank clerk and nobody but who, like some parody of ’60s hedonism-cum-consumerism wants it all, loads of sex and money. He wants it now, like some prototype of Loaded Lad — again, no problem bringing Malry far into the 1990s, with his unashamed predilection for porn and plenty of perverse but staunchly heterosexual activity with his girlfriend. Very Loaded and very late ’90s too is the fact that it never crosses Malry’s mind that there may be other ways to improve his lot and change the world. There is no society and therefore no politics — and what are political parties but events staged by the Ministry of Sound and Fury, signifying nothing?

But the joke is that Christie becomes his own political party, a one-man anarcho-terrorist movement — a parodic composite of Angry Brigade/Baader-Meinhof Group/Red Army Fraction. By playing the system, by wanting to fit in as a consumer, while at the same time getting his own back against anybody who crosses him, Malry brings society to its knees. The novel operates like a great satiric fable, a anonymous Everyman or latterday Pilgrim whose Progress is one of selfish regress. There’s a nihilism and a knockabout glee to this book which is pure punk.

Pity that Johnson, who committed suicide aged 40 at the end of 1973, couldn’t have been around a little longer because punks, those ragged-arsed misanthropists proposing anarchic carnival in the UK, might have appreciated his disaffected, bitter aesthetic. Just as punk pillaged and cut up the styles of the past, so Johnson must have seemed a bit of a throwback amongst the literary ladies and gents of the early ’70s. He could come over more like a porky ageing teddy boy than a writer. But at least he would have been able to relate to the punk appropriation of drapes, drain-pipes and brothel-creepers.

Underpinning the whole novel is a rage born of class. At every turn Malry comes up against the class-system and authority; but there comes the breaking-point where he stops suppurating with internal resentment and starts to make plans which the serial-killer anti-hero of Kind Hearts and Coronets in his one-man war against snobbery would have appreciated. Again, this aspect of Johnson’s book is easily updated; in spite of all the mockney talk of classlessness and post-modernist murmurings about the End of History (supposedly because the potential for revolution putting paid to Capitialism has gone forever), we still live in an intensely class-ridden society and who’s to say it can never ever be changed?

Johnson’s genius was to address all kinds of ideas with robust comedy, as much Carry On in vein as neo-Dickensian grotesque. The scenes in the sweet-factory, where Malry works after he’s sacked as a bank clerk, nail a particular English kind of servility and deference which, with a popstar ‘democratic’ gloss, is still very much with us if the recent Jubilee celebrations are anything to go by. This time around though there isn’t the consolation of punk street-philosophers — all the more reason to adpat and update that splenetic allegory Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry

Paul Tickell directed the films Crush Proof (1999) and Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (2002). He has also directed a number of short films (which include Zinky Boys Go Underground, West End Girls and A Few Short Journeys) and a number of documentaries (which include Frida Kahlo, Punk and the Pistols and Matisse in Morocco). Tempesta, starring Rutger Hauer, is currently in post-production.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 9th, 2002.