:: Article

What Bertie Did Next

By Nicky Charlish.

Bertie Marshall, Pete’s Underpants (Dostoyevsky Wannabe Originals, 2019)

When the punk galaxy exploded onto the mid-1970s cultural scene some of its stars — Johnny Rotten, Siouxsie Sioux — shone brightly from the first. Others remained unknown outside its inner circle until later. Bertie Marshall was one such star. Known within that circle by his moniker, Berlin — he was an enthusiast for Bob Fosse’s 1972 film Cabaret, set in Weimar-era Germany — he eventually became known to a wider public with his autobiography Berlin Bromley, published in 2006.

And what a story he told in it, one that arguably gave Christopher Isherwood’s pre-war Berlin novels Mister Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin a run for their money. A glamour-struck teenager from the London suburb of Bromley, he loves the glam rock band the New York Dolls, gets invited to a party — as a result of a chance meeting in a restaurant — and meets Siouxsie. From then on he’s in the Bromley Contingent, a group of like-minded souls suffering from suburban relapse and who follow the Sex Pistols. Then its full speed ahead to the McLaren-Westwood SEX shop in the King’s Road with its scary iconic assistant Jordan, Maltese-Mafia era strip-club Soho, prostitution, drugs. There are casualties who fall by the wayside, whilst some other punk foot-soldiers are poised for new romantic fame. Meanwhile, for Berlin, life is anything but a cabaret, especially where sex is concerned. The book ends where he gets a sense of peace — of a kind — in later life with a pilgrimage to the Berlin grave of singer Nico which gives a resolution, of sorts, to his earlier experiences.

Now, Marshall tells the story of his affair with a young American, Pete, whom he meets in 1998 in a ‘tacky’ New York bar whilst working in the city doing various jobs including writing gay porn stories (Marshall keeps a pair of Pete’s discarded pants as a souvenir — hence the book’s title). But this is not told in a straightforward, linear way. What we get is a series of reflections which, as they are fleeting, it would be wrong to call meditations, for meditation requires in-depth concentration. Nevertheless — as befitting someone who has taken William Burroughs, Jean Genet and Kathy Acker as guides to, and cornerstones of, his thinking — they are striking enough to flesh out how the affair affects him. And this is unsurprising, for Marshall has the constructive cross to bear of being in search of an identity — laced with fame — which is the affliction of all who have known early life as one long vale of emptiness and whose search for being and creativity is a constant escape from that void. So remembering a difficult encounter with Pete followed by a scene in a bar with former Warhol superstar Taylor Mead summons memories of how the young Marshall performed his daily teenage life as a pseudo-Warholian figure, engaging in rambling telephone conversations and pondering what he would wear that evening. Marshall is thrilled to discover that Pete grew up next to Patti Smith, another of his idols (a devotion shared by many of punk’s other movers and shakers). Seeing the film Performance, with its unsettling inbuilt questions about the fashioning and performing of identity, makes him wonder if his sense of worry stems from realising that he would never be Anita Pallenberg.

Meanwhile, Pete is not the only character here: so is the city. Just as Berlin Bromley summoned-up a forgotten London of demos and dole queues and an equally dated Chelsea of bistros and bedsits, so Pete’s Underpants records a New York that is on the edge of passing from Taxi Driver-era sleaze to the beginnings of its present-day gentrification.

But lest we feel that all this seems — in punk terms anyway — a bit vanilla, Marshall recalls an incident with Pete in a bar where, as Marshall walks in, it looks as if Pete is being chatted up by a date. Marshall, fuelled with vodka and Percocet, lights a cigarette, then starts burning a patchwork of holes in the date’s jacket, leading to a chorus of sibilant calls of ‘Oh look at that, he’s trying to set that guy on fire’ from other barfly queens.  Marshall then employs a cod British upper-class voice to intimidate the protestors into silence (a practice which he usually finds works with Americans). The date then leaves. It’s this incident, recorded without any shame or apology, which shows not only Marshall’s sense of personal confidence and toughness in relating it, but also demonstrates a cheerful lack of LGBT team spirit in showing that homosexual relations can have their unpleasant side. Gay is very definitely not the word to apply in this situation, one which reveals the nasty little secret that the rainbow flag can sometimes herald a storm warning.

In the midst of his dramas Marshall, like all good artists in such situations, doesn’t lose sight of his work, his art.  In his deliberations about artistic inspiration and what fuels it — a muse which is ‘an otherness, promising something and delivering nothing’ — he confesses without any fear of sinning against the modern cult of intimacy that he likes to go to the cinema by himself where he doesn’t have to think about the person he’s with, so he can concentrate fully on the dream on the screen which is the muse. And he is — refreshingly — not afraid of criticising modern euphemisms, or seeming old-fashioned. Reflecting on the use of the word ‘challenging’, he writes: ‘I was going to say, “challenging” but hate that word as much as “passionate” those two adjectives are buzzwords used frequently in the arts, by actors, directors and producers to convey authenticity and sincerity, but they mask yawning chasms of mendacity and ineptitude .  . .’. Orwell, when dissecting the dissembling nature of political language (‘to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’), couldn’t have put it better. Marshall’s words could, with profit, be displayed on the walls of every office where the great and good of the arts world make their decisions about what to commission and what to spike. Indeed, his comment makes one wonder how many young people in their teens and twenties today have the opportunity to acquire the breadth of literary and film culture which he reveals in this book and who may have been deprived of it by a contemporary combination of cultural dumbing down and political correctness.

Pete died in May 2015. This bald fact, stated near the end of the book, brings us back to the relationship which is the mainspring — the muse — of Marshall’s story. Throughout it, he’s had a sense of being simultaneously half-present, half-absent in life, old childhood memories colliding with films he’s seen. Now — his muse no longer living — there is no sense of a neat and tidy ending, even though Marshall goes on his travels again to try and find one. And this demonstrates the emptiness of modern ideas of closure, that life’s dark materials can be neatly packaged away once and for all. There is always going to be regret, memories of missed chances, and despair at reliving these things. Reminding us of these uncomfortable truths — and thus making us wonder how we can deal with them in a way that avoids either clichéd presumption or endless despair — is both the gift and challenge that Marshall provides for us with this book.

Nicky Charlish is a freelance journalist and writer. The noir crime novel Gender Justice is Nicky’s first book.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 4th, 2019.