Wednesday, March 28, 2007

That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore

Dear Diary,

You will doubtless be pleased to learn that I am fully recovered from my recent affliction. Spring has arrived in London. The young lady on the radio described the weather this morning using the phrase "barley water sunshine" which I thought most poetic. The haze she describes is more pleasing than midsummer haze, as it is a result of the natural earthly cycle of condensation and evaporation, unlike the smog that engulfs us in the hotter months. As I strolled out for my mid-morning constitutional the sky had brightened further lending some legitimacy to my wearing of those rather expensive sunglasses I told you about. As I sat on a bench in the small park in the shadow of the market a blackbird hopped right up to me, and eyed me curiously before absconding with a discarded cake wrapper. All in all it seems like a good day. It occurred to me, as I sat in the sun, that for some fortunate souls every day must be like this. They must glide effortlessly through life cushioned by their own brilliance and success. But then I thought, where's the fun in that? It is through struggle that we learn and grow. Therefore I have resolved never again to feel sorry for myself, regardless of how dark things become. Things could always be worse. I could be French, for example.

Much love. Will write again soon.


Friday, March 23, 2007

Minor Illness

Continental fellows, like Proust and Nietzche, put their ailments to good use. Restricted to daybeds in murky living rooms they scribbled away at great length. My productivity during illness more closely follows the Anglo-American model of old Tom Eliot.

On Margate Sands
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.

The idea of the body punch is to wind an opponent, causing his hands to drop, and exposing his chin. That's what it feels like, this curious thing I've picked up. Like I've been pummelled beneath the ribcage, by the heavy gloves of a prize fighter. There's been some puking, and some general disturbance of normal lower alimentary function, but it's this ache around the gut that's most difficult to abide. It's hanging around like the weird guy at a house party, you don't know where it came from, it's strange and unwelcome, and definitely not leaving of its own accord. Meanwhile my chin is exposed to the bitter blows of fate.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Karamazov Brothers Reimagined As Circus Stereotypes - Part Four

‘I got into music because of a girl. She dumped me and I moped around. They’re all impossible really, and they all say they want one thing when they want something completely opposite, or maybe they’re just testing you. Fuck knows. I sat around with some mates, smoking, and they gave me a hard time because I didn’t see much of them when I was going out with her, so it was “Now you’ve got time for us you prick” which was fair I suppose. But it gets you down spending your days indoors with the curtains drawn just spliffing, and money was low, so I got a job in a record shop and the pay was fucking awful, like two quid an hour but it was good to get away from my stoner mates for a few hours every day and have that music all the time. The guy who ran the shop, he didn’t own it and to be honest I think he had his fingers in the till, nothing stupid, just the odd tenner here and there, he was into all that old school shit, which I thought was embarrassing at first, but then of course you’ve got to factor in the drugs. A lot of those fat soul boys were taking a lot of speed because it was cheap, principally, and because they were fat, I dunno (laughs).
We drove up to Caister after we closed the shop on a Friday, and I’d got some E. My mate Chris, he was also fat and a junglist, but he used to get his stuff down in Plymouth and he reckoned it came straight off the boats from Russia. Or submarines, as if they’d surface in the English Channel and there’d be these mad Plymouth blokes, like frogmen, who’d do the deal on the hull, swap ‘em E’s for Levis or something. It was quite mad. My girlfriend, Chris would always say to her “You’re mine, you are. When you dump him, you’re mine” in this ridiculous yokel accent. He always had spit on his chin but he did take a shitload of drugs. He’s clean now, I heard, he works as a children’s counsellor or something ridiculous. Anyway, she did dump me, he was right about that. “Told yer Pav,” he said. “She’s mine now.” So we dropped the first lot in the car on the way up there driving up the A12. It was all over. We were fucked. Of course with the E it’s impossible to resist the big beat. When you’re near the speakers it feels like someone’s squeezing your heart, but it feels good. Anyway I’m dancing and sweating and it’s fucking packed and I look at the DJ and he’s just surveying the scene, laughing, and I think, “I could do that. How hard can it be?” I had no decks, no records, but right then I thought, “I’m gonna be a DJ. I’m gonna make these fat fuckers dance.” So I started dealing, smalltime really, just fulfilling a need, supplying a demand. And this is where I was smart I think, I didn’t consume the profits, or spend it on birds in tight jeans with long necks and bangles and all that. The temptation was there because the money was there. I was never interested in promotion. I’d get the E and sell it to the bouncers. Much less hassle. Then I’d go and do a three hour set for free. And I was good. I don’t know if it’s something you can learn, but I was good from the start. I was spending more on old records than new ones. There is so much music and everyone else was playing tiny percentages of it. I never saw it as a niche market, I wanted to include everyone, now you run the risk of turning some people off, but, you know, fuck them, basically. If their minds are so small that they can’t listen to new ideas, well, old ideas really, then fuck them. That was the attitude I brought. I wasn’t sucking up to the crowd, I was challenging them, seeking to educate them.’

‘I don’t know who my Dad was and I never really gave a thought to it. People back home remember my Mum. They all knew what she did for a living, but no-one tried to help her. It wasn’t as if the priest or the council were knocking on the door saying “Lizzie, we’re here to save your soul and get you off the game.” She wouldn’t have listened anyway. She never listened to me. She was kind though. She looked after me when she could. She’d put me to bed then go out to work, what else was she going to do? I got through school alright because of her, got my GCSEs. I was going off to college maybe, after that. There was a hitch in the road. I got dumped. Life does that to you, though, to keep you sharp and alert. Well, it does that to some people. Life just ground my Mum down. She loved me, I know that. Everything she did was for me, so I can’t blame her, I can’t think badly of her. I think that her death made me more determined to succeed and to come through, if you like. I didn’t want to be someone who people talked about for the wrong reason. It’s funny kind of example to set, I suppose, but that’s what it was. Whenever I’ve felt myself sliding into bad behaviour, I’ve stopped myself, shaken things up, followed a different path. I feel fortunate that I was able to make her comfortable at the end. It’s a horrible way to die, your body just kind of packs up. I knew she was dying but I was in Rio. It’s crazy over there. You’d could play Mantovani and they’d go mad for it. I flew back as soon as I could but she’d died the night before. It was easier than I thought. A relief, really. The funeral was pretty quiet. She had no family left, it was just me and some ageing Toms she knew, a couple of old guys I didn’t recognise. Punters maybe. There was some stuff about it in the papers, but I didn’t read it. I’d lived it, and it wasn’t a lot of fun. You try and remember the happy times, like they tell you to, but to be honest it was a stretch. We had no money, never went on holiday, ate shit food. But I know she loved me. Can I nick a fag?’

‘I never did it for the fame. Just as well, really, it’s a pretty anonymous life. It’s not like I can’t walk down the street. Ninety-eight percent of the population don’t know who I am. Of the two percent that buy the records or come to the clubs most of them couldn’t pick me out of a line-up. That’s as it should be. Most of the time I’m just playing other people’s music. It’s different when you’re in the studio, obviously. There’s a creative element to that. But it’s still a bit like a kid playing with poster paints, trying to see which colours go together best. I read a review of the last EP I put out which said I had an unusual talent for juxtaposition. It’s not a word I’d use. Because I don’t know what it means. (Laughs). Joking. But that’s a pretty slender talent. It’s not going to help me in many other areas of life is it? Unless I take up, what’s it called? With the broken tiles. Crazy paving. Those geezers are just like DJs aren’t they. Making it up as they go along. Fucking charlatans, that’s what they are. I’m not a missionary or anything, but the most satisfying thing is after a set when a punter comes up to you and asks, “What the fuck was that?” And they start singing a tune you’ve played back to you. You see it in their eyes, that they’ve understood. That’s pretty rewarding. A lot of guys try to make it into something it isn’t. They paint themselves like they’re some weird puppet-master directing the whole thing, controlling the energy of the room. That’s all bollocks. Music can be transcendent, especially if you’re fucked (laughs) but at the end of the day you’re just playing records. It’s not that taxing. You hear these wankers moaning about their schedules and all the travelling when most people are daydreaming about a life like theirs. They say they want more recognition. For what? They’re not saving lives or helping the poor are they? There’s no Nobel Prize for Hard House. (Laughs). I think that the bloke doing a mobile disco at a wedding has a tougher time than we do, trying to get the grown-ups to dance without playing Madness or something from “Grease”. That’s a fucking riot, I’d love to do that. Play for five hours and get fifty quid and a couple of chicken drumsticks. Mental, but real, y’know. No foam, no girls in cages, maybe a couple of tearaways in cheap suits doing some spliff in the pub car park but that’s it. Play some proper tunes. “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero”, all that. Mad. Maybe that’s what I’ll do. Go into semi-retirement. Get the Transit out at weekends and tour the South-East. Lights, PA, everything. There’s no way I’m playing fucking Spandau Ballet though, fuck that. Does that make me a snob? So be it.’

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Karamazov Brothers Reimagined As Circus Stereotypes - Part Three

He was a boarder at a choir school when he ran away. He had given no indication to his fellow pupils that he was unhappy. He wasn’t subject to any bullying from the boys or staff, as far as anyone would admit. I didn’t think they were lying. The choristers seemed confused, the teachers panicky. The housemaster had gone into the dorm on the morning of March 3rd, drawn the heavy curtains, and found his bed empty. “Where’s Alex?” he had asked, prompting yawns that were also shrugs from the seven other lads. Perhaps he’d gone out for a run, they suggested. He liked to jog around the Great Pond before breakfast, sometimes, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the great carp, eight feet long some of them, which swam there. His trainers and athletics strip were still in the locker at the end of his bed. By ten o’ clock the whole school was looking for him. In uniform, they swept in a line across the Commons and out into the woods calling his name. “Alexei!”

They were returning when I arrived. They had not found him. I eased the car up the drive past blazered boys, many of them now armed with sticks. The spire of the cathedral projected above and behind the school and seemed to get taller the closer I got. The Headmaster was waiting on the steps. “Is there just one of you?” he asked. “We’re very worried. Will you have to drag the pond?”

I told him I didn’t think that was necessary yet. “Have his parents been informed?” The Headmaster shook his head. “We can’t get hold of them,” he explained. “It appears they may be out of the country.”

I interviewed the boys from his dorm. These eleven-year-olds were still at that precious, prelapsarian age where all they cared about was food and football. They were astonished at the suggestion that young Alex might have been anything other than ecstatic to live and sleep among them.

“Can you think of any reason why Alex might have run away?”
“No. Uh, none. We have a great laugh.”

I alerted the station that we had a possible Missing Person. The school secretary found his file and scanned his photo for me. “It’s from last year,” she said. “His hair’s longer now, but he doesn’t look anymore grown-up.” I sent the photo back to the station and went to interview his masters. It was two o’ clock by then, academic lessons had been abandoned for the day, and the boys had gone off to choir practice.

His housemaster, Turner, was a hare-eyed fellow who worked in this closed-off world, I assumed, because he had failed to make it outside. He was astonishingly nervous. Had he noticed anything unusual about Alexei recently?

“No. Yes. I mean no, he was very much himself. He’s a quiet, polite boy. Rather shy. Always keen to help. Charming, really.”
“You’re close to the boys, are you? A confidante?”
“Not exactly,” Turner said. “You can’t be their friend and their master, it doesn’t work. But I think if any of them had a problem I’ve made it, um, clear enough that they can come to me.”

The rest of them were as unhelpful as they were co-operative. How strange, I thought, to live amongst these young men and to form no deeper impression of them than would serve to fill out a school report. I thought of the men and women I worked with. I could tell a story about most of them that would illustrate some personally unique pattern of behaviour. The teachers seemed to regard a classroom of boys rather as a postman might consider a sack of letters. Their job was simply to make the boys someone else’s responsibility. I left the school just after five. Some lads were out on the Commons, punting a rugby ball around. They paused their game to watch me pass. I was angry, disproportionately so. As I reached the station my phone rang.

They found him in the Lady Chapel, shivering, still in his pyjamas. He didn’t know how he had got there and remembered nothing about what had happened during the day. They rushed him back to the school, fed him, and put him to bed in the matron’s room. He ran a fever for two days and never moved. The housemaster wanted to take him to the local hospital but was persuaded by the matron and headmaster that this was unnecessary.

I visited him a week after his disappearance. He was as described; quiet, courteous, shy. But no-one had mentioned his eyes to me, which was strange, as they were remarkable. He had the darkest eyes, as if his pupils and irises were a single shade. Black almost.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Karamazov Brothers Reimagined As Circus Stereotypes - Part Two

“Five minutes,” says a guy in a headset. “You’re on in five.” Ivan looks out from the wings. The stage is black. The ceiling of the club is black. The whole place smells of piss and dust and beer. About a third of the seats are occupied; everyone else is at the bar. He goes over his routine in his head, pausing for laughs. This laughter, he realises, is entirely hypothetical. But he knows what it sounds like.

Try to think of the first joke you ever heard. The first joke that really made you laugh. (This is how they did it at the workshop). Let’s explore why it works. Why it’s funny.

“What’s yellow and highly dangerous?” This was Ivan’s joke. The facilitator explained that because it’s difficult to think of anything that is, in fact, yellow and highly dangerous the question creates confusion, or what he called intellectual discomfort, in the listener.

“Shark-infested custard.” This absurd answer, it was further explained, creates a strong mental image, as well as relieving the listener’s intellectual discomfort in an unexpected way. A guaranteed laugh. Conviction is the most important thing, he said. Weak material, nerves, an indifferent audience, can all be conquered by conviction. If you believe in the joke, if you believe that the audience will laugh, then generally they will.

Ivan drums his fingers against a partition. The booker really liked his stuff, his nervous energy, his rapid synaptic leaps from subject to subject. He can do it, he knows. He is well prepared. His delivery is assured, his timing honed. It’s a short set he’s doing so even if he bombs he can be off stage almost as soon as he walks on.

He listens as the MC finishes his set. The empty seats have been filled. A band of smoke stretches impressionistically across the front of the stage. There is a big laugh, and Ivan hears his name. Then the MC rushes off the stage, pausing to pat Ivan on the back and say “Don’t shit your pants”.

He’s on, squinting hard into the lights, owning the stage. As the applause dies, as he’s about the thank the audience for their kind welcome, a fat guy in the front row shouts, very loudly, “QUEER!”.

“Why do you assume I’m queer? Because I like to fuck your girlfriend in the arse, is that it?” And then he’s rolling.

The Karamazov Brothers Reimagined As Circus Stereotypes - Part One

Dmitri, a giant, hungry bear of a man, emerges from the delicatessen with his mouth full of spit. He unsheathes a dry sausage and eats it as he walks across the square towards the beach. “The drains are bad this morning,” he thinks. Finishing the sausage he discards the paper wrapper which the wind drags like a cat’s toy, stopping, starting, before coming to rest at the foot of a slide in the small playground next to the market. He buys six beers from a kid on the boardwalk and sits at the edge of the sand watching the surfers crash amongst the waves. Every so often a girl will trot up the beach to use the showers. The sand makes everyone knock-kneed. Dmitri watches the girls wash off the sand. He keeps his jacket on – it’s denim, too hot for this weather – because he is ashamed of the hair poking down past the sleeves of his t-shirt. A dog comes and sniffs at him. He cuffs it away with his giant hand. The dog can smell the other sausage wrapped in the inside pocket of his jacket. He knows without looking that people are staring and laughing at him.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

He's So Frothy

Mr Coffee takes me to one side this morning and says: -

"Hey, I'm famous. You know youtube, the website?"

I nod.

"I'm on there. Search for Mr Coffee."

I search and find this video. I have no idea what's being said but the blurb translates roughly as

This Sicilian genius has converted a scooter-van into a mobile coffee shop!

It's not exactly Citizen Kane. But it's fun to watch him playing up to the camera. And then I notice, at the right of the screen, between 0:41 and 0:37, a great bumbling oaf in a corduroy jacket. Me. I think of myself as a wiry seventeen-year-old, of course. Most men do, in spite of glaring evidence to the contrary. Somewhere along the line I've transformed into wall of flesh. It's most discouraging. I yearn for the aerodynamism of my youth.