Animal Magnetism at Blackwell’s

This report from the trenches of live performance represents another step in my determination to be a better person when it comes to keeping you abreast of what I’ve been up to. I’m also attaching a special edition pdf containing the poems I read, just click this sentence. It includes two poems that aren’t in either of my free-to-download collections, this one, or this one. If that catches on, I might do it for each of my performances, with a little cover and edition number for each.

IMG_2798

This was the 6th time I’ve performed at Blackwell’s. I still have to pinch myself about that. This is the place of wonder where I spent half my time and a good deal more of my grant as a student decades ago. I couldn’t have imagined then I’d get to come back and read. To actual crowds! But since I won their “favourite Oxford novel” competition in 2011, the staff at Blackwell’s, especially Euan and Zool in events, and Ray in the fiction department, have been incredible to me.

Nonetheless, the nerves were a little higher than before for this event. It marked the first time I got carte blanche to choose what I read. The first chance to showcase what I do, erm, best – and possibly my one real chance to get that right and who knows, maybe one day get asked back for one of my more outre novels or collections.
IMG_2755

There was also the small matter of the fact I was MCing a tight schedue, and that meant performing the superhuman feat of keeping to time the legendarily prolix legend of Oxford poetry George Chopping. But most of all I was nervous because this was a celebration of the brilliant Paul Askew, whose collection Animal Magnetism was right at the heart of the Nothing to Say installatin I’d staged this year. This event was for him, bringing together three of his very favourite writers (and me) as a glorious festschrift for his work. Which was a huge responsibility. One that put the usual “what if no one turns up?” “what if everyone overruns and is generally crap?” worries under an electron microscope.

In one of those twists of symmetry it was at Blackwell’s that I first met Paul. He had come along to This Is Oxford, a wonderful event they’d let me run in the world famous Norrington Room featuring representatives from various of Oxford’s underground literary enclaves. I found him intimidating. Not beause he’s standoffish or supercilious or aggressive. He isn’t. He’s actually one of the loveliest people you will ever meet. But because he exudes this aura of sharp, charismatic creative intelligence. He’s one of those people you fix on in any room and think, “ah yes, he’s the most brilliant one here.” And you’d probably be right.

Paul chose three remarkable people to accompany him last night (and added me to the list, almost certainly out of politeness because I was both host and publisher. Whatever the reason, it was a joy to be part of such a  line-up.)

Joe Briggs is unlike anyone you will ever see perform. His pieces are part journalism, part rant, part reminiscence, part punk poetry, all delivered with a splenetic passion from that day’s scrawls on scrunched up scraps of paper and all reflecting on his extensive experience of the musical underground and laced with a scalpel sharp sense of cross-reference and critical awareness that never takes you out of the delerious  drive of the moment.

IMG_2762

Lucy Ayrton was the person I have to thank for getting into performance poetry as opposed to just performing what was written in front of me. She is an instantly engaging presence, a storyteller who beguiles you with brilliantly layered allusions as she pieces together her modern feminist riffs on ancient tales. She is one of those performers, like Paul, who is able to hold you through the stillness and the silences as much as through the words.

IMG_2768

George Chopping is one of those poets who has the ability to defy any and every expectation of normality and do whatever he wants and still be loved by everyone across the social spectrum. Host of the sidesplitting and notoriously late-running George’s Jamboree his delivery mixes the fluent and the stuttering to such gloriously jarring effect you are never certain what’s deliberate and what’s the first malfunctioning brake pad of the most gargantuan car crash.

IMG_2780

In the event, last night will join the mythology of Oxford literature alongside the great Jericho poetry fight of 2012. Lucy was spellbinding, George mesmeric as I’ve never seen him before, and Joe Briggs’ part flarf part satire part contemplation part memoir of the history of Ramones-derivatives was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever heard. But it was Askew who had the last word, quite literally, delivering a visceral set before tearing up his copy of Animal Magnetism, announcing that the book and the material therein is no more, and walking out. There was nothing to worry about when it came to turnout in the end, but in years to come a lot more than actually stuffed themselves into Blackwell’s will claim to have been there.

I Like Darkness

You don’t have to be a goth (I’m not a goth, though Queen of Darkness in Camden Lock Market would sit firmly in my top 5 fantasy shopping list, and just a couple of days ago Andie Berryman gave me the best review I’ve ever had for my performance poetry, talking about my “intelligence and generation x gothism”) to have a fascination with life’s dark side – both real and imagined. In the last couple of days I have re-read Thomas Harris’ Hannibal, soaked up the current series of Whitechapel, and delighted in Lucy Worsely’s stunningly good new series A Very British Murder. If you were the proverbial Martian just landed on Earth and you happened to be unlucky enough that your first experience of humanity was my blog (yes OK if that ACTUALLY happened, you’d head straight back to Mars screaming) you might be forgiven for thinking either that I was a very unrepresentative exemplar of this strange new life form or that you’d walked onto the set of Cannibal Holocaust (not that you’d know what that was if you didn’t know about humanity, only now you would because you’d read it on my blog, hit Google, and go Oh yeah – only you wouldn’t know what Google was if that’s even possible).

In reality, of course, neither of these is true. Humanity is, in many ways, a savage, cruel, thoroughly despicable evolutionary mishap. But by and large our predations are not those of the regular grimoire but far more insidious and banal. Hannibal was for many years the fastest selling adult hardback (read fastest selling title not beginning with the words Harry Potter), and if you were to wander into Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, the only time you would find yourself anything approaching alone is if they’d just cleared it so that Lucy Worsley could film her new series. And the list goes on – ask 90% of people here in Oxford for a museum recommendation for example and they’ll say “Pitt Rivers” adding swiftly “for the shrunken heads.”

cover

OK, so I know you’re not the proverbial Martian (are you?), but you are probably wondering why I’m delving into these murky waters. Or maybe you’re not – after all, I did write in the preface to (life) razorblades included (download a free copy here or click the photo for the pamphlet) “for all that so much of the material in this book deals with death, this is a book about life” and that book’s cover has been accused of pandering to “suicide chic.” As for some of its contents, well, maybe more of that later. And my thriller The Company of Fellows drew the Goodreads review:

“I want to erase this book from my mind. While parts of it are well-written in a lyrical fashion, this is by far the most depraved and perverse thing I have _ever_ read. Out of thousands and thousands of books–including more than a hundred about serial killers and psychosexual deviants–this book has the single worst and most disgusting things in it I have ever laid eyes on.”

So, you may not be surprised to find me blogging about something other than daisy-filled summer meadows and Cath Kidston table linen. But, whilst idly thinking about life’s darker side and my fascination with it, specifically triggered after this month’s Hammer and Tongue poetry slam by remembering Henry Bowers’ fabulous poem “I Like Darkness”,

I realised that actually the subject fits very much with recent topics on here. Specifically, this is a subject that is actually about how we occupy space. Both physical space (the liminal spaces within cities, the disused and dangerous spaces of industrial neglect, the penumbras and symbolic spaces of forests and heathland) and the conceptual space in which we relate our identity to our perception of the world and others in it. And in the overlap between the two. Which is a good point to pause and share a brilliant Facebook status I read this week from punk commentator Joe Briggs

“That shit about how stand-up comedy is sacred place where you can say anything is so fucking cliched and boring and misses the point so hard, places for exploring taboo topics work coz they are shitty, derided and disrespectable already so nothing you say in them can bring them down, soon as you forget that and start constantly pointing out the freedom and high-minded possibilities of the medium, setting it up like some kind glorious untouchable oasis of thought-experiments and it becomes some straight-up church shit, where it’s beyond criticism cos it’s a holy institution, not that it’s below criticism cos it’s a filthy dirty thing no-one in their right mind would even give a fuck about anyway. The most meaningful shit for me comes from places where meaning is at first absent, when you say “LOOK THIS IS MEANINGFUL. LOOK AT IT! VALIDATE MY ART!” it’s boring and trite, if someone tells you “Your medium is a pile of shit!” you should be like “Yes it is! Fuck you!” not “NO IT IS MOZARTPICASSOGENIUS” Best shit in the world: dumb comics, dumb punk, dumb jokes, dumb action movies, dumb pulp books. All that good dumb shit. That’ll get me through.”

which about perfectly expresses the intersection of darkness, physical space, and conceptual space.

Specifically, I think the central pull of the dark side is part of our desire to position ourselves as outsider. “Outside” is a space to which we are ineluctably drawn and from which we are repulsed in equal measure. It is a space simultaneously of promise and danger, but most of all it is a space wholly different from the one we sense we in fact occupy. Its strange attraction, best likened to the vertiginous feeling of standing on an edge and wanting with all your heart both to cling to the rock and to dive headlong, can be seen in a powerful archetypical hold that stretches back to Cain’s banishment to the land of Nod and stretches forward through endless symbolic accretions to the “perfect” opening of Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael” and beyond.

If an attraction-repulsion to darkness is about positioning ourselves as outsider, it could be argued that it is symptomatic of a societal decadence and comfort which we acknowledge at some level but from which we want to distance ourselves (think of the popularity of guignol and dark cabaret at times of decadence, the prevalence of music hall whimsy at times of distress) – though not entirely, but rather as what one might call torture tourists, dipping into the dark side from a safe distance, toying with outsiderdom as a way into grappling with the problems of being part of a society that is affluent and comfortable but with the buttresses of whose affluence and comfort – sweat shops, crippling carbon emissions, forest-stripping, famine – we are deeply uncomfortable. A fascination, that is, with a particular, widely-agreed avatar of evil may represent a first step towards admitting that the true “banality of evil” is not the everydayness of Denis Nilsen’s face but the millions who will never have the opportunity for such thought experiments because all their spare capacity is exhausted making your T-shirts.

But a fascination with darkness is not just about renting out a conceptual holiday home as “other.” It is also about reaching inside oneself and peeling back layers of learned behaviour and thought to discover who you actually are, to admit your desires, and to acknowledge frailties and failings that have hitherto plagued you from the shadows so as to dispel or, indeed, embrace them and so render them harmless.

There’s a danger of this sounding rather banal – paraphilias and transgression help us to explore the notion of boundaries, we get a glimpse of the things we desire but never dare to do. True, but I don’t think that’s the full story.

In order to see if I was on the wrong track completely or had overlooked the obvious, I did something highly scientific – I took a straw poll on Facebook. The results were fascinating. One respondent pointed out the vicarious attraction of darkness in culture:

“It allows a vicarious dip into darker waters whilst posing no tangible threat. And the darkness makes the beautiful things in life all the brighter and I feel more thankful.”

Another developed that in a very interesting way

“I could never do such things myself and I try to find the disconnect that lead them in one direction while I went in another”

That, surely, is one of the most compelling questions, and one that is central to our struggle for our own identity – what switch do we have that others don’t? This kind of self-scrutiny was at the heart of another response, which focused on the question of nature versus nurture, which is, surely, at root the question “how do I know if this is me?” The same respondent put it succinctly “I don’t think you can understand human nature – ergo yourself – without examining both the ‘light’ and the ‘dark’.”

There really does seem to be a fundamental question of the search for identity, for an understanding of our exterior and interior occupation of space. And it is this that makes me sceptical of the criticism alluded to above – that a creative focus on the dark side glamourises the worst of human behaviour. The perceived danger was expressed very insightfully by another of my respondents, “If there is danger in glamorization, it’s because people will see the gain that can come from dark actions.” That seems to me to be much closer to the truth than the oft-expressed worry that we are somehow pied pipering the world’s youth to a lemming-like mass suicide. We are fundamentally aware how fragile (and fictive) the moral order is, and how easily it could be toppled by the posturings of a Nietzschean ubermensch come Aleister Crowley-esque prankster.

If the primary worry about the danger of darkness is based on the desire to protect the moral web holding society together, then that vertiginous pull into the night can be further seen as part of the desire to be on the outside, to assert oneself as an individual against the formalised and instiutional. It is, in a suitably Laveyan sounding formulation, part of the concretising of the self and creation of a unique space for the self to inhabit.

Yet again we find at the root of the curiosity the question of how we occupy space. And this is what makes me less worried than many about glamourisation (and certainly less worried than I am about constant exposure to greed and selfishness from politicians and the media). Even obsessional interest in the dark side is as much about what we are not as about what we are. It  is about a notional “outside” space that we do not and cannot occupy but in relation to which we are able to define ourselves more fully than we would if we just had access to the “inside.”

Closing the door to the darkness not only prevents full exploration of identity. In some cases, the suturing over of a festering wound can be highly damaging. This is one reason I have never had any worries about putting my very darkest material out there, because it all comes from a confessional place, reaching out to others offering them a touchstone, a point of contact with a space within themselves they may otherwise be unable to articulate. I see it ultimately as creating hope.

I have one on for far too long. I haven’t even started to talk about the specific ways I deal with violence, forbidden desire, and taboo in my writing. I hope, though, I’ve at least started an internal conversation for you, and possibly reassured you that your inclination to the night is less troubling than you may have thought.