Monday, 27 October 2008

Oh oh oh, Sweet Love und Romance

Apologies to anyone who was waiting with bated breath for my musings on XTRMNTR yesterday, it's been a bit of a rollercoaster week and I haven't had time to write it. But I promise it will be coming along shortly, in fact I hereby pledge to post at least a couple more times before this weekend, when halloween commitments mean that I shall be otherwise engaged (If anyone's wondering, I'm going as Richey, of course).

Anyway, to keep your appetite sated in the meantime, here's something I wrote quite a few months ago. I dug it out of my files today, having been reminded of it this weekend at the Brighton festival, where ten-foot chalkboard letters spelled ELL-OH-VEE-EE across the library forecourt. They were daubed in day-glo lines with the loves of the people who, throughout the day, had been invited to grab a paintbrush and colour in their passions. In the dark, crisp night, hundreds of people were standing and looking at the sculpture. Some were holding hands, taking photographs. Everybody was smiling, and I felt a simple warmth inside, that reflected their contented expressions.

So. Romance, then. It seems to me that those everyday faults in logic that make up our existence – our reliance on language, our trust in linear narrative and misplaced sense of finality – are supremely reflected in the fumblings of romance. Love makes bad poets of us all. That’s precisely the reason why it is so captivating.

Sweet nothings, now there’s an interesting concept. Why does romance reduce a statement to the status of a nothing? Maybe in the twenty-first century, we’ll learn to replace nothings with somethings, the performative utterances of love.

I read about some scientific research a long time ago that suggests that the part of our brain concerned with making rational decisions doesn’t come into play until after we act; we act spontaneously, then justify our decisions with logic afterwards. This doesn’t just go for instinct – and just because you give something a name doesn’t mean it has any explanation – but for other, much more critical decisions like speaking, walking, standing up, sitting down, things that directly affect the course of our lives. Ever been on your way somewhere, lost in your own little world, and suddenly realised that your feet have carried you somewhere familiar, of their own accord, without any apparent intervention from your head? That’s what I’m talking about.

If we aren’t even in control of our own actions, what kind of grip do we have on the future, however we may trivialise it with plans and timetables and alarm clocks and shopping lists? The future, even the close future, from one second to the next, from one instant to the next, as universe shifts into universe, forming and collapsing like surf on the shore, is completely out of our control. Accept it. Go outside right now and kiss a complete stranger. It’s the best you can hope for.

That’s as if to say that hope is something that concerns the future. It isn’t. Hope is something that manifests itself only in memory and past. We live, we hope, we hope that it will or will not happen to us again. Hope is important, certainly, but it is important in that it tells us who we are, not where we are going.

Creation is in itself an act of destruction. When you create something, you make a conscious decision to eradicate all the potential forms and guises that idea may have taken. For every act of creation, a million acts of destruction. God is the destroyer of worlds, because in creating existence, he destroyed the infinite potential for existence to exist as something else. To truly create, you must accept that which you destroy. The history of art is filled with drink and drugs and depression because to be a creator is to celebrate destructiveness. This is why people like the idea of a soul. It’s something tangible and permanent. With everything around it decaying, it is indelible. Its half-life is infinite. It cannot be destroyed or tarnished except by an act of will. Which is where fate comes in.

Fate allows us to accept the possibility that inevitable destruction is not complete and perfect. Fate is a tautology. Things happen because they happen, like the needle scratching endlessly through the groove in the record. But what if the self is not inward, but a manifestation of fate? Maybe fate is an outward representation of self, soul, psyche, id, being? That part that says ‘this is me’ isn’t part of our being in a physical sense. You can’t hold it or taste it or see it. It doesn’t have mass, or colour or texture. Why do we have this impression that it exists behind the eyes? Maybe we’re all fooling ourselves, and fate and free will are the same, and we just don’t realise it. Maybe creation and destruction are both just our own affirmation.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Album Review: 'Loveless'

I do seem to have set myself a bit of a challenge with my album review this week – how to get across in words the ethereal listening experience that is My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless? The only way I can think to do so would involve some sort of cack-handed synesthesia – ‘like the sight of eddies of dust caught in the beams of white light shining through a narrow window’, perhaps, or ‘the auditory equivalent of being gently massaged by thousands of hands at once’?

Alright, that’s enough of that. I’m aware of how difficult it is to interpret writing about music anyway, without it getting all meta. I promise from here on in not to overcomplicate what it is that makes this album great; the texture, the depth, the tone, the sound.

What must it have been like to hear new music in the sixties and seventies? Constant innovation, new sounds and recording techniques being developed all the time, record upon record, all of it sounding nothing like anything before, all of it new. But after this wave of innovation came, to some extent, a plateau. The growth of this palette of sound slowed, steadied. There could be fewer great leaps into the unknown. Come 1991, there was a sense that we'd heard it all before. There's a limit to what you can do to an electromagnetic signal.

But then along comes something like this. Kevin Shields’ guitar doesn’t sound like anything else, ever, over-italicised or not, it’s as simple as that. It has become something of a cliché to say that a guitarist ‘makes his guitar speak’, but with Shields it is more than that. He makes it sigh, breathe, cry. The range of resonance he coaxes from that battered Fender Jaguar is astonishing. It can sound huge and at the same time distant, as in ‘Touched’, where it somehow contrives to replicate the sound of dinosaurs mating. It can sound like diving jets and whirligig fairground sounds all at the same time, as in ‘To Here Knows When’. Most of the time, though, it sounds like a gale, a whirling maelstrom of pure white noise, but all the while concealing at its core a melody heartbreakingly fragile and beautiful. It is a music of contradiction.

You know those days where, despite yourself, you manage to fall into one of those half asleep, half awake states? The ones where you’re not sure when you were awake and when you were dreaming? Next time that happens, take my advice; seize the opportunity. Stick Loveless on the stereo, lie down and roll with it. There is no music more perfectly fitting for the liminal state between reality and dream. As you drift in and out of consciousness that rolling, chiming roar sweeps over you in tangled waves of feedback and scattered fragments of thoughts and memories. At points you surface and everything is clear, at other times there is nothing but the sound. Like The Holy Bible last week, the conflict at the heart of this album is between ugliness and beauty, yet here that tension is played out not in the lyrics, swamped and concealed by as they are by the voice of the guitar, but in that delicate balance of blissful noise, as if the listener had returned to the womb.

Loveless was a famously torturous album to produce, nearly bankrupting Creation, the label that funded it. But that effort is ingrained in every note and every glistening, distorted chime. It is a masterwork, the kind of record that defines an artist’s career. But Kevin Shields clearly wasn’t content with just the one, as we’ll see next week, when I’ll be talking about his work with Primal Scream (or prmlscrm) on XTRMNTR.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Heaven (or Hell) #3

Joyce meets Dickens

Remember the drill, click the picture to make size your friend.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Album Review: 'The Holy Bible'

Last week, I posted my introduction to this new album review section. I waxed lyrical (a rather neat choice of cliche there, as you'll soon see) about how, for me, great music is more than just nice words and pretty tunes. It's atmospherics and intricacies, the ultimate dedication to all-consuming mood. I'm now going to be rather irritating, and plunge straight into a review of an album that is truly great, for precisely none of those reasons.

Hey, wait. Come back. Let me explain. Manic Street Preachers' The Holy Bible is my favourite album. It's been my favourite album pretty much since I first discovered it, three or four years ago, and immersed myself in its lyric booklet. Here was the spirit of Ginsberg, Camus and Plath, distilled into a near perfect hour-long outpouring of intelligent, literate rage. It's the voice of my hero, Richey Edwards.

Richey couldn't play his guitar. He didn't sing. He was an alcoholic, self-harming anorexic. But there was a fiery, poetic intelligence that burned within him, and lyrically, there is no other rockstar that even comes close to the attention to detail, the wealth of information in his songs. Nowhere was that talent so totally addressed as this, his legacy, his statement of intent. It's almost ludicrous, the quality and consistency of the words that make up this dark, intense beast. Songs about the extremes of human existence, about anorexia, prostitution, genocide, delivered with such a perverse, searing beauty that it's impossible to tear yourself away.

Take the couplet from 'Yes' that I quoted back in my very first entry on this blog, a paean to the prostitution of the self in one's art; "In these plagued streets of pity you can buy anything/for $200, anyone can conceive a god on video". Or the devastating introspection audible on the autographical 'Faster'; "I am idiot drug hive/The virgin tattered and the torn/Life is for the cold made warm and they are just lizards/Self disgust is self obsession honey and I do as I please/A morality obedient only to the cleansed repented". These aren't just words to mouth along to, they're complete works of art.

I'm not being completely facetious here, building up some manifesto one week only to tear it down the next. I do reserve the right to contradict myself (as Nicky Wire once said of his occasionally hypocritical TV interview rants), but there is musical genius at work here, too. At every turn, the ugly beauty of Edwards' vision is mirrored by some terrific (in both senses of the word) production. Take the doom-laden bass that crawls under your skin at the start of 'Archives of Pain', for instance, brooding and growling, gradually joined by keening feedback, before unwrapping itself into a scratched, battered and bruised guitar riff. You wouldn't think it possible for a guitar to sound like revenge, bloodlust and capital punishment, but somehow the way it writhes, contorts, it captures the fury of those lyrics.

Samples are scattered throughout these thirteen tracks, disembodied, disenfranchised voices, pulled from myriad sources, yet somehow bound to each other. A salespitching pimp. The anguished mother of a murder victim. A weary, ageing actor. At the midpoint, a snippet of taped interview with the author J.G. Ballard surfaces through the claustrophobic din, Richey's mantra. "I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and then force it to look in the mirror." Ballard was talking about his novel, Crash, but he cuts to the core of what The Holy Bible is about.

The monolithic, six-minute penultimate song 'The Intense Humming of Evil', hyperbolic though it may sound, condenses all of these elements in a burst of controlled post-punk atmosphere that really does justify that title. Opening with a bed of industrial white noise, the sounds of a death-machinery, it builds unbearable suspense with a minute-long sample of a reporter at the Nuremberg trials; "From the ditch at Kerch, the dead will rise, bringing with them the acrid smoke and the deathly odour of scorched and martyred Europe. And the children, they too will come, stern and merciless. The butchers had no pity on them." Just as the crescendo becomes almost unbearable, it is interrupted by the snap and echo of reverberating snare, the beat itself becoming malevolent and machine-like. The guitars somehow manage the trick of seeming to constantly ascend, up and up, cranking the pressure further and further as Richey's words document with dignified respect the horror of the holocaust; "In block 5 we worship malaria/Lagerstrasse, poplar trees/Beauty lost, dignity gone/Rascher surveys us butcher bacteria". And the dread bass returns once more, still climbing further and further up, slowing and slowing, until finally it echoes quiet and all that remains is the shrill howl of the wind through Birkenau, where the birds no longer sing.

The Holy Bible proved to be Richey's epitaph. Just a few months after its release he vanished, never to be seen again. It is not known whether he is alive or dead, if he committed suicide or went into hiding, but this record remains, a document of his brilliance. It's an unflinching, confrontational, disturbing experience, and it's everything that great art should be. No compromises.

Next week, I'm going to the opposite end of the spectrum, to an album that delivers just as much intensity, almost without the use of any words at all. It's going to be the epitome of shoegaze, My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. See you there.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Why Perfume Adverts Stink

You know what I find weird? Television adverts for perfume. Has it never occurred to anyone that there is no way to illustrate a scent through the medium of TV? Has anyone ever watched a thirty second short for Chanel or Calvin Klein and thought “I’ll have me some of that”? If you’re buying aftershave for someone, you go into the shop and ask the assistant, maybe test a few different alternatives, and buy the product based on its one saleable attribute; smell. What you don’t do is make your decision off the back of some George Clooney lookalike arsing about making coffee in the buff.

I am of course, talking about the immortal promo for Davidoff Cool Water (an inspired name, that – I’ve always wanted to associate my musk with the neutral smell of H2O). When this advert comes on (I know, I know, they've changed it for the one with the handsome bit of rough out of Lost now, but he's not so funny to write about), I always think: someone wrote this? Probably not just one person, probably a team of highly paid marketing staff. Imagine the pitch – “So, black and white, it’s got to be black and white to show it’s a classy advert, and there’s a man, right, because we’re aiming this product at men. It’s implied that he’s wearing our scent, although as this is purely a visual medium, he could smell of stale rat’s piss for all we know. Anyway, he’s naked, that’s a nice angle, it’ll keep the female viewers’ attention. What’s he doing? I don’t know…what do normal people do at home? I don’t know because I’m in advertising, and therefore have sawdust where my brain should be. Err…making coffee? Boy, this is hard when you’ve done as much coke as I have this morning. I know, maybe he kicks a cushion around a bit, just so we know he likes football, ergo, isn’t some sort of weird pervert. And then of course, we can have a girl come in at the end, and run the age-old message: buy our product, and attractive women will want to have sex with you.”

Of course, I shouldn’t just single out Davidoff for its bizarreness. In fact, by perfume ad standards it’s fairly tame. Take the homoerotic masturbatory insanity of those Gaultier shorts – ‘Sailors! Ballet! Nipples! Tattoos! Perfume!’ My personal all time favourite was the one for Chance by Chanel, which began “I see…I see a city”, immediately drawing the casual viewer in with its mysterious hints at prophecies and soothsayers. It goes on to reveal that in this city are people, one of whom is a man (what are the odds?), before shrieking, “it’s your chance! Take it! Take it! TAKE IT!” with increasing volume and desperation, at which point the photogenic young couple suddenly find themselves in a gondola adrift in the middle of the ocean, all sense of plausibility and narrative logic seemingly abandoned. I like to add a footnote at this point, “and buy our cologne”, as I feel the advert as it stands really doesn’t do enough to get this across. I feel let down by this abrupt ending. How do the couple get back to land? Do they starve to death or drown? It doesn’t tie up the loose ends. It is unsatisfying. And, perhaps most importantly, WHAT THE HELL DOES IT HAVE TO DO WITH PERFUME?

It’s not like feminine unguents are not the only culprits. Bad advertising is one of my pet peeves, so I’m sure I’ll return to the topic in later weeks, to talk about some of the horrors that the world of commercials holds in store for its most lucrative contracts; namely, cars and alcohol. Liquor is, it seems, as baffling a prospect for marketing people as scent – what is one selling exactly? Can you illustrate the experience through pictures and sounds? It sort of puts me in mind of that David Chappelle sketch about Samuel L. Jackson Beer (“IT’LL GET YOU DRUNK!!!”). Car manufacturers have no excuse, however, for abandoning the saleable merits of their products in favour of the more abstract ‘giant dancing robot’ approach that they all seem to have taken of late. But Adam Buxton has already skewered that satire kebab much more brilliantly than I am capable of, so I won’t devote any more time to it here.

There is one other trend in perfume marketing at the moment, which is celebrity endorsement. However I can’t really see how this is any different. Maybe you want to smell like P Diddy or Paris Hilton (and how sad/weird is that?), but how do you know that by buying their perfume you do? There’s no way to empirically verify this (short of busting through a ring of beefy security guards to get a sniff of Beyonce’s neck – volunteers, anyone?), but I’m willing to bet that they don’t splash on the stuff every morning, and I’m even more certain that the secret of their success is not their odour (although if I was going to be catty I might say that in Miss Hilton’s case I suppose it must be something).

All this is why I’ve grown to love the simplicity of Lynx adverts. Okay, it may smell of stale soap, but at least it doesn’t pull any punches, commercial-wise. SPRAY ON, GET MORE, it booms, as thousands of scantily-clad women charge towards a cheerfully spraying male. Okay, so it’s probably sexist, and it’s not exactly awash with delicate visual metaphor, but it boils down the message of the Davidoff advert much more succinctly, and it’s much more enjoyable for your average deodorant customer to watch.

There are two very good reasons why these terrible adverts are here to stay. The first, and most obvious, is that most advert directors want to be doing something bigger than pretentious TV spots. They want pretentious TV shows, pretentious movies. They want to make another fucking Lost In Translation. And they're not going to be given the chance to do that until they get themselves a big ol' showreel of adverts that really pop. But the second reason may be less obvious to you: These guys want their adverts to be bad. They want you pissed off and scratching your head, asking your TV set "What the hell was that you just showed me?" Bad or good, in advertising it don't matter unless it's memorable.

Name a car insurance company. Five seconds. Got one? Is it esure? Is Michael Winner's smug, leering face making your blood boil so you can hardly read this? Those ads were so bad they made you angry, right? Esure doesn't care. You remembered who they were. And all because they made the Most Annoying Advert EverTM. That's the big, dirty secret. These guys want you mad. They want you mad so you act irrational, they want you irrational so you'll buy their stuff. Doesn't the whole thing just make you furious? Good. Now buy my book.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008


400 metres up the side of the monolithic tower the two men went about their business, welding, welding, welding. Like houseflies in gas masks they clung to the riveted steel frame, siphoning showers of sparks that died to dust long before falling to meet the heads of the commuters below.

Maintenance was an anonymous occupation. Jody often speculated upon the people and the stories being told far below him, people going about their business, completely unaware of his presence. If you forced a pushpin into a map, he always thought, it would pierce both himself and some complete stranger, someone who would never have cause to acknowledge his existence. Under the mask, his brow would prickle at such thoughts.

When he had first started working on the towers, everyone he met had shown such interest. ‘How exciting’ they had cried as he told them of his life in the clouds. He had been a hit with women, a fearless modern-day hunter-gatherer, scaling cliffs to bring home bison. It had been fun.

Of course, since that morning, times had changed. Now no-one talked anymore, and everyone still stared up into the air whenever a jet went overhead. Suddenly, overnight, the questions had changed from incredulous intrigue to incredulous concern.

“Aren’t you worried?”

“Do you have life insurance?”

“What if it happens again?”

He always explained that nothing had changed, you were just as safe on the outside of a building as you were on the inside, but no-one seemed to be listening. As soon as people heard towers they saw planes. Times had changed.

He thought back to that day, the rolling news and the low roars that had torn through the crisp air. The gaping, smouldering wounds of blackened concrete had reminded him of a time from his childhood, back home in that whitewashed two up, two down in Oklahoma.

He had gone to the cinema that day, with his mother and elder brother, a weekly tradition. They would catch the matinee, and then later, drink sodas and discuss the movie in the polished haven of Huey’s, the best (the only) soda bar in town.

In the early evening they had returned, greeted by a terrible sight. Something, some monster, had punched a hole clean through the thin wooden walls of the lounge, then breathed fire on their home within. The three-piece was a soot-blackened mess, dripping still with water from the fireman’s hose.

His immediate fear was for his father, who spent his Sundays watching the game, beer in hand, from that very couch. Panic gripped him and queasily he ran inside the shell of the front room, his feet treading white steps in the charred ground.
Later they would be told that Herb Ackerman, a farmer from nearby Redbird, drunk on a cocktail of gin and his wife’s presumed infidelity, had sped off the dirt road, through the wall, the couch and the liquor cabinet, a shower of coruscating sparks and then a terrific explosion as it tore apart the kitchen drywall, severing the gas main. Herb had felt nothing, in his last seconds, except perhaps for a desperate loneliness. Jody’s father was unharmed in the back bathroom, feeling only the heat of the devastation upon his bare knees.

The relief at seeing his father again had been all consuming. Although the following months had been difficult, Jody had never forgotten that initial churning in his gut, and was always glad that, for him at least, the worst had not happened.
High above, a plane was coming in to land at Kennedy. Jody, as always, leant out and over, and saw the haunted faces peering up and past him. For a moment all was still. Then the heads went down and he was invisible again.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Heaven (or Hell) #2

Beethoven meets Nietzsche

Now with 100% more swearing! (remember to click for more biggerer)

Sunday, 5 October 2008

You got the money, I got the soul

When I set up this blog, I had a series of sort of vague ideas of what I was going to do with it. One of those sort of vague ideas was that I might occasionally turn my hand to music criticism, mainly just because it's a field of writing that's always interested me. Like just about every other music geek, I delude myself that my taste in music is better than everybody else's, act like a terrible snob when I find out that someone enjoys something that I consider unworthy, and more or less live in a perpetual state of fury that the whole world does not understand the music that I love. When I first read High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, I got tremendously excited, because I recognised so much of myself in those characters, who lived and breathed music with an all-consuming passion that far outstripped their ability to sustain functional relationships, even interractions, with other human beings. "That's me," I thought to myself,"I mean, with a much inferior taste in music though, obviously."

I have a tremendously unhealthy relationship with music. One of the first questions I have to get out of the way, before I can objectively judge whether I'm attracted to a woman or not, is "what do you think of Radiohead?". A negative response to that question is a bigger turn-off than syphillis, in my eyes. Start talking about the programming on Kid A, though, and I'll be making wedding plans within the hour. I swoon at girls who know their way around a microkorg or a protools unit. I know that this is disturbing. I can't help it. It's the way my mind is wired. I struggle to even have a proper conversation with someone until I've established that we at least like a couple of the same albums.

I don't really know where this obsession comes from. Both my parents have a fairly uninspiring attitude to music; they like some of it, they don't like most of it. My Dad will often say things like "you can't have a good song unless it's got a catchy tune", and other like statements which make me cringe with despair.

I first picked up the guitar when I was about thirteen. Now I play whenever I have a spare moment. Sometimes I write songs. Sometimes I play in a band. But I've always thought of myself first and foremost as a music fan above a musician. It's a troubling dialectic between words and music that goes on in my head. No matter how much of a feel I have for good writing, I can't shake the voice that says: Music is real. Rhythm and melody, they exist only as themselves. Art and literature are only refractions, shadows cast by music on the cave wall of reflection.

I've had an idea for a book that I've been toying with for a while, in which the lead characters' development is charted by a series of pieces of music criticism, the subject of each one hinting at the path his narrative will take. Some of the music writing that appears in this blog may be used for that project eventually, but for the time being it's just to satisfy that primal need, to share that music which stirs so much in me with others, to force them to understand.

Maybe it would help if I tried to explain what it is that makes 'great' music for me. Not just 'good' music, there's altogether too much of that for me even to think of writing about. Most of the music I hear I can find something 'good' in, but that's beside the point. If music is just 'good' I don't really want to hear it. That's like saying food is 'edible' rather than 'delicious'. I know lots of 'good' albums which I can listen to every so often. Everyone just wants a Big Mac from time to time. But you couldn't really call it the point of eating.

Great music illicits a gut response. It is hardwired directly to your involuntary muscles, provocative and tantalising. What I said earlier, about being a music fan rather than a musician? I guess that's because any time I hear a piece of music that really grabs me by the throat and moves me, it's because I'm thinking wow, I could never have made that. I need music to do things that I don't expect. I hate that old phrase "a tune that feels like you've heard it a million times before". What does that prove? Why would I want to listen to that, if I know where it's going? I'm not saying songs like this aren't good. I'm saying that they aren't great.

Intrinsically connected to this need is the need for detail, craft, layer upon layer of painstaking production. If I'm listening to an album for the hundredth time, I still want to hear something new, every time. I can't stand bands that try to record their albums 'as live'. Of course there's an energy and a joy to live performance, of course I love to watch music being played skilfully right in front of me, surrounded by like-minded fans, but you're not playing live. You're recording an album for fuck's sake. A piece of art, a legacy. If you don't make every conceivable effort to make each individual note or beat a vital and valuable part of the enterprise as a whole, contributing to this vast mosaic of an experience, well then, you don't deserve to be making music.

So to my mind, those are the two most important principles of great music. There are plenty of other principles which are vastly important, if not essential, of course. Valuable, intelligent lyrics that contribute to the piece, rather than vapid, shallow words. There is obviously something to be said for musicianship, the ability to do with an instrument what others can't. But above and beyond all other considerations, it is the adherence to and the pursuit of the mood, the atmosphere, the form. And the form of great music must only be the album, a complete and self-sustaining body of work.

So, starting next week, I'm going to aim to do a weekly critique of each of my favourite albums, trying to explain just why I love them so damn much. This is going to be one of the few regular bits of writing you're going to get from me that will be entirely positive; in fact it will all but shimmer with love and passion and good vibes. That said, I must warn you now, I'm going to lead off with one of the darkest, most confrontational and abrasive albums of all time (but also, in my opinion, one of the greatest ever to be recorded), the most indelible lyrical masterpiece to spill from the pen of the beautiful yet tortured soul of Richard James Edwards, Manic Street Preachers' The Holy Bible. See you next week.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

The Philosophy of Kids TV

The trouble with life as a student is that, after a while, you get into the habit of over-analysis. All the hours spent discussing the minutiae of novels, ideologies, philosophies, surrounded night and day by people who are too clever by half, you get into a state of mental delirium, where you can see Jungian commentary in the Marks and Spencer adverts, Nietszche in Neighbours, kabuki in Coronation Street. Or, as I found, the complex ethical and sociological structures at play in the world of children’s television.

It all started, as these things invariably do, with a very late night. I’d been at a seminar earlier in the day, discussing the theatrical work of Samuel Beckett. If you’ve ever studied Beckett you’ll know that this pretty much means a discussion of every essay, philosophical, political or literary, that has ever been written. That night, or more accurately the following morning, during one of those meandering conversations which suddenly turns out to have been going on for several hours, I started to tell the others about Act Without Words II, a short mime composed by Beckett, thought of by some critics as a retelling of the Sisyphian myth.

Sisyphus was a king of ancient Greece, ordered by the gods, for who knows what transgression (probably incest, this being ancient Greece), to roll a boulder uphill for all eternity. This concept of constant work without reward, nor accomplishment, excited Beckett’s famously cruel sense of humour. I opted to dumb down Sisyphian literature for my friends by describing it as “meaningless and repetitive tasks with no success. A bit like the Chuckle Brothers”. I probably shouldn’t have said that, for it opened up a whole grade-A can of worms.

The endless trials of the unfortunately named Barry and Paul Chuckle (“Let’s not over-hype ourselves, Barry. We’re expecting chuckles, not guffaws”) have always fascinated me. The joyful abandon with which they laid into the week’s task, regardless of aptitude or training, should, I feel, be a lesson for us all. Paul would be occasionally cynical, but never world weary, whilst Barry was the happy go lucky dreamer of the pair. Bricklaying, window washing, plumbing, whatever - they would set about it with the minimum degree of fuss and the optimum of bad luck. And ‘no slacking’. The idea that there was more to the duo’s adventures than mislaid pots of paint and quaintly unintimidating brushes with the law delighted us. And so we decided to delve deeper, and discover more of what lay below the surface of the 3-5pm slot of the British weekday.

Of course the programme that immediately leapt to mind like a well-oiled cougar was that stalwart of mid-90s CITV, Funhouse. Armed with a combined twenty-plus years of higher education, we now saw it for what it obviously was; an indictment of organised religion. It all made sense. The arbitrary tasks assigned by a beatific figurehead (Pat Sharp, the latter day Jesus Christ, complete with flowing locks and disciples in the form of the ever-present twins). And the reward at the end, eternal peace achieved only through following the strict dogmatic doctrine of the church of funhouse. Sharp saw what he was doing; illustrating the horror of the unruly scramble, the holy war, to finish atop the hierarchy of mayhem.

Moving on, we decoded another of ITV’s trademark chaotic gameshows – Finders Keepers, surely emblematic of the search for meaning in everyday life. For whilst we are searching we do not know what it is that we search for, we can only rationalise our discoveries with the benefit of hindsight. We envisaged a bleak bonus round; guest presenter Albert Camus laughing laconically whilst offering a playstation two to the frantically searching sprogs if they could but find their soul within the house. They always fail.

And who could forget The Queen’s Nose, a paean to the wish fulfilment culture of commodity fetishism, the fifty pence piece representing the false consciousness created by global capitalism, our heroine subservient, a tool of the economy. Let us not forget that it was only through the selfless invocation of (Gary Mabbutt (the working class man; the proletariat) that she could free herself of the oppression of the 50p and all that it symbolised.

Now we were on a roll. Bernard’s Watch - a Derridean meditation on the inherent subjectivity of time - came next, followed swiftly by Blue Peter, which obviously taught us the lesson of import substitution. Why buy a Tracy Island, when it is within one’s capabilities, with a little sticky back plastic and some egg cartons, to manufacture one’s own, with its own individual flaws and idiosyncrasies? In these financially insecure times, such a message can only be a boon to the sound development of young minds.

But it was getting late, and we were getting tired, our ideas more fractured and disjointed. It was when we reached the conclusion that Get Your Own Back was “an attempt to reconcile the tyranny of ontology through the medium of Dave Benson Phillips and his redemptive gunge” that it was deemed to be best for all concerned if we got some sleep. It was a fractured repast that night, my dreams haunted by visions of Neil Buchanan teaching Rothko the art of papier mache. Three parts water, one part PVA. So it is, was, and ever shall be.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008


The first letter appeared as a shadow brought to life by the steam from my apparatus, jolting me from my solitary reveries. It hung, spectral, somehow inside the wall. At first I did not see it for what it was; it was not until I stood back to admire my first endeavours that I saw it, perhaps half a foot across, an ‘o’ hanging behind the delicate surface of my bedroom wall. I paused, stood back and stared at it for some time, the ‘o’, just waiting there, and staring back at me.

At this point I did not know that it was an ‘o’, of course. It may have been an eye, a centre, the bullseye of a target, perhaps, but it was inevitable that now I had begun to uncover it I must continue. What was I to do, ignore it? That ‘o’ would henceforth always be there, even if were to paint over it, cover it with some handy bookshelf or my grandfather clock, the knowledge of its presence would haunt me. No, the task was begun; it must be finished.

The patch that I had steamed around the ‘o’ was perspiring now, beads of sweat draining through the pores in that delicate pattern. I applied the scraper forensically, searching for a rift into which it might burrow. The top layer came away easily, strips coiling down to the floorboard to form narrow seashells there. Already I could see the shapes of more letters pushing through, where the surrounding, dry paper had come away. But there were further layers beneath, for under the delicate surface of my wallpaper lay another surface, the handiwork of a previous occupant. As it emerged I began to see that it was made up of a pigment of yellow, the yellow of canaries and corn, delicate to the touch. This layer was so thin that I might have scratched through it with a fingernail.

I stood back again. The letters that queued up, either side of the ‘o’ (whose vague form was hardly any clearer to the eye now than it had been minutes earlier) were an ‘n’ and a ‘t’.


Not what?

Not an invitation to continue my investigation, certainly, but the same problem as before; only worse now, much worse. I struggled to imagine what ‘not’ might mean, and no permutation readily sprang to mind that eased my troubled thoughts. But I could not stop here, the legend only half-read, for I would forever wonder what else lay beneath that surface. Moving closer I set the scraper to work once more.

It made short work of the mysterious pigment, which crumbled away in seconds. The next layer was much darker, and momentarily I thought I had found the resting place of my hidden message, but on further inspection it turned out merely to be yet another layer of paper, this time a drab grey pattern of interlocking forms. The words (and there were now more than one, sliding into view above and below the ‘not’) still continued to tease me from behind this new frontier. The letters were a little brighter now than they had been when I had first approached the wall, and yet somehow no clearer.

I must confess that by this point I was becoming somewhat irritated. Digging the scraper into the wall, scalpel-like, I resolved to test how deep the layers of paper ran. To my surprise, it sank in to a depth of almost an inch. There must have been well over fifty layers there. To think, with every generation that has lived under this roof, my little room has shrunk smaller and smaller, millimetre by millimetre, one paper’s thickness at a time.

I considered, for a brief moment, the possibility of tearing down the whole lot at once, cutting deep grooves inward and sliding my scalpel underneath, but the idea was obviously a poor one. Who knew what two layers my message lay between? I could not risk tearing the walls down too hastily, what if the message was lost before I could read it? I readied the scraper, and started on the interlocking patterns of the third layer.

This fell away in individual pieces, singular atoms, but the uncovering was hard graft. Time and again I worked the knife in, releasing the cells so gradually and painstakingly that I thought my task would never cease. There was yet another tissue beneath, fracturing and splitting as rapidly as I could look at it, but it was necessary first to remove all of that third layer, piece by piece, atom by atom.

As I worked away it came to my attention that the mysterious yellow pigment that I had thought to be a layer of paper, was in fact oozing through the gaps in the interlocking pattern behind. It seemed to be emanating from layer four, but I could not understand how, or why. Perhaps it was the heat of the steam, bringing the walls to life. They seemed to breathe, sweating yellow droplets onto the surface where they formed unpleasant stains that I wiped with the back of my hand…

…As I collapsed to the floor, exhausted, as much of the fourth wall uncovered as I could possibly hope to uncover, I realised that almost two hours had passed. Two hours, and the shaking of my muscles, worn pale from lack of blood, was the only testament to my efforts. Still the words remained virtually the same as they had been, and worse, the corners of the uncovered patch seemed to be coming down to fill the space that I had already cleared. I needed to rest, and yet I could not, for fear that if I slowed I should have to tackle more of that tough third layer than I already had suffered through. The next surface seemed as though it would be less difficult. It splintered and fractured, dividing again and again into smaller iterations. I felt that, much like the mysterious pigment, a quick attack would make short work of it.

I braced myself, steadied my shaking limbs, and went at it again with the scraper. As I had suspected (and hoped), this new topsoil flew off the wall in an instant, surrounding me with clouds of yellow-hued dust. Was I inside the wall? It covered me, choking me, coating my skin and clinging to my hair. There seemed to me more than could possibly have come down off the wall. It was multiplying, filling every available pore. And as it began to settle, more appeared to spring up before me. I made another frenzied assault, this time swinging my arms to better clear the air as I worked. My arms burned with electricity from within, and my fingers began to feel numb. I kept the pace up as long as I could, until my head swam and the room span before me, choking down yet more dust, striving to breathe. I am spent; I fall heavily to the ground and crawl myself away.

The subject of my autopsy stands proudly before me, the letters (still!) indistinct, and yet blazing so brightly that I imagine I could not even make them vanish by shutting my eyes. Of course, there is no question of doing such a thing. What would be the point? The words would continue to exist, for I have read them now. I read them once again, as if I don’t already know what they say.

‘Tomorrow will not happen’.

The words burrow through me to my core, stripping away layers of skin and muscle. They haunt me, are ingrained in me, etched upon my consciousness as deeply as they are engraved in the mortar opposite. I do not know where they came from, cannot know who made them, and yet I know them unmistakeably to be true. Tomorrow will not happen. When it is said that ‘it is written’, it is written here.

Already it seems to me that the incision I have made into the various tissues of paper is closing up, covering the words once more. Somehow I know that, try as I might to destroy more of the facade, there will always be this inexorable march of the layers across the wall, covering my efforts once again, hiding the words from view. That is no matter now; they are there, they will always be there, today will not.