Comprising rumination, reminiscence, rue, the ribald.
Some of these were written as stand-alones, some were cannibalised from longer, aborted projects.
Among my fellow students at the Royal College of Art Film School in 1966 was a tall, reserved young man called Ian Johnson. Bespectacled, soberly dressed, with shortish hair at odds with mid 60s fashions, Ian only stood out in a crowd if the crowd comprised colourful art school students. At some point in our first year at college, he disclosed that he was a member of a small theatre company specialising in comedy sketches. Ian was certainly not without humour – he would smile at one’s jokes – but the idea that he could actually induce laughter in others seemed implausible. He then announced that his company’s latest show, titled ‘I Am Amazed!’, would be presented in the lecture theatre in two weeks’ time.
I can remember a number of the sketches quite clearly but more compelling than a resumé is a consideration of Ian’s remarkable transformation on stage. Supported by two other performers, a man and a woman, he found space in nearly every sketch for a volcanic display of rage, idiocy, amazement (as promised) and broadband emotional incontinence. His audience was flabbergasted. Many were weeping helplessly with laughter as Ian rose and rose again to epileptic heights of physical and vocal grotesqueness.
In the ensuing months Ian returned to his modest, amiable ways. He lived with his parents and helped out from time to time in their fish and chip shop. He rarely had girlfriends, as far as we could tell, and talked about himself sparingly. He made one or two amusing short films then, as graduation loomed, joined forces with Neil Hornick, Cindy Oswin and myself in Hornick’s interventionist theatre group, The Phantom Captain. We improvised bizarre situations in streets, clubs and theatre festivals, eventually breaking away from Neil to dance our own steps in our own company, which we called Lumiere & Son. This trio split up a year later, leaving me with the company name. I was yet to team up with Hilary Westlake and relaunch Lumiere & Son, which would then run for twenty years.
Ian continued to live in his parents’ home and after some years working as a film editor, he found employment as a lecturer on a film course based outside London. I bump into him now and again and we tend to reminisce about life on the road. He cracks the odd joke, puts on a funny voice for a moment or two but never lets rip. He could, I’m sure, summon up those awesome energies in an instant. That instant, however, would have to unfold in a performance. On a stage, when the rules of engagement are clear and attention is being paid appropriately, Ian would unleash the torrents that seem not to define him so much as demonstrate to us, his startled admirers, what it takes to be civilised.
I was born in Cambridge in 1944 and left it in 1965. In my late teens, having read Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, I liked the idea of myself as an outsider but I came from a good home and went back to it at night-time. I was very interested in books and paintings and music because I had been taught to be. Two of my closer friends had been to achingly posh public schools and the rest of us had enjoyed high quality secondary education at respected Cambridge schools. We went on to well known universities and when we moved to London we lived in desirable postal districts.
Imo, née Iain Moore, came from so far over the other side of the tracks that none of us had ever seen his street let alone his house. He had quite a few brothers, a Mum who punched them all and an attachment to his family so feeble that he left home at fourteen and never returned. He also gave up school at that point and roamed the streets with his shifty, nervously grinning friend Pip, another outcast from a bruising home. When Imo was seventeen he started to hang out down by the banks of the River Cam, not so very far from the spot chosen by my own group of friends for surveillance of the restless teen life that roamed around the Mill Pond.
Every night after the pubs closed my gang went round Storm’s house. Storm was middle class but with mitigating circumstances. His father, Elvin, was a communist and his mother, Evangeline, was (and, I believe, is) a potter. By the time we had decided to become hipsters, Elvin had left Vanji and the house was ours to colonise. Vanji was not like your mother. She seemed to love our noise and our excited embrace of the slouching approach of beat culture. Storm was of the opinion that she would not, however, love our smoking pot in the kitchen, so we would retire, five or six of us, to his bedroom in order to roll spliffs.
We comported ourselves in a manner that was far from sedate and were particularly keen on laughing. Dope lubricates this activity – some would say that it also appears to eliminate many less intemperate behaviours leaving only a mania of cackling intact – but at times there was in the fumous air an almost tangible urgency, a nervous greed for explosive release. Nick Sedgwick was easily the best laugher – he would rapidly bend double, redden and howl infectiously while struggling to complete whatever sentence he had formed in response to the humour moment. Nick’s hunger for laughter was such that he would often repeat the gag line several times, each repetition ventilated in a different way from the last by staccato blasts of shouted air. Designed to sweep up the loiterers, Nick’s laughter would invariably loose a full barnyard of glee. Storm was probably the loudest, employing a distinctive nasal bray that was the legacy of his fall, at an early age, nostril-first onto an upright bamboo cane. Dave Henderson’s face would crease up and retract between his shoulders as he produced a sinuous series of swallowed descending hums, while John Davies would raise his pale face ceilingwards while giggling a rising scale of heeheehees.
And then Imo was among us. He made us laugh like never before. His hair was shoulder length and his teeth were appalling. He claimed to have never brushed them and in consequence most of them had fallen out, leaving two brown rotted pegs in the top jaw and some unpleasant stumps scattered around below them. Urged on one occasion by wellwishers to get his teeth sorted before he was reduced to masticating with a pair of denuded gums, he made a dental appointment. As soon as he took his seat in the dentist’s chair he realised that for all those hygieneless years he had been harbouring an unacknowledged phobia of oral penetration. He did not like having instruments in his mouth. So much did he not like it that he leaped from the chair, shoved the dentist aside and destroyed the entire drilling station and many ancillary devices.
We thought he was a wild man. He had a rubbery face with a dash of the physiognomy of Picasso, Harvey Keitel and Charles Bronson and his speech was delivered in a heavy Cambridge accent, the accent, that is, of a small town in East Anglia rather than that which features a series of languid sounds expressive of the narrow gene pool shared by the members of the University. Imo was an exceptional talker but revealed an equally striking talent when lost for words. A person to whom things just happened – extraordinary things, all the time – he was blessed with a raconteurial skill that matched the diversity of his experience. When, in mid-anecdote, he found words failing him, often because they simply were not expressive enough, he would switch deftly to an improvised stream of syllables, assembled at conversational speed, that retained appropriate proportions of the Anglo-Saxon, Latinate and other root sounds of English and therefore sounded at once credible and hilarious.
For earnest recent readers of ‘Ulysses’ and Artaud (the tortured, visionary essayist and proponent of the Theatre of Cruelty who had written dismissively of ‘Jabberwocky’ then submitted his own version in French), such as myself, Imo’s sublime word-mangling was a source of great joy and seemed the ultimate proof of his rough beatitude. He was completely unaware of the literary canon into which he was being spliced, largely because he had never read a book.
Imo also swore very inventively and introduced a host of attractive imprecations to the group. Not only did he transport exotic oaths across the class barrier but also regularly produced new and original works of his own composition. One of his most compelling creations, however, was not so much a coinage as a rolling adaptation of an established East Anglian phrase.
The word ‘cunt’ is often used to finish off a sentence in a manner that can be amiable as well as offensive. The latter mode is entirely common and can be seen in no more exceptional an injunction than “Fuck off, you cunt!” In its affectionate form it would be used to chide, as in “Of course I’ve locked the door, you cunt.” The usage would be restricted to a male/male exchange, for the usual reasons. In East Anglia, however, the natives have devised an interesting variation, centred on and energised by a matter of pronounciation. Both farmer boys and town boys say ‘cant’ or ‘gant’ rather than ‘cunt’ and transform the ‘yoo’ into a ‘yuh’ or ‘ya’. Thus: “Fuck off, yuh gant!” The affectionate form sees an extension wherein an extra ‘you’ is added for emphasis but is mysteriously transformed to ‘yew’, as in “Fuck off, yuh gant yew!”
Imo used this construction frequently and responded resourcefully to the warm welcome it received from his new laughing friends. He would mutter it, murmur it, bellow it across streets, roar it up the fronts of houses, scream it across the Mill Pond with its punting undergrads and gaggled tourists. The cry swiftly mutated into a glorious series of variants, each susceptible of many inflections, each inflection accompanied by its own special body posture and mouth movements. As the months passed we heard:
Several of these started their lives with an inflection very similar to the music-hall cry “I thank yow!”, used by Arthur Askey and his ilk, then moved on to ever more exotic stress forms as Imo applied some of his trademark vocal violence to them. In casual conversation he was wont to shout individual words without warning, as if the business of being emphatic were in some way in need of parody. These shouts were often combined with a deliberate sneeze-like plosion and an abrupt rise into falsetto. The reader may like to try this out on, say ‘Yugantyow’, where the ‘gant’ is growled and the ‘yow’ shrilled. Kisia, a girlfriend of mine for a few months during Imo’s golden years, was as fascinated as any of us by Imo’s comic faux-tourettism and once asked, in a way which I found unforgettably sweet, “What is it that Imo shouts? Yoganji?”
Imo was delighted to hear this and teased Kisia for some days with his hideous, simpering replay of her own perplexed mimicry. Like Kisia and possibly the reader, we all had a crack at the cry, producing what I suspect were pale, classed-out imitations of the holler that startled the citizens of Cambridge in their high streets, coffee houses, even postal districts, such was the immense power of Imo’s lungs.
We welcomed Imo into the fold and he brought with him stories that would seem torn out of comic-books and slapstick movies were it not for their regular corroboration by those who had witnessed the outrages at first hand. Of the thousand or so anecdotes available, one of my favourites finds Imo and his confederates forcibly ejected from Woolworths clutching a strip of images from the photobooth. The store manager had been disconcerted by roaring from the vicinity of the booth and further abashed by the restless crowd of unsavoury youths obscuring his view of the privacy curtain. Pushing the youths aside he tore the curtain open to reveal Imo standing on the adjustable stool with his jeans and pants round his ankles, as the flashing light recorded four passport size photographs of his bollocks.
I was less taken with Imo kicking the kitten out of Mary Wing’s lap with such force that it hit the ceiling or with his smashing a duckling on the head with a punt pole. He had literally battered his way out of an abusive family and bad schools then held his own among the incessantly skirmishing Teds and Mods of the town. That he could continue to be so vicious now that the Love Generation was in the ascendant puzzled his friends from nice homes. But not for long. That would be judgmental.
At times enviable, at other times exasperating, Imo’s lifelong refusal to work was certainly remarkable. He knew that he was, to all intents and purposes, a fully rounded entertainer and discovered quite early on that people would give him food, money and houses in exchange for a good seat at the show. A diligent groupie, he cleaved energetically to the rock stars that passed through the Cambridge and London scene and was rewarded, by a member of the Pink Floyd, not only with two thousand pounds worth of glistening new teeth but a friendship that lasted throughout that generous musician’s first marriage and on to his divorce. Once the sundered couple had taken up their separate residences, Imo moved into the ex-wife’s Sussex mansion where he was given the lavishly converted stables to use as an apartment. A few months later the representatives of a mystery benefactor told him, out of the blue, that a trust had been set up for him to access when he was fifty. It contained a great sum of money and would preserve his indolence in perpetuity.
Imo never got the money. It was probably a dream. The rock star’s wife threw him out because he wouldn’t do any light cleaning. He became addicted to temazepam and got a special invalid card from Social Security, excusing him from having to seek employment. In his mid 50s now, he lives alone in a flat in Hove. Recently, a journalist adding himself to the steadily growing band of those who write books about Syd Barrett/The Pink Floyd told me that Imo was ‘alive and well’.
I had been brought up to believe that common people were of no great use. Imo was very common and brought with him a demented and profound lack of civility. This didn’t mean he was particularly rude, it meant he had escaped domestication in some areas that my own upbringing had successfully relieved of substance. As Simon Parker Rhodes had shown a ten year old boy the limited value of timidity, so Imo showed me what it might mean to live ideas rather than think them.