Flight & Fight

Some of the aeronautical terms used below can be examined in greater and probably more reliable detail by clicking on the links provided.
Back in the early 80s I was writing a TV screenplay about the USAF in East Anglia. I drove, for the purposes of research, to the Duxford Air Show to look at the Lockheed SR-71 ‘Blackbird‘ stealth plane, a long-range strategic reconnaissance aircraft which had recently come out of hiding. Having marvelled at the sleek, black, radar-invisible craft parked beside a hangar and guarded by machine-gun toting US airmen in blue grey uniforms with white silk cravats, I was drawn back to the main runway when it was announced that the Harrier jump jet would shortly pay a visit. This is the one that can land by descending vertically and can even hover, using the downward vectored thrust of its movable jet nozzles, while delivering death from above.    
The V/STOL (vertical/short takeoff and landing) configuration makes runways, even aircraft carriers, redundant. Air show crowds are pleased by its versatility and its availability for anthropomorphic projection. The latter is apparent in the cries of pleasure that accompanied the fawning behaviour of the jet as it hurtled into view, skidded to a halt in the sky, hovered 30 feet above our heads then dipped its nose up and down several times, as if waving or bowing to us, who were its supreme and fearsome masters. One could imagine, on another day, above another country, the same manoeuvre being seen as a form of taunting.
The Harrier’s dark enchantment is due in part to its special relationship with what is known in aeronautics as relaxed stability. The term describes an aircraft’s tendency to change its attitude and angle of bank of its own accord. If it drifts from its path it will begin to move from side to side in relation to the path, gradually moving further off course with each excursion.  

This can be corrected with controls that influence the three ways a craft can move in the air: pitch, yaw and roll. Pitch refers to an up or down movement of the nose or tail; yaw is a side to side to side movement of the nose and roll (or bank) is said to occur when the plane rotates around its longitudinal axis – the line that passes through the plane from nose to tail. There are two other types of stability: positive stability when the aircraft will maintain its attitude without constant control input and will eventually return to its intended position if its path is disturbed, and neutral stability when the craft will not return to its trimmed setting without control input, but will swing from side to side without moving further and further off course. All of which suggests, reasonably enough, that you don’t want relaxed stability in any aircraft – it should be designed out at the offset. There are, however, situations in which a form of instability is considered highly desirable. Certain military craft are deliberately designed with inherent instability and equipped with flight control computers to compensate. Such craft will instantly lose stability if computer control is suspended. What would appear to be a form of designer recklessness actually brings the great advantages of being able to change direction with minimal intervention of the flight surfaces (the flaps, elevators, rudder etc). Responsiveness is increased and the craft can manoeuvre in dramatic and unpredictable ways. It will confound and frustrate its enemies by tossing itself around in the air.

 

It is hard to resist the thought that these ideas, and the terms in which they are expressed, could be fruitfully applied to certain contemporary social situations. The nature of stability, for example, is not just a matter of personal psychology but an effect of the ideologies that compete to secure a dominant definition of the concept. One man’s stability is another’s death-in-life. In the 60s, for example, stability was what your parents craved and you despised. Their ‘small “c” conservatism’ – a symptom of what was, in part, a widely dispersed postwar posttraumatic stress disorder – made them, in your view at least, unable to change direction without considerable forewarning and persuasion. Your view, consonant with the aeronautical theories with which you were not familiar, was that their stability would lead to their undoing. It had no flexibility insofar as it would guide its adherents further and further into inaction then rigidity. The aeronautical version is much the same: stability is synonymous with the maintaining of a set position but implicit in this condition is its own decay.

Those enchanted by the revolutionary tone of the 60s (including the Editor in Chief of this journal) believed that all this must be put behind them by means of the active pursuit of instability. Where Rimbaud, in 1871, recommended the ‘long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses’ and was probably appreciated at the time by a relatively small number of Bohemians and Decadents, the youth of the 60s energetically took up the project in significant numbers. This was not a self-correcting fly-by-wire enterprise – for many it involved a comprehensive cutting loose from constraints, a vigorous immersion in experiences previously insulated by taboo, and an indifference to the straight and narrow.  
This erraticised adventurousness piqued unattended and dormant appetites and prompted the emergence of desires people didn’t know they had. Thus it was, with the passage of time, that those who espoused a new anti-materialism and, to a greater or lesser extent, turned on and/or tuned in and/or dropped out, came to be regarded as excitingly needy by the manufacturers of such goods as clothes, records and posters. The Mad Men themselves, we are beguilingly informed, were able to navigate the haze of their own substance abuse in order to strategise the manufacture of desire for less folksy items such as cigarettes and saloon cars.
Instability, with its basis in relaxed impulse control, acquired a perverse reliability as advertisers refused to see in it a frustrating elusiveness but instead found ways to exploit it as a resource. Timothy Leary, after all, had suggested that ‘To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable open-mindedness, chaotic, confused vulnerability (in order) to inform yourself.’ And it sounded good at the time, I have to say. But on the heels of voluntarily induced chaos and vulnerability came a complex of operations that succeeded in commandeering these states and repurposing them in such a way that they served the interests of authority rather than facilitating critical insight into it. ‘Cash from Chaos’, as Malcolm McLaren would observe some years later.
The link between adventurous instability and the adventurer had been weakened, enabling the emergence of a fertile ground for a form of instant messaging. Manoeuvrability was found to be as exploitable as immobility and came to be seen as manipulability. The scene was set in such a way that Guattari would write ‘A certain type of subjectivity, which I would call capitalistic, is poised to overtake the whole planet; an equalised subjectivity, with standardised fantasies and massive consumption of infantilising reassurances. It causes every kind of passivity, degeneration of democratic values, collective racist impulses. Today it is massively secreted by the media, community centres, and alleged cultural institutions.’ Writing in 1985, Guattari uses the phrase ‘is poised to overtake the whole planet’ predictively. In 2014 his acute assertions seem simply descriptive.
A conception of the uses of instability forged within military aeronautics emerged at the same time as the commercial appropriation of 60s open-mindedness (the Hawker Siddeley Harrier V/STOL made its first flight in 1967 and the Russian equivalent, the Yakovlev Yak-38 strike fighter, in 1971) and became an aspect of an array of counter-intuitive ideas that normalised the production of dissident energies by aligning them with consumerism.

The new instability was characterised by individuals easily knocked off course and prone to erratic behaviour. They were also highly responsive, able to react efficiently to rapid state changes and capable of high-volume decision making in short time periods. Affinities between stock market traders, military personnel and ‘accomplished shoppers’ became apparent, as did a willingness to obey orders.

The latter quality has proved useful when the latent pathology of this malleability is presented as a psychiatric issue. Fortunately the reshaping of psychotherapy under capitalism has produced a treatment based on the issuing of orders rather than a consideration of such tiresome matters as the unconscious. What you do, right, is simply tell the patient to think differently. It’s the patient’s ideas that are the problem. Change them and the patient is relieved of their problem. You have to go at least six times, mind you. These things can’t be done overnight. Cognitive behavioural therapy – why worry when you could be at work not worrying? It’s probably more sophisticated than that, but not a lot more.

So we are all soldiers now. A militarised technology contributes to a militarised psychology in which the unforeseeable is preferred to the reliable. The unforeseeable, apparently patternless, can be patterned. You want fighting men and women who will instantly obey orders, highly defined individuals who are careless, unattached, impetuous and obligated. With their yaws muzzled and their pitches perfected their disorder is a small price to pay for order.

17.12.2013

Undomain

David Lynch’s ‘Inland Empire’ (2006) is three hours and twelve minutes long. The first hour is inspiring, the next frustrating, the third (on a second viewing) tragic and beautiful. Back in March 2007 I wanted, after 90 mins, to run from the cinema but felt I couldn’t because I like Lynch’s work so very much. A few months later I found on two excellent blogs two excellent essays about the film: ‘Something got out from inside the story – Lynch’s Unhome Videos’ in k-punk here and the second, ‘Inland Empire’, in the blog ‘American Stranger‘. (The essay was removed from the latter site some time ago but I am grateful to traxus4420 for kindly sending me a copy. However, on revisiting Strength Weekly for a major refurb after ten years, I found, alas, that the copy had vanished. I’ll keep looking for it).

k-punk observes that the film ‘often seems like a series of dream sequences floating free of any ostensible reality, a dreaming without a dreamer (as all dreams really are) – no frame is secure, all attempts at embedding fail.’ The protracted absence of ‘a dreamer’ may explain why the movie exhausts at a first viewing. Girded for a revisit as a result of receiving illumination from the aforementioned essays, I bought the DVD and determined to go back down those dark, scratchy corridors in order to put myself in the picture.

It’s good that there are people in the world who will synopsise movies with labyrinthine and intractable plots in order that the rest of us may clarify just exactly what it was we just saw. Such exactitude is only notional in this case but a robust public service is delivered by Wikipedia here and provides succour and encouragement for the return match, as does fourfour’s wry frame assembly here, (scroll right down when you get there). which serialises the consternation that envelops each of Laura Dern’s three characters throughout the movie.

The Wiki plot summary is thorough but a further order of compression may prove more workable. Laura Dern’s character, the actress Nikki, is preparing for a role in a new film. The film is not as new as it seems, it’s a remake of an earlier Polish movie whose male and female leads were murdered. The film is cursed. Something gets out from inside the story or, as American Stranger has it, ‘the staged events of the film shoot bleed into the apparently actual events of the actors’ lives…it rapidly becomes uncertain which of the two ‘worlds’ contains the other.’ As a consequence of this osmosis and confusion, Sue – the character in Nikki’s new movie – stumbles into Nikki’s world and Nikki gets lost in the world of the enchanted script. Further down the line, in Hour 2, elements of the original film also draw Nikki in, to the extent that she (or Sue) finds herself, from time to time, in Poland, embroiled in a murder scenario. Hour 3 sees Sue, who has become a hooker, dying from a stab wound among homeless people at Hollywood and Vine. When she is dead, the director of Nikki’s film calls ‘Cut!’ and Nikki gets up. She wanders into a cinema where she sees Sue on screen, acting in the film she has just been working on.

Hour 2 is fairly gruelling insofar as standard physics, geography and history are out the window. But as k-punk remarks ‘…the space involved is ontological, rather than merely physical.’ Hour 2 is not fantasy in any genre sense, nor can it be domesticated with reference to the unfolding of any psychological pathology within the protagonists. If madness is at hand it’s an effect of the shadow of an old, old reality that, some would contend, predates the individual’s acquisition of language. Take away that acquisition and where’s the physics that would keep the geography in the right history?

If Lynch is not toying with the psychic Jurassic then there is another way of categorising the effect he delivers: the films are, of course, ‘dream-like’ and, in this instance, ‘nightmarish’. It seems an obvious thing to say, and the terms are usually scattershot across arts commentary as if they explained something. They usually explain little and constitute a classic passing of the critical buck. Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’ (1977) was more deserving of the terms insofar as people, objects and events in the scenario could be understood to stand for other less palatable ideas and urges, even if the act of interpretation itself was not a straightforward and convenient translation. The film is often described as Lynch’s ‘most personal’, suggesting that the dreamer himself is close at hand. If this is the case then the film has passed through him and can be passed through him. The absence of the dreamer, the absence of a conventional script, the low ‘strange object’ count (no severed ears, no babies made out of skinned lamb’s heads etc) place ‘Inland Empire’ adjacent to but not in Dreamland. Recalling k-punk’s description of the film as ‘a series of dream sequences floating free of any ostensible reality’ – the possibility arises that these are sequences that are more urgent than the urgently personal, their resemblance to dreams and nightmares is misleading, they are certainly unhome and uncanny but of the waking world.

Whatever – Lynch presents a take on a Place without Time and a Time without Place. Even he, according to reports, resorted to a degree of intuitivised jumblism on IE, starting the shoot without a script and delivering dialogue to the actors on a nightly basis. This is, literally, self-defeating and, no doubt, precisely what was required. It’s not that artistry must be defeated, however, it is applied later, after the contents have surfaced and must then be seized and shaped.

The movie depicts magical processes at work, insofar as ritual acts of concentration and refinement – as practised in rehearsal and discussion – are seen to dilute the barriers between categories of experience to the point where thought and desire actually reshape the world. Anecdote supports this magicality at many stages of the fiction-making process – writers are familiar with the conjuring of versions of their fictions into their everyday lives. Crudely – write a novel about someone breaking their leg and halfway through the first draft you sprain your ankle. (Note to young writers: this only happens now and again.) Not really magic but certainly a product of focused invocation.

A less debilitating aspect of fiction-making is seen in the business of affairs between directors, actresses and actors. There’s nothing like a collectively organised art-form for facilitating alliances and dalliances. Affairs spring up on film sets and in theatres as if there were something in the water. Attractive and usually young humans not only fondle each other in love scenes in a thoroughly professional way you understand but have often been led by their training to believe that the cultivation and maintenance of strong emotions (those which are relevant to the project in hand) outside of rehearsal and performance can only intensify and enhance performance. It’s probably true.

Similarly, given the great sense of responsibility, interdependency and attendant tension felt by directors and actors working on a project, directors and actresses/actors tend to fall in love. It’s a special kinda love, though, and not to be confused – as it often is – with setting up or settling down together.

We cannot, however, refrain from observing that Laura Dern, having worked on ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986) with Kyle MacLachlan – an actor often seen as Lynch’s on-screen alter ego – subsequently stepped out with him for four years.

We should also recall Lynch’s own relationship with BV star Isabella Rossellini and remind ourselves that Rossellini’s father was Roberto and her mother Ingrid Bergman. If physics, geography and history are removed from these genealogies then we may find support for the presence of a pervading psychoanalytical fantasy of generational transfusion wherein intimacy with daughters secures intimacy with their fathers and vice versa. 

The vice versa, in this case, would secure intimacy for the father with the daughter if the surrogate son were the prime physical agent. Much as film scripts may appear to transmit the genius of their writers, the empassioned claustrophobias of rehearsal give rise to the sexualisation of transmissions that may actually be more concerned with the acquisition of skills.

To attribute magical power to a film script because it contributes to showbiz romances is, however, needlessly whimsical. Notwithstanding the tiresome ‘excitement’ surrounding ‘the Scottish play’ (wherein awful things happen to actors performing ‘Macbeth’) (here, if you must), at the end of the day a bunch of people sit around and concentrate on a sheaf of pages, applying their various skills and sharing developmental aspirations. A reality is suggested then consolidated. The resemblance to magic is structural only.

Seen in these workaday terms, the phenomenon of ‘fiction leakage’ seems rather ordinary and predictable. In the case of ‘Inland Empire’, though, there wasn’t a script, despite the film being about scripts, and the pages came, one learns, in small instalments. Nor was there ‘character development’, that staple of the respectable fiction. In IE it’s location, location, location.

Laura Dern’s characters have a hard time whoever they are and wherever they are. This is because the geography is so fucked up. Dern herself is widely reported as not having a clue why she was where she was, in the course of the filming.

The spaces which constantly spook her are more than enough to be getting on with; character development is superfluous in these flared-out, migrained video hallways.

 

A reductive reading – not necessarily a bad thing – would see the spooking spaces as mental states inhabited by one person with three aspects (Nikki, Sue, the hooker). A slightly more expansive reading would posit a realm in which narcissism and restricted capacities for empathy enable the subject to experience others merely as elements of herself. These are psychologically wholesome readings insofar as they aspire to produce psychological wholes from psychological holes. They are conservative, however, and feel a bit old hat. Lynch has been there and done that (‘Lost Highway’ (1997) and ‘Mulholland Drive’ (2001)).

Anyway, things have moved on since the days of character development – the physics has changed. The artistry purportedly implicit in the gradual unfolding of character has been replaced by speedy teleportation. In LH and MD the shifts are shocking but they merely bisect the films. In IE shifts occur every few minutes.

IE is uncanny because the uncanny is premised on the familiar. What, then, is it that we recognise in all this punishing, protracted discontinuity? Dern’s characters struggle to escape places in which everything is in between, nothing is homely, nowhere is anywhere for very long, all is fiction and fictions contaminate all that they touch, including other fictions. If dependable identity is one such fiction then one of its functions is to innoculate the badge holder against less reliable badges. If you lose your immunity then other fictions become interchangeable, they have more in common than they have distinctions. If you lose your immunity you are both locked out and engulfed. You can’t get back home, even though there are doors and corridors that lead there. Immuno-deficient, you are entranced by anything that pops up and defenceless as it spits you out.

American Stranger says “Perhaps this is Lynch’s vision of how our world must end – ‘our world’ as a hyperreal, self-absorbed Inland Empire where everything is merely an advertisement in empty performance for everything else, an ultrasaturated luxury market poised for collapse into its outside.” A world of strident, heeby-jeeby micro-worlds choc-a-bloc with seductors and bullies, sugar highs and grinding lows, the cold sweat of homelessness and undomain.

As she dies in the street, ‘the hooker’ is told a story by another vagrant street girl. The girl tells the hooker about her friend whose vagina wall has a hole torn in it that leads to her intestine. System walls are breached. The systems work well when properly separated but once breached: contamination, fever, the long walks of the undead, ever between stations.

¶¶¶¶¶¶¶¶¶¶

Over the Road

Between the ages of nine and eighteen I lived with my parents in a leafy road in a nice house and played with the kids from our road and the road round the corner. My friend Hugh’s sister Anna went to school with Rosemary who lived opposite their house with her parents who were quite old and grey and dour. The father was a bank manager. Rosemary didn’t come out to play much and when she did she was hesitant and awkward. Hugh and I paid her little attention.

Some years later I had been commissioned to write a feature film for television but they never made it but that’s not why I mentioned it. My parents were away for the summer so I returned to my schoolboy home and used the small room at the front upstairs that used to be the railway room as a study. I had a view across our front garden to the house opposite which was partially obscured by tall evergreens and firs. I had gathered from my mother that when Rosemary’s parents had died they left the house to Rosemary so she sold it, moved out from round the corner and bought the one opposite our house. It was a similar size to her childhood house and had a long garden.

I thought it was odd that someone would wish to live so close to their childhood home. My mother told me that Rosemary did not have a job but did quite a lot of work in her garden. It was clear she must have inherited quite a sizeable sum from her funless parents. My mother also said that the adult Rosemary was painfully shy but also, on occasion, very chatty. My mother was also very chatty, a skill she had honed in the course of entertaining the scientist colleagues who would visit our house from time to time as they passed through the country.

Eiry, my mother, would greet Rosemary cheerily in the street and sometimes they would stop to chat. Eventually, and I’m not sure quite how this came about, Rosemary would come to our door and ring on the bell and Eiry would answer and invite Rosemary in. Rosemary would always decline but seemed happy to chat, standing in the porch while my mother stood on the doorstep.

This was the situation I found when I returned after several years to my old bedroom and the railway room and set up my typewriter on a table and looked out over to Rosemary’s new house – the house that was new to me because years ago she used to live round the corner.

The trees were by this time, of course, taller and thicker than they’d been when I was living at home and going to school. And I hadn’t spoken to Rosemary for over twenty years. I knew she liked to chat and I kept my eye on the house in case she came out.

One day I spotted her working in the front garden. I went downstairs and walked onto the lawn on my side, pretending to inspect things. When she looked up I called out ‘Rosemary! Hello! It’s David!’ I wasn’t sure just how disinclined to socialise she might be. Would she scuttle back into the dark house? No. She greeted me pleasantly and told me that Eiry had told her I’d be working in the family home. We marvelled at how much time had passed and that we were meeting again and how were we and what was I doing and I didn’t ask what she was doing because I knew she didn’t work and to press beyond that didn’t seem right.

She was in her early forties like me, probably the same age, in fact. Her hair was straight to her shoulders and cut with a fringe. She wore a heavy pullover, a long full skirt and wellington boots. We chatted for a while. I wondered what the inside of her large house was like but I was sure I would never find out. It would have been nice to invite her over for a cup of tea but that too felt presumptuous.

I thought her life must have been strange and lonely – shaped by girlhood incarceration with her severe, unbending parents until they died at which point perhaps she had little spirit left with which to try again for a lost youth. I didn’t even know how long she had been in the new house although, on reflection, this would have been easy to ask compared with the array of straightforwardly nosey enquiries I was steadily stockpiling.

In these leafy streets not every house is pleasant. Not, at least, to the eye of one who in his youth was puzzled and fascinated by the ones with gravel front gardens delineated by lengths of black-painted diamond-spiked chain suspended between sets of creosoted fence posts. And there were, it soon became apparent, two sorts of trees you could grow in such a front garden. There were the trees of life, which shed their leaves consonant with the seasons, variously presenting buds, flowers, young leaves, full leaves in crown array, those leaves going golden or going brown and falling, bare wet branches, bark, boles, stumps, the fists of pollard, even sightly cankers.

And then there were the trees of death and shadow, that towered and towered, the yews with their red jelly bumbo berries, the spruce, the leylandii, all with dense sticks, not a sound, no nests, utterly unclimbable, if you trim them they retaliate with the scorched look, if you put your hand in them it comes back smeared with black dust or damp paste, they stop you looking at the lace curtains even if these are not obscured with poisonous clattery laurel.

Every third house bore some of these blights, even those of families with kids. Parents in those days, of course, were much older. They were crouched and stooped and spoke unclearly. Sometimes it got to the kids and closed them down, as with Rosemary, but for several of them, mostly brothers and sisters, they were merely constrained in their efforts at socialising. Glen and Raine, for example, were rarely seen but this may have been a class problem informed by parental disdain for playing in the street. The street was every bit as good as the garden and a close second to the fields and streams five minutes away at the town’s edge.

When I say class, we were all middle class round there but you had snooty, chummy, irascible, genial, loony and from a kid point of view as analysed later by the same kid grown up at least two of these might as well have been class distinctions. Not loony because loonies had their own unstratified class and, down our road, they pretty much left you alone without giving you attitude. Dotty Dennis, for example, found young boys pleasing and would have liked them to play in his shed, he said, but young boys were not taken with the notion and regarded the frail septuagenarian, who actually did wear a dirty macintosh, with unwavering disdain.

The most mysterious house, owned by the Lethbridges, was barely visible from the road, being surrounded on three sides by dense, tangled undergrowth that occupied, on one side, an area as large as the house itself. It was possible, therefore, to make Colonel Fawcett-like forays from the corner of the Lethbridge Jungle adjacent to the Orbells’ American-style unfenced front lawn, straight into the heart of darkness strangled by plants whose name I never knew and to this day do not. They weren’t exotic, just your everyday roamers, randomers and vagrants that must be closely surveilled if they are not to choke proper garden flora. But the clambering here was of the highest standard and one of the few times in my life that I have been surrounded on all sides with no room to turn by bushes. As we cracked and snapped our way down we glimpsed the Lethbridge house from time to time through the knotted vines and ducked down into the shadows. Their rooms contained furniture, appliances, washing up liquid and so forth but we never glimpsed any members of the family. They had a car which was sometimes parked on the gravel sometimes not. We saw no kids. We thrust our way right alongside the house, on into the untamed reaches of the lower garden, finally breaking through the final hedge into the playing field that stretched across to the railway lines carrying trains to Liverpool Street, Kings Cross and Bedford.

I never saw Rosemary’s back garden when I was a boy, partly because I didn’t want to look. It would have been easy to peer into it from the playing field – it was right next to the Orbell’s on the other side – but there was something not forbidding so much as unappetising about those cross-hatched glooms. I could also have walked round to the cul de sac at the back of Rosemary’s new house and made my way to the hedge there to see if her gardening style had moved on from her parents’ sombre planting. It would be hard to do this casually, however.

I spotted Rosemary in her front garden again and waved. She came to her gate in her usual outfit plus gardening gloves. We started to chat from either side of the road, how was my writing going, how was the garden. Somehow we moved on to what we were reading. This was clearly a subject not suited to discussion in slightly raised voices. Rosemary crossed the road. I moved forward to my gate. She was keen on thrillers, it turned out. American. Hardboiled. Noir. Dime, even.

My ascription to my neighbour of a taste for Trollope or Mrs Gaskell, neither of whom I had ever read and was therefore employing, albeit in my imaginings, speciously, was crumbling at speed. Woolrich – had I? McCoy is good. I recalled The Deadly Percheron. Had she? Oh yes, she loved Bardin. Then one of us brought up The Name of the Rose. Rosemary had enjoyed it but then there had always been much more experiment with thrillers and crime novels in Europe. The Erasers? Well, no, I hadn’t got round to that but I did like Jealousy.

Rosemary said she would bring some books over if I was interested. That would be great. Most of mine are in London I’m afraid.

The next day Rosemary came all the way to the front door and rang the bell. She had about five books with her. One was ‘Catastrophe – the Strange Stories of Dino Buzzati’. Another was Cornell Woolrich’s noir thriller ‘Deadline at Dawn’. I read most of them before I had to go back to London. I haven’t seen Rosemary for maybe thirty years. I’ve gone back to my home town now and again and strolled down my old street and hoped I might see Rosemary in her front garden. I didn’t like to knock in order to find out if she was in. This seemed a bit presumptuous.

Essays

Comprising rumination, reminiscence, rue, the ribald.
Some of these were written as stand-alones, some were cannibalised from longer, aborted projects.

Eruptives I

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.

Eruptives II

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:
Yooganchow
Yuganjow
Yugantyow
Yoganjew
Yooganjoo
Yookanteow


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.