Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The God Reflex - The Father

There are moments of intense darkness in life, as though there is nothing else in the universe except the black. As though it hasn’t yet come to life. Endless. Unrelenting. Pitch, thick, black. And then, with a sound like a breath, there can be a chink, a glimmer of golden light which etches its way through.

Does this sound familiar?

I suspect that there comes a moment in most people’s lives, a point when they have pitched to their lowest, that they consider seeking salvation from something intangible. I’ve done it. Only briefly, but at those scarce times when all the other options were exhausted and there seemed to be nothing else to lose, no further down that I could possibly sink. Those moments when I found myself alone in the night with an incoherent mind and an ache of remorse ricocheting from my gut, through my chest and heart, resting heavily in my lungs before building pressure up through my throat causing swelling behind my eyes and finally forming a throb on my brain that contracts all the muscles in my body in shame; in wishing that I could say or do it all again just to make the weariness go away. Yes, I confess In those moments, I have rolled my eyes upwards and turned my thoughts, not entirely metaphorically, heavenwards.

‘Please God,’ I may have whispered and then, selfishly, asked for some favourable miracle. Or, at least, for it to all just to stop. Afterwards, I felt ashamed at my temptation; at my automatic God reflex.

And of course my plea never works which, when life inevitably sorts itself out, simply adds to my rationale for the emptiness of the universe, for the non-existence of any deity. That there is no divine judgement or purpose. Instead it’s all just the tidal ebbs and flows of petty coincidence. But, even if there were an all-mighty keeping an eye on us, I should realise that what I’ve asked, or begged, for simply isn’t how it works. Like all nice girls, God rarely puts out on the first date. There’s a getting to know each other phase, a confirmation that the other isn’t a psycho, a sense of some sort of commitment first.

A God reflex; when non-believers call on a higher power to sort out the impossible. Starting to sound familiar?

I know, work with and am friends with Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, followers of Shinto and all manner of religions, even the sort where people have half-defined it themselves. Alan Moore, not alas a personal friend but he seems to keep cropping up, belongs to the religion of Glycon, a ancient snake-god with a elegant seventies male flowing locks whom most researchers, including Moore, acknowledge was nothing more than a Roman joke . Moore’s “belief” is partially an intellectual experiment, similar to the man whom I’ve read about and can’t find the name of who decided to whole-heartedly follow a different religion for a brief period in order to find the one he liked, and partly mid-life crisis where he’s decided to become a magician. Magic, Moore says, and religion are intrinsically linked. They are both, after all, about words. Words which reveal something hitherto known but not fully understood. And the wholehearted, often unquestioning, belief in the tapestry stitched by those words as Truth.

Which is why there’s something unsettlingly sinister about Michael Gove – the Tory minister who looks as though he’d be most at home in an oversized black uniform overseeing a camp – sending copies of the anniversary edition of the King James bible, complete with Gove’s own introduction, to schools. The King James bible is an example of how crucially interlinked language and religion are. It not only cemented the understanding of Protestantism is early Stuart Britain but was almost singlehandedly responsible for the spread, growth and embedding of English as first a national and then an international language. Without it we’d still be swearing in French.

I can see where Moore’s coming from, but for me whilst belief can be influenced by words I think it is also grounded in something more abstract. It really requires a more underlying inclination to need, to want and to give yourself back to from whence you came. Without it you’re just the grumpy Brummie tuting in the back row of the magic show that the trick seems impossible.

Perhaps, though, it is this apparent relationship with words which makes the overtly religious writer writing religious characters something of a rarity. To an extent they can understand too well how the carefully phrased sentence can be used to convince. Graham Greene, originally nothing but a Russian Roulette enthusiast, suddenly became devoutly Catholic in his twenties. Quite a turn of character for such a womaniser, but then Greene always was a bundle of contradictions. He was a bitter cynic who was also deliriously romantic, a regular user of prostitutes who fell in love easily, and yet it was the hypocrisies which fuelled his writing demons. For Greene, religion was too important to ignore; it gave people, both those that walked around talking to others and interacting with the physical world as well as characters etched onto paper by the thudding imprint of the typewriter keys, a soul. He criticised Virginia Woolf and EM Forrester for, despite all their lyrical inventiveness, being concerned with nothing but cardboard cut outs of people whilst the eternal conflict of belief was what drove real people to struggle with the decisions of existence. Life, he appeared to be saying, was all about what happened once it was over.

That was something which worried me. I remember as an eight or nine year old being frightened of death. I was already fairly certain that I didn’t believe in a painted picture of heaven where winged angels plucked harps atop perfectly formed clouds, but alternative was made my head hurt. I was confused by an afterlife I’d imagined where there was nothing but disembodied voices in a grey smog like world, where you could talk and communicate but never touch or see, just the snatches of loved voices and strangers far away or so close you’d imagine them on where your neck had once been. It gave me goose-bumps. And yet the idea that there was simply nothing, that my consciousness froze and melted away to have never been was too big for my little head to contain.

I seem to be floundering on the edges of Christianity. Sorry. I can’t help it. Obviously religion and therefore God has a fairly wide definition, but for the purposes of “the God reflex”, I am, for simplicity, sticking with English Protestantism and some conflicting dollops of Catholicism lumped in. Why? Well, I think, despite diminishing returns in church aisles, Britain is still just about hanging on as a nominally “Christian” country. Whatever the hell that means since there isn’t, rightly, a state sanctioned religion and you cannot say one religion is fundamentally more British than another. Instead it’s just that white middle-class people from the middle-of-the-country, people like me and this is blog is always about me really, if they are anything are statistically more likely to be Christian.

Fuck, aren’t we all unoriginal? Here we are in 2011 and nothing’s changed in the last five hundred years. Christianity is looking a bit bedraggled and beaten, smelling like it hasn’t had a wash in a while, but still at the core. Which is why it’s no coincidence that the anti-capitalist protestors are encamped outside St Paul’s. The seat of the Protestant church’s government may officially be Canterbury, but St Paul’s is its figurehead, its grandest architectural statement. Okay, so there might be limited other places where you can throw up a thousand tents in the middle of the City of London without having a double-decker bus plough through your sleeping bag every half an hour, but I think it’s more serendipitous than pure convenience. I think it feels irrationally right, almost like faith might. Their presence forces the church to become involved in twenty-first century politics. Even though they’re spending most of their time trying to avoid saying something the flock is turning to them and begging for an alternative to the capitalist anti-God life we all freely adopted a while back when it suited us.

We need to be careful here. I mean it’s not like the church doesn’t have enough blood on its hand or, indeed, all the way to its red stained armpits. A thousand plus British years of internal crowd subjection, external moral expansion and enough butchery with convoluted excuses shoe-horned into a fluid dogma are hardly a glowing resume for a bright new world, but maybe, in the past forty years or so whilst it’s been beaten back by secularism, the church has had time to rethink.

Sorry. The purpose of this blog isn’t to join the God and faith bashing, the “aren’t people a bunch of fucking deluded schmucks brigade”, if only because marching at the head that particular army is Richard Dawkins, a man so utterly smugly odious that I am relieved to now find him inescapable from his comedy variant on Radio 4. The God Delusion is a different point. That’s about why people are hoodwinked into believing, how the church manipulates society and individuals out of the belief, money, time and occasionally morals. That’s fine. I get that. What I want to know is whether Dawkins, at moments when his family’s safety is threatened and there really is no way to avoid the plunging car off the ravine edge, closes his eyes and whispers to an entity he despises? Just in case?

Most people would. It’s not necessarily something to feel guilty about, but why do we seek sanctuary in that which we’ve so frequently denounced? What does our subconscious know that we don’t?

Perhaps it comes down to childhood and the fact that people like me, children of the seventies and early eighties when schools were still holding onto the fact that once they’d been forcibly bound to local churches and so we endured bible readings and hymns and other pomp and circumstance. All the information is in there, hidden in the back of our heads. Besides crying out for Father sounds slightly less pathetic than for mum.

Is that the point? Is that why some religions have a male Godly figure at the top of ecclesiastical system? God as the Father, the embodiment of heroism for many children. For young boys it is their father whom – it at least according to the Daily Mail when it slanders single mother families – provides a stable yet stern influence whilst showing the straight and narrow route to a future of stolid employment whilst for little girls, as Grease said, “the only man who isn’t going to let a girl down is her Daddy.”
Perhaps it’s this which explains the old fashioned aloof, stern faced, unemotional approach to Fatherhood that was once a cornerstone of a country struggling to be in touch with its emotions. A son’s relationship with his Father was supposed to be as complex and respectful as the one a young man has with his God, with his maker.

My own relationship with my Father is a lot simpler than it used to be. Growing up, we rowed in the ways which were inevitable. It was never anything serious, just differing of opinions and as a teenager it was impossible for me distinguish shades of grey – everything had to be black or white, right or wrong. But before then, my memories of being a very small boy hinge around the simplicity of riding high on park swings, firm hands catching and pushing me upwards, of being so excited that he’d returned home one evening I managed to toss myself down the stairs straight into his arms. Then as times toughened through the nineties, I got older and self-sufficient and he threw himself deeper into his work. I didn’t really understand the necessity behind it and became mildly jealous of other kids whose Dads appeared to be back for dinner on a Tuesday rather than still being somewhere on the M5 just south of Bristol.

All so celeb faux misery memoir of my hardship filled youth. I’m not trying for nor do I deserve your sympathy. Everyone differs from the generation before. My Dad sang in the church choir as a small boy, went to work at sixteen, reads the Telegraph and the Mail, votes Conservative and worked hard to provide for his family. He likes films with explosions and gentle, settling sit-coms; he listens to Neil Diamond and the Moody Blues; reads John Grisham and Robert Harris novels. Our differences are the same as everyone’s and, just like everyone else, I failed to realise it whilst I was growing up.

As an adult, however, I can only marvel at the humongous effort he undertook to ensure that we were well fed, warm and had a secure roof over our heads. I suspect in many ways he sacrificed all the self-indulgent rubbish I take for granted whilst lost in my head being concerned about things like rhino poaching that I can have little impact on whilst he, by my age, was already married with a child: me. My Father gave up a lot of things, but he never gave up me. Something many but by no means everyone can say. Like every relationship the Father-Son one is about the individuals involved which determines whether it’s a positive one or not. Little my Dad has ever done was ever for self-serving purposes; it was always for us and for that alone I owe him more than I can ever articulate.

It would seem inevitable, therefore, that fathers and father figures, whether heroes or not, are in part defined by their children and – at least for the context of this argument - specifically by their sons.

To be continued.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Everything bad happens in the rain

The end of last week’s blog fades up to the rafters. The audience peers into the darkness. There’s an anxious shuffling amongst the dark and a spotlight flips on. To start with it shines just away from the slithering presence on the boards; only a grey suited elbow is clipped by the silver ray. With some kerfuffle, where initially the beam sprays across the room, it settles on the slight, surprisingly short man with a grey badger streak to his hair that matches his suit. The only flash of colour is the deeply dark red tie. He looks slightly hunched as his eyes squint under the bright light. He takes a final half step towards to the microphone, one of those old large circle ones from the nineteen thirties that partially obscure the speaker’s face.

He clears his throat, a rough grating harumph that catches in the mic and radiates around the room. He half-glances down to his hands folded together at his midriff and then, with the tiniest, almost imperceptible smile, he opens his mouth to speak.

But we don’t stop to listen to poor Ed Miliband because we know what he’s going to say. His mouth will be opening and closing, but the words won’t be his. They’ll be those decided by committee, reviewed by focus groups to see how supporters and haters will react and dragged into the crowded centre ground. It’ll be nothing new, anyway. An understanding that there must be cuts; an acknowledgement that the future will be tough, but that by working together we can make a new economy. Poor Ed. Don’t get me wrong, I like Ed. I think he’s great. In the Labour leadership campaign I thought he ran a better, more left-leaning, more grass roots of the party focused campaign. I’d vote for Ed, I’d probably vote for brother David too, mind, because, at the very least, I think, compared to the current floppy-haired, over lacquered occupant of the big chair, they at least give a shit.

Regardless I still feel sorry for Ed. Nobody’s listening to him. Nobody’s listening to him, because it’s not just me who can predict what he’s going to say. It’s everyone. You get the impression he’s kept on a leash by his party handlers, too fearful of letting him saying anything truly original or vaguely controversial in case he’s lampooned and instead he ends up being mocked for his very dullness.

It wasn’t always like that. It might seem fanciful in an age of twenty-four hour news coverage, but once upon a time our politicians were larger than life and had that mystical otherness which suggested that they might change the world for the better. The real world. The one people lived in. The rhetoric of the great reforming Liberals of the early twentieth century was not only capable of stirring the masses to exaltation, but was followed up with real action that eventually dragged Britain out of the workhouse and laid the ground work for the major reforms of the late forties to take place. The NHS. Pensions. The welfare state. Mortar which held together the society that gave a shit. The politicians who survived Queen Victoria would never be elected now. They’d be seen as too rogue, too maverick for national office. Lloyd George and Asquith both led lives filled with women and dubious money and fateful misadventure and bitter slighted enemies who would ensure their foibles were routinely plastered over the papers in the twenty-first century. Attlee would have been too boringly unphotogenic. Bevan too wildly Welsh. Even Churchill, the man held up as a pinnacle of British spirit and wouldn’t-it-be-marvellous-if-all-our-children-turned-out-like-Winston, in 2011 would have had his exceptional drink habit exposed.

In those days it was easier for a politician to bend reality to his will, to control the story so that he was always a hero. Lloyd George, in 1918, emerged from the First World War as the man who’d won it, who’d finally ended the slaughter and with victory no less. He was the man the people loved for his reforming budget despite the dead bodies growing mountainous over in Flanders. They loved him so much that a congratulatory biography of his life was filmed, which Lloyd George’s office quickly quashed simply because it wasn’t theirs.

In contrast, Tony Blair must wonder if he’s ever going to get his appearance back. He’s continually ridiculed and accused of ever more fanciful crimes. From the, when broadcast, near-future The Trial of Tony Blair, where he awaited his fate for war crimes, to the contemporary The Hunt for Tony Blair where he is chased across a noir-parody, sleeps with Margaret Thatcher and murders anyone who crosses his path, including tossing Robin Cook down a Scottish scree slope. Criticism of our leaders has become virtually post-modern, a pastiche of itself as we begin to muddle Blair with an unending mess of actors who’ve tried their hand at his peculiar mannerisms and faux charm.

Perhaps this reflects our deep lying disappointment with him? And them all.

As regular readers know, years ago I planned to write a short story about my disappointment with the Labour government and with Blair in particular. The 1997 dawn at the pinnacle of my teenage years heralded so much none of which really came to pass. Sure, there’s the minimum wage, vastly improved NHS, public services that worked for a while, the climate change act, child poverty and crime rates reduced, reformed city centres, but there’s also wasted opportunity of a majority, university fees, catastrophic bust and war after war after body after lie. I never could find the words to express quite how frustrated I was with how it had gone wrong. Tony the smiling, “pretty decent guy” who’d promised to usher in a new, cleaner age of politics was gone. Admittedly he had swept aside the Tory sleaze of toe sucking, cash for questions, arms dealing, oil smuggling, prison and health service disinterest and education incompetence that had riddled their way through a whole cabinet like the dark dreams of the underworld, but in their place were the backhanding, cash for honours, document sexing-up, invading, gun-toting, Bush-and-Clinton arse licking, Cliff Richard holidaying, verbal tick caricaturing, demon-eyed, dead man walking that was all centred around Blair himself. How do you write that?

You can’t and that’s why, rather than a single big denouncement, a Profumo moment, the satirists and writers and comedians had to pick away, until there was nothing left but a fiction. We took arguably the last man capable of being a political hero and we reinvented him as a work of fiction to make his failures and his lies less harmless.

We’d done it before with our hate. We made Thatcher vulnerable with our words, in fictions like Grant Morrison and Paul Grist’s masterful St Swithin’s day. That was a tale of teenage broken heart so yearnfully realised through the partnerless dance-swaying amongst the midnight railway carriages, to the La’s There She Goes which played in his head long after the batteries of his walkman had died. No-one believed his hurt and so he did what any sensible love-lorn teenager would do, blame his ills on society. After all, it was a society butchered into no such thing by the woman elected to the office of power, Mrs T. There’s a gun (or was there?) in a plastic bag (or maybe it’s just a notebook). It doesn’t matter. All he had to do was get close enough, amongst the crowds in the St Swithin downpour, the rains which signalled yet another washed out summer, get close enough to catch her cold blue eye and to whisper, ever so quietly:


Because they’re all fallible in the end. They all fall in the end. Even big bad Silvio Berlusconi. God, we think we have some ill-deserving fuck-wits running Britain, how did a first world country manage to keep electing a man whose sole interests in governing appear to have been ejaculating across and into as many women as possible, preferably in a sun-drenched private villa at the public expense? Simple, he controls all the media. The picture we see of a power-crazed, plastic face tightened, hair transplanted, megalomaniac sex fiend prepared to drag an entire continent into the ocean just to get laid one more time, isn’t shown in the same light in Italy. Contrary to the snarky British view that the Italians probably don’t care, that they think he’s some kind of idealisation of the Mediterranean psyche, rather it is they don’t know.

So, maybe it is impossible to build up any single individual to believe they might change the world through politics in this country ever again, but at least we’re not going to have a prime minster more interested in bunga-bunga parties than impending financial disaster. Playing polo and serving the interest of Daddy’s friends in business, yes, but then we knew that last year and we still, sort of, elected them. More fool us.

I wish it were otherwise, but I don’t think it’s Ed’s who’ll save us. I don’t think any modern politician is, could or even should be the answer. There’s too much of a necessity to be practical, or political if you will, and too much subsequent awareness of such actions for them to be iconic; for them to be untainted; for them to appear more idealistic than human; for them to be heroes.

So, we’ve discarded high and low culture, science, sport and state. There’s not much left. If we pick apart society’s layers there might be one last cowering group, huddled underneath a damp mushroom head in the corner. Church.

Yeah, I know. It’s called a God reflex.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Self-made hero

When I was a young teenager I would while away damp lifeless Sunday afternoons in my room reading and losing myself inside my head. I was, I find myself forced to admit, into comics about superheroes and magicians and fantasy characters often written by people with over-inflated senses of high drama. Somewhere along the way I muddled my admiration for the story’s turn with a sense that these tales might be telling me something more. Whilst other kids were still just about fantasising about scoring the winning goal in the FA cup final or discovering a cure for dementia I was looking for the secrets of life in four-colour pamphlets.

I got over it in the end. Music and girls and proper books without pictures became more important, but still I would let my mind drift into images of the impossible. Save the world? Pah, I couldn’t even stay awake during class.

This meandering narrative which I’m trying to explain is about heroism. Not real heroism. Not saving people from burning buildings without flinching but idealistic heroism, an idea of the hero as an abstract. Something to believe in. We, all of us, need those sorts of heroes in our lives. Ideals can be false, but they can also bring us hope. As the global economy teeters towards wilful self-implosion of greed where do we look for inspiration? If there was any righteous anger behind the opportunism of the kids that ripped apart London and Birmingham and Manchester and, God, even Gloucester one week in August then wouldn’t be better if that could be articulated into something better than nicking shit?

So, for those of you who haven’t been keeping up: Sportsmen may bring a sense of drama, they break hearts and offer elation, but surely it’s only ever fleeting? You could call in entertainment, even something which has the potential to unify peoples but it lacks the ability of communication to offer a message. Scientists may well be great men and women, striving for the betterment of society even if the by-product is personal glory, but their objectives and methods are too far out of most people’s realms of understanding. Writers, alas, are possibly too anonymous as individuals. So where do people look? To whom will they still listen?

I can’t remember when I last fell in love with a band. Or, if not a band for there’s often something more functionally workmanlike about a band, then a pop star. I do still get arguably too obsessed about music meant for the young when I’m a thirty-something, but it is one thing to be nodding appreciably at the drum riffs or the myriad range of influences being cleverly note-checked it is quite another for them to matter more than life.

Of course, once upon a time it was easier. There was an enemy. These days Tinne Tempah talks in management speak about his global brand, but once youth hated the establishment whoever it was. Thatcher in the eighties or Wilson in the seventies, the “man” was always someone to push against. Pop could harness the natural rebellion of the teenager into listeners. Sid Vicious and Adam Ant, Jarvis Cocker and Pete Townsend, Elvis Presley and Dizzie Rascal, the purpose of the pop star has always been to be confrontational; to stick two, preferably outlandishly garbed, fingers up at government and encourage teenagers around the world to slam their doors and play it fucking loud.

So they’re the ones, the last ones left who can help us. Right?

Well, no. Not really. Sorry.

Billy Bragg, the champion of the downtrodden wearily romantic lost causes everywhere, appeared in the Guardian at the weekend in conversation with Johnny Flynn about the St Paul’s protestors. By coincidence I’d first heard of Flynn, an earnest floppy haired young singer-songwriter with some acting in his back pocket, the night before. He’s appearing in the play Jerusalem, which my girlfriend and I are going to see soon, and someone insisted on playing us some of his songs. “It’s the most amazing music ever,” she gushed. It’s not, but that’s kind of beside the point. No, the curious point was Flynn’s claim that in 2011 it’s harder for pop stars to play a part in the end of capitalism protests, to have a platform for any articulated voice because the charts are dominated by X-Factor sponsored rubbish.

But then it’s always been like that. Just think of The Osmonds, Boney M, Chicago, Mud, and any number of shit seventies plastic pop bands. Punk was partially a nihilistic resistance to society but it was also a protest against there not being any music to love aside from Iggy Pop. Even Bragg’s earliest stuff was more about East End teenage heartbreak and not wanting to be in Pink Floyd than the more clear political agenda of the red-wedge eighties.

The disadvantage today’s politically aware musical rebels have is that the X-Factor tripe has a multi-million marketing campaign absorbed by millions of dribbling brain drains on a Saturday night. It’s as though it takes pride in being the optimisation of the giant disco hits album available in the supermarket that the Clash had such disdain for, but still everyone laps up the advertising like its entertainment in itself.

So, if pop hasn’t ever really tried to lead us, what about their precursors as the representation of the teenage wet dream, movie stars? Douglas Fairbanks Junior, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, an ever changing cast of smouldering dark eyes in the skull of young men questioning what the future was for, fighting against the establishment with sexual deviancy, powdered thrills and broken down livers. Only Errol Flynn became sufficiently confused to believe his own legend when, drink sodden and without a bow and arrow in sight, he flew off to Cuba to report on and play a part in the revolution.

We can’t really blame them for failing us. I mean, they were only ever supposed to be acting, but they would be so beautifully outrageous that we’d occasionally forget. We’d imagine they could be something more, something greater than us. Today’s movie stars are too well media briefed to ever wander off message and say something that matters to anyone other than to the people whom they’re making money for. As Noel Gallagher, to return to music, recently said about the Arctic Monkeys and Kasaibian, they’ve got the tunes but you just want them to start sounding like pop stars. Say something controversial for god’s sake. No-one’s paying you to be nice boys. We want you to live a life so that we don’t have to.

Droning self-indulgent drip Ed Sheeran makes Lego models to relax for fuck’s sake. I can do that, if I wanted to. He’s supposed to be offering something more, but at the moment I can see the puppet strings of reality. If we’re to love our pop or movies stairs we need to believe in them wholeheartedly. True adoration comes when we’re fooled and they transcend reality. It’s never been about the politics or the hidden message. Sorry, Paul Weller, people loved the tunes and the brashness of Eton Rifles and Going Underground and a Town Called Malice, they loved your skinny trousers and sparkling shoes and the tight hair cut, they loved you more than they loved Margaret but they could never quite join in with your hate. That’s why they kept on electing her.

We need a hero. The St Paul’s protesters are being accused of not knowing what they want when asking for in an alternative to capitalism, of hypocrisy when they wee in Starbucks, of slipping off home at night to a comfy bed. Tuh. What’s a middle class revolutionary to do? Can’t pee in the streets, the concrete is tough on the hips as you get older and as for coming up with a whole new economic system that needs global buy-in? Come on, surely it’s just enough to be asking the question rather than blindly following. So they, we, need a hero of some sort and if music and film aren’t going to provide them, then perhaps we better make them up.
Because sometimes what you make up comes true.

To return to my younger, more teenage self, reading late at night by the lamp stuffed down the bed, face splotched with zits, hair just beginning to snake down to the edges of my collar. One of my favourite comics was Hellblazer starring John Constantine. Constantine was a trench-coat wearing, chain smoking, sarcastic, heavy drinking mage made out to look like Sting in a cheap suit and a hell-blood stained tie. Alan Moore invented him in the eighties and claims to have met him shortly afterwards. In a cafe.

“All of a sudden, up the stairs came John Constantine. He was wearing the trench-coat, a short cut—he looked—no, he didn't even look exactly like Sting. He looked exactly like John Constantine. He looked at me, stared me straight in the eyes, smiled, nodded almost conspiratorially, and then just walked off around the corner.”

Jamie Delano who took over writing chores after Moore, had a similar experience outside the British Museum. “I didn't realise I'd walked past him until I'd gone fifty yards down the road, I looked round, and he was just vanishing round the corner.”

For a while, I completely believed in this idea that you could write stuff into existence. Grant Morrison, writing the bonkers conspiracy end of the millennium psycho-babble romp that was the Invisibles, claims that by shaving his head and buffing up to look like the main character he began to take on the fictional characteristics, even to the point that when he put his invention through a torture scene Morrison’s own body collapsed and replicated the ailments, all the way down to blood poisoning, a collapsed lung and a rotted hole in his cheek. Morrison, allegedly, almost killed himself through writing.

More recently, in a performance art piece, Moore claimed another encounter with Constantine: "Years later, in another place, he steps out of the dark and speaks to me. He whispers: ‘I'll tell you the ultimate secret of magic. Any cunt could do it.’"

And then the spell is broken, because it’s too wry and too knowing. It’s too close. I can see the strings again as Moore uses the invented anecdote to make a joke, to prove a point about the reality of magic. Fictional heroes, they’re all mysterious and enticing, but they’ll only ever go and let you down.

After all, they are only made-up. Just like Pete Docherty. I had a moment, sometime around 2004, where I latched onto the idea of the Libertines as a band for tomorrow. It only lasted for a few months, but briefly I almost loved them in the way a late teenager loves a band. Especially a band that carried around their own lyrical myths of country and self and lifestyle; a band with an ideal for living. And I then woke up, the bodies began to pile up, and I realised that they were just a gang of wannabe musicians led by a self-centred drug addict. You can’t bring fictions into the real world by making them up and you can’t apply the mythical inventiveness to real people; we’ll only be disappointed.

No, if their hero is going to mean anything it needs to come from the real world and be able to make a difference. Mr Milliband, the stage is yours.

(Part 1 to be concluded next week).

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The truest poetry is the most feigning

In the sixteenth century, Deptford was both different and the same as it is now. There were no high rise tower blocks and backed up motorised traffic struggling to get through the Rotherhite tunnel, nor would there be the occasional mislaid tourist up from Greenwich and the market wouldn’t have had racks of Domestos and Andrex knocked off through the backyard of the Tesco’s distribution warehouse, but still, there would have been festering vegetable waste in the drains, an undercurrent of violence, of poverty through aimless men sitting around on street corners and it would persist as one of London’s forgotten areas. Back then it was dominated by the Royal Naval dockyards sitting on the estuary side of London, defending against potential invasion and aiding smugglers for a coin. Deptford was convenient for drafting in drunken lost souls from around the city. Deptford was the end of London, the last point before a lifetime aboard the waves whether that was the way you wanted to go or not. It was a place that people came for looking for trouble.

One imagines the Dog and Gun has changed little since then. It is a traditional boozer with a marvellous range of ales, but it lurks down a side street amongst a relatively run down estate and when I last went in there three men sitting along stools at the bar turned and stared, their gaze warned me to mind my own business.

It was a similar establishment, I imagine, where Christopher Marlowe holed up after his arrest for heresy in 1593. At the time, Marlowe was one of the most famous men in the land. A playwright extraordinary, dandily dressed, handsome like a cherub and possibly an Elizabethan spy. What he was doing in Deptford, amongst the rough and tumble of rum drinking sailor dens is unclear, as is so much about his life and death. Perhaps he was hiding out amongst the dregs of the city for the false glamour of it all; perhaps he was about to embark on some secret foreign mission or to flee for asylum abroad. All we know is that he became embroiled in an argument that ended with a rapier penetrating his right eye and then his brain. He bled to death in the gutter outside down amongst the urine and turnip cores and fish intestines and the thousand other dead men of a generation. The man arguably destined to be the greatest playwright of his age was cut down in some booze filled row, or silenced for the too many secrets he had in his head. Too fast too young is not, after all, a twentieth century concept. Marlowe went down aged twenty-nine having already lived a life.

The title of the bard rather than merely being a bard could have been within his grasp. The incredible Dr Faustus may have only been the first building block towards a canon unrivalled for half a millennium, Instead the title was taken by his contemporary, the no doubt equally raucous, but significantly less glamorous, playwright, actor, husband, father, middle of the road man from the middle of the country, William Shakespeare. Or was it?

Unsurprisingly for a death that involved the threat of high treason, religious defilement, whispers of then-perversion, the alleged perpetrators dying is custody and a handsome, quick-tempered dramatist, strange myths linger around Marlowe’s death. The most common is that he faked his own death in Deptford, hoped on a clipper headed out to sea and spent the rest of his life ghostwriting Shakespeare’s plays from a Tuscan retreat whilst conducting the odd act of espionage for the Queen and Country.

As anyone stumbling over a review of what looks like a pile of trite melodrama masquerading as historically accurate film, Anonymous, knows there are conspiracy theories are abound that Shakespeare was nothing more than a front for a wide range of alternative playwrights. The film decides that the Earl of Oxford is the real man behind the pen. “People like me don’t write plays, people like you do” he declares, whereupon, in the trailer I had the misfortune to see the other evening, he tosses a manuscript in the face of a half naked young William, who has presumably been disturbed from a drink-sodden evening defiling a pub wench, as an actor’s bohemian, even if the concept hadn’t been invented yet, lifestyle demands.

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was put forward as the real writer of the canon in 1920 by, the appropriately named, J Thomas Looney. The basis for this is the intricate knowledge of the royal court system Shakespeare displays, the fact that Oxford was a champion of poetry and art and was probably Shakespeare’s patron whilst William himself was an uneducated oik, and that many of the plays, especially Hamlet, reflect de Vere’s own life. In other words, they’re nothing but shrouded autobiography. This ignores the fact that Shakespeare was appointed to the royal court and that many of the plays are based on other fictional works or actual history. Shakespeare was a precursor to the likes of Neil Gaiman, the sort of author who happily pinches bits here and there of different myths and half-remembered legends until some sort of flimsy fictional shroud comes into being.

My favourite bit of evidence is the suggestion that the code E.Vere appears 17,000 times in Shakespeare’s forty-odd plays. Given that it can be found in ‘every’, ‘ever’, ‘never’, and so on I’m surprised it’s not more. Still, lots of things are surprising about Shakespeare, not least that I struggled with it at school.

Even though most of what I read at the time was accompanied by pictures, I didn’t struggle with the language particularly. I may have initially found myself flummoxed by the sonnet structure and the odd archaic word, but all teenagers, except the exceptionally precocious, do. I got the lyricism and even enjoyed the, in hindsight, somewhat over-analysis of the plays. Line by line we went, seeking quadruple meaning in every pretty turn of phrase as though determined to prove that genius has to shine in every third turn of the plot. In retrospect it should have been enough to just appreciate the language’s rhythm and the clever metaphors for what they were; phrases that four hundred later still told us something new about the world and our place in it.

Anyway, it wasn’t a lack of understanding it was more that the deeper the comprehension the more I found it a little boring. Maybe it was partly because we flew through Macbeth one summer term and then spent three years dissecting Romeo and Juliet act by sodding act. I wanted to like it. I liked reading and I liked books; I theoretically liked the theatre although at thirteen had limited experience of it beyond the obligatory Christmas panto. Yet it wouldn’t quite click for me.

In many ways, I blame Romeo and Juliet and thus by proxy William himself, for my abandonment of English Literature at sixteen. The over-analysis broke down the work, the magic, so that all that was left was a combination of familiar phrases and reinterpreted myths slouching across a plot riddled with holes. Nothing was left but a bruised and bloody, used and soggy script, an idea of fiction destroyed. I didn’t want that to happen to all the other heroes I loved: Conrad’s colonial adventurers, Greene’s spies, another Marlowe, this one with a cheap suit and wry series of put downs, the myriad characters that filled up Terry Pratchett’s and Douglas Adams’ novels. They were all three dimensional beings for whom I didn’t want to understand how the mortar that held them together was nothing but words. I preferred to think of them as almost people; as though they might just about exist beyond the page, whisked from my sub-consciousness and out, out somewhere into the real world. There were, I felt, too real not to exist.

So, it was only as an adult that I finally came to Hamlet and Othello, Shylock and Lear, Benedick and Beatrice and all those marvellous histories (my enjoyment of which was no doubt enhanced by studying the war of the roses for A level meaning I understood who all the Richards and Henrys were). And slowly I began to understand that what made them great characters was their complexity. I’d missed the bleakness melancholy, the otherworldly knowing authorial hand behind Greene’s, Conrad’s and Chandler’s words. (It is, after all, hard to spot). I read instead at a surface level of black and white. Good and evil. Shakespeare’s heroes were bigger than that, because life is bigger than that. It is a contrary, mixed up, muddling block not designed to make sense. ‘Couldn’t have’ doesn’t really apply, except when based upon the laws of science. Anything is possible, even people with little formal education explaining the complexities of the heart in choice, succinct lines.

Which is why the frantic urge to attribute the canon to anyone other than William is somewhat galling. Francis Bacon, Elizabeth I’s spymaster was the first alternative suggested to the author, allegedly because there are a couple of coincidences in metaphor between the two’s poetry and the plays, allegedly, contain numerous legal terms which Bacon, as Queen’s Counsel, would have known. Toss, yet people – academics no just vain-glorious movie directors – noisily look for truth where there is no lie.

They pick on the Earl of Derby for pretty much the exact same reasons as Oxford and get no closer. And these are just the serious suggestions. After them, then it becomes pretty much anyone who could have held a pen during the same period: Francis Drake (too busy being in charge of the navy, surely, and on the wrong side of the world at several key performance dates); Anne Hathway, William’s wife (which is just odd); Ben Jonson (more famous himself at the time); Thomas Kyd (usually in the debtors prison); Thomas More (already long dead); Mary, Queen of Scots (headless); James Stuart, Kind of England and Scotland (a child and then a monarch).

Out of all seventy-nine candidates proposed, the Marlowe theory at least has some possibility behind it. Jonson was almost as good as playwright and so comes close. Someone once wrote, “I admire Ben Jonson the most, but I love Shakespeare more.” But Jonson was too prolific in his own right to fit in an extra forty odd plays and also had an ego too big to allow a piece of work such as Macbeth to appear under anyone other than his own name.

Marlowe’s Faustus is held up as the direction his work is travelling in and it is indeed excellent. Although, no Hamlet or Lear. Besides, Shakespeare’s writerly trajectory is supposed to go entertainment (comedies), royal patronage (histories), despair (tragedies), melancholy, (the hard to place romantic-comic-tragedies of Alls Well that Ends Well, the Winter’s Tale and the Tempest). Marlowe was already on the tragedy arc by the time of his death and never seemed that interested in laugh-out-loud comedies let alone conventional pandering to the monarchy’s rather dubious claim to the throne. In 1593 Shakespeare only had half a dozen plays to his name, of which only Richard III could stand up to Dr Faustus. Would Marlowe really have taken a dozen steps backwards putting out filler work until mining the vein he’d already ripped open?

But the main reasoning behind the theory that Marlowe ended up in Tuscany and writing the plays, or indeed anyone else writing the plays, is Italy itself. Two Gentleman of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, the Merchant of Venice, Othello, again and again Shakespeare’s plays are based in Italy, a country Shakespeare never visited: why? Who knows? Who cares? They certainly weren’t based on any accurate representation of Italy. In The Merchant of Venice he even forgets to mention the canals. It’s made up. It’s fiction. You don’t have to go somewhere to write about it – especially in Elizabethan England where most of your audience had never left the home counties let alone ventured further afield. And even if they had it was probably to war and one imagines that a muddy field filled with canvas shelters, the taste of adrenaline and the echo of screams in the night air looks the same whenever or wherever you may be.

Italy? Pah. That isn’t a reason. The real reason that there is this debate, is class.

Because in this screwed up country during a particularly screwed up period of time, the Victorians and their immediate hiers couldn’t comprehend that a relatively uneducated lad from the Midlands was touched by genius. He had to be either a patsy or a thief, either covering up for his social better who, for reasons which slightly escape me, shouldn’t have been writing literature of such dazzling variety and quality, or a convenient pen name for a member of the early middle classes who had at least managed to trudge up from his parent’s Kentish shoe shop and attend Cambridge, as Marlowe did. The concept of the working class kid done well was forbidden.

And at least in terms of literature it remained so until the 1950s at least when the likes of Alan Stillitoe and John Osborne emerged, blinking into the published light, fresh faced and sporting chips the size of a mine on their shoulder to tell grimy realism of the north, drink, being poor and frustrated by it and desperate for the weekend to forget the tedium and physical harshness of the week. And, unlike George Orwell or (Lord help us) JG Priestley they weren’t middle-class observers but they had actually lived what they wrote about: a not watered down by agenda.

It was but a fleeting moment when the creative flourishers from a working class background flocked towards literature. It was before rock and roll and mass market television; before the lure of easy glamour and girls was attainable with slicked back hair and a guitar. Nothing but a brief period when ale in tankards mid-afternoon, a thousand cigarettes accompanied sensible coats that kept the inevitable rain off and cheap suits as the fashion of the class rebel.

Now, in twenty-first century Britain it almost feels like we’ve taken a step backwards. Sebastian Faulks, Zadie Smith and Adam Thirwell, all three of the British writers whom I’ve read recently went to Oxbridge. Clearly this is not an exhaustive sweep of the literary establishment and I’m making a generalisation about writers who come out of Oxford and Cambridge – a generalisation which I know for a fact to be incorrect - but the real point is that this doesn’t actually matter. I loved White Teeth and Politics. A Week in December was a bit meh, but it had a couple of good moments and it certainly didn’t lack for ambition. (Although, perhaps it was Faulk’s background that prevented him from fully painting his broad society landscape that he got close to, but that’s another discussion...)

Good writing is a good writing no matter whom it comes from. This isn’t a campaign for William Shakespeare as an early working class hero; it’s just an expression of disappointment that in 2011 we’re even having that conversation about someone whom should be amongst the nation’s heroes for giving us a language with which to argue.