Thursday, 27 August 2009

Nick Cave

I probably write out of a different part of my brain when I’m as tired as this. Just lying here, lights down, eyes slightly closed, laptop whirring in the night, fingertips dancing. God bless illuminated keyboards. I don’t try too hard. It’s the pleasure of writing this blog. I don’t care how it sounds. It’s just for me. This is just bare bones writing. No imagination. Just typing.

I took a very quick jaunt around town today, avoiding the preparations for Manchester Pride. A poster on Manchester Piccadilly shouted at me this morning: ‘People are just born gay. GET OVER IT!!’. It never occurred to me that I had a problem and I disliked the implication that I did. The only problem I have is people shouting their sexual preference in my face. I can’t recall the last time I walked down a street and angrily accosted a stranger to tell them I’m into brunettes with large breasts and thigh high stockings. I’m just glad I’ll be out of Manchester tomorrow before the festival kicks off. There’s now a huge glitter ball hung outside the transvestite club across the road from the office. For me, it’s not a matter of having any particular attitude towards what people do in their bedrooms. It really is not my business. But I do dislike the gaudy aesthetic. I’m just not a glitter ball guy.

I don’t usually get out of the office for anything longer than it takes me to get to the nearest shop and buy lunch. I should rephrase that. I can go out for lunch but I don’t want to be stuck in the city for nine hours. However, today, I was a little longer and it ended with me facing a dilemma. I noticed a poster advertising that Nick Cave is signing his new book at Waterstones at the end of September.

This is Nick Cave, in the flesh, in a book shop, signing hardback copies of his new book.


I fail to understand other people’s hero worship and I’ve never come to term with my own. There are writers, singers, cartoonists, actors, and directors that I hugely admire but I have never thought of myself standing in line to meet them. The closest I’ve ever come was running onto a cricket pitch as a young lad to get the autograph of a cricketer playing a testimonial for a locally born sporting hero. I think I ran up to Barry Richards. I don’t know what became of the autograph. I suppose I have it somewhere, in the envelope where I keep my Geoff Boycott autograph and a letter from Graham Dilly, who was my favourite bowler as a teenager.

Since then, I’ve tended to avoid famous people when I recognise them. I once walked past Barry Humphries in Liverpool. Nobody recognised me and he gave me a strange look when he knew that I knew. I bowed my head, walked on. The same thing happened when I walked past Alex Cox. It was instinctive that I nodded and smiled to him. I thought he was just somebody I knew. I felt terrible when he nodded back to me.
These days, my only contact with ‘heroes’ (for want of a better word) are through signed books I occasionally find. I have a copy of ‘Breakfast for Champions’ signed by Kurt Vonnegut; a copy of ‘The Village’ signed by David Mamet. I also have a cherished autograph of P.J. O’Rourke. I also other signed books, Will Self, Jeffry Deaver (I know!) and a few science fiction authors.

Most of my long standing ‘heroes’ are dead: W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, Peter Cook, Arthur Miller, David Lean, Billy Wilder. Even people I’ve discovered relatively recently are no longer with us: Johnny Cash, B. Kliban, S J Perelman.

Who would I like to meet? Tom Waits, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, the Kinkster, Andy Hamilton, Armando Ianucci, Galton and Simpson, David Mamet, Martin Scorsese...

Tom Waits is the one person I venerate, though Nick Cave isn’t far from inspiring that kind of awe. I love his passionate songs, his angry songs, and his danger songs. Yet I also adore his religious ballads, with ‘The Boatman’s Call’ being one of my favourite albums.

Do I want to go meet him? Hell yes I do. But it’s not going to happen.

It would feel like I’d be breaking some fundamental agreement with myself. Perhaps it says more about my ego than anything else but I feel like it would be tantamount to giving up. Do I want to stand in line, mutter some oft-repeated note of appreciation? Do I want him to mutter thanks, desperate for the whole sorry evening to be done so he can get back to his life? That’s not for me. What’s the point in meeting somebody you admire without being able to ask or say something meaningful? What’s the point of reducing them to the level of prostitutes you’re paying with the amount of a hardback?

I admire them too much for that. I think I’ll stay away.

[Postscript 1: Here's the strange thing: I realise I already have Nick Cave's autograph. A friend of my sister was in charge of organising a big rock concert in Australia. He couldn't think of who to book so he asked my sister. She asked me. I immediately said Tom Waits and Nick Cave. A month later, I hear that The Bad Seeds were booked to headline the festival. About three months later, I got an autographed programme. I'll have to dig it out just to prove that I effectively arranged to get coins deposited in Mr. Cave's extremely dapper waistcoat pocket. It's my one and only claim to fame.

Postscript 2: I only discovered today that Cave dedicated his recent Glastonbury performance to Farrah Fawcett. That pleases me even more than Harry Shearer's deliciously ambiguous announcement that 'without Michael Jackson, there would be no Spinal Tap'.]

Wednesday, 26 August 2009


When talking about class, there’s a great line by Billy Connolly (from ‘An Audience With...’) which I usually get wrong. It begins: ‘I'm not saying “love me, love me, I'm thick...”’ Only, I always remember is as: ‘I'm not saying “love me, love me, I'm poor...”’ But that’s the thing with class: where the middle and upper classes can be accused of snobbery, those of us at the other end of the social ladder can be equally accused of inverted snobbery. Class has always intrigued me because it seems to be as useless and it is helpful. Whilst the majority of people seem to conform to the definitions, individual cases don’t. To deliberately misquote Jonathan Swift: I can generalise about mankind but not about Tom, Dick, or Harry.

The problem with class is that it doesn’t totally convey people’s attitudes, and by ‘attitudes’ I probably mean their moral outlook. Some of the people I meet who profess to be middle class are, in my book, woeful human beings. They are duplicitous, conniving, arrogant, and cruel. They achieve much of what they achieve through the wilful abuse of others. When these qualities are seen in the working class, it rightly marks them out as crooks. They are the aspiring gangsters that hang around the gym I can see from my bedroom window. Yet when seen in the upper classes (I have only limited contact with the aristocracy), these low qualities apparently become virtues. Arrogance is assumed. It is not an option.

Perhaps class is only useful when looking at a social group from the outside. We see that ‘Chavs’ conform to stereotype because we don’t know them. The same might be true of university lecturers, journalists, members of the royal family. Class might be very useful when talking about common social types, yet the people that interest me – the people I am happy to call friends – tend not to fit into these stereotypes. Perhaps it’s just that I see something beyond the caricature. Perhaps what marks out a person as interesting to me is the degree to which they differ from their culture. They are square shapes in round holes.

I am from pure working class stock. My father’s side of the family fled from the revolution in Russia when my grandmother was just a girl. My father began work as a wheelwright but went to work in a mental hospital for the job security. My mother, like many women of her generation, became a housewife and a mother.

I attended a working class comprehensive school that did very little to give us hope. It was run down before people noticed that schools were being run down. It was there that literature, which had my love as a child, was ruined by English classes. It was perverted through Socialist ideals into a monstrous social science. We read ‘A Taste of Honey’ to introduce us to the themes of unwanted pregnancy, homosexuality, and race. Even ‘Hobson’s Choice’ (a film I now love) was taught as a way of talking about poverty. Over five years, I slid down the sets until I ended in the lowest, emerging with a grade 2 CSE.

We did our ‘O’ levels and then ‘A’ levels. The really bright kids did averagely well. Not being the brightest kid – and certainly far from committed to my studies – I did less well. It was only when I left school and began to follow my nose, so to speak, that I rediscovered the subjects I enjoyed. I went to the local college, sat an ‘A’ level in English in less than a year and was in a good University within eight months and went on to do postgraduate degrees.

So, now I’m still in a working class area, doing a very lowly job, but with these qualifications attached to my name. And I don’t think I would change any of it. In many respects, I feel classless.

I no longer enjoy cricket. I prefer football and foolishly support Liverpool in an office full of Mancunians.
The need to read pretentious literature was hammered out of me at University.
I love films, hate most art house, but enjoy foreign cinema.
I prefer to watch documentary channels than TV dramas.
I play the guitar fairly well but I hate English folk music and play only American: Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash.
I enjoy the puzzle of computer games and love technology.
I enjoy great comedy, despise bad.
Though I think I’m polite and believe in good manners, I’m often told off by my middle class bosses for being rude.
My politics are quite centrist. I love the writing of Edmund Burke ("Our patience will achieve more than our force") but despise the ideologues of modern Conservatism. I equally despise Socialism – living with a Socialist council saw to that – yet I see the bad that happens when workers have no rights.
I am extremely scruffy and wear mostly black.
I can’t drive and don’t drink.
I have always wanted to wear a hat.

So what class do you think I am?

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Further Doubts of a Dick

It’s funny. I wasn’t surprised by the reaction of most people to my post. People everywhere are generally decent, understanding, forgiving, and adaptable to changing notions of truth. There are some, however, who are just not my natural audience. They might never have read ‘Private Eye’ (though judging from recent issues, I really can’t blame them) or know the names of the writers by whom I measure my own pitiful achievements. (Surely the most hurtful irony of all was when Richard was blocked by Simon Blackwell, one of the supremely talented writers of ‘The Thick of It’, and then unfollowed by Armando Iannucci, one of the comic titans of this generation.)

Yet I suppose that I have inherited one audience almost by fate and alienated another for precisely the same reason. One audience will never believe that I’ve acted out of a sense of moral indignation. They see it as an outrage, a defilement of something that’s beyond holy: a disruption of the ancient order of ‘celebrity’. These people were drawn to the name that would never appeal to the other audience I secretly crave.

The other audience is repelled by the other me. They don’t want to exist in the mainstream. I know because I’m one of them. Yet many of them have finally come around to understanding what I’m attempting to do. The only problem is that a few have naturally assumed that people in the mainstream can have somewhat skewed senses of humour and have adjusted their opinions in light of that. They tend to live by the battle cry: ‘I didn’t realise that Madeley was such a crazy old duffer but now I love him!’

I still struggle to answer the question: where does the satirist draw the line when they feel the deep burning anger? I try to draw that line everyday when I make certain things apparent whilst feeling that it’s not my duty to explain my every action. It’s like surfing on the front edge of a wave, encouraged by the swell of the tide but aware that your board may slip away at any moment.

Angered by what I’ve done and perhaps for being misled for so long, a fan of Richard’s wrote to me:

‘If you are bitter because your first novel was cancelled, you ain’t going to get far in this world. You bump and grind along that shit track but I still think you are wrong. Would you want to be famous on someone else’s backbone? You have great pride in your writing because it’s yours, not written by someone else.’

It is a fair point if you haven’t experienced the world of agents, publishers, and broadcasters. I speak to other unpublished writers who say the same thing: that all the doors are closed to us. Agents don’t care because they can sell projects easily off the back of establishing names. A person might be able to write the finest cook book of their generation but it’s not getting picked up by the publisher who has just given Peter Andre £1.5 million for his collection of recipes. Whatever the name and whatever the field: getting a book deal is easy. Only if your field is writing does that become next to impossible.

Since I finished my book of cartoons (I’ve still not heard a thing from agents), I’ve written two radio comedies (4 half hour episodes in total). I know they’ll never get read. Agents won’t handle scripts unless you’ve got a production company interested. Production companies aren’t interested unless you have an agent.

Not that I really want either, just a proven writer to read them and to say where I’m going wrong or right. No mentor will come forward via the BBC’s Writer’s Room to help me. They want northern comedy writes for their Northern Laughs project. You can’t get more northern than me. Not with this accent. I’m born, bred, and live in Lancashire, a few miles from Johnny Vegas’ old haunts. Yet the BBC Writer’s Room still returns my script without a thing written on it except the number that marks it out as one of the tens of thousands they receive and reject each year.

People ask me why I perpetuate the charade. I say it’s a whole lot better than being the only person to laugh at your jokes.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Help Me!

So, this is a plea for help. I sent a script to the BBC Writer’s Room about four months ago. It came back on Saturday, rejected in the first 'sift'. This means they rejected it after reading the first 10 pages. No reason why. They just thought it not good enough to read in full.

I understand that the script isn't the next 'Streetcar Named Desire' but I can't fathom that it could really be so bad as to warrant summary dismissal. Anyway, it’s over in my vanity vault of unpublished curios. If anybody would care to read it, I’d be welcome your constructive thoughts. At the moment, I just can’t move forward. I can’t overcome the feeling of ‘what’s the point’...

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Huston and Traven

Born today, John Huston, is one of my few real heroes. ‘The Treasure of the Sierre Madre’ might just be my favourite film – hell, I’ll go out on a limb and say that it is. I’ve seen in countless times and might watch it again now, just because it’s in my mind. It’s an equally impressive book, if you can find it, written by the mysterious (he’s always described that way) B. Traven.

Traven's Wikipedia entry tells an equally wonderful story of authorly deception, multiple identities, and unresolved puzzles. As much as I like the idea that he might be Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared while travelling with Mexican bandits, it’s more reassuring to think he was simply an unknown writer. Otherwise, it's the same old story. Why must any achievement be tied to a familiar face? It happens to be relatively often on Twitter. If people find me funny, they assume that I'm somebody else. I've been accused of being David Mitchell and even (heaven help me) Russell Brand. I usually tell them my name is B. Traven.

Anyway, the point of the post: whenever I’m about to hit the road, it’s Huston I think about. I’ll be gone for two days, heading into Manchester. John Huston wouldn’t put up with what I have to endure. There'd be a few harsh words, a brief fist fight, and then a tall man loping off into the distance in a cloud of cigar smoke.

Friday, 17 July 2009

A Comment

I started out writing a response to this and at some point in a grindingly awful day here in Manchester, overlooking the 'Ladyboys of Bangkok' pavilion and plotting hotels on a map of Milton Keynes, it became too long to put as a comment.

From the comfort of their well salaried jobs, transgression must seem exciting to academics and critics. It’s a bit of the ‘rough stuff’ to be discussed over dinner with a nice wine. Come live in outer nowhere, they’d meet people leading aimless lives, paying off the debts they amassed buying their big screen TVs which they *simply* had to buy because art to them is spending their nights watching Murdoch’s stream of effluent pumped in for £50 a month. Transgression doesn’t sound that exciting when all you naively want art from art is to be reminded that there’s something better in life. Certainly something better than genital mutilation.

The bus stops around here were recently advertising some ‘extreme’ art event they were holding at the Tate. It had absolutely nothing to do with the lives of the people queuing up in the rain. I don’t know how much the Tate spent advertising their exhibition – funded with EU money, I believe, along with Arts Council grants – but the people directly paying for it through their taxes had absolutely no interest in the art, the gallery, or transgression. You’d hear them talking about it when their bus was late and they had run out of gossip... ‘Look at this pile of bollocks.’ They’d laugh. Nobody would disagree. To them it was a self-evident truth. My mother’s name for Antony Gormley is ‘Antony Gormless’. That is as far as she’ll discuss modern art, despite all the EU grants encouraging her to do otherwise.
Of course, these people don’t understand art any more than I understand art. We’re all too uneducated to really understand the politics of transgression. Screw us. Let the academics share their self-satisfied, mutual-referential theories in their monographs. The rest of don’t deserve to have art in our lives. Except when it comes to being photographed.

Occasionally, I sit for lunch in a local art gallery (usually empty except for staff – there are lots of staff). The walls are covered by photos of disabled people playing sports. The exhibit was paid for by EU money, Arts Council grants, government funds directed to expanding participation in art. Nobody had asked if we really want to look at some 90 year old man in his jogging shorts. Nor did I want to see a close up of a stump, the result of a recent amputation, the product of a lifetime’s alcoholism. However, to the bureaucrat handing out the funds, it was a good use of public money. Art had been supported, supposedly. He doesn’t question whether we need ‘art’ that reminds us that life is full of sorrows; that every human being on this planet suffers in one way or another.

To the politicians, holding the purse strings, art remains a form of remedial social education. It’s the same way they treat literature in schools.

Only I’m bloody sick and tired of art that’s comes at me wielding a baseball bat smeared with dog shit. I tired of grants going to any artist willing to bastardise their craft (if any craft they have) to teach us about what it’s like to live in a sink hole estate. I’m bored with these lofty, pretentious, pseudo-creatives who dress up their high-concept torture porn with a decorous bit of modern typography on the wall of the exhibit.

And the reason I despise them so much is that they are amoral vacuums who suck in what little funding exists in the arts; money that might have gone to interesting artists who are instead ignored or demeaned because they actually care more about craft than they do marketing.

A guy in the office jokingly said to me that he wants to see the empty London plinth used for a ‘f***ing big statue of Churchill stamping on Hitler’s head’. With an absence of real debate about the place of art in our culture, this kind of response is natural. Sadly, it only encourages the critics to tut knowingly. ‘Jingoistic popularism celebrating the barbarity of war. It’s immoral! They know nothing about art!’ Or so the critics would smugly say before going back to their close ups of female genital mutilation.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

The Hazel Blears Sketch

I wrote this, along with about a dozen other sketches, for the BBC Radio 7 show, 'NewsJack'. Naturally, it was rejected, or more precisely, ignored. It's hard to tell when your only reply is an automated response.

However, rather than let these things just sit on a hard drive, I'm going to post a few of them here.


PRIEST: We have gathered here in this ancient place to mark the summer solstice and to beg the Gods to bless us with the renewal of our life-force. Approach now, Sister, and state thy name!


PRIEST: Welcome Sister Hazel who bears the name of the mystic tree that bears the sacred nuts...


PRIEST: Do you seek renewal at this most blessed hour?

HAZEL BLEARS: I wouldn’t say ‘renewal’ exactly...

PRIEST: Then you seek rebirth? You wish to strip naked and lie in the field to be
one with nature under the ambrosial skies?

HAZEL BLEARS: No, no, not that either. I was hoping to be reselected.


PRIEST: You want what?

HAZEL BLEARS: I want to be reselected by the good people of Salford.

PRIEST: Are you sure you’ve got the right place? You do know that this is Stonehenge and that we are the ancient order of the Druids?

HAZEL BLEARS: Yes , I saw the bumper stickers on your Volvos. ‘Pip if You’re Pagan’. Very clever. But I’m here now and I’m ready to make my sacrifice.

PRIEST: Oh, very well... I mean, if you've prepared a sacrifice...


PRIEST: Sister Hazel, what is it that thy wish to sacrifice to the Gods?

HAZEL BLEARS: Well, I’ve brought these lovely curtains. They came with the flat but Michael said they didn’t go with our new Ducati leathers...


PRIEST: Hang on! You want to make a sacrificial offering of curtains?

HAZEL BLEARS: And Michael’s brought his Goblin Teasmade. We’ve also got a sofa but we couldn’t get it on the back of the bike.

PRIEST: So, you're seeking ‘reselection’ based on a pair of curtains and a Goblin Teasmade?

HAZEL BLEARS: And a sofa that we...

PRIEST: Couldn’t get it on the back of the bike. Yes, I heard... Only, it’s not really up to me, is it? It’s the Gods who decide and... Well, I’m pretty certain they don’t need curtains.

HAZEL BLEARS: Of course they need a curtains. Every house needs curtains. Or at least, all of mine do...

PRIEST: But these are the Gods. They don't even have windows. They make the very sunlight that ripens the harvest and turns all things brown.

HAZEL BLEARS: Hang on! All things Brown? I’m not sure I can work under those conditions. (SHOUTS) Michael, pick up that Teasmade. And start the bike.

PRIEST: But such is the great cycle of life. The sun blesses the earth and changes the green of summer for the brown autumn.

HAZEL BLEARS: The Brown autumn! I had hoped he’d have gone by the end of summer. What about spring? Will Brown be gone by the spring?

PRIEST: It is the way. Spring is the time for greens shoots, when the timid creatures finally emerge from their burrows...

HAZEL BLEARS: Oh, so it’s Miliband in the spring, is it? Well, you can’t say fairer than that. (SHOUTS) Michael. Drop that Teasmade. We’re staying. (SPEAKING) Now then, if I am staying, we need to get this place looking right. Would you look at these stones! Do you know what I think they need?

PRIEST: They have been standing here for millennia...

HAZEL BLEARS: Curtains. (BEAT) Something in maroon chintz, I think. (WHISPERS) And between you and me, we might even be able to claim them on expenses.