I may not have been writing here much of late, but while I’ve been away, there’s always been at least or song or two in my heart. Songs I would like to talk and write about, songs I want to share. I think it’s time I started doing so again.
My 45 45s series which ended last year reminded me how much I enjoy focussing in on a particular song, without the need necessarily to tell a fuller story, or set it in the context of the artist in question’s musical progression (or regression). This new (and inevitably irregular) ongoing series will follow the same lines, but instead of limiting myself to the recto surface of 500-odd 45s, I’m going to allow myself to choose discrete songs or pieces of music from any format, genre, and time. Which already feels like blissful freedom in comparison.
Some songs you keep coming back to, wanting aurally and mentally to gnaw at them much as a dog does a bone – because they in turn gnaw at you, get inside your head and your heart, and give you glimpses of life as lived by others, glimpses which may or may not chime with the life you’ve lived yourself. In a way, they are glimpses of perfection – untidy life tidied up into the coherent structures of chords, melody, verse and chorus, the messiness of emotion rendered clear as spring water by thinking, feeling minds – or left deliberately or subconsciously full of that glorious messiness, that disorder or flight of the spirit which reminds us listeners how fully alive it is possible to be.
The Lucksmiths’ ‘Fiction’ is one such song. I remember seeing the group play live a couple of times around the turn of the millennium, and found them engaging and enjoyable because of the sunlit Australian warmth they exuded, together with their perhaps nationally atypical tendency towards being understated. I don’t recall them playing ‘Fiction’ on those occasions; I’m sure I would remember if they had, because it’s the kind of song which sticks in your head after just one listen. Coming across it not so long ago, alongside the equally compelling ‘The chapter in your life entitled San Fransisco’, I was immediately struck by its beguiling mix of clever story-telling and wistful sense of what might have been. The song inhabits its title to such an extent that when you are done listening, you feel like you’ve just read the most perfectly crafted short story, a previously unread gem by your favourite short story writer (William Saroyan, say, or Janice Galloway).
Sung by Tali White, with lyrics written by Marty Donald, and played by a group whose lyrical sensitivity had been fine-tuned over many years, I feel sure the four and a half minutes of ‘Fiction’ will worm its way inside your mind and heart too, if it hasn’t already.
The image at the head of the post is of a Flannery O’Connor quote and was included among ‘25 stunning literary tattoos from books by your favorite female authors’.
Where once I might have chosen Paul Handyside’s ‘Hip hip’ as my favourite Hurrah! 45, now it’s his ‘Gloria’ which has greater emotional sway. ‘Hip hip’ is necessarily celebratory, excitable and exciting, the adrenaline rush of poetic youth, but it’s also tinged with nostalgia and melancholy, for the many memories it conjures, for the distance which has opened up within me between the man I am now and the boy I was then. Perhaps inevitably at this distance, the lyrics read as and sound somewhat adolescent. And that’s fine, because if ever songs caught the rush of feeling that being young involves, the confusion and exaltation and cloud nine highs and dismal pressure drop lows, the happiness shot through with sadness and the sadness shot through with a refusal to be beaten, then it was the early songs of Handyside and Taffy Hughes, the Geordie Lennon and McCartney.
‘Gloria’, with its Cyrano de Bergerac gallantry and transposition of a serenading or star-crossed lovers balcony scene to twentieth century Newcastle, is perhaps no exception, but it seems tempered by both a feeling of duende and a dreamlike quality; the dream that starts when you want it to. While the yearning edge of Handyside’s voice filled so many of his songs with a sense of melancholy and things not quite working out as he might have hoped and planned, here he manages to convey a sense of certainty and destiny that pervades waking and sleeping, night and day.
It doesn’t hurt that musically, it’s a classic-sounding song which in my mind twines about Procol Harum’s ‘A whiter shade of pale’ like ivy or wisteria, the Hammond organ line of which was itself famously lifted from Bach. ‘A whiter shade of pale’ in turn makes me think of the Clientele’s ‘Isn’t life strange?’, and how’s that for a trio of timeless songs?
‘Trust in me, things I tell you…’ Hurrah! were a group of infinite importance to a small, select number of people; folk took the trouble to testify to this when I wrote about the group over at Backed with. Implored to do so by the collective persuasion of both Hungry beat and Are you scared to get happy? fanzines (the latter named after the rousing challenge in the chorus of ‘Hip hip’), I bought a copy of Boxed: long-shot pomes from broke players, which collected together Hurrah!’s early singles for Kitchenware, including ‘Gloria’. The title was borrowed from Charles Bukowski, whose novel Factotum I would have read around the same time, following up every suggested lead. Back then I never saw the delightfully silly and presumably somewhat satirical video for ‘Gloria’ featuring a dippy New Romantic-looking girl dancing (surely not the Gloria in question?) and bass player David Porthouse cross-dressing (now, if he were the Gloria in question, that would certainly give the lyrics some swing); all of which doesn’t quite undermine Handyside’s earnestness nor the enduringly affecting nature of the song.
Image of Longshot pomes for broke players via bukowski.net.
It begins in June. A week after his birthday, in fact. A sickness falls upon the people of the earth. First accusations fly, then counter-accusations, then finally bombs. The apocalypse doubled. Wires fall silent as residual power fades. Only the odd transmission now, from who knows where and whom.
Reach for the dead
A couple are parted at the time of the apocalypse. In a week its work is complete and life as we know it is beyond hope of rescue. Everyone he knows and loves is dead, but for inexplicable reasons, some have survived, he among them, and he can’t help daring to hope that she may have been immune too. Away visiting in the hills of the north, perhaps she has been protected from the worst of the dual catastrophe.
For a few days, he remains at the far extent of the suburban fringes of his provincial city, keeping a low profile, sniffing out a sense of the scale of the disaster, and how he might navigate his way to her, for it doesn’t take him long to realise that survival depends on leaving for the rural isolation of the north. Enlarged, irradiated spiders climb the walls and drop into his hair, freaking him out almost more than the gruesome sights he encounters on the streets.
In a Jeep, and then on foot, he journeys to her. Dodges wrecks and barricades and attempted car-jackings. Goes off road when the main routes become impassable. Switches to walking when the petrol runs out. Sticks to the back ways, the lanes, a compass hanging around his neck, always aligned to the north. On the way he faces many dangers. Brigands wait at one end of a causeway across a marsh; with the press-gangers who have dogged his every step behind him, he cannot go back the way he came. He has no choice but to brave the cold, swampy soup of the marsh. On the far side, he comes across an orphaned child who has escaped from the brigands. He accepts his obvious duty to look after her. She has with her a dog, who will the very next day save them from a murderous psychopath, with a warning bark and then a savage attack.
He knows that his love will have remained where she was, looking after any of the frail about her to have survived and fearing the worst about him because of his proximity to one of the apocalypse’s many likely epicentres. But the mind is a powerful thing and half-wishing, half-deliberately she transmits to him that she is still alive, that she loves him, that she knows he is coming for her, and that just as she won’t give up on him, she knows he won’t on her, no matter what. He receives the messages in a feverish waking dream, the girl leading him by the hand. He burns hotter with the exultation of knowing that his love is still alive, that she waits for him. Neither knows how long it will take but both believe that one day, maybe sooner, maybe later, they will be reunited. He counts the days.
At one point he and the young girl are travelling down a long holloway during a violent storm. It ceases as suddenly as it started, and at that moment the ash clouds are parted and sun breaks through for the first time since the week of the apocalypse. The canopies of the holloway shield the sunlight except for slivers and chinks. Distraught with wonder, he thinks: how could we have let such beauty go to waste? And yet somehow there are still birds to sing at the sight of the sun, offering the travelling pair hope.
With fierce determination, man and girl learn together the arts of hiding, foraging, and hunting, in that order of necessity. The girl has a better grasp of the fruits of the forest than he, while – having previously been a vegetarian – he learns to skin an animal through trial, error, and a book borrowed on permanent loan from an abandoned library. At night they search the airwaves on a battery-powered radio, but the only patterns in the static are the ones they imagine themselves.
When sickness gets the better of him, it is the girl who finds them an isolated house in which he can recover. The cellar has two exits. There they lie low. She makes him nettle tea and salves his sores with a paste made from the same leaves. With the plasticity of youth, she is adapting to the new state of things, this post-apocalyptic landscape, far better than he.
They resume their journey, but this time it is the girl who gives way, falling prey to radiation sickness. And now in another hideout, he nurses her back to health, using a pharmacy’s formulary and drugs, all the while wondering whether or not human evolution will be able to outpace the anatomical effects of nuclear fall-out. This girl is a survivor, though, and soon they are able to press on, close now to their destination.
Meanwhile, racketeers are keeping his love against her will, but because this is a story, an artifice, somehow her dignity will have been spared her; or, at least, she will not speak of it to him once she has been rescued. Though perhaps it might be that the brigand’s leader genuinely has fallen for her, and has shown himself to be a patient if dangerous man.
Split your infinities
Through binoculars he studies their encampment, an old farmhouse whose dry stone walls have been topped with barbed wire. He stakes it out and watches the comings and goings, the girl waiting patiently at his side, and the faithful hound at hers. When his eyes tire, she takes her turn to watch and note. On the third day he catches sight of his love at the back door, pausing for air with what looks like a kitchen implement in hand. He risks standing, so that she can see him, and anyone else might – a chance he feels he has to take. After a time she turns in his direction, and visibly starts. With his arms crossed in front of his chest, he signals a kiss. But she is called back inside, and needs must go, not daring to look round.
With the girl bedded down in a house as safe as any in these times, he keeps vigil into the depth of that night, awaiting the moment when he will attempt the rescue. Through binoculars, in the fading light of the evening, his heart has jumped to see a window marked with an X in parcel tape. Now he knows where to go, and what he has to do.
Nothing is real
His heart pounding, armed with wire-cutters, rope, a gun, and climbing gloves, he runs across the open fields to the stone wall perimeter. He cuts through the barbed wire, and follows the shadows cast by the outbuildings until he comes to the drainpipe he hopes will bear his weight. Even with the gloves, it’s a struggle to climb, but somehow he manages to make it to the roof that will allow him to access her window, if he can keep his balance across its apex. After a pause to steady his nerves, he runs it, and makes the safety of the wall. Then she is there at the open window and with his mind outside of his body he tells her to secure the rope to one of the feet of her bed. She has a rucksack of things ready on her back. She knew he was coming for her. They only dare to embrace once safely beyond the barbed wire perimeter, and that’s when his mind and reality both come crashing back into him.
It is their first day together as a family of three. The woman and the girl are shy of each other, but he can see the first signs of friendship and what will become love. He is mortally tired after the night and the days spent watching and one in which they tried to put as much distance between themselves and the farmhouse as they could.
They find the perfect house, one built into the side of a hill, all but invisible from the passing road. A nearby clearing in a wood becomes their allotment. Whenever they venture out, danger and distrust go hand in hand, but gradually, through chance encounters, a network is built of people intent on surviving whatever the poisoned world throws at them. All for one, and one for all, they stockpile food, fight off threats to their security and raise their children.
Come to dust
Dust storms are a condition of the new life, but safe in their hillside home, the growing family – now supplemented by twin boys whose survival instinct is as strong as that of their parents – rides them out, and afterwards, sweeps up everything back to a state that they are beginning to dare to think of as normal.
In many ways the new life is an idyll that surpasses the old. But it’s impossible not to look back, and mourn what has gone, what has been lost from the world. Mourn the individuals, the millions, the billions who died. In any individual who survived the end of the world, the will to do so must have been strong, but both the man and the woman have a sense that this is fed by the determination of the species as a whole not only to endure, but to live free. The fate of the dead informs all of the living yet to be done.
I’ve just finished reading a collection of short stories by Eric Bosse called Magnificent mistakes. The stories are indeed magnificent in depicting how strange we all are, inside and out. Characters’ lives slip out of their control as they try and fail to communicate and come to terms with their significant others, but in the end no-one dies (or almost no-one). The stories are lean and funny and perfectly poised between tenderness and something much more steely-eyed. Some are short short fictions, but have in them as much detail as the best paintings by miniaturists. None of the stories tell you what to think, and many take you places you may not have been, even as they give accounts of the relationships we all have, with lovers and mothers and fathers and children. Oh, and rubber plants.
‘Invisible world’ and ‘The fractured museum of us’ are great examples of this, succinct and episodic scenes from life that convey in a few brief pages the stretches of landscape you’d expect from a novel. Turning on two strangers encountering each other in near Arctic wilderness, ‘The end of Norway’ is an unnerving read, as is ‘Our lady of the Rockies’. Like so many of the stories in the collection, they steer a fine line between treading where you expect them to and veering off in directions you don’t.
If you do make your way to this excellent collection, don’t be put off by the first story in it. ‘The dog-faced boy’ seemed to me too consciously fantastical, Dadaist even, and didn’t progress and conclude with quite the same feeling of satisfaction as the rest. But that’s one misfire or lapse of judgment out of nineteen, and when worlds other than your own are as finely rendered as these are, they’re worth going that extra mile for.
Italo Calvino’s novel Baron in the trees (1957) is a picaresque affair in comparison with the beautiful metaphysics of his later work. The Baron is Cosimo, who as a boy of twelve argues with his father over the eating of a plate of snails, and heads up a holm-oak.
Cosimo climbed up to the fork of a big branch where he could settle comfortably and sat himself down there, his legs dangling, his arms crossed with hands tucked under his elbows, his head buried in his shoulders, his tricorne hat tilted over his forehead.
Our father leant out of the window-sill. ‘When you’re tired of being up there, you’ll change your ideas!’ he shouted.
‘I’ll never change my ideas,’ exclaimed my brother from the branch.
‘You’ll see as soon as you come down!’
‘Then I’ll never come down again!’ And he kept his word.
Cosimo starts to map out the rules of his refusal to return to the ground that same day, in conversation with Viola, the capricious little girl in the garden next door. Many pages and years pass before she finally ventures into the hollow of a nut-tree to be with him.
It’s unsurprisingly a great novel about trees, though in a less explicit way than Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, in which a man named Holland promises his daughter’s hand to the suitor who can correctly name all of the hundreds of species of eucalyptus tree that he has planted on his land. But Baron in the trees also manages to combine the elegiac spirit of Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa’s contemporaneously published The leopard with the comic aspects of the adventures of Casanova. And it makes you yearn a little for the age when England was covered in trees rather than fields, roads and buildings, and you might have chosen to swing through its forests from one county to another, an arboreal aristocrat and, like Cosimo, a proponent of a Project for the Constitution of an Ideal State in the Trees.
Robin has gone into overdrive on his new blog, Include me out. It’s great to be able to read his writing again and catch up on what he’s thinking. As well as highly refined and more than occasionally provocative takes on music and film, he’s been posting all sorts of imagery, including some much loved covers from his book collection. This and our recent Fire Raisers escapade have prompted me to post one of my favourite covers:
More than a little ragged round the edges – it was a 1980s Holloway Road second-hand bookshop find – but William Belcher’s design is very possibly one of the earliest examples (1964) of a book or magazine with two front covers and right-way round and upside down text meeting in the middle. I’m sure there’s a technical term for that in graphic design.
Dust falls on Eugene Schlumburger / Toddler on the run was Shena Mackay’s first book, published when she was just nineteen. It’s far from the vivid, synaesthetic grace of her best work, but it contains flashes of the brilliance that was to come:
Abigail broke loose from the encircling arms and began sliding and spiralling down the hill until all Eugene could see in the moonlight was her red hair spinning into the white eternity. He started to run but his legs were heavy with cold and snowflakes melted in his eyes blinding him. He ran, heavy and lost, his hard feet pounding the slithering ground. Then he tripped on a lump of ice and fell, hitting his face on the kerb. The sky flashed round his head and he lay there for a minute, his cut face bleeding into the snow, and desolation in his heart feeling he had lost her forever. He raised his weak legs and tried to walk, but his steps degenerated into a slide. As he cruised unsteadily round the corner, he saw himself as she would in a second – ‘I am a man of thirty sliding in the snow with blood on my face.’
She stood at the bus stop, her hair spiked with snowflakes, waiting for him. She wiped his face with her hair because she had no handkerchief. As the bus drew away a street lamp lit the face of a battered mole.
You won’t be surprised to hear that it ends badly for Eugene.
The three printed issues of Fire Raisers can be downloaded in PDF format there or here:
In case you’re coming to the conversation late, here are the previous parts:
Here’s the third part of a series of four reflecting on Fire Raisers, the magazine that Alistair and I co-edited in the early nineties. The last part will be appearing over at Unpopular before long.
All three issues are available as PDFs via either of the links below or as paper copies for purchase. Do feel free to comment, whether as a contributor, a reader from back in the day, or on the basis of coming upon the magazines for the first time.
Daniel: Was it a pain having a co-editor? Would you have preferred absolute power?
Alistair: As a self-acknowledged control freak, I suppose I should answer yes to that. But actually no, it was fine. It was good to have someone else make some decisions about content etc, and of course your proof reading skills have always far outshone mine! Looking back though, I don’t actually remember how much real editing was needed. Did we turn down any contributions? Did we actually do any physical editing of other writers’ work?
I think the sense that we were properly collaborating was novel to us both, and exciting, and of course it never lasted long enough for serious issues to arise.
D: I think we took the ‘produced naturally’ approach to editing (analogous to groups recording without direction from an ‘auteur’ producer, leading to an end product whose audio quality is diminished but has greater charm). I’m sure that stemmed (a) from how sensitive we personally would have been at that time to editorial suggestion or interference, and (b) because we were a long way from having the skills you need to be an editor (some might say still are, if they’re wading through this!).
We did however turn down several proposed contributions, including one by a member of a certain pop group of whom we were fans. I meanly decreed in my mind that he should stick to music and leave the writing to us! I’ve always felt bad about that since.
But yes, I totally agree that the experience of working together on something was exciting – and instructive to two habitual loners like ourselves. Our chief obstacle as co-editors was of course one of us being in Scotland and the other in London in the days before email.
D: What reactions do you recall the magazine getting?
A: I don’t remember a huge amount, but then it was so long ago and many things have sunk into the depths of lost memories. I do recall the feedback from Richey, as noted previously. That would have been around the time of the Manic’s first Heavenly singles I think. I also remember doing a phone interview with David Belcher at the Glasgow Herald. Belcher was something of an iconic figure in the Scottish broadsheets at the time, championing lots of music and culture that the English broadsheets wouldn’t have touched with a bargepole. I sent him a copy of Fire Raisers on the off-chance he might like it, and then he phoned wanting to do a short feature. I’m sure I have the cutting somewhere in the vaults… The thing is, I remember thinking at the time that the article was a great coup and that it would surely increase sales. The truth was that it had an almost no impact at all. Except possibly to have the Scottish Library write to me and demand copies of all issues for their collection. They never paid, either.
Some years later, however, I sold a copy of my third Melody Haunts My Reverie fanzine to a bloke in The Cavern in Exeter. He came to be a good friend (even published my book of Pop witterings!) and it turned out he remembered buying copies of Fire Raisers at the local small press outlet and being impressed. So you know, people did take notice.
D: Having been tipped off by you, I made a special trip to King’s Cross early on the morning that particular edition of the Glasgow Herald was published to get hold of a copy – feeling somewhat like a playwright on the morning after press night, or Kerouac buying the New York papers the day On The Road was reviewed when I read: ‘Fire Raisers fits in somewhere between Granta and Sniffin’ Glue’!
That’s quite heartening, that Rupert had encountered Fire Raisers before he’d encountered you. It’s a perennial concern when you’re sending out writing into the world in no matter what form: are your words connecting with people and having an effect? Or are people completely disinterested? How can you know?
Being the hoarding type, I’ve kept a file of letters that first my fanzines and later Fire Raisers generated, and there are a fair few. There’s a great one from a Shaun Johnson of Melton Mowbray, who tried to get his local radical bookshop to stock the second or third issue of Fire Raisers only for them to refuse because ‘it didn’t sell well last time’! Shaun went on to say that Fire Raisers ‘is the best literary magazine on the market’, which may not be that far from the truth, given that the lifetime of literary magazines then as now tended to be brief, leaving plenty of windows where there wasn’t much or even any competition.
Other radical concerns were keener – a publication called the Exeter Flying Post got in touch to ask for ‘a statement of our aims’, which I presume I gave them.
And it was through Fire Raisers that we made contact with folk like Robin Tomens, who would later go on to write for Tangents. He bought the first issue in Rough Trade and wrote recognising Fire Raisers and his Ego were kindred spirits. Balancing up Richey’s verdict, Robin said he loved Carrie’s ‘Snowboots’ story, and Sam Matthew’s piece in the first issue. And that Fire Raisers was ‘beautifully produced’.
A: Although I would say it, I also liked Snowboots. Not sure what Carrie would think of it now, though perhaps she will let us know in the comments.
D: I think the tale of the beach shelter needs to be retold.
A: Oh gosh, the beach shelter… This was for the cover photo for FR 3, for which we wanted to borrow Paul Morley’s infamous ‘boredom or Fire Engines, you can’t have both’ line. I had this idea of painting the slogan (with ‘Raisers’ in place of ‘Engines’ of course!) on a beach shelter in my then hometown of Troon. I did the painting on the wall at around midnight after a night at my friend Stephen’s ‘Subculture’ club (I spent the night with a paintbrush and a small jar of white paint in my pocket) and then we went down the following day to take the photos. The cover star was a Subculture regular called Rozlyn, who I barely remember now. I think we asked her because she had a parka, though you can’t really tell that from the photo. There is also a photo from a few weeks later when you hitched up to Troon, I think. I’m standing beside my artwork, dressed in anorak and desert boots. Height of fashion.
The real interest in the story though is from several years later, when I had left Troon and was living in Devon. My mum mentioned on the phone that there had been a story on the front page of the local paper about an arson attack on a beach shelter in town. Seems the paper thought that the graffiti on what remained of the torched shelter (touched up just a few weeks earlier by our friends Andrea and Suzy) suggested that there were a group of arsonists at work in the town… naturally my mother was anxious about a visit from the local constabulary! I suspect the truth was that a bunch of glue-sniffing casuals got bored and cold on the front one night and decided to warm themselves.
The shelter was rebuilt, and these days the only graffiti you’ll find on it is of the ‘Baz 4 Shaz’ type. No imagination in the young people these days…
Alistair has posted the second of our four-part reflection on Fire Raisers, in which we get our teeth stuck into taking risks, stylistic tics, and graphic design. Part one is here, and part three will appear on this blog next week. All three issues are available as PDFs or paper copies for purchase via either link. Do feel free to comment, whether as a contributor, a reader from back in the day, or on the basis of coming upon the magazines for the first time.
About twenty years ago, having respectively produced a fair quantity of solo publications, Alistair Fitchett and I joined forces to co-edit a new magazine that for many and various reasons we stopped short of calling literary or cultural, though in truth it had aspirations to be both. In the first of four parts which will alternate across this blog and Alistair’s Unpopular, we discuss our motivations and the place in the world of such a magazine back then. We are making all three issues of Fire Raisers available in PDF format, so that you can make sense of the conversation, and perhaps enjoy the magazines in their own right.
We also have a few paper copies of each issue left; click here to purchase these perfect early Christmas presents for the literary fanzine fetishist in your life. Or for yourself, of course.
Oh, and if there do happen to be any Fire Raisers contributors or readers lurking out there, feel free to pitch in your comments as we go along.
Daniel: Was the motivation behind Fire Raisers the same as that which led us to produce our solo fanzines? What do you think we were we aiming to achieve?
Alistair: After so many years it is difficult to recall exactly what motivations might have been driving me personally, yet I suspect they were very much the same as they were when making the solo fanzines in so much as they were about fulfilling a need to communicate and to share enthusiasms. Indeed that motivation is one that has been largely unaltered in what I’ve done myself since, with other solo fanzines, through Tangents and blogs etc. Having said that, I also concede that the motivation for Fire Raisers was probably subtly different, given that it was a shared idea. Perhaps we felt that Fire Raisers was a step up from the solo fanzines, a sense of getting a bit more serious and grown up about things. Certainly looking back at them now there is a sense of that, I think.
That said, I also think in many ways we didn’t raise our sights high enough, didn’t get anywhere serious enough. In retrospect that sense of refusing to compete in the traditional market place and staying resolutely underground held it back, I think. Looking back on the premise of Fire Raisers, I wonder if that had been a pitch for a more mainstream magazine with advertising and so on, it might have worked. Maybe not at the time, but certainly in the later ’90s and early noughties perhaps.
But then, that idea of being a ‘proper’ magazine was not really what we were trying to achieve anyway, so it seems a moot point. And actually it seems telling that we probably defined our aims in terms of what we DIDN’T want as opposed to what we did. And whilst the ‘manifesto’ editorial inserts still seem stirring and passionate, I’m not sure it’s exactly clear where those manifestos intended to lead. In short, I’m not sure we really had the slightest clue about what we intended to achieve! I’m not sure that we particularly cared either…
D: Yes, there was that sense of ‘Oh my god! We’re doing it… we’re fuckin’ doing it’, as the caption we used from a cartoon showing a subverted, rioting version of Tintin had it. It almost didn’t matter what exactly it was that we were doing. My hazy recollection is however that we were actually collectively quite sure about we thought the magazine should be, but I don’t think we were at that point quite able to articulate it with any great subtlety in print, especially when we tried to produce text co-operatively – to my mind it reads as a particularly contrived and diluted Alistair-Dan hybrid.
We were certainly totally clueless about marketing and selling the ‘concept’, as well as antagonistic towards the compromise inherent in giving over time and energy to those practices; it was all about the words and pictures, and putting them together. Still, each issue shows a marked progression in terms of making the magazine more accessible, at least in a superficial sense – the cover got more inviting with each outing. That came about partly because of the dressing down I got from the man in Compendium bookshop in Camden, who took it upon himself to critique the cover and contents in forensic detail one day when I dropped in to see how issue one was selling (not very well). I didn’t fancy that happening again so we took on board his suggestions!
Had we persisted beyond three issues – had desktop publishing been accessible to us then; had I not disappeared off to France – I think the penny might have dropped, and we would have tried to put the magazine on a more professional footing. The notion that it was a step up from our solo efforts suggests that too.
A: Ah, isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing? Really though it’s impossible to consider those ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’ isn’t it? Because the needs that drove you to France, and the impending (or eventual) arrival of affordable publishing technologies were very real and, one could argue, equally undeniable. Our collective fiercely held opinions on commercialisation and almost OCD level obsession with not ‘selling out’ would also have inevitably hampered much forward movement for some time too, I fear. Not that that’s a bad thing necessarily, but nevertheless I think it would have been a very real barrier to making progress in terms of creating a product with much of a potential audience.
Interestingly I met with an old colleague from Art school the other week. We had not seen each other in twenty years, but he told me that he sometimes uses my old fanzine experiences as an analogy in business coaching situations. It all hinges on that sense of micro-conflicts between otherwise apparently similar people, or at least people with similar interests and roles. So that whilst as a fanzine writer I might have been arguing openly and heatedly with another fanzine writer about, say, which Talulah Gosh single is the best, to an observer it appears an illogical source of conflict. To the outsider it seems like, ‘hey, both these people love this group I’ve never heard of! Why don’t they use that shared love to make something great happen?’ So the micro-conflicts are damaging and holding back potential growth or positive development. Of course you can argue that those very micro-conflicts are at the heart of obsessive pop-cultural consumption, and that they are indeed desirable in that media and age context, which means that maybe the analogy doesn’t cross-contextual boundaries. Nevertheless I think it’s very useful, and I think helps to explain why I don’t think Fire Raisers could have grown beyond what it was within the context it found itself.
D: I was party back then to more micro-conflicts than I care to think about! Politics is of course also largely about micro-conflicts, with the same resulting positives and negatives.
D: Who or what were our inspirations, and our enemies?
A: I’m struggling to think of inspirations. Didn’t we think we were very much out on a limb, doing something different? I like to think so. And I like to think that we were fairly true to that. Certainly there were lots of dire small press fanzines that were doing fiction and other such things, but were they mixing it up like we intended? I’m not sure. Certainly I suspect things like Debris were a reference point, and to some extent people like i-D and The Face perhaps, at least in terms of those publications’ original ethos. Though by the time of Fire Raisers i-D and The Face were probably seen as much as enemies as anything else. I think perhaps the idea of the ’60s underground press was a reference point. IT and such like. Also, I would guess the more politically minded situationist publications were in your mind Daniel?
But yes, there was a lot of importance put on the idea of enemies in those days, wasn’t there? I am not sure if that was a reflection of the age, or of ours. I am not sure if people of that age now feel the same sense of having to take sides, of being for this and against that. I suspect in reality things are not much different and that the percentage of any given generation that really cares about such things at a given age remains roughly the same. But as for who our enemies were? Is ‘everyone else’ too flippant an answer? Perhaps so, and yet it feels honest and indicative of our glorious naiveté.
D: Oh yes, I don’t think it was until a while after the ashes of Fire Raisers had cooled that I finally got myself out of that situationist straitjacket. It was an unfortunate part of the baggage that stopped us from trying to sell or market the magazine. Situationism’s critique of capitalism was so devastating, and its political aspirations so remote, that for a long time I felt bleakly trapped by it. That came out in what I wrote for Fire Raisers. Having Guy Debord and Mark Eitzel as chief inspirations is not a great combination if you’re after producing happy text, or for that matter, a happy bunny writing it.
The fact that we felt unable to name more than a couple of even vaguely like-minded enterprises in the first issue – both in any case the projects of people who contributed or went on to contribute to the magazine – suggests that what you say is right. We did feel out on a limb. Debris was great, but it was more properly journalistic in its approach than we ever envisaged being. I never really bought into The Face and i-D thing, though later, when I lived in Bristol and started going to clubs , I bought them out of curiosity (and a lack of anything else to go for) in terms of that culture.
I think I was hoping to elicit from you particular individuals who inspired us as well as publications, whether that was personally or in a literary sense. As well as Debord and Eitzel, I was big on Georges Perec at the time; an excellent stylistic corrective to all the Kerouac I’d read. And personally Ross Reid (Cornish fanzine writer and sports journalist) was also a huge inspiration for me – in fact (now it can be told) he was the subject of ‘Spike’, the opening article in issue one. In February 1990 – in a classic example of micro-conflict! – he sent out a circular called ‘Anger the angels’ to certain friends and two of the Esurient groups with one of the classic photos from the May ’68 riots on the front, telling us all to ‘wake up!’ and issuing me with an injunction about getting on with Fire Raisers: ‘don’t fiddle with matchsticks while you can/could blowtorch the fucking lot.’ He demanded – alongside what I now see is an isolated and ever-so-slightly paranoid plea for contact – that we think big. We tried.
And of course we should direct a nod of appreciation in Max Frisch’s direction, for it was his play’s title that we appropriated for the magazine. Likewise a nod to Fiona of our Devonian contingent of friends (and contributors), who originally passed it our way. I haven’t reread the play since, but what I recall is a blend of Brecht, anarchism and something more conservative, the end result being not dissimilar to the recent German film The Edukators.
Anyone else you would add to the list?
A: Well, as you were perhaps moving on from the Kerouac obsession, perhaps I was moving into it. Hence the large photo of the man himself accompanying my new Orleans missive. I think there was something of the stream of consciousness prose in the Big Flame extracts too, although that was tempered with some conscious stylistic editing too. I suspect my Sylvia Plath obsession came slightly later…
Like you, I had never particularly bought into the i-D magazine culture, although as an Art student perhaps I was more inclined to dabble. Certainly I had loved The Face since the early ‘80s, and Blitz (which was run partly by Paul Morley, yes?) was a regular on my desk, although by the time of around ’86 into ’87 I’d had my head turned by things that would shortly coagulate into the dreaded ‘indie’ style, and this was very much seen to be in opposition to the glossy ‘style’ magazines.
I always thought it was funny that several of the images that were in my first (handwritten!) fanzine Delight In The New Wonderland were from fashion spreads in The Face. And I liked that the image we used to accompany the ‘Helsinki’ piece in Fire Raisers 3 about clubs came from i-D.
D: Was there a place in the world at the time for the kind of magazine we were aiming to produce? Is there one now?
A: This is something I’ve thought about often over the years, not specifically in reference to Fire Raisers, but in general. And I must admit that it is with something of a resigned sigh when I conclude that no, there isn’t and no, there wasn’t. Not if one wanted to make a living out of it at least.
I think if you drew a Venn diagram of potential markets for the things that ‘we’ like(d), then you are left with a tiny area that, globally, may never amount to any more than a few thousand people. Which in real terms is less than negligible. Our disinterest in pretty much anything remotely approaching ‘mainstream’ (or that our interest in anything remotely mainstream is placed in unfamiliar contexts) also precludes the potential marketplace for anything we might produce.
That’s not a criticism though, and nor is it a reason for not doing something. It’s just an observation and an acknowledgement.
D: I suppose it depends upon how much ground we might have conceded to the mainstream, or, to put it less grudgingly, how hard we might have worked to bring what we liked in a cultural sense to a readership that might be less familiar with it. Certainly we were never going to make a living from the magazine itself, but it might have led more directly to the chance of making a living from freelancing. But we were actively engaged in the enrichment of our own cultural lives, if no-one else’s. A salary, food and a roof were never going to be enough, with all due admission that we were and are lucky enough to be living in a time and place when we can say that.
If the cultural blend had been suitably varied – and I think it was well on the way to becoming so – we might have generated interest in and – to use your analogy – shaded a fair number of those intersections at the centre of that Venn diagram. If the way the internet has evolved proves anything, it’s that there are an almost infinite number of overlapping or interlinked musical and cultural localities; in our own small way, with our contributors’ collection of varied interests, we anticipated this – and contributed to that evolution itself when it began to happen.
A: There’s a symbiotic relationship, isn’t there, between our understanding of those cultural connections and the media through which we exploit the links. So without the possibilities offered by the Internet, for example, would our sense of connectedness be lessened? Or increased? Does the physical size of those distributed networks impact on that? So for example, is there any less a sense of belonging to a group when the membership is measured in the millions as opposed to the hundreds? And how ‘real’ is the sense of belonging? And how do you measure or judge the ‘reality’ anyway?
Sorry, that’s a lot of questions and thoughts starting to get up their own arses, but I do think it’s interesting. And I don’t think that Fire Raisers could have increased its audience without changing its fundamental form. Which ties in to what we were saying about contexts.
These two pages from Pantry For The World are the continuation of the piece comparing and contrasting Momus and McCarthy (which began here), with dollops of Billy Childish, Wings of desire, Jeanette Winterson and Malcolm Lowry thrown in for good measure. Laying my text over an interview with Nick Currie from French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles, this is just about the best laid-out page I ever pasted together. I love the photo of McCarthy, obviously taken around the time they were releasing ‘Get a knife between your teeth’.
But my verdict on The enraged will inherit the earth was extremely harsh – ‘Sitar-y guitar sounds and meek mediocrity’! It’s a much better album than this suggests, and as one of only three McCarthy made, it has to be cherished, though it’s true it’s not quite at the level of their first and third. But it contains some of Malcolm Eden’s most striking lyrics (‘What our boys are fighting for’ neatly aligns soldiering and football hooliganism) and some of his most devastating, unsettling and arch attacks on the liberal left (‘I’m not a patriot but’ skewering those who lent their support for central American ‘freedom fighters’ while simultaneously withholding it from the ‘terrorists’ ‘not far away’ from Britain). And Tim Gane’s melodies are as lovely in essence as Laetitia Sadier would make them on Banking, violence and the inner life today and later with Stereolab.
To continue the compare and contrast theme here in the 21st century, let’s pair one of those lovely Gane melodies in the form of ‘An address to the better off’ with Momus’ Stock, Aitken & Waterman parody ‘Lifestyles of the rich and famous’ from his Don’t stop the night LP. Plus the video of ‘Keep an open mind or else’ for its rarity value.
The second page has Momus’ explanation of who Momus was. En français.
Though he tried, Wim Wenders could never top Wings of desire. Never mind the wonderful German actors – Nick Cave! And Peter Falk! In the same movie!
- McCarthy – An address to the better off
- Momus – Lifestyles of the rich and famous (via UbuWeb Sound)
- McCarthy – Keep an open mind or else
‘People are psychedelic to each other, under certain ideal conditions.’
I’d been in two minds about reading Jonathan Lethem’s You don’t love me yet. Mixed reviews suggested a drop in standard from The fortress of solitude; that the subject matter was music didn’t help – having spent so much time with pop groups (close up and at one remove), I wasn’t sure that I could cope with a fictional account. (See also: Toby Litt’s I play the drums in a band called Okay.) Add to this the fact that the British paperback cover is a shocker, a Battenberg chick-lit confection that’s particularly depressing coming after the fabulous and perfectly judged covers for The fortress of solitude and Men and cartoons, and it looked like I’d be waiting until Lethem’s next book to resume our acquaintance.
But then last year I came across the Bye Bye Blackbirds, and their wonderful, harmony-drenched recording of ‘Monster eyes’, a song they construed out of the few lyrical fragments relayed by Lethem in You don’t love me yet. As I discovered on reading the novel, in impersonating a fictional group, the Blackbirds had added another layer of appropriation on top of the story.
Certainly You don’t love me yet is much lighter than The fortress of solitude, Motherless Brooklyn or As she crawled across the table – but it’s precisely the heaviness of those books, their concentrated force, which might allow a reader to let Lethem to have some fun. The result is a colour-saturated but not inaccurate picture of how a group’s music comes together. It helps that the novel is set in the underbelly of LA – from this distance, as mysterious a place in its way as the celebrity topside is over-exposed. It’s not perfect – aspects of the story are not as satisfactorily fleshed-out as all has been in previous works, and the novel fizzles out in the way that groups often do, but it makes a bold attempt to get under the skin of a musician, giving us the feel of what it might be like to play the bass in a band which comes to be called Monster Eyes.
You don’t love me yet is in no way overpowered by musical nods obscure or otherwise, but a Flying Nun follower can’t help smiling at an explicit reference to the Verlaines when the question of band names used as song titles is discussed. My fondness for minutiae encouraged, I begin to wonder whether Lucinda, who leads the drive of the narrative, is so called for the A Certain Ratio song of that name. And might the novel’s depressed kangaroo be a salute to mid-eighties jazz-punk antagonists Big Flame, who featured one splayed on the cover of their first single, and thereafter always adorned their sleeves with a large marsupial? It would seem unlikely, but I can’t help hoping that Lethem has both Sextet and Rigour on his shelves.
The Blackbirds rustled up ‘Monster eyes’ for a slot supporting Jonathan Lethem reading in Berkeley, which set me wondering whether other groups in other cities brought their versions of the song to life when he read in them. Are there in fact a whole host of songs called ‘Monster eyes’ out there now? Not a whole host, but at least three or four; Lethem promotes such efforts via his ‘Promiscuous materials’ project. Eventually – possibly after he is dead – a group may take it all one stage further, decide to call themselves Monster Eyes, and construct their set out of the song titles that Lethem gives in the novel.
What I couldn’t work out from my rudimentary research is whether the same trick was also worked with The fortress of solitude, in which a part of the book is given over to a liner note account of the career of Barrett Rude Jr. and the Distinctions. Much harder to pull off, I suspect, but has anyone brought the fiction of their big hit ‘Bothered blue’ to life?
Not so long ago the Factory fan behind The construction in hand moved to Amsterdam. He has cunningly used this relocation to perform the conceptual act of writing about the entire Factory Benelux catalogue from within the ‘Ne’ of Benelux. While eating space cake and drinking Westmalle. The three-part result is unusual for a sustained piece of music criticism in that even as it imparts notes on the cultural education that can be achieved by paying close attention to sleeves, inspirations and lyrics, it is also very funny. Though the comedy is probably enhanced if you happen to be a Factory nut too.
The excellent Memory lapses are also well worth reading.
More than a bit prissy, this piece, but it was genuinely touching to be given a book in a bookshop, even if as I suspect was the case the bookseller in question ran her shop as a pretext for social interaction rather than because she needed to make a living.
It’s been years since I read or re-read any of the many authors on these two pages, save for C.S. Lewis, inspired by Philip Pullman’s ideological objections. I forget quite why I did it, but I made up the novel Edward’s crumby day and its author Grantley Trillo, and got an earful from one or two people for doing so. I’ve occasionally felt that by way of restoring the natural order, I should write a novel of that title and with the characters I sketchily outlined, but given that no-one uses the word ‘crumby’ any more, I would have to pretend that it had been discovered in a distant relative’s attic where it had lain undisturbed since it was written in the seventies.
I still maintain affection for Richard Brautigan’s books. I used to wonder whether the Coen Brothers would ever adapt one of his stories, as it seems to me that two or three of them have taken some essence from Brautigan – The big Lebowski, O brother, where art thou?, perhaps The Hudsucker proxy.
Of Bukowski’s Factotum my chief memory is of Henry Chinaski being the sole person in his class of would-be taxi drivers to know that the only time it’s legal to take your eyes off the road is when you involuntarily do so by sneezing.
Without at all wishing to be dismissive of how potently affecting his stories are, J.D. Salinger, like Kerouac, increasingly seems to me to be an author of truths for people in their teens and twenties. And I wonder if Salinger’s silence and Kerouac’s burgeoning misanthropy in later life relates to each man’s realisation of this, and that they lacked the energy or the wherewithal to re-establish themselves as authors of truths for what comes after that explosion of cynicism and idealism. They may in fact be extreme examples of the connected generality that people read less fiction and more non-fiction as they age.
The book end people are from a book I used to spend hours perusing at my grandmother’s house, The Film Show annual. The film stars are ‘Bachelor girl in Hollywood’, Suzan Ball, and ‘avid reader’ William Holden, who is shown in another photo with his life partner: ‘Bill relaxes in the garden with his wife Brenda Marshall who gave up a promising film career to look after her husband and children.’
She herself was a victim of that lust for books which rages in the breast like a demon, and which cannot be stilled save by the frequent and plentiful acquisition of books. This passion is more common, and more powerful, than most people suppose. Book lovers are thought by unbookish people to be gentle and unworldly, and perhaps a few of them are so. But there are others who will lie and scheme and steal to get books as wildly and unconscionably as the dope-taker in pursuit of his drug. They may not want the books to read immediately, or at all; they want them to possess, to range on their shelves, to have at command. They want books as a Turk is thought to want concubines – not to be hastily deflowered, but to be kept at their master’s call, and enjoyed more often in thought than in reality.
– from Tempest-tost, by Robertson Davies
You won’t be surprised to learn that my tastes are pretty obscure to the family, meaning that all but my nearest and most dear would not dare give me a book for Christmas without it having been prescribed by the list that I compile usually too late in December to allow any of the items to be ordered in time for the great unwrapping. This year I drew a blank on:
Adam Dant Have a nice day!
JG Farrell The siege of Krishnapur
Clare Messud The last life
Joseph O’Neill Netherland
Rosemary Sutcliff The silver branch
Paul Verhaeghan Omega minor
But the folks did well to lay their hands on Joanna Kavenna’s Inglorious, Jonathan Lethem’s You don’t love me yet, Murakami’s After dark, Ben Goldacre’s Bad science, and Peelie’s The Olivetti chronicles. Robertson Davies’ Murther and walking spirits also appeared on my draft list – I fancied reading some more of him, having enjoyed The Cornish trilogy some considerable number of years ago. I went off to find my copy of that trilogy on one of the many bookshelves around the house to remind myself what else he had written, and what should I find nestling next to it but a copy of that very novel about murder and ghosts. So I started reading and slowly – disconcertingly – the realisation dawned that I had read it before. Not for the first time, the years and the ever-accumulating piles of text that have passed under my eyes and into my consciousness had compacted any memory I had of it quite flat (a novel by Jeanette Winterson, obviously I forget which, suffered the same fate). The bookshelves revealed that I also owned The Salterton trilogy, so I moved on to reading that. I am pretty sure that its text is new to me, though at times the story nags me with its familiarity; there’s no déjà vu but somehow I know where each section of the trilogy is heading. Perhaps this is the result of two more or less logical imaginations locking together in pleasurable combat rather than because the reader has forgotten hearing a dramatisation on the radio a decade or two ago.
Well, allow me to introduce myself to you as an advocate of Ornamental Knowledge. You like the mind to be a neat machine, equipped to work efficiently, if narrowly, and with no extra bits or useless parts. I like the mind to be a dustbin of scraps of brilliant fabric, odd gems, worthless but fascinating curiosities, tinsel, quaint bits of carving, and a reasonable amount of healthy dirt. Shake the machine and it goes out of order; shake the dustbin and it adjusts itself beautifully to its new position.
The ghost of Richard Yates will spend eternity dwelling upon the irony of Revolutionary Road having its readership boosted by the starry trio of Mendes, Winslet and DiCaprio; I doubt the ghost of Robertson Davies will ever experience a similar sort of bittersweet gratification, despite the obvious televisual adaptability of his comedies of manners. Nothing like as bleak and acerbic as Yates’ work, and far more forgiving of human frailty, The Salterton trilogy nevertheless suffers a little by reflecting the 1950s mores it gently sends up. From the vantage point of the 21st century the majority of Davies’ characters are as ridiculous as they are well-drawn. But when authorially he drops the sense of superiority for which he chides the less self-aware members of his cast, then wisdom, wit and sympathy come together in a way that has as much to say about life as Yates.
One final, irresistible quote from Tempest-tost:
“My eyes are turned outward, toward the world,” said Freddy. “Yours are turned inward, toward yourself. In the innermost chamber of your spirit, Gristle, you kneel in constant adoration before a mirror.”
Griselda smiled lazily, and threw a fish sandwich at her sister.