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Drawing A Line
T h e N o v e l s
|THIS IS A DANGEROUS SPACE, so let us clear the table before we get the knives and forks
I have written about books before butand I find this a big butnot by authors I knew personally. So at the log-rolling arse-licking, hand-patting, toe-sucking jamboree of the literary review, let me declare an interest. I have known and liked this author for a couple of dogs' lifetimes. So far, at least, our friendship has had this virtue, that like the dogs waiting for bones under the table, we have licked our own arses and only sniffed each others'.
Now for a couple of stiff cocktails, or a dose of your preferred pre-prandial anaesthetic. You will need a strong stomach for this dinner. Feeling steady? Then let us go in.
In my Father's house are many mansions, and many of these we hesitate to enter. Especially the cellarsthere are hells down there, hells of the abyss and of the labyrinth, hells that writhe and bite and burrow down beyond the Earth's core to the very centre of our being. We know where some of these hells are. We live quite close to some. Soon we may inhabit them. Some of us already do. Turn down the music, you may hear your neighbours screaming.
"There, but for the Grace of God, go I" said a Catholic prelate watching a Protestant burn. He did. The Protestants burned him a few years later. Well, that's one way to get your bon-mot in the language. He wasn't the only one to die, but the others didn't die with irony.
Damn, I'm rambling again. This gas-mask's doing something to the air... Breathe deeply. Aaaaah.
There is a door in Deansgate. Behind it are innumerable locks, but you can just walk in. A password ("I HAVE MONEY" often works) will admit you to the Valhalla Halal Smorgasbord ("all our victims have their throats cut facing east."), proprietor D Britton, purveyor of Strong Meat.
THIS IS THE CASTLE OF NOGGIN THE NOG. NOGGIN THE NOG DIED HERE A LONG TIME AGO.
D Britton, prop., is a plump and jovial soul, as befits a restauranteur. A couple of small terriers, bred for ratting in the middens of the human soul, lick his wounds affectionately.
There is no bar here; there are no tables. We can improvise or bring our own. Even the cabaret requires participation, and a bucket.
(There is another figure in the shadows. A long, pale figure, dressed in black. It's Mike Butterworth, Dave's astral twin; editor, associate and whipper-in. Hi, Mike! This is actually a friendly place.)
Dave offers us a choice of doors. The doors have names: LORD HORROR, MENG & ECKER, MOTHERFUCKERS, REVERBSTORM, PJ Proby. They all admit us to the same dark space. Here sound and light are filtered through uncertainty. The Funk fluctuates. Flickering neon flirts with irresolute shadows. It is cold here, but the ice is rotten and the air is foetid. Sometimes we see the precipice, sometimes we only sense it. We must descend, and yet there are no stairs.
There is a point, now overdue, where you have to stop and say what you are talking about. So let us do that, before this becomes a Rosicrucian text, accessible only to initiates.
This is not easy to explain.
David Britton, author, entrepreneur, barrow-boy, pieman, scallywag and intermittent prisoner of conscience, is the source, the holy fountI wish I could explain this more prosaicallyfrom which springs a stream of workbooks, comics, CDs, debts, court records, correspondence, journalism of all kinds and by many hands... if there is a form it has not yet found, you can be sure it's feeling its way therethat is... what is the word I want? Fecund? Proliferant? Infectious? Invasive? Viral?
Everything that touches it becomes part of it. From drivelling magistrate to gibbering friend, whatever touches or is touched by this becomes part of it. This piece itself will cease to be mineif it ever wasas soon as it is posted. It is an eerie feeling. This is the Mittelland, where life and art embrace. Not a coy coupling in a faerie grove; the trees here are burdened with strange fruit, and the struggle to be on top is ceaseless...
I must get out into the fresh air for a moment. It was a sane instinct that told me I should keep this shit out of my head.
What do you mean, I can't leave till I've finished?
thair's nae puddy if ya doon't et yur groooool!
Well, at least give me some of that bottled oxygen. It's stifling in here, despite the cold, and the smell of blood is playing the devil with my sinuses.
OK, let's start with the novels. There are two of them, so far: LORD HORROR and MOTHERFUCKERS.
Question: Have you ever tried to understand the phenomenon of Nazism and the Holocaust?
If not, then it is probable that none of this will make much sense. If you are one of the many that hasand it is a sad fact that swastikas sell booksthen you will at least have tasted the delirium that drives the Brittonic demon.
Question: If Nazi monstrosity was not unique, and it is difficult to argue that it was, in anything but detailthe butchery of the defenceless and the conjuring of hate to fuel this butchery are commonplace, from the humble jobbing of death squads around the world to the industrialised slaughter of concentration camps, from the rustic genocide of Rwanda to the great totalitarian purges of conventional dictators, from East Timor to Cambodia via the Ku Klux Klanthen how do we confront those elements within our common humanity which produce these nightmares? If anyone has the complete answer, will they please share it with the rest of us.
Here is another commonplace. One of the ways we absorb the force of things we fearand this response is as old as fear itselfis through comedy. Now, how close can you go to the thing you fear and remain comic? Come a little closer to the stove, my child. You can feel the heat, but you cannot see inside from over there.
Which do we fear more, to see ourselves as the predator or the victim? That question is not as easy as it looks, except for fools and sociopaths. As I said earlier, this is a dangerous place.
OK! The novels... We're getting nearer.
Fuck, man, this is the Brittonic Hel-house, where everything leaks into everything else. It's a philosophical plumber's nightmare. We are going DOWN. It's DARK. We need harnesses and helmets, headtorches and morphine ampoules. Entering the world of these novels is like abseiling at night off a dodgy warthog, with the growing conviction that a maniac with a razor is playing with the rope above.
Hallucinations from the comics keep flickering around me. This is a world in which RAPE is an acronym for Repugnants Against Penis Envy. Look! an eyeball has just dropped in my martiniand without a cocktail stick! This is a place where standards are definitely slipping. At least it's getting a bit warmer.
This is the realm of Hel, the Norse goddess who feeds her subterranean fires with the bodies of the unheroic dead. Half woman, half skeleton. Daughter of Loki, mistress of the hidden flame, stoker of volcanoes. The walls of the abyss are slimed with blood and shit.
There is a part of me that is not happy. I think it's most of me. So pass the anaesthetic. I have to know what's down there.
OK, here's a flakey bit. Let's drape some slings around and tie on here. Do we still have the table and cutlery? Good. Here comes a troop of drenched and headless black Jewesses carrying tureens and chafing dishes. And a dish of frogs' legs to remind us that the first author of the Aryan fantasy was a Frenchman. Imagine, a Frog thinking he was a fucking prince!
Oops! Pass the gin and quinine, quick; the delirium is getting
Let's start again.
Beyond the shoulder of Attermire, in the haze, are places where I walked with my father as a boy. My father then was younger than I am now. To my right, over towards Giggleswick, are hillsides where I have walked with my own son, looking for Dead Man's Cave. ( It smells of dead fish, which is strange. ) Further to my right is Gaping Gill, a suitable entrance to the underworld.
My parents' generation were always 'drawing the line'. As a child, it was not a phrase which had much meaning for me. The only line I recognised was the horizon, and that retreats as fast as we approach it.
They were everywhere, these lines. They still are. Layer upon layer of them. I have drawn some myself, in the dubious pomp of parenthood. They were, they are the tripwires of the booby-traps of Chaos, the pentagram whose points define the Magic Circle. They map the boundaries of the acceptable, and so, inexorably, the landscape of the group. Ultimately, at the Alamo, a line drawn in the sand; it divides us from not us. It may not be safer in here, but at least we are together. We all do it, one way or another. Not simple things, these lines.
The lives of my parents' generation can be seen as an historical snack: the Great Depression sandwiched between two cataclysmic wars. ( We are still digesting their experiences, ) They had good reason to make charms against Chaos, to draw lines here and here and over there. The phrase, I guess, they inherited from their parents.
"I draw the line at..."
It is my grandfather I am looking for, and a tale of his about the day he took a man to get him killed.
My granddad was in the trenches in Flanders for most of the so-called Great War, except for a period convalescing after being gassed. (Remember Flanders? Mud, trenches, no trees, mud, half a million dead guys...) Apart from being there, he was unreasonably lucky.
He should have died. He was a forward observer. No man's land was his workplace, the trenches were the suburbs he came home to. He ceased to care much about dying. Dying was what you did; staying alive was just the way you passed the time.
There was an officerthis is not a unique storywho had made my grandfather the particular object of his spite while training, finally stopping my granddad's leave before embarkation, so he was unable to see his first and newborn child before he went off to be killed for the ambitions of his betters. Amid all the slaughter, all the meaningless deafening chaos, my granddad kept a special hell in his heart reserved for this man.
Eventually this officer was posted to the front. My grandfather was told to show him round their section of the lines. He took the man on a nightmare tour of no man's land, its scenic horrors and its most exposed places. He was quite happy for the man to get killed, but he wanted to enjoy his terror before he died. When they were under fire he couldn't stop grinning.
Eventually, in a shell-hole full of bursting corpses, the officer broke down, blubbing uncontrollably; he had shat himself. Blood and shit; the great catharsis. At this point, my grandfather relented. The sport had gone out of it. He waited while the man cleaned himself up in the shell-hole's font of putrescent water, then took him home to the trenches. He even felt sufficiently ashamed of himself to promise he would keep these personal details secret. It was an easy promise. It gave him an edge, and anyway he didn't think either of them would live long. At that point, they still had to get back to the trenches.
(I don't know what happened to the other guy. My granddad became a headmaster.)
I used to love this story as a boy. I used to ask my granddad to tell it, and I can still see his great beaked face, wreathed in pipesmoke, as I recollect it. (... men of Bideford in Devon, and they laid them on the ballast down below. That's from The Last Fight of The Revenge. He used to recite it. ) I wonder now if he thought of killing the man himself. He could have got away with it. Maybe that wasn't the point, but it's a fine distinction. I wish I'd asked him, but after I grew up we lived on different sides of an imaginary line.
My great-uncle Harry died at Passchendaele. He was a field-gunner. He didn't have to die when he did. He could have retreated; he just couldn't back down. The line had collapsed, the rest of his team were dead, but he stayed at his gun alone, firing over open sights, covering the retreat of the infantry. He was killed when his position was over-run. He got a mention in despatches and a glowing tribute in the local paper. He was still a teenager, but so were thousands who died with him. He was an attractive lad by all accounts. The valkerie would have loved him as they bore him to the feasting at Valhalla.
(My great-uncle Henry, the eldest of these brothers, was an accountant at Derry & Tom's. He has his own peculiar story, but I never heard that he saw action, so we don't need him here. Bless him.)
So, I'm sitting on the side of Ingleborough. It is a beautiful evening.
Using an old shamanic trick, I summon the spirits of these ancestors. I need their company. They have seen more blood and shit than I have. So, I say, as we set off towards Gaping Gill, here are these two books my friend wrote...
Most of what we read is pretty undemanding. You can usually say it's this type of book, it has this particular flavour, and this is why it interests or irritates you. A quote or two and a pithy phrase, and you're most of the way there. With these two books it isn't that easy. I don't know anything quite like them, and the material is as slippery as fresh entrails. I can see sources that the author has plundered; or some of them, the full list is a lifetime's fun and reading... (Get your blindfold on and take my hand. Trust me. Listen.)
No, that's not Dave; that's from my nine-year old son's copy of Codex Chaos.
No, that's William Blake.
No, that's from Beowulf.
This is from Motherfuckers, the second novel.
Herbie Schopenhaur, the anthropomorphic Volkswagen beetle, driven by the search for meaning, attaches himself to Meng and Ecker, the Lost Boys of a Nazi Never-never land, on a tour of hallucinatory concentration camps. Let's dive into the maelstrom at random:
Snack on that for now. The full text is relentless.
In the first novel, the eponymous Lord Horror and his creepboys, Meng and Ecker, raddled with nostalgia and adrift in a post-apocalyptic world, vainly pursue a literary avatar of Hitler. This Hitler has lost interest in Nazism; he is obsessed with his position in the history of modern art. He is burdened by an increasingly immense and carnivorous penis, Old Shatterhand, which feeds on cheese and crabs. He seeks a manuscript by Schopenhauer, believed to be in Manchester, but before he can read it, Old Shatterhand drowns the library in honey. They become separated. Hitler drifts off into the stars; Old Shatterhand endlessly reproduces itself.
Lord Horror was, briefly, the first book to be banned in Britain for over twenty years. The episode is appropriately odd. It was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, but on the grounds of anti-semitism, and there is more than a suspicion that the real offence was an incidental lampoon of the then Chief Constable of Manchester, James Anderton, who claimed to communicate directly with God. (They had similar beards. Curiously, God ordered him to persecute gays and purveyors of soft porn and protect the death squads of the RUC from prosecution. God moves in mysterious ways.) The ban on Lord Horror was overturned on appeal. A separate ban on the Meng & Ecker comics remains in place. They are the only comics banned in Britain. Cult status by appointment of the State.
The comics are integral to this.
Mice, moves and nephews have devoured my stash of Nasty Tales and Practical Zombie, but as I remember them they have a place in this stew. Testicles the Tautologist... Junkies ate my poodle alive... Manga meets Bernard Manning. Manga for the millennium. Manga from Manchester. Grand Guignol. Surreal. Absurd. The comedy of fear. More. More. Crank it up. Keep stirring.
If you want to know where the limit is, you must go the extra mile.
You can't argue about humour. Either something jerks a laugh out of you or it doesn't. Jokes are elusive and ubiquitous. Clever people mock stupid ones, insiders mock outsiders... but where is inside when the world is inside out? The yin and yang of humour are comfort and unease. Unease is crucial.
Do not come here to be reasonable. The voices of reason are mocked and drowned out. That is the business of comedy. The clown presides here. This is not the place where questions are answered; here our answers are called into question. Life is here, capering and farting, dragging our foolishness and cruelty behind it like a pair of reluctant poodles.
Existentialism meets the rock'n'roll demon behind the pie shop.
There are footsteps on the ceiling. Jessie Matthews is dancing with Sweeney Todd. You can hear the cries of the Wild Hunt baying in the storm outside.
This is Schopenhauer country. The World as Will and Idea. How I see it = How it ought to be. The only problem is that we all see it differently. In the Brittonic classroom: a collage of entrails nailed across the blackboard. (I have a sneaking fondness for Schopenhauer; his essay on cheating at philosophy is a gem.)
There are moral issues discussed herewe're just not used to having them shat into a bucket and our face pushed into the mess while it's still reeking. This from Lord Horror:
How do we make comedy out of this? Welcome to the Auschwitz of Oz.
Estimates are necessarily vague, but somewhere around 55 million people died in WW2, almost all civilians. 20 million Russians, 6 million Jews, 2.5 million gypsies... a million died in the battle for Berlin alone. Oh yeah, and we made bomb that could destroy the planet. ( We think of WW1 as a bloodbath, but that was just foreplay, a flirtation with our powers of destruction. ) When we struggle to grasp the scale of this, we topple into Topsy-turvy-land. 6 million Jews is a Holocaust; 55 million people is just a war, 2.5 million gypsies scarcely rate a mention. And what is the flower that grows upon this midden? Now we have Jews in uniform killing for lebensraum. Gaza is a cage of razor wire, a ghetto waiting for a plague wind. The lives of a thousand Arabs are not worth the fingernail of a Jew, said the rabbi at the funeral of a man who machine-gunned unarmed Arabs at prayer. The martyred dead of Dachau and Auschwitz have a new destiny; their bones are rattled to drown the screams of Jews' victims.
It ain't easy. Ya gotta laugh.
We live with violence. We all live in the shadow of that volcano. (55 million people died in our last local eruption.) We cope with this as best we can. (The World as Will and Idea.) We build ritual fences to protect ourselves. We draw imaginary lines upon the landscape. We build symbolic conduits for the lava.
David Britton draws a different sort of line. A line in the air, a highwire across the crater; a performance, not an act of possession. We have a long pole to balance ourselves: one side is Shocked, the other is Not shocked. Unease is crucial. The Brittonic muse sits chattering on our shoulder. Sometimes she tries to make us panic, sometimes to laugh, always to wobble. Smell the sulphur. Feel the heat. Just listen to the bubbling of the magma.
Let us go up to gaze into the abyss... Let us go down to look up at the sun...
That's Howard Jacobson in Seriously Funny.
We are almost back to where we started from. Soon it will be time to go up to the sunshine.
So what do my granddad and my great-uncle Harry make of Dave's stuff! Well, my granddad would have hated it: he spent years in no man's land and had no wish to go back. My great-uncle Harry? I don't know. He was a promising prizefighter. He couldn't hold down a job. He was the despair of devout parents until he died a hero. And my guess is that a lot of Dave's jokes are to be found on the toilet walls of Valhalla.
Let us go up.
Howard Jacobson again.
I fear to shackle the Brittonic muse with the fetters of meaning, but she's a tough old harridan. See, with one bound, with Occam's razor in one hand and a meat pie in the other, she is free. Let us go up.
Let us go up into the clouds and listen to the lava bubbling.
As Dave said the other day, it's something to do while you're waiting to die. •
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