Book Review: We Were Strangers, an anthology of new stories inspired by Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, edited by Richard Hirst

A Book with the Sound of Its Own Making Covered with Semen…

You’d expect a book that was inspired by the ten tracks on Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures to contain some green and greasy semen somewhere along the line. And this book does not disappoint. From the final fiction, “I Remember Nothing”, by Anne Billson: “I look forward to tasting his green greasy semen again, and laughing with delight, remembering how earlier I found it so repulsive. What a fool I was. It’s a delicacy.”

A metaphor for JD’s music and the whole spectrum of post-punk? At first you’re not too sure, it sounds dodgy, but then, gimme gimme gimme. Dribble, dribble, dribble down chin. They were probably right naming the album Unknown Pleasures though, rather than the more jazzy Green and Greasy Semen.

It will be forty years in 2019 since the release of this seminal album that’s forever intertwined with the suicide of Ian Curtis in 1980. A suicide like a black blanket permanently wrapping this record. But not by Christo. Thus, most people just won’t go there. It’s like handing someone a frothing pint of green and greasy semen and asking them to pay thirty quid for the privilege of drinking it down in one gulp. Eh, no thanks there mate.

All this misjudged levity is really an attempt to sublimate the subject matter of the record that inspired this collection: depression. As Mark Fisher said, Ian Curtis goes way beyond the blues and into the pure, unadulterated black. This is the black dog fully grown, ungroomed and drooling all your serotonin onto the floor. Go on, try to lick it up. See what I fucking do. Make my day, punk. And besides, as Camus said, “After all, the best way of talking about something you love is to speak of it lightly.”

It’s 1979 and Thatcher is here to change everything irrevocably. There’s nothing more for the young working class to look forward to anymore, except make two modernist masterpieces and kill yourself. And the first fiction in this collection, “Disorder”, by Nicholas Royle, paints a frightening montage of those times from inside the mind of Ian Curtis. “The pain is here. Mine.” The words of this fiction comprise all the lyrics from the album. No quotation is used and “no word is repeated unless it is repeated in the lyrics.” A mad scientist of a Sudoku puzzle yet quite chilling because even when the words are all mixed up and put into another narrative, the message stays the same. Life is a pantomime. It’s shit. Don’t take part. Kill yourself. “I’ve lost the means to connect, the will to know the truth.”

There’s a conceptual artwork by Robert Morris from 1968 called, Box with the Sound of Its Own Making. The artist recorded himself making a wooden box. Then he slapped said box onto a plinth in an art gallery and played the recording of the sound of its own making as a soundtrack, thus pricking the romantic balloons of the art-mystics and drawing attention to the actual boring and time-consuming nature of making art. This collection could be called Book with the Sound of Its Own Making or perhaps more a propos, Coffin with the Sound of Its Own Making, for the cut-up lyrics in this first fiction get so raw you can physically see bones sticking out from skin: “Descend by wire with my own hand”, and, “I’ve talked for too long. But I’ve said it all. I have to live until there are no new sensations anymore”. This will leave you, “Occupied by death. Corrupted by sin”. Which I suppose was the original intention of the album. If you cut-up the words you use in a week and rearrange them into a different narrative, would the same hold true? You’d get the full picture of what you’re actually thinking and feeling without the blinkers, would you? With modern technology it’s certainly doable to record everything you say for a week. But would you really want to go there? Really? To know yourself that well? But then we all know ourselves only too well, and need constant distraction in order not to say it as out-loud and as out-straight as Ian Curtis’ lyrics and the sound made by the rest of the band. This album and this particular fiction is the be-here-now moment we don’t want to know about. Because in the next fiction, “Day of the Lords”, by Jenn Ashworth, the be-here-now moment is the up and coming world war with Russia. It doesn’t say it’s Russia. I just know it is. And who the hell wants to focus and think about such a reality in the ice-cold manner of a JD track? That much death? Not me. So it’s best to focus on (in this story) the broken relationship of a couple with a young child instead. The mother’s new partner has to deliver the child to his father on one of his weekly Saturday access visits, while conscription, mind-altering drugs and bad dreams by father and son quietly explode in the background. So a good interpretation of the JD track it was inspired from, but perhaps a little bit too literal. A delicate, beautiful at times, telling of this four-way relationship, punctuated by nice lyrical squawks along the way: “He was zipped up in a tight red raincoat, the laces of his shoes done up in big bows.” But it’s all, as I said, a distraction from the war raging in the background and the gradual degeneration of the human psyche, only delaying the ineluctable march of death. Listen to JD. Go on, kill yourself. Cut out the middle man. Don’t just wait cowardly for the Russians and the Americans to press the nuclear buttons. Rick, the soldier father of his young son, Ted, says, “Distracting him out of a tantrum. He once threw a fit in a supermarket and I told him there was a pigeon sitting up on one of the shelves and he was scaring it. It kept him entertained for an hour, that one did.” A fizzing ice-cream in lemonade of an image in sharp contrast to “Candidate”, by Jessie Greengrass. This is pure Joy Division. No quarter given. Like a noose around your neck. But in a good way because as your legs are dangling there in midair, it can feel like you’re dancing. And we all love to skank. Of course we do. Again, attempted levity to distract from a real and fictional world of zero-hours contracts, unaffordable housing and constant it’s-so-easy-to-be-an-entrepreneur courses shoved into your face as soon as you open your mouth to breathe. It’s grim out there. And so too in Jessie Greengrass’ story: “We have always lived in the factory. We were born here amongst the engines and the lathes, the conveyor belts which stretch for miles.” It has everything, that opening sentence. The history of Manchester pigeon-struts up your nostrils. Frederick Engels, Peterloo, Thomas De Quincey, Cottonopolis, Sex Pistols in the Lesser Free Trade Hall, Tony Wilson’s Factory Records, The Fall, The Smiths, The Hacienda, etc. It’s not supposed to be a comprehensive list.

This story reminds me of Bernard Sumner’s experience of the shock of real life, that Mark Fisher wrote about. He grew up in Salford in a two-up two-down. An idyllic childhood relatively speaking, poor but with ample opportunity to play on the street to all hours. Long games of Giant-Steps-Baby-Steps with all his mates. On summer evenings even the mothers, fathers, grandparents and grandmothers would be up chatting outside at their front doors until past midnight sometimes. But the factory wouldn’t allow that. The houses/slums were pulled down and everyone was flicked into tower blocks with all its attendant anomie. The shock of real life. “We don’t know what it is we make. We don’t know the purpose of so many narrow lives. We only know the way to slot this piece to that one.”

Back then the culture of the times created people as inveterate modernists who would spit into your earholes if you asked them to repeat something from music’s past. It just wasn’t in their nature. Progression was the carrot that made them hopeful. Mark Fisher again. He said everything. Greengrass says, “A necessary recalibration of a mechanism. A swift repair. Hope is a lubricant.” Yet this story shows that even creating two astonishing works of art doesn’t prevent the dead-certain future from putting that noose around your neck.

“Insight”, by David Gaffney, seems to refer back to Robert Morris’ Box with the Sound of Its Own Making. Or Coffin with the Sound of Its Own Making. A man buys Ian Curtis’ former house in Macclesfield and one of his new neighbours offers him big money to buy the garage that comes with the house. The why and the wherefore of his interest in acquiring the garage will definitely put a chill down your trousers and leave you thinking for days afterwards. So a decent cover of the JD song that doesn’t spare the maggots.

Sophie Mackintosh’s (on the longlist for this year’s Booker Prize) “New Dawn Fades” gets even deeper into Ian Curtis’ mindset as the protagonist is haunted by her past self. Today, yesterday seems nostalgic. You hated yourself and could barely look up from staring at your shoes back then before finally being pushed outside into the natural light. Those sad and anxious days of yore seem rosy and practically carefree compared to today’s trials and tribulations. You want to go back. You can’t go back. You want to go back. Even though you wanted to kill yourself back then like you want to kill yourself now. Sophia Mackintosh writes, “A place will disappoint you like a person. No more pearlescent lustre. No more pastel water.” This is intense fiction with scant narrative detail, making you fill in a lot of the gaps yourself. The world within this fiction inexorably leads you to a room with a gun and a locked door and then a loud bang: “Spreading you and your feelings around like butter on toast, diluting the intensity of your territories.” My interpretationIs this the only way of obliterating the intensity of where you were born and raised? Possibly. Another decent attempt at a JD cover version.

“Transmission, A Graphic Interlude”, by Zoe McClean is imaginatively drawn and a quick, lively read. Minimalist with word and line. An Ian Curtis-esque live transmission. Making me think of JC. Jeremy Corbyn is a racist and an anti-Semite, apparently. The surf is sky high. No wonder Ian Curtis ended it the way he did and didn’t live to see such duplicity. But Ian was a Tory apparently and always voted that way according to Deborah Curtis in Touching from a Distance. So there’s Krautrock-like electronic interference coming through in this particularly enjoyable graphic interlude.

“She’s Lost Control”, by Zoe Lambert is a darling of a story that interprets the lyrics of the song literally. A young woman of nineteen. Her epilepsy manifests at the worst time of her life, if there’s ever a good time to be diagnosed with anything. “It happened just as her friends were starting to cut their hair into long sexy fringes and watch bands in Manchester, just as they were getting jobs or going to college or getting married. She found her life getting smaller.”

“Shadowplay”, by Toby Litt is a Philip K. Dickish fiction and is not only a cover-version of JD’s Shadowplay but also a cover version of Martin Hannett’s contribution to the album. A story about a very rich man that’s paid big bucks to transfer himself into another body so he can live again. After an accident / robbery / kidnapping involving seven robot Prousts the protagonist finds himself in a spaceship millions of miles from where he’s supposed to be – and alone. The ship has a personality and a voice. You can turn everything on and off. “But he could tell it was an interference and he asked to get rid of the pleasure. It did.” The ship can make things in life more enjoyable and keep your senses high as a constant injection of heroin. It must be like what being middle-class feels like. But he wanted it turned off. He was alone and wanted to feel alone. What was the point in simulating anything else? If it’s ice cold and lonely, with no one else to talk to, except programmed robots, then why pretend otherwise? During the recording of the album Martin Hannett use to turn off the heating in the studio to drive all the members of JD to the pub so he could do what he wanted to their sound. So I see the protagonist in this story as Martin Hannett building a new graveyard from the already masterpiece-like work presented to him by JD. Gilding the lily. A coffin with the sound of its own making.

And further into the freezer we go with “Wilderness”, by Eley Williams. A story about a person who works as an ice-resurfacer. Dancing on ice and all that Olympic sportiness in tassels. The language employed here is quite seductive: “…give me the calming scrape and top of my mechanised strigil, the pizzicato of my re-surfacer across the ice, and I’m completed transported.” It makes me want to jump into the rink after all the dancing on trippy tippy toes is over and lie down on the ice looking up at the roof with crossed arms like Dracula in his coffin. Waiting for the protagonist’s ice-resurfacer to come toward me, and poetically, do the business. Put me away. Rebuff and gloss me over into the ice. “I’ve developed an ear for the phonology of ice-resurfacing, the word itself almost onomatopoeic, and catch myself listening out for the fricatives of the blades on ice.” A mellifluous, sensuous and life-affirming annihilation. JD present no answers, however forward-looking their sound. They present the unvarnished truth in all its poetic blackness. If you can banish hope without killing yourself then rave on. And we’ll all live happily ever after. The ice-resurfacer in this story only wants to help and connect with people however difficult his personality. But without hope, there is hope after all: “A cut-up ice rink is something lacerated but unweeping, furrowed like a brow but unthinking, ploughed but not bringing anything to harvest.” Scary but then again, not so scary.

“Interzone”, by Louise Marr, shows how all the progressive dreams of the past were shot dead in their tracks by Thatcher and her confrères. A young woman gets a job as a Project Manager and has to attend a high-fallutin meeting with all the design and architectonic bigwigs of the company. She’s fully qualified for the job but had been working in a coffee shop for a long time previously. At the meeting they discuss, question and show slide shows and drawings from the past. “From around the world, there were pictures of bridges to nowhere and highways that just ended, paving and tarmac coming to an abrupt end on the bare earth.” Sound familiar? Constructions just left hanging in midair forever frozen. There’s no way back to build forward from where things were left off no matter how many meetings.

And finally, “I Remember Nothing” by Anne Billson is pure horror show. A man and a woman wake up in bed together covered in green greasy semen in a room neither of them recognise. They don’t even remember who they are. When they finally do realise, make sure you read these paragraphs again and again. Ian Curtis’ makes the case for the base nature of man over and over in his lyrics, like this final story in the collection. The phrase the base nature of man brings immediately to mind, Nazis and fascists. JD were accused of being fascists themselves in their overly fond use of Nazi references. Were they Nazis? I personally don’t think so.

Rik Mayall in The Young Ones (Rick with a silent P) used to casually call everyone who gave him the hump a Nazi or a fascist. And when I was young, many people I knew did the same. Like crop rotation in the seventeenth century, it was more widespread. Hold on. Considerably more widespread. These references outside the context of history lessons in school I found quite exhilarating. Yes, a bit childish and Kevin-and-Perryist. But not entirely wrong. Were they? I must have been stupid because when people compared someone to a fascist it made me feel intelligent (I was very young) that I got the reference and saw the comparison. Although I knew to take it as an exaggeration. But the past is a different country, I suppose and maybe I’m wrong. Everybody’s clever nowadays apparently. You’re not supposed to bring the Nazis into anything anymore, it would appear. The trope goes that the first person to invoke the Nazis or fascists loses the argument. And is this the final horror of all horrors that this story is trying to scream? That JD are fascists. Which means by implication that all the writers of this book are fascists? Which makes me one too for reading it. Perhaps not. But worth considering when you’ve finished this death-rattling good read.

Before the horror of all horrors (from “I Remember Nothing”): “Rancid and noxious and green, like no semen I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve encountered quite a lot of it, in my time.”

After the horror of all horrors (from same story): “I look forward to tasting his green greasy semen again, and laughing with delight, remembering how earlier I found it so repulsive. What a fool I was. It’s a delicacy.”

We Were Strangers is out now from Cōnfingō Publishing.

 




Pete Burns’ Left Testicle and Other Alternatives: Memory Songs, by James Cook

This book is about Michael Stipe’s shyness, Jarvis Cocker’s brown-cord genius and Pete Burns’ left testicle peeking out from his leotard for the entire duration of a gig he did at the Palais (in the “Bowie’s Nose” chapter: “The front row was in stitches, man. Burns was oblivious.” An apt metaphor for the rise and fall of Britpop perchance?). But mostly this book is about Flamingoes, a band active during Britpop’s high-watermark years in the nineteen-nineties, and a Proustian scratch ’n’ sniff tour through their musical influences down the decades.

This book is a veritable who’s who of the alternative music scene of the nineteen-seventies up to the late nineties, when, according to the author, James Cook, it all fractured into subgenres like a brick through a plate-glass window or a “Les Paul through a Marshall stack.” Apparently it was all Suede’s fault. Suede: “an amalgamation of the Smiths and David Bowie… They had successfully repackaged the seventies for the nineties… Glam, refracted through an indie sensibility.” This book is best read in front of a full-length mirror wearing 28″-waist white Levi’s, a bottle-green Brett Anderson blouse and lashings of eyeliner. If not, you’re obviously one of them.

I’d never heard as much as one note from this band before reading this book, and I still haven’t managed to Google a sample, but the fact is there’s no need, you’re in safe hands, because from the range of influences cited and the writing within, it’s quite a simple task to imagine their sound. At this stage to actually hear one of their songs through the build-up of wax I have would be a crushing disappointment. The music could never do justice to what I’ve already seen and heard. However, reviewing this book seems like a Dick Dastardly and Mutley laugh of a thing to do after reading the ideas sausage-sizzling between its covers.

Like Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher before him, the author posits that the future has been cancelled. It’s over. Go home. Crawl to the coal-shed under the stairs, get into the foetal position and die, motherfunkster, die. Obviously it’s all Thatcher’s fault but in alt-music terms the author points the finger squarely at Britpop, the period when it all seemed to go kerboom bang-a-bong: “Thus the Britpop moment was when the injunction to generate new ideas and push upward into unexplored territory, was finally abandoned.” Which makes me feel like a traitor to all our futures, musical or otherwise, by reviewing a book that had already been written and looks so often to the past. It feels wrong. And it’s all the author’s fault, because what he argues cogently throughout holds true. For me at least. You’d really want to be reviewing books that haven’t been written yet, books that are mere concepts, twinkles in the milkman’s eye, to be getting anywhere ahead of yourself. Be tomorrow here now. Because I’ve seen the future and the future of music is silence – and conceptual. No instruments. No craft. No tuning. No keys. Unspoken word perhaps. But maybe not even that. Five negatives make a positive. Zilch is the new year zero.

In the age of austerity, music is permanently superglued to the hands of the privileged, no quarter or solvent given. The author posits early in this book that in the future “Lennon, Page, Bowie and Ferry, who all trained as artists, might be painters, or sculptors, conceptualists, Mike Scott a poet or a novelist. Possibly some wouldn’t be artists at all. Richie Edwards might be an academic.” Not musicians. Definitely not musicians. Not in an X-Factor-Britain-America-Europe’s-Got-Talent new world order. Hardly anyone can be a functioning musician these days. It’s not feasible anymore. The exception proving the rule. The author points out the genius of Jarvis Cocker’s song “Disco 2000”, in which he managed to look backwards and forwards at the same time without pulling a muscle or ripping his trousers up the arse. “Nowadays it’s uncanny to come across the yellowed spine of ‘Disco 2000’ on the CD shelf, the future already part of the past.” But should we always be belting off like hares into the horizon? is probably the main question this backwards and forwards narrative poses constantly throughout its chapters.

Simon Gilbert was a drummer with Flamingoes who went on to play with Suede. On their first single, “The Drowners”, Simon’s “Pretty Vacant” drum solo intro was “there to identify his allegiance to punk (and also appropriately enough Adam Ant’s ‘Press Darlings’)”. A nice segue into the past before roaring full steam ahead into outer space with Bernard Butler’s “massively slurred A-major chord”. A time of “schizo-simultaneity”, as Mark Fisher might say, when past, present and future are conflated and compressed together in a retro yet modernist blender.

The author, James, and his twin brother and fellow band member, Jude, moved bravely from the Hertfordshire town of Hitchin, where they grew up, to London in the eighties to make it as a band. It took a fair whack of blood, sweat, tears and time to get to where they eventually ended up, making a decent album in the mid-nineties before the future closed in on them like a noose. Like it did on us all. Luckily, as stated above, the future was cancelled shortly thereafter, so complete strangulation did not occur, although damage was done to the throat and windpipe areas, rope hanging loosely around the neck still. Each chapter and memory song we gallop through in this book is a veritable treasure trove of information and analysis on the alt-music scene that held their hands, heads and hearts through almost everything they went through. There’s a sharply dressed madeleine on every page if you want to get all Proustian about it. But don’t blame me if your stomach bloats and trouser-button pops into someone’s eye by the time you get to the end of the book, overindulged.

The two brothers got into Cambridge University but didn’t take up the offer, plumping instead to concentrate on making it as a band in London – death or glory. The belief and determination of the Cook twins is truly astonishing. Who has the balls to do such a thing at that age? Turn down Cambridge for indie. To make such a momentous decision. Who? Obviously excluding Pete Burns, who probably did a whole European tour with his left testicle hanging out of his leotard, while giving everyone the nail-varnished finger in purple. Well it didn’t work the first night man, so I’m keeping it out there till the end of the tour, so that it can keep on not working for the next six months.

A line on the first page of chapter one propelled me right into the action like a flicked elastic band. The author writes about the stark choices facing the Cook brothers: “…Proper job versus an insane artistic project that has become increasingly indefensible to friends, girlfriends and every other member of the family.” Amen to that. One of the factors in deciding to turn Cambridge University down was that the author “had an uneasy feeling that Cambridge would be bad for the street cred. All the musicians that mattered to me were from ordinary backgrounds like myself. Not many had gone to university, let alone Oxford or Cambridge.” That’s how I remember the spirit of the times too, despite zombie Thatcher stalking the lands and hobgoblining the streets. All the big-hitters doing anything remotely interesting and challenging were working-class. John Lydon, Morrissey, Mark E. Smith, Richie Edwards to name a mere four. The list is endless. The biggest insult of the times was to be called a middle-class tosser. Joe Strummer went to extraordinary lengths to hide his very privileged education. It’s all so very different nowadays. I’m gonna cry thinking about it. As Owen Jones says in his book Chavs, Franz Ferdinand and a rake of other subsequent “floppy-fringe-flicking critics’ bands” feel it quite free and easy nowadays to write lyrics that threaten violence on the lives of the working classes. With absolute impunity. Portray them as animals. Thick, lazy and beyond all redemption. Chavs. Basically, racist hate speech. “You are lazy. You are thick. You are beyond all hope and you should be shot” is racist when said to a black person. And it’s racist when said to a chav too (chav – the dog-whistle racist term for the working classes nowadays). Rather than feeling obliged or morally compelled to show solidarity with the not-so-privileged like back in the indie hey hey heyday, modern bands flop their fringes in the other direction. One minute these privileged flopily-doppilies are lecturing people about racism and the next they’re being racist and writing racist anti-ordinary people lyrics with catchy tunes and winning minimalist non-glittery awards. More or less condoning racist behaviour by practising it themselves elsewhere in another format. How strange the change from vinyl to CD. They’re definitely not turning down an offer from Cambridge University to be down with the home boys righteous and proud. Like the twins from Flamingoes. I read Lol Tolhurst from The Cure’s recent biography and anytime he mentions the working classes in passing he constantly uses terms like stupid wankers, chavs and Nazi skinheads. This is The Cure – a great band. It’s all so terribly disappointing. I still want to cry. Apologies if my own left testicle, metaphorically speaking, came loose there for a while and flapped about in the breeze. I’ll tuck it back in immediately so that we can all move on and rejoin the caravan of love. Just don’t look back. Let it go.

One of the artists the author writes quite eloquently about is Mike Scott of the Waterboys. Described as a portal artist, providing you with links to important works in other art forms. “‘This is the Sea’ alludes to among others Yeats, Joyce, the nineteenth-century English artist William Strutt, and Silvia Plath. And the Waterboys, I was delighted to discover, derived from Lou Reed’s Berlin.”

Bowie. The Velvets. The Smiths. The Pogues. Joy Division all did the same. Provided doors into other books, artworks and films that are never on the syllabus of any ordinary wallpaper-covered textbook education. I hope a few current bands do the same sort of thing today, but I doubt it. Louis Walsh would definitely not like it. “You’re not allowed!” I hope I’m wrong.

There’s also a nice smattering of quirky appearances of guest stars and their appendages in this book. The author delineates David Bowie’s nose as chameleon in an early chapter. A nose that sneezed with such provocation that people are still living under the influence of its slow-drying Martian snot to this day. With multiple popup appearances by Jarvis Cocker’s song-writing prowess dressed up in “a dagger-collared red shirt, brown cord trousers, large Jackie Onassis sunglasses, Cuban heels, and a black astrakhan fur coat”. There’s plenty of arsey-flamboyance on offer to keep your fingers flicking through the pages cool as fuck-ily. Richie Edwards of the Manics also makes a striking appearance paying himself full-price into a Flamingoes gig yet still challenging every man jack and jackie in the room “to question the culture we take for granted” in ways the author is best left to explain himself.

Ian McCullough is in there too calling “All Apologies” by Nirvana the last great honest song. This book helps unpick this assertion so you can decide for yourself whether that particular Bunnyman was yanking anyone’s chain or not.

When I was growing up I could never quite remember the name of the band with yerman Page and yerman Plant in it. I blanked it out entirely every time I tried to recall it. It wasn’t until I was about thirty-five years of age that I could remember it without chin-stroking intensely for two or three minutes. Thank you very much, punk. This is where I probably don’t agree with some of the musical madeleines talking from the psychiatrist’s couch of this book. But I won’t discuss it any further as I’ve already forgotten what point I was going to make.

Finally, if there’s one band that sums up the memory songs described in this book it’s The Triffids. Everybody has that one special album. Not your favourite record but you were at some stage obsessed by it to the point of madness. For the author of Memory Songs that album was Born Sandy Devotional. The band itself seems to sum up the scene in all its earnestness. A time when music meant something and “you had to take a side, it wasn’t just another leisure option as it is now”. A glorious period when “the charts were the enemy, but we knew we had God, or at least Morrissey on our side.”

Flamingoes, a band of happy thieves, went at it full-force, 24–7, to the point of starvation and destitution, bent nose pressed up to the windowpane, snot dribbling in rivers down their chin, like that “Don’t do it” poem by Charles Bukowski, “So you want to be a writer?” They made one album that they were extremely proud of, while they were young. It was critically acclaimed. They lived the dream and I don’t mean that in any ironic sense whatsoever. They did. No tinsel.

The author’s summing up of The Triffids not only sums up this little-known Australian band but seems to sum up the entire culture and philosophy of the times, the power of creativity, Flamingoes themselves, and whatever kitchen sink you’re having yourself. I needn’t say any more. Pass the hankie.

Born Sandy Devotional till I die! (Even though my Born Sandy Devotional was Reading, Writing and Arithmetic by The Sundays.)

“The Triffids ‘failed’. They are a testament to the futility of being in a band, but also to the nobility, to do all that careful work, to commit your life to music, when so few groups are remembered.”

Memory Songs is published by Unbound.




Interview with Phil Harrison: Author of The First Day and Staunch Pats Fan

As soon as I heard the bass bamboo flute coming in and echoing the opening trumpet statement of Sadhanipa, the second piece of music in Ravi Shankar & Philip Glass’s composition, Passages, I immediately thought of Phil Harrison’s debut novel, The First Day, which I’d reviewed in this organ quite recently.

This was a live BBC Proms 2017 performance of the album, Passages, originally recorded back in 1990, with Karen Kamensek as conductor, and Ravi Shankar’s daughter, Anoushka, on sitar. The composition is a delicate interweaving of Philip Glass’s American Minimalism with traditional Hindustani classical music. At first glance, and before hearing a single note, this appears to be a unlikely cultural hodgepodge slap-dashed onto coffee-stained manuscript sheets at half three in the middle of the night, but actually works astoundingly well. Like Phil Harrison’s character, Orr, when he ends up in New York in the second half of the novel. Who knew? In fact, after now listening to the composition in its entirety at this stage twice through con brio, left finger in the ear, I’m convinced Phil Harrison’s novel was inspired and pencilled accordingly from this beautifully profound piece of music. And vice versa.

Passages Track listing:

  1. Offering
  2. Sadhanipa
  3. Channels and winds
  4. Ragas in a Minor Scale
  5. Meeting along the edge
  6. Prashanti (peacefulness)

The conductor, Karen Kamensek, has said that because there’s a ginormous meditative element as part of the Indian tradition and also a ginormous meditative element as part of the Minimalist tradition, in this composition, Passages, there’s a beginning meditation and an ending meditation. Both ginormous. And so too, Phil Harrison’s novel.

Anoushka Shankar has said that Passages ends on a really peaceful note after a lot of drama and dark moments. And so too, Phil Harrison’s novel. Prashanti (peacefulness), the final part of Passages, ends with the Vedic Prayer –

“Oh, Lord. Be benevolent to us. Drive the darkness away. Shed upon us the light of wisdom. Take the jealousy, envy, greed and anger from us, and fill our hearts with love and peace.”

*

Has the story behind this novel been around your head for any length of time screaming to get out?

I wouldn’t say the story as such, but certainly some of the ideas. How far can a person go while equally committed to both his faith and his desire? To what extent does faith and/or desire compromise autonomy?

Did you write many drafts of the novel?

I wrote a couple. The first one had a completely different second half. I liked it, but it didn’t really work – I had let the key characters drift too far from the primary concerns established at the beginning of the book. I threw out 35,000 words – that was a fun day – and started again.

Did you consider telling the story from another character’s perspective?

Not really, though it took a while to get the voice right, and – without giving too much away – the shift in perspective during the book. Even the question of address – not only who is speaking, but to whom, and why – was puzzling. I don’t think I really answered the latter question – but I think the unsettled question helped me get some energy in, which feels vital.

The structure of the novel in two parts and two locations is handled expertly. Your film, The Good Man, which is set in Belfast and Capetown, also uses this technique. Is this an important aspect of your work?

I like dislocation – I’ve spent much of my adult life moving from place to place, living in a few different countries (Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, the US). I prefer character to be revealed than described – putting people into scenarios and seeing what they do.

Did any real life experiences or people inspire this novel?

Not specific people; there were no models for characters. But I grew up in a small religious community not unlike Orr’s – and the various complications and frustrations and kindnesses of that have stayed with me long after I abandoned my faith. I wanted to take those people and that faith seriously, in all their generous, flawed humanity. So in many ways the book is rooted there.

What are the main themes that come up constantly in your writing (if any)?

I’m interested in how people hide from themselves and each other. There are almost no lengths to which people will not go to protect themselves from their own desire. I’m interested in just how possible it is to live as an individual – as Kierkegaard says, to stand on your own before God (or Sartre: before the emptiness of the universe). How possible is it to create your own meaning rather than hand over authority to someone else to do it for you? And what would that look like?

What do you want to achieve when you write? Entertain? Change the world? Write well? Something else? Take this in the context of what you said in a past interview, ‘[I] became increasingly interested in the role of creativity in protest and struggle: how people use photography, poetry, film, music to articulate ideas of identity which move away from and subvert those foisted on them.’

A great question. When I was younger I would have been very explicit about the political content of anything I wrote/created. I’m a progressive, a socialist – I want to see the world made fairer, injustices addressed. One of my favourite pieces of poetry is from Mary’s prayer in the Gospel of Luke: He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. But I’m increasingly sceptical of forcing characters into simple political positions, or using them as pawns to make a political point. I’m much more interested in taking characters’ internal lives seriously, with all the complexity and political confusion that entails. I guess that makes me a psychological realist – though as Freud pointed out, realism is a very wide term when it comes to the unconscious. Which pushes me further into the question of form: what way of combining words does justice to the messy human experience?

Are there any no-nos for you in your writing?

Using Comic Sans.

How has your background in film influenced this novel’s pace and structure? Any plans for a screenplay?

No doubt. As mentioned before, I am much more interested in having characters do things than in telling people what they are like – which you have to do in cinema. I’ll definitely write for film again.

Art plays a significant role in this novel (painting, poetry, etc.). A transformative role. It’s remarked in the novel to Sam when he’s working at The Met that painting died as an art form before he was born. Would you like to elaborate on this?

Art seems to me fundamental to the question above of how to be an individual. Art for me is distinct from entertainment; as a way to go deeper into the experience of life rather than distract ourselves. And painting, for me, holds a kind of anachronistic vigour – slow, patient, flat in a world of speed and short attention spans. Unfortunately I can’t paint for shit.

There are many references in the novel to classical music of a relatively more modernist period, in contrast to Sam’s interest in the old masters and the impressionist era. Is this significant?

I’m obsessed with the music Sam listens to: Arvo Pärt, Tavener, Gorecki. But I also love Mos Def, Four Tet, Fela. Bring it all on.

Would you consider yourself working class or middle class and is this relevant for you in your writing practice?

Ha. I was brought up working class, but went to good schools and now have a master’s degree. What does that make me? I’m not particularly interested in the answer to that – but my allegiances and commitments are to the excluded, the outsider, those on the margins.

Is your outlook on life hopeful or despondent or something else entirely?

It seems to me people tend to fall into one of three approaches to life and meaning: repressed (there is a meaning and I must find it – God, nationalism, whatever); tragic (there is no meaning and that’s fucking awful); or comic (there is no meaning – haha, let’s go make some). I go for the comic.

What’s the most influential piece of writing you’ve read?

Probably – quelle surprise – the bible. But also Annie Dillard, Freud, Kafka, and Shoot Magazine.

What’s the last fiction you’ve read?

I’m going to not be a dick and just talk about the last *good* fiction I read: Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica, and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.

Are you working on something new at the moment?

Halfway through a new novel, more or less.

I note that you’ve played football to a very high level and you’re a Liverpool fan. When will they win the Premiership?

When I win the Booker. Don’t hold your breath.

A friend (and fellow Pats fan) of mine is a staunch Ards fan (he’s originally from near the area but moved to Dublin a few years ago). That makes me an Ards fan too seeing as though I’ve no other football connections with Northern Ireland other than that. Quid pro quo. He’s a Pats fan. I’m an Ards fan. My question is this; if you don’t support a League of Ireland team already then would you consider making your team in the south, Pats? (He says chancing his arm).

Count me in. I want a scarf though.




Sex, Scripture and Lashings of Classic Twee Pop: A review of The First Day, by Phil Harrison

In the beginning Samuel Orr and Anna Stuart, two of the main protagonists of this novel, have nonchalant sex in Belfast. Lots of nonchalant sex. On the sly. In her lodgings. Because he’s married and she’s not.

“The way he looked at her, opened her up. The way a farmer looks at a field he’s about to plough.”

Things get biblical quite fast. In every sense of that word. We’re in their Belfast bedroom almost from the start of this roistering novel with all its concomitant smells, passions and guilty consciences. Guilt, glorious guilt. Hot sausage and mustard, as the song from Oliver goes. And if nothing else, Ireland does guilt like Germany does economic terrorism on countries with a liquidity crisis; rather well indeed, and with a vengeance Mein Herr, with a terrible vengeance. And so too does neophyte novelist, Phil Harrison.

Orr and Anna’s nascent relationship practically sweats scripture and semen from every crevice and cranny in fast, crisp, melancholy naturalist sentences that leave you gasping for the next. Naked, pared-to-the-bone, near-the-knuckle paragraphs describe beautifully their situation like early punk; three chords and the truth – no grace notes need apply. The tone, style and red-guitar swagger of Orr and Anna’s furtive relationship is sombre and reflective yet, counterintuitively, brimful of sex.

Orr recites learned-off-by-heart scripture constantly throughout this novel, giving his presence in any paragraph the gravitas of a funeral-parlour eulogy – despite all the whiffy sex, which is a credit to the technique and prowess of the writer. And it works, mostly. The quotations go on a bit too long at times and sometimes lose their meaning and the reader’s full attention as a consequence. However, they do manage to say acres and oceans about Orr’s personality and the future trajectory of his relationship with Anna in quite a subtle show-don’t-tell manner, if you can manage to stay awake until the end of the quote-gobbet, that is.

“Looking back, it struck Anna that she had no memory of the first time they slept together. Or rather, no single memory. Everything became memory, her entire body, not just her mind. He flooded her, she said.”

Orr is a full-time pastor in a mission hall. A married man in his late thirties with three children ranging from five to twelve. He’s working class by birth, a mechanic before he dedicated himself to his church years ago, but middle-class by deed. Anna is a Beckett scholar at Queen’s University in her mid-twenties. She is middle-class by birth and totally middle-class by deed. A budding poet to boot.

“It wasn’t really her he was after, but something inside her.”

The unreliable narrator incongruously refers to Samuel Orr as, Orr, consistently throughout the novel, crowbarring you into his mind with a microscope and a large prodding stick, because you have to find out the whys and the wherefores, whereas Anna is referred to as merely, Anna. Take from that what you will.

Predictably, Anna gets pregnant by Orr and the resultant volcano pricked into violent eruption by this simple fact of life belches red-hot lava for the rest of this novel up and down the generations on both sides of their families. With periodic quiescent spells interleaved. Which only make the next larva-spurt up into the air and down the sides of the volcano more fascinating. Well, it is Ireland after all.

For me, the crucial passage of this novel is towards the end where the narrator describes Orr telling a story about a trip to the Mourne Mountains that he and Anna undertook with their son, Sam, when Sam was no more than a year old. They see some fluffy clouds and Orr realises that for him they were indeed fluffy clouds but to his one-year-old child they were something else entirely, or a multitude of other things, unblurred by any definition of fluffy clouds that’s learned as you grow older, just a clump of disparate colours in the sky, for instance.

“If you don’t have useful words or good stories, then you see less. The world isn’t just there to be seen, but to be created. When we look at the world we create it.”

Is the overall cut and thrust of this novel the theory of positive thinking? It’s the way you look at and interpret creatively the world in front of your two nostrils that’s all important and nothing more, the story tells us, perhaps. Rather dispiriting if you’re not great at the old creative envisioning yourself. But we’re all creative if only we’d just focus in a certain way; positively, like watching fluffy clouds, the author seems to be whispering, positively in the background. You’re not trying hard enough. They’re not fluffy clouds if you don’t wish them to be fluffy clouds, guys. They can be something else entirely. Joni Mitchell. You have to look at clouds arseways as well as sideways. Upways. Downways. Roundways.

This perhaps chimes mellifluously with what art critic/writer, John Berger, in his Ways of Seeing, television series and subsequent books, posited in the 1970s.

“It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world, we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.”

Orr seems to have stepped straight out of the Bruce Springsteen song, Adam Raised a Cain, from his 1978 album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. The father and son in this song don’t get on, in fact they despise each other is the nicest thing you can say about them without spitting in someone’s eye. This father and son relationship is portrayed musically with a viscously raw, rusty-razor-edged and jabbing electric guitar vibrato effect throughout Springsteen’s song. Like the relationship Orr has with his eldest son, Philip, after Orr’s affair and Anna’s pregnancy is revealed to the world at large. Novelist Phil Harrison, does the exact same job as Bruce’s guitar in Adam Raised a Cain, except with a sharpened pencil; he comes up to your throat and tries to stab you with it.

Anna, however, seems to have shambled brilliantly out of the 1980s twee pop band, Talulah Gosh. But in a good way, twee as fuck as the Spotify playlist declaims. But in a good way, as I said not long ago. For the relationship she has with Orr is written as tweeness personified.  They take a trip to Scotland together early in the narrative.

“For 4 days and four nights they drank tea, talked, sat in the shape of each other’s bodies on a bench in front of the cottage watching the dusk descent and the mountains fold in on themselves, the colour fading slowly until all was darkness.”

You can almost sniff those jingle-jangily guitars and scented yet bittersweet lyrics coming off the page at you like soft hailstone rain. Because of her station in life, an affluent academic, she hasn’t really got any money worries to weigh her down which means she can concentrate on her poetry to some extent. Elizabeth Price from the band Talulah Gosh won the Turner Prize in 2012 with her twenty-minute video installation, The Woolworths Choir of 1979.  Perhaps Anna will win the Nobel Prize for literature if she continues in this poetic vein beyond the last page of this novel. It all seems so effortless to her.

A working-class girl kills a butterfly viscously in the Botanic Gardens in Belfast when Orr and Anna are “courting” at the start of this novel.

“Anna wrote, much later, that we grow like trees rather animals; that that which distorts and hurts us is not shaken off a day, a week, later, but twists and gnarls, forcing us into further distortions, further convulsions of form.”

The tweeness of Anna and Orr’s relationship I fear means that it probably has to be a working-class person who inspires this “epiphany”. In her world posh people couldn’t possibly do such things. That note has been hacked off their piano long ago. As can be seen, the author cleverly manages to keep many plates swivelling in your mind simultaneously, however unpalatable or erroneous, and constantly adds more, as his page-turning narrative proceeds with ever more alacrity and aplomb to the edge of a very steep cliff and moves effortlessly from Belfast to New York.

“Class was never a major rallying point in Belfast: too deep and well exploited were more colourful histories of belief and tradition.”

The second half of the novel deals with Orr and Anna’s son, Sam, who now lives in New York, well away from his Belfast family. The pace gets more frantic and Quentin Tarantinoesque with violence apparently lurking around every street and every corner waiting for the mere sniff of Sam. He works in an art gallery with a huge sword of Damocles hanging constantly over his head – a sharpened sword from his past. At this stage of the narrative you’re anxious and racing to finish each page heart in mouth, saying to yourself, I’ll come back and read these pages again, to savour them properly, as soon as I find out what happens next. But you never do, because there’s always the next book waiting, isn’t there? And the next one. When I retire I’ll read them all again, you promise yourself. Ha.

Back in Belfast, Anna develops a close relationship with an old-fashioned painter with an impressionist fetish that lasts for years whom the narrator, Sam, refers to only as Curran in the text. His surname. Curiously, in the same way, he refers to Orr, his father, for the entire novel without let-up.

As the brutal and psyche-wrecking consequences of Orr and Anna’s relationship reverberate onwards through the narrative, like putting a bucket on your head and getting people to hit it with a mallet, Sam begins to realise it’s not all that simple. Good things sometimes come through total devastation. Like his love for Matisse. If his Da hadn’t have done the dirty on his mother would he ever have encountered the die-hard impressionist Curran?

“Did I love the early Matisse-like I said, or did I love that Curran loved the early Matisse, and have made Anna love the early Matisse and so me too, inevitably, begat, begat, begat, myself?”

In New York Sam develops a great friendship with a charismatic Nigerian student called Oki. After a tense meeting with Oki’s brother who gets into deep trouble with the police, Sam and Oki go out on the lash together and end up, extremely intoxicated, in Sam’s lodgings later that evening in the same bed. A fumbled sexual encounter ensues, delicately described and executed by the author. The next morning Oki can’t come to terms with his latent gayness or bisexuality so punches Sam’s face to ribbons. It’s not a life-threatening beating, but self-affirming. Sam survives. A metaphor for the novel, perhaps life itself.

“If you don’t have useful words or good stories, then you see less. The world isn’t just there to be seen, but to be created. When we look at the world we create it.”

(The First Day is published by Fleet, RRP £12.99.)




The Solicitor of Doom

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Janey Macken Street and Basher Piggs

 

join

 

The Flying Superhero Pipe Band

 

in

 

The Solicitor of Doom

 

by Camillus John

 

1. The Mighty Jawbone of an Ass

Basher Piggs was acting like a ninja and slicing some sort of a stick about the place like a sword, outside the De La Salle primary school gates. His best friend came up from behind and tippy-tapped him on the shoulder. ‘How’s it going Basher?’

Basher’s head nearly popped like a champagne cork and scraping his fingers down his cheeks, he screamed, ‘Janey Macken Street!’

To which Janey replied, ‘Yes that’s me – how did you guess? What’s that you’ve got there? A Hurley stick is it? Are you in the school hurling team now?’

Basher swivelled and said, ‘You gave me an almighty fright there, you did Janey. I nearly high-jumped it right out of my skin and into the nearest cloud to nibble on its fluff. And you know how I hate fluff! For doing that I should smite you over the head with my mighty jawbone of an ass.’

Janey blushed and said, ‘Pardon?’

Basher continued, ‘It’s not a Hurley stick, it’s the mighty jawbone of an ass. And it kills Philistines with a single flick of the wrist, my wrist. Just like Samson the Nazirite’s jawbone of an ass. You look like a Philistine to me now Janey, you do, with your sneaking around the place and frightening people out of their wits evil-ways!’

Janey said, ‘Oh yes, we learned that in school last week as well. Yes, yes, yes, all about how Samson killed a thousand Philistines with his mighty jawbone of an ass in the bible.’

She went on.

‘I think Samson must have had dreadlocks, he couldn’t cut his hair in order to keep his strength up you know, so he must have had dreadlocks like a Rastaman. It stands to reason. I betcha he listened to reggae. Early ska too. By letting it grow all the time it would surely tangle up into dreadlocks.’

And on.

‘My big sister has red dreadlocks at the moment. Maybe she’s a Samson too, for she ripped the locks clean off Badger Brady last week for calling her a clown, both sides. The cheek of him. Serves him right. Or Delilah, that’s it, she must be.’

Basher smiled, ‘I found this jawbone of an ass yesterday Janey. My dog, Flux Capacitor, dug it up and left it as a present at the back door for me.

‘Great Scott!’

‘No Janey, he’s a mongrel, an Irish mongrel, not a Great Scott. Let’s go to Markievicz Park right now to look for Philistines, so I can put it to good use.’

 

2. Chased by a Tinselled Briefcase

Basher and Janey were at the gates of Markievicz Park when a single voice fog-horned at them and nearly ripped their eardrums up into confetti.

‘Hey you two over there! Did you let the air out of my tyres? Did you? I think you did! Come here right now! You’re all scum around here, I’m going to march you up to the police station. Come hither, you little pups! Scumbags! Junkies! Scumbags! Junkies! Scumbags!’

There was a man in a charcoal grey suit standing before them, with a yellow pointy-at-the-end tie swinging under his chin. And he was getting extremely red in the face. Fire-engine red. Practically in flames it was. You could toast marshmallows on it, if you had any marshmallows. He was waving a black rectangular briefcase at them like a horse whip ready and willing to go crack! crack! crack! down on their heads.

He started to run towards them. Basher and Janey were gob-smacked. They didn’t know what to do. They scratched their heads. Basher then remembered his mighty jawbone of an ass and shouted, ‘Let’s make for the apple tree in Markievicz Park Janey. Fast! I’ll smite the branches of it with my mighty jawbone and bring down some apples onto his head. That’ll slow him up so we can make our great escape. Quick! Run Janey run!’

The apple tree is on the left-hand side just as you enter the park from Garryowen Road. They ran past the charcoal-grey-suit man and noticed that the briefcase he was swinging at them had the word ‘Solicitor’ stitched in tinsel on the front. This made them worry even more, for they might end up in court, in big trouble indeed, for a crime they didn’t commit. It was all so unfair.

As they ran for their lives, Janey said, ‘It’s a pity I’m not Samson the Nazirite myself, for he was able to rip a lion apart with his bare hands tied behind his back. If I was, then I’d be able to rip this solicitor philistine apart with my own bare hands tied behind my back too and save us from this fate worse than death. But I have trouble ripping a brown paper bag apart – I’m not even able to punch two holes for the eyes. God help and save us all. That’s all I say Basher. God help us.’

 

3. Nifty Wasps and Elvis Presley’s Shaky Legs

Basher Piggs sprinted. Janey Macken Street sprinted. And the solicitor legged it behind nearly catching up with them when Basher passed the apple tree and gave it a massive whack with his mighty jawbone of an ass as he whizzed on by in a Flash-Gordon of a supersonic second.

All the branches and leaves shook like Elvis Presley’s shaky legs and an avalanche of apples started to fall to the ground just as the solicitor passed beneath. He dropped his briefcase and started to scream like a girl. He was going to be thwarted by the apples. Yes! Yes! Yes!

Basher and Janey stopped for breath, turned around, and watched, biting each other’s nails.

Basher said, ‘He might still escape from the apples and come after us again. I think we’ll have to do what Samson did on another occasion in the bible and set fire to the tails of three hundred foxes – that’s if we can find any in Markievicz Park!’

But Janey said, ‘Why would we want to set fire to the tails of three hundred foxes? Have you smote yourself with your own mighty jawbone of an ass by accident and gone a bit mad Basher?’

Basher said, ‘With their tails on fire they’ll run over to the solicitor and climb up his trouser legs like ferrets. They’ll try to put the fire out on his belly. Whack! Everyone knows that the belly of a solicitor is great for putting out fox-fires! Whack! Your teacher should have told you that really. Whack!

‘Three hundred foxes with their tails on fire will a-gallop towards him Janey. This grim tableaux will make him sprint with terrible terror away from all these foxes-on-fire coming at him – and us too – and back to his car. It’s a sure thing Janey. We just have to point the foxes in his direction.’

Janey took a gasp of air into her big mouth, ‘That’s a grand central space station Apollo 9 of a plan Basher. Very cunning. And it will work too. It bloody well has to – it’s the only plan we’ve got.’

But before they could jump up and root around in the park’s bushes for the foxes, they heard a loud buzzing sound coming from the tree. A swarm of wasps started to fly out and down from its branches in mid-air and towards the falling apples and the lily-livered solicitor.

The solicitor started to contort before their very eyes. He wasn’t shaking and quaking like a startled hedgehog with no sunglasses on in the middle of the road anymore. No, he was stand-up straight, smiling and looking with beady eyes and baleful intent towards Basher and Janey.

The wasps all started to buzz around each and every falling apple and munch down into them with their tiny teeth. They chomped hard and fast. But before the apples could fall any further and conk the solicitor on the head, the nifty wasps had devoured them all up, leaving only the pips in the middle to fall on the solicitor’s head gently, and mess up his slicked-back greasy hairstyle. The plan had failed.

 

4. The Pipes, the Mighty Bagpipes are Calling

The solicitor clicked his fingers at the wasps and commanded them to do strange things – his strange things. Basher gripped his jawbone tighter. Lines creased up his forehead. Janey tied a reef knot in her long brown hair as she watched. Then a sheep shank. The two of them realised what was happening sharpish. They suddenly remembered what they were taught in school as far back as high babies about solicitors and wasps.

The teacher had told them –

‘Never, never, never try to fend off an attacking solicitor with wasps, children! Because all solicitors the world over (and Ireland in particular) have mind-controlling powers over wasps. They can make them do whatever they want. It all comes from the time during the great biblical flood many years ago, when a solicitor and a wasp had to share bunk-beds together on Noah’s ark.

‘The food on the ark was running out fast and the solicitor had only one rasher sandwich left in his briefcase for the remainder of the trip until the ark met dry land. The wasp had no food left at all. The solicitor said that he’d share his rasher sandwich with the wasp if he promised to help him in times of need. They shook hands on the deal before chomping into the tasty rasher sandwich together, after freeing it from its tinsel wrapping. And ever since that day, boys and girls, solicitors and wasps always do favours for each other. They’re pals forever.

‘That’s why whenever you see solicitors and wasps together, you’d better run for your life children, if you know what’s good for you, because they’ll come after you every time in tandem, and rip you to shreds! Buzzzzzzzzzzz!’

Janey and Basher recalled every single word of this impassioned speech and thus jumped up into the air shaking their legs to get the blood flowing again. But just as they were about to try and scarper off to the other side of the park, they heard something strange and booming coming from the self-same apple tree.

The solicitor had his hands on his hips and ordered the wasps to ‘Attack the scum forthwith!’

They were buzzing now in nifty shapes and patterns – like a Kazimir Malevich painting in the sky – flying towards Basher and Janey, getting ready to sting with the sharp edge of a swooping geometric shape.

The strange and loud noise they’d heard sounded like bagpipes. Bagpipes and drums. Up in the air.

A pipe band marched out the top of the apple tree playing music that filled the whole of Markievicz Park to its bursting seams and dribbled down the railings and out over all adjacent footpaths.

Basher said, ‘It’s all go, go, go in that apple tree today Janey. Nifty wasps first. Now a flying pipe band. What next? A priest with red trousers?’

 

5. Machine Guns on Raglan Road

There were eight pipers and seven drummers marching, whacking and bagpiping in the air up and around the apple tree and now making their way down towards the solicitor and his brain-washed wasps. The band landed on the grass still squeezing out their bagpipe music and they formed a perfect circle around him and his swarm of nifty wasps. The solicitor of doom was frozen to the spot.

The music got louder and more intense. The drums sounded like machine guns. The girl’s-blousey look on the solicitor’s face was slowly rearranging itself. The pipe band kept playing and marching in a circle around and around the solicitor and his nifty wasps relentlessly, blowing their bagpipes hard, and smacking their drums loudly. The solicitor’s hands were now hanging limply down by his sides and his left foot started to tap along to the rhythm, slowly at first, but getting faster and faster. The music was having some sort of effect. His stomach growled rhythmically.

Basher scratched his head and said, ‘I don’t believe it Janey, but I think he’s starting to enjoy himself. He’s bloody laughing now. He loves the bagpipe! Amazing! He loves the bagpipe!’

All the anger that had been welled-up inside the solicitor dripped from his body and splashed out over the skinhead grass of Markievicz Park with rising black steam. He began to dance vigorously in the middle of the pipe-band circle questing merrily to kiss the Quaker’s wife. Wherever she may be.

Three more apples then dropped from the tree unannounced, but the solicitor caught them in his hands no bother. He began to juggle with them while singing along to the music.

‘On Raglan road of an autumn day,
Juggle, juggle
I saw her once and knew.
Juggle, juggle
That her dark hair would weave a snare,
Juggle, juggle
That I might one day rue.
Juggle, juggle!’

The wasps too were now dancing in more nifty shapes and patterns and buzzing all over and around and around the smiling head of the juggling solicitor. Then they flew back into their nest in the apple tree, bopping their heads and clicking their fingers to the bagpipes and drums as they went.

The music stopped with a pink-cheeked slap and one of the pipers leaned forward and opened the buttons on his bright red jacket for some fresh air. Swishing his green kilt behind him, he walked towards the born-again solicitor with fresh air massaging his nether-regions.

Stroking his chin the piper said, ‘Mister Solicitor, I think you’ve got something to say to Janey Macken Street and Basher Piggs.’

The solicitor broke down in tears and crawled towards them.

‘Sorry about that mad carry-on earlier folks. I was wrong. I don’t think it was you who let down my tyres after all. You’re not scumbags. You’re not junkies. The mighty power of the bagpipe has made me see the light and swallow some sense. I only hope you can see it in your hearts to accept my apology?’

Basher and Janey looked at each other and then back at the supplicating solicitor. They waited five seconds before saying, ‘Sure, you’re grand, go on then.’

He was crying now and trying to stop himself from dancing off into the sunset like a flicked elastic band.

Basher thought for a minute and said, ‘You wouldn’t do us a favour would you Mister Solicitor? Is there any chance you could teach us how to control wasps by clicking our fingers the way you can? Is there? Is there? Is there?’

The solicitor smiled, laughed hard and phlegmy, ‘Of course. No problem. Meet me at the birch tree over there at the same time tomorrow after school and I’ll teach you all the wasp tricks I have in my entire solicitor’s head. Deal?’

‘Deal!’ said Basher and Janey and shook hands with the solicitor who told them that they could call him Wob, for that was his name, but never to call him bumfluff, cause that wasn’t his name at all and he didn’t like it.

 

6. Finbarr Furious Says Hello

‘Hello there Basher and Janey. I’m the pipe major of the Flying Superhero Pipe Band –’

‘What’s a pipe major? Is that something you stick down the toilet when it’s broke?’ asked Basher.

‘No. No. No. Bad hair day, that’s all. Being the pipe major of the band means that I’m in charge of the band’s music, practice sessions and all their superhero activities as well.’

Basher said, ‘What’s the name of the tune you were playing back there?’

With his hands on his hips and his tongue moving very fast indeed, the pipe major said, ‘The Dawning of the Day. It’s a cracking little ditty of a tune, Basher and Janey, even if I do say so myself. It always does the trick of turning people’s minds on to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The naked truth running wild in the forest at dawn with a thorny red rose clamped between its teeth and a lively slip-jig coming out its nostrils. Sorry, I went a bit swivel-eyed and misty there for a few seconds.’

He coughed and continued, ‘As well as that, people can sing along to it too. And tap their feet. It’s an old traditional air. Patrick Kavanagh, the stony-grey poet from Monaghan, famously wrote words to the tune, so it’s also known as Raglan Road as well. You’ll probably know all the lyrics from Luke Kelly’s big-banjo version on the radio or Spotify.

‘The Flying Superhero Pipe Band come out, come out from the Dublin skies to save people when they’re in trouble and suffering from discrimination like you and Janey here today. I hope you didn’t mind us interfering in the way we did? We were only trying to help.’

Basher said, ‘Not at all. Thank you very much indeed –’

‘By the way, my name is Finbarr Furious. And, eh, my lead drummer, King Con over there, has asked me to ask you nicely to see if you’d like to join The Flying Superhero Pipe Band for the up and coming season? Give us a dig out for a year. He says that your hands are perfect for drumming, plenty of splinters within, he can tell by their very smell – even from over there with his drumstick-bashed ears.

‘And personally, I think that you, Janey Macken Street, would make a most excellent bagpiper if you’d like to join up as well? Your fingers are shaped like jigs and hornpipes in my opinion. What do you say chaps?’

But before they could answer, King Con came over to them thumping his chest with both hands and pretending to be some sort of a chimp in a sarcastic-messer sort of a way and said, ‘Nice to meet you folks. As Pipe Major Furious has already stated quite eloquently Basher, I hope you’ll agree to be in my drum corps. Will you? I just know you’re going to be one of the best drumming superheros I’ve had in a long, long time. Are you up for it? We’ve got a valid licence for it from the City Council, if that’s what you might be worrying about. Ferret-man is in charge of that section in the Council now, since he retired from the superhero game last year after doing his forty years’ service.

‘As you’d expect, he’s very efficient indeed. He rubber-stamps all forms now with an enormous POWWW! Three Ws and an exclamation mark. Now that’s what I call style. Superhero ferret style.’

Basher and Janey jumped ten feet into the air and banged their heads on a branch, ‘Of course we’ll join!’ they said after landing again quite fleet of foot.

‘That solicitor should never have called us scum. If we can save more people from suchlike evil, then we’re joining up straight away with a ferret flourish. Just finger-flick us the pen and we’ll do the rest ourselves.’

 

 7. Liquorice Grass on the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

‘Good chaps yourselves, you’re in,’ said Finbarr Furious. ‘By the way, why do they call you Basher? You don’t bash people do you? If you do then I’m afraid the deal is off the table faster than a dog’s drooling tongue.’

But Basher said, ‘They call me Basher because I don’t bash people. They’re a bit whacky-backy in my school. If you’re tall, then they call you shorty. If you’ve got straight hair, then they call you curly. If you’re skinny, they call you fatty.

‘I don’t bash people, I’m a very docile-horse sort of a chap really, so that’s why they call me Basher. I do smite apple trees (and solicitor philistines if I ever catch up with any) with my mighty jawbone of an ass – but nothing worse than that.

‘My Ma and Da were hippies in their youth, so they’d kill me with my own fists – they can’t use their own because they’re lifelong pacifists – if I ever bashed anyone. Can I still join up even though they call me Basher at school? Please Mr. Con?’

‘You can indeed or my name isn’t King Con, champion drummer and drum sergeant in The Flying Superhero Pipe Band.

‘By the way, here’s a few tickets for a gig I play every Saturday afternoon in the Pigeon Club on Lally with my band Assorted Biscuits. I play a chocolate guitar and write all the songs myself. Bring a few friends if you like. It’s a good show.’

‘My Da warned me about Assorted Biscuits. He said that the lead singer ripped apart a goat on stage with his bare hands last Saturday. Is that true?’

‘Yes it is – but it was a chocolate goat – and filled, not with blood, but with red Smarties.’

‘Oh, oh, oh! Samson the Nazirite could rip a lion apart with his bare hands – my teacher told me that today in school – not a goat –’

‘Yes I know. That’s why I did it on stage. In homage to Samson the Nazirite. I loved him at school just like yourself. I think we may have had the same teacher actually. But I couldn’t find a chocolate lion last week, so had to settle for a chocolate goat instead. Do you know what? I think you’d make a pitch-perfect flying superhero drummer, I do.’

With that, Finbarr Furious, the pipe major, musical director and spiritual guidance counsellor of the band, walked closer to Basher and Janey and offered them a slice of a cheese ball he’d sliced, diced and placed onto a small silver platter of a plate on his hand like a waiter. As everyone chewed down into the tasty brie, he said, ‘We’ll see you tomorrow after school at the birch tree over there, if you still want to join up with us for the year that is –’

Janey stopped him dead in his tracks and nearly made him soil his pants, ‘But Mister Furious, Wob the solicitor is teaching us how to control and do tricks with nifty wasps tomorrow at the birch tree. Can we make it the day after that, Wednesday, at the hawthorn tree instead please?’

‘Sure we can Janey. Nay bother. See you then, so.’

The band struck up another tune and marched off into the sky before disappearing into a small fluffy cloud leaving a long steak of smoke behind them.

Basher turned to Janey, mist everywhere and rising, ‘We’re going to learn how to fly with the Flying Superhero Pipe band tomorrow.’

‘Janey Macken Street!’ they both screamed together two octaves above their normal pitch.

‘Look Basher. All the grass in the park is green liquorice, we can eat it. The Flying Superhero Pipe Band must have done it with the magic and mighty power of the bagpipe!’

Basher dropped quickly to the grass like a lead balloon, chewed a handful and spitted it out again in disgust.

‘You’re a messer, Janey – and I know your Da didn’t turn into the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel overnight in his sleep last week like you said either – let’s go home.’

And they did.