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The San Gorgonio Pass marks the beginning of Coachella Valley. The San Bernardino Mountains to the north of Interstate 10 are draped into stream canyons. To the south, the San Jacinto range, luminescent with schist, looks like mounds of fire ash. Beyond the blades of the Cabazon wind farm, forty miles of cinders and alluvium and ash-mounds sift by, before the hydraulically engineered oases of Palm Springs and Indio, where my route zigzagged between golf course after golf course – to the Empire Polo Club: the site of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Annual Festival.
The site takes up all of the thirty acres of the polo fields, with the Coachella Stage in one corner, the Outdoor Stage set on an angle a quarter of a mile away and, marching south for another quarter of a mile, one tent after the other, the gaping maws of Gobi, Mojave and Sahara. In the middle of the field, breaking up the swarms under the arcing chains of balloons, stood a giant snail made out of Perspex, a couple of Tesla coils dormant until nightfall, a crane with the head of a preying mantis on the top of it, a vaguely Indonesian structure called the Empire of Love, a building called the Mirage (a ‘tribute to the celebrated mid-century modern architecture of Palm Springs’), the Coachella Power Station – a couple of smoking chimneys and a control room manned by hippos in overalls – and the Do Lab where dance music thumped in a crowded glade swathed in water vapour, between four upended horns made of sailcloth bands coloured from saffron to plum.
Hard by the main stage were white plastic canopies of the ‘Olympic Peak Tents’ – one of the two areas on site given over for the hordes of VIPs. The other, the Rose Garden, was tucked half a mile away in the far corner of the field. In the west, towering above the site, with the mountains behind – cindery by day, but at night like torn paper the colours of lavender, iodine and ink – turned the giant, illuminated Ferris wheel.
It was hard to imagine the polo fields resounding with the thundering of hooves, the clack of mallets and the whistling of balls. At around eleven thirty in the morning, the thump of drum and bass started up, augmented throughout the day as band upon band kicked off, by guitars, MIDI controllers, keyboards, brass sections, orchestras, decks, computers – and, on Sigur Rós’s stage, what looked like a rack of steamrollered cutlery. Each night the cacophony reached a sustained, concussive climax at about seven, which lasted until half one in the morning.
At three in the afternoon, the fields were clear enough to cross without collision. But the later it got, team-leaders lofted pool noodles, lights, dolphins, hats and rags on sticks, inflatable chickens, kangaroos and bananas. Screams erupted, rending the already rent air, as knots of teenagers streamed with flying hair, to fling arms round other knots in a carousel of embraces, as if some ghastly winter of separation had ended. Just as suddenly, the reunions were over and forgotten, though fingers reached back for one last lingering touch, before the groups went on their way – skipping, wheeling about with arms aloft. Coveys of garlanded girls in sawn-off jean shorts, string-strap bikini-tops under macramé blouses or draped in diaphanous negligées, lashes dense with mascara, legs the colour of Baileys poured into suede boots or flip-flops, swirled from stage to stage, along with the odd tidal bore of semi-naked boys, linked in a chain and travelling across the main current – in shorts, gardeners’ hats and baseball caps, with hydration packs, bandanas, many with torsos the shape of a spade, with ripped caps, lats, traps and bitch tits. As the sun turned the powder blue of the mountains to lavender, the Olympic Peaks VIP tent crashed with bellowed conversations, and the fluxes of people across the polo fields turned into complicated spates, squeezing thousands into a shuffling crush of cross currents across the mouth of the Sahara tent to the point that it was impossible to banish disasters like Hillsborough and the annual pilgrimage at Kerala from my mind.
My first slog across the polo field in my Clarks, suit trousers, shirt and straw hat – hanky in my pocket to mop my pate with – was to see Jake Bugg. He came out onto the Mojave Stage on Friday afternoon, unsusceptible to adulation, in check shirt and jeans, and with all the unabashedness of the Artful Dodger. He’s as proud to hail from the Clifton Estate in Nottingham as to have escaped it, yet he stands up to his waist in the confluence of Country and Rhythm and Blues – crowing rockabilly with a hayseed Southern accent and the vocabulary to go with it. The guitar talks Eddie Cochran and Scotty Moore, but he hollers the songs in a voice now Peter Noone, now Tommy Steele.
I stood with a misty-eyed group at the front of the Mojave tent waiting for Leeds University student band, Alt-J, to come on, their hands raised to form the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet with their fingers. Joe Newman’s lyrics seemed lifted directly from his diary – generous maybe in sharing his innermost thoughts, but to my mind stingy with the thrill of art.
On my way to get a drink in the Olympic Peaks VIP bar on the Friday evening, I skirted the crowd in front of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the Main stage – to the ‘Bop bop bop bop bop bop bop bop’ of ‘Pin’. Karen O looked like she had jumped out of Disney’s Babes in Toyland.
Saturday afternoon, I played accordion on a couple of songs with the Dropkick Murphys. I had practised in my motel room against the recordings, but the monitor mix on stage coupled with the arrangement in ‘Shipping Up To Boston’, which called for the backing to fall away, flung the accordion melody and me into Wile E. Coyote moment after Wile E. Coyote moment.
Sigur Rós played on the Outdoor Stage, in black uniform highlighted by a single red strip and with tassles down their right arms. Dry ice drifted across the stage as if from fissure vents. Broken hairs on Jón Þór Birgisson’s cello bow streamed in the wind. At one point, Birgisson held a note in his falsetto so long that, once I’d given up trying to detect where the sample joins were, it became the vocal equivalent of a rimless ice field.
The Sahara tent was a rave-cathedral, whose stained glass behind the altar where Moby was fist pumping was an LED wall of epileptic intensity. As I was leaving, a boy shouted out: ‘Hey! Old guys ru-u-ule!’ Outside, in the middle of the shuffling hordes, I mistook four flashing red wands for team-leaders. It turned out to be medics awaiting a golf-cart ambulance. A guy lay unconscious at their feet in just his shorts. One of the medics shone a torch. In a tableau reminiscent of Caravaggio, another knelt under the beam, feeling the boy’s jugular for a pulse. I shamefully followed in the wake of the golf-cart stretcher, thankful to be able to walk unimpeded through the crush, until it sped off towards the service road.
On the Outdoor Stage on Sunday evening, Tame Impala smashed into shards the marble statue of everything I listened to when I was sixteen and seventeen, and reassembled it as a series of Russian dolls – unscrewing Hendrix’s ‘Electric Ladyland’ to tip out ‘Elephant’, twisting apart Cream’s ‘Disraeli Gears’, to pull out ‘Half Full Glass of Wine’.
Father John Misty’s presence – the re-invented Joshua Tillman, once Fleet Foxes’ drummer – wrapped the voice of Elton John in the sexuality of Barry Gibb, but in cricket trousers and patterned shirt which kept coming untucked. He twitched his hips, backstepped, crouched, shook his hair all out, clamped his long fingers to his face, and sang songs about his adopted Los Angeles from the vantage point of his Laurel Canyon retreat, while a couple of girls next to me shouted ‘Take your pants off! Show us your dick!’
As I peered up at Gaslight Anthem on Sunday afternoon playing a set of songs made of satisfying chord progressions, the loops of cables under the stage canopy began stirring in the wind, making the rope ladders twitch, the rear-projection screen yaw and the lighting trusses swing. Soon, hats were being blown across the grass, paper plates emptied of tortilla chips and the plastic covering of the Sahara tent was billowing. A silk rainbow-dyed sarong clung to a girl’s legs in the wind. The fountain in the Rose Garden shed sheets of water across the pathway. The sun became a baleful blob in the sky. The mountains disappeared in dust.
The wind buffeted the microphones stationed in front of the inaudible orchestra brought on for the 20th anniversary of Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album. I sheltered deep in the crowd but became trapped in what turned out to be a quasi-rally, with insignia and salutes, while the Clan brought out a series of songs as if they were taking turns at charades. Maybe my disrespect was evident. A hand came down to swat me on the crown of my hat as I tried to squeeze back out.
By the time I managed to escape and was walking with my jacket pulled closed in front, back to my car, blinking from the flying grit, people were going about with bandanas tied to their faces, some wearing swimming masks. The lights pointing up into the flailing palm trees round the chain link fence turned into shining columns of dust.
It was as if a giant scuttle was slinging ash into the now-demonically active propellers of the Cabazon wind farm blasting it deep into the Coachella Valley. I got to my car with gritted eyes and a stinging face. On the interstate back to the San Gorgonio Pass, powder snapped in sheets across the road. It slashed the bodywork and sizzled across the windows. The traffic slowed to ten miles an hour, all hazard lights pulsing in the haze. It’s at times like these that the scale of everything in the United States feels just dangerous.
Three hours later, the interstate was shining from drizzle, and the monstrous high-rises of downtown Los Angeles were looming into view.
I’ve never come across such a deserted place as Bridgend on the Diamond Jubilee bank holiday Tuesday. Here’s a photograph of Wyndham Street:
I had dinner at Natraj Tandoori – the only restaurant that was open. Afterwards, I walked all along the river out of town rather than up Coity Road and to the M4 where my hotel was. I came across no one but a jogger, and a cyclist who shouted something in warning as I was standing in the middle of a pathway trying to take a photograph of a lone gravestone in an empty plot across the river from a hospital. Otherwise, it was sixties housing estate after sixties housing estate jollified by bunting but as deserted as you’d find only in an episode of Dr Who.
The whole of Bridgend might have been having dinner at the Harvester Restaurant near my hotel. I’d had to cruise the car park waiting for an empty space when I’d arrived that afternoon. By the time I’d walked up out of Bridgend, families were waddling to their cars.
My reading on the Wednesday was at H.M.Parc, across the A4061. I was met by an Italian girl called Silvia who had auburn hair and a beautifully ironic smile. She was with a guy called Phil – robust, precisely shaven and in uniform. I had to put all my valuables in a little locker in reception. Phil opened all the doors ahead of us with either a key or by punching in a code, but stood aside, I thought out of politeness, to let me in first, but realised he had to lock each door again behind us.
The prison buildings looked to be made of metal – rectangular, rounded at the edges and corners, with tiny windows – a sort of Hanna-Barbera mastermind’s complex but full-size. In the library I was introduced to another Phil – a ‘facilitator’ at the prison. The second Phil was a nice man, concerned that incarceration was punishment in itself and that his job should now be a matter of figuring out how to raise his wards’ sense of self-worth. Both Phils wore uniforms with the private prison company’s logo on it – G4S. Outside the prison, they have been invited into people’s homes to investigate smells around cookers. I felt out of place in my second-hand suit and with my large black notebook. The inmate who hosted the reading event I think was called Mike and knew so much about the Pogues – even down to specific episodes in our career – that I assumed he’d read the book, but he hadn’t. After the question and answer session, I had my own question. Naively thinking that the men would go off to sew a post bag or tend runner beans in the garden, I asked one of them what they were up to now.
‘Back to bang up!’ one of them shouted out. I felt a bit of a chump.
I had a cream bun in the cafeteria with Silvia and the Phils. The second Phil used to be a teacher and was hardly regardable as a ‘screw’. The prison seemed to be run along lines not far distant from the philosophy which guided my children’s elementary school, which had self-esteem and mutuality at its core.
I hadn’t realised one of my options had been to accompany Silvia in one of the fleet of Hay Festival Range Rovers which whisked her back to the green room at Hay-on-Wye. Instead I drove through Tonypandy and Treherbert to pick up the A4059 and A470 up over the Beacons to Brecon.
I drove up into the Brecon Beacons, in awe of the fell sides, my bottle of water crackling from the altitude. I kept getting texts from Lee Brackstone, my editor, who was travelling from Cambridgeshire to Hay-on-Wye. He had been on the Central line when he realised he was on his way to work and that he’d left all his luggage on the train. By the time he got to Liverpool Street, his belongings had started their journey back to where he’d got on.
I’d been told to look out for ‘two stone gateposts’ on the Brecon Road, about a mile outside of Hay-on-Wye. I drove past them several times, covered as they were in ivy and unrecognisable as gateposts at all. The house itself was beautiful and can’t have seen a decorator since the 1940s. It had window-frames of intersecting Tudor arches.
I’d not met John Walsh before – an abundant man, with abundant rings on his fingers, sky-blue pin-stripe suit and a white shirt open at the throat to within a button of unseemly. He talked, moistly, about Henry James and showed me his copy of my book. A lot of the pages were dog-eared. He opened the book to a page where arrows in red ink shot out from the text, between lines, round paragraphs to end in asterisks, tiny notes and abbreviations.
The Green Room at Hay was full of men with resonant vocal cords, women with high-heeled boots and volunteers, escorts, personal assistants, minders and boys bent over MacBooks. Brackstone eventually turned up, cowed from his journey. He’d located his luggage in Tottenham Hale. It had taken him as many hours to get here as it takes me to get home to Los Angeles.
I had wanted to see Nicholas Parsons’s event, celebrating the bicentenary of Edward Lear’s birth, but got caught up in conversation with Walsh and his fiancée, Angie. I could see Parsons sitting on a sofa in the Green Room. He’d had a mauve rinse, perfectly coiffed at the front, but in disorder at the back. I followed him and his escort down one of the boardwalks in the direction his event. A red elastic band held the sole of his shoe on. Nicholas Parsons is 89 this year.
My event with Walsh was nerve-racking. I tried to hold my arms out from my body to prevent salt tidemarks forming under the arms of my suit jacket. For some reason, the audience had favoured the half of the auditorium to stage right. It gave me the uncanny feeling that we were all listing to starboard. Walsh was so enthusiastic about my book that on a couple of occasions I had to cut him off to get a word in edgewise.
Afterwards, my Hay-in-the-Parc minder, Silvia, handed me a ticket for Frank Turner at the festival, but Walsh, Angie, Brackstone and I preferred to polish off a bottle of wine in the Green Room. I listened to them talk about the parlous state of publishing. Walsh bemoaned the fact that publishers weren’t interested much in books that weren’t plotted out or which didn’t readily correspond to a specific genre.
I wanted to walk home over the hill in the dark but I was drunk and it’s the sort of thing you think is a good idea when you’re drunk and the sort of thing that can result in a barked shin or a faceful of earth or branches. Instead, one of the festival drivers – a guy with the unconcern of an assassin – drove me at breakneck speed down the Brecon road in a Range Rover. I was reeling outside my bed and breakfast in seconds.
I left at about 10 o’clock. The navigation thing on my phone threaded me up through Herefordshire, between hedges that sometimes thwacked against the wing mirrors, over the slatted toll bridge at Whitney-on-Wye, took in a stretch of Watling Street for two thirds of a mile, and then up round Shrewsbury towards Chester, where I had to stop to buy a car-charger for the phone and for a piss. The girl at Carphone Warehouse directed me to a snooker club round the corner and down the stairs, a dank, harshly spotlit basement with brittle music playing and an acrid gents’ toilet and a few guys whiling away a wet afternoon in Cheshire.
The reading and book signing in Liverpool was supposed to have taken place at Leaf on Bold Street. I’d done an interview for a listings magazine and had been tweeting and facebooking a bit, but, at £5 a throw (for the privilege of listening to me talk and read excerpts, and, on top of that, maybe buying a book) not to mention the unrelieved rain and the cold, Waterstone’s moved it to their shop down the street, the doors of which were locked when my brother and I turned up at half six. We hung around in a white-painted office-cum-store room for half an hour. The Waterstone’s woman led us through into the coffee shop. I stood on a sort of dais in the window, with my black notebook resting on a stretch of rail for a lectern, with nothing in my mind but the requirement to say something. For these readings and signings I haven’t had much of a plan, other than to start with, more often than not: ‘It took me 30 years to write this book – 9 years to research it, 12 years to think about it and another 9 years to put it down on paper.’ The rest of it I talk off the top of my head. When I start to peter out, I have a look at what extract is next and begin a preamble for it.
One of the extracts has been how Shane MacGowan and I get home from Dingwalls after he’s had a couple of what he called a ‘Black Zombie’ – a Long Island Iced Tea: all the white spirits, but with pastis instead of triple sec, in a pint glass, topped off with Coca Cola. There’s a lot of swearing in it, and at full volume.
My brother and I went off to mark his sixtieth birthday in a pub. I had to relieve myself into a fence at the end of an increasingly agonising half-hour ride on Merseyrail.
When I walked into the hotel lobby in Dublin, a girl came up to welcome me and hand me a folder of information about the Dublin Writers’ Festival, and a special offer to the National Print Museum. Dublin seemed to be in the grip of a hurricane. All afternoon, the rain lashed and the wind buffeted the windows. ‘It’s weather for the high stool,’ Terry Woods said when I rang him.
Tony Clayton-Lea had written a generous review for the Irish Times, though he had issue with some of the rarer words. The reason I now give for them has been that they are the literary equivalent of traffic calming measures. Tony was my interviewer at Liberty Hall. During the interview, under lights, sitting on a plastic sort of padded armchair, I was desperate to take my jacket off, but because the sound guy had fixed us both up with lapel mikes, I couldn’t, without deafening everyone. As it was, Clayton-Lea kept bumping his lapel mike with a sleeve and filling the auditorium with bangs.
I had family at Liberty Hall. My brothers and sisters-in-law were in Dublin to celebrate my older brother’s sixtieth. We have a cousin and her husband, who live in Howth. After the event, there was a long line waiting for signed copies. My family had come by bus and had to leave. I wanted to wind down. I’d vacillated about going on to a club called Odessa to ‘meet with other writers’, which sounded illustrious and in the end accepted a lift from Sinead Connolly, the festival director, squeezing into her car which was full of chairs which had to go back somewhere with my event being the last at Liberty Hall. Sinead’s driving was cautious to the point of skittish. By the time I got to Odessa, dessert was being brought out and a birthday party was at cake-with-sparklers level. I have hearing that has been lashed to within an inch of its life by Terry Woods’s overdriven cittern and the Pogues’ on-stage sound. Nowadays it gets hard to hear when there’s crockery, cutlery and cackling about. I struggled to hear Liam Browne, the festival organiser, a man with a conspiratorial cast to his eye, preferring to cock an ear to Éibhear Walshe who I ended up sitting next to. Walshe had interviewed Mark Haddon, the writer of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, at an event that had run at the same time as mine. I decided it was time to go when I finished my pint. On my way out I nodded at a guy sitting at our table. It wasn’t until I got back to my room that I discovered that it had been Mark Haddon. I would like to have said hello at least.
It was an hour and a half drive from Dublin to Coolbawn where my cousin and her husband moor their boat. We passed a couple of signs for Borrisokane, which is near where Shane MacGowan’s family is from. The Pogues played at Paddy Kennedy’s in Puckane, Shane’s hometown, in January 1986. It seemed weird to be so close to MacGowanland. After the hurricane, if that’s what it was, the sky was luminous. The Shannon is indeed broad and majestic.
On Sunday, Ireland was playing Croatia in the European Championship and the game had started by the time I’d gone through security at Dublin airport, on my way to Manchester. I was taking excessive interest in the match, airing on the screen at each gate, and as I was crossing to an empty space I banged my shin against the metalwork of the seats. I didn’t want to attract attention to myself by vigorously rubbing my leg and swearing which is what was desperate to do, but walked as if nothing had happened and sat down. After a while I happened to notice that blood was pooling in the leather of my shoe. I had to hobble off to the toilets and mop up.
I spent most of the next week up in the Yorkshire Dales, writing – I have to start another book – and reading, on John Walsh’s recommendation, ‘Washington Square’ which I’d found in Westwood Books in Sedbergh. In the evening, I walked down the river to the pub, skirting meadows of wild flowers. For a couple of days, the weather was more or less summery.
A couple of old school-friends had set up a reading at Waterstone’s in Leeds, as a late entry in the Big Bookend Festival. I drove all the way down Wensleydale, along the River Ure, through Hawes and Leyburn to the A1. Crakehall is where my gran used to live. Her house is still the end semi at the top of the rise from the village.
The last time I was there was probably when I was 7 and entered the Summer Fête Fancy Dress Competition as an R.A.F. officer. The village hasn’t changed much.
I went to school 20 miles away from Leeds. A large part of the audience at Waterstone’s had gone to school with me. My very first girlfriend at age eleven was one of the people who had set it up. Her accomplice had been a boy I used to race against to get to the head of the music department’s rosewood Bechstein grand in the Meeting House at school. Otherwise, in the audience: a girl I used infrequently to hang out with in Earls Court who, like me, had come down to London; a girl whose family used to have open-house near Keighley each summer where pretty much everyone at some point or other turned up to get stoned and listen to music; a guy who was with me when another friend lost control of his car on a country road near school and turned it upside down; a boy we hit on the head with spoons one day because we felt like it; the girl whose London accent we thought was weird, now the doyenne of the Old Scholars’ Association; a guy who was the first of us to go around wearing an Afghan coat, a grandpa shirt and Roger McGuinn glasses; lads I shared studies with in lower and upper sixth years; my dad’s erstwhile financial adviser; a cousin I hadn’t seen in years; my god-daughter; the first real love of my life together with the guy who went out with her the year after I left school and who ended up marrying her.
There has always comes a moment, in these readings, when I’ve had to pause to lift a glass of water to my mouth – for something to do to break the increasingly mournful cycle I get into when I’m talking about my other family, the one with the problem sibling who goes off the rails.
My friend who came up with the idea of the reading in Leeds and who hounded my publicist and Waterstone’s about it, had been complaining about how few copies of my book there were in the shop. He was vindicated before long, when they sold out. Thirty more had been ordered, apparently, but too late.
After a Jameson’s at the Victoria Hotel, I gave my friend and his wife a lift to near where they lived, and then drove out in the rain through Otley, Ilkley, Skipton and Settle – until just after Ingleton the navigation thing on my phone swung me through one hard right after another and hoisted me high up between hedges that were alive with wind and the lanes strewn with branch-ends and then up onto a car-wide strip of road where there was nothing to see but a dim shape of fells both sides and just one outside light, out there in the blackness and the rain. Back there I’d passed a sign that read ‘gate’ and here came the gate, in the middle of nowhere, with a hand-painted sign that said ‘Lambs asleep in the road.’ I was mortified to think I might be about to drive through their cot. I pulled open four gates in total, fearful that the wind would slam each one against the side of my sister-in-law’s car as I went through.
The road continued to plunge down a hillside, soar back up another one and hook back and forth over a stone bridges and round brows. On the top, I turned out all the lights and got out to stand on the road for a bit, in the rain, in my suit, with the fells all around and the clouds seemingly just above my head and the wind making my trousers slap my ankles. This is what it would have looked like in the daytime:
It was quarter to one when I pulled the blankets up to my ears, listening to the wind cuff the windows.
The Pogues flew back to London last Friday. Since then, I’ve been doing publicity for the book. First it was the Laugharne Weekend in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, where Dylan Thomas lived, in the boathouse. His writing shed (with a tatty woollen jacket thrown over the chair inside and balled-up paper thrown on the floor – like what writers do – under the table) overlooks the heron-priested shore and the tidal estuary of the Tâf River. Every man needs a shed, and I’m told that a man with a shed tends to live longer. Thomas died at the age of 39.
I’m going to post up links to all the things I’ve done in the past week where there are links to things worth looking at or listening to. These include:
I don’t know how many bands have taken up playing, on St Patrick’s Day night, from beginning to end, Rum Sodomy and the Lash, the record we made in 1985, produced by Elvis Costello. In years past, Decemberists’ splinter group KMRIA (short for Kiss My Royal Irish Arse, a choice quote from Ulysses and a lyric from ‘Transmetropolitan’ from our first record Red Roses For Me) has performed most of the Pogues’ Rum Sodomy and the Lash – along with bits of Red Roses For Me and most of our third album If I Should Fall From Grace With God – in their home town of Portland. (Colin Meloy is a fan of the band and of Rum Sodomy and the Lash in particular.) This St Patrick’s Day night, KMRIA are playing at the Wonder Ballroom in Portland. Across the country, so are a few others. I made the mistake of thinking that the Conspiracy of Beards will be singing all of Rum Sodomy and the Lash at the Make Out Room in San Francisco, but it turns out that it’s a band called Brandy of the Damned (now called, amusingly, The Bogues) who will be covering our difficult second album again next March.
March 17th is the 10th anniversary of East LA Chicano band Ollin’s rendition of all of Rum Sodomy and the Lash, this time at the Satellite in Silverlake in Los Angeles. We came across Ollin playing in the bar at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 2006 and had them do a support tour with us. To celebrate the anniversary – coincidentally in the year of the Pogues’ 30th – KPCC-FM, a Southern California Public Radio, member-supported station, is devoting a programme to Ollin and their tribute to the Pogues. The show’s called Off-Ramp and it’s hosted by John Rabe. I’ll be doing an interview with John Rabe as part of the programme. I hope to go over to the Satellite on March 17th too.
Off-Ramp airs Saturday 12-1 p.m. and Sunday 7-8 p.m. KPCC-FM is on 89.3 in the Los Angeles area and streams live on http://www.scpr.org/listen_live/
NOT PART OF ‘HERE COMES EVERYBODY’ BUT STILL
Strings reminiscent of Bobby Goldsboro’s “Summer (the First Time)”
Human whistling (from the halls of Slade Art School and an empty flat in Bolton)
Clown at the end of Twelfth Night:
A WHILE AGO THE WORLD BEGAN
AND IN TIME TO COME THIS WORLD WILL END
THESE MEGRIMS I JUST CAN’T TRANSCEND
I’VE TRIED AS HARD AS ALL I CAN
I’VE SEEN YOUR FACE A THOUSAND TIMES
IN CLOUDS AND CLIFFS AND LAKES AND THINGS
WITHOUT THOSE SWELLS OF CELESTIAL STRINGS
AND ALL THAT CHILDISH PANTOMIME
HEY HO THE WIND AND THE RAIN
FOR THE RAIN IT RAINS ALMOST EVERY DAY
‘CAUSE STILL YOU HAUNT ME IN MY DREAMS
AS I EMPTY ONE MORE CABERNET
ON MY PUMICE ISLAND IN THE BAY
MY HAMMOCK BATHED IN GOLDEN BEAMS
WHEN MISTS ALL SHROUDED THE CREPUSCULE
THOSE SUMMER EVENINGS LONG AND STILL
WE FUSED OUR LIPS UPON THE HILL
WHY MUST THE AUTUMN BE SO CRUEL?
SO I BLOW INTO MY OLD KAZOO
AND STIFLE ALL MY OWN ADVICE
‘CAUSE I’VE THOUGHT ABOUT YOU ONCE OR TWICE
YOU COULD NEVER LET A MAN GET OVER YOU
I’ve been invited to join the likes of, so far, Simon Armitage, Howard Marks, Cerys Matthews, Robin Williamson, Simon Day and Robin Ince at the Laugharne Weekend which takes place the weekend 13-15th April in Camarthenshire, on the estuary of the River Tâf. I’m looking forward to making the long journey from Sydney – the day after the Pogues Australian (and a gig in Tokyo) tour – out to near-as-damn-it the Pembroke Coast.
Details are here:
I was asked to write 500 words for Faber and Faber’s blog, The Thought Fox . The brief from my editor was, ‘perhaps if you have time (and inclination) you could write a little piece about the experience of being edited, and proofing, for the first time.’ As it turned out, my article was appended – under the heading ‘Cultural Highlights: 2011 (Part 3)’, which included round-ups of the year by Faber and Faber writers. I had wondered why the blog’s editor had referred to my article as ‘a little different’.
Here’s the complete article:
I’d been writing for years but never finished anything, accumulating tens of hundreds of thousands of words – confessions, chronicles, vignettes, anecdotes, and things my writers’ group calls ‘pieces’.
‘What you want is an editor,’ everyone said.
I wanted one along the lines of Maxwell Perkins, who lopped 90,000 words from Thomas Wolfe’s first novel, or Ben Wasson, who sheared a quarter from Faulkner’s third, or even maybe, at a push, Gordon Lish, who adzed up to seventy percent of a collection of Raymond Carver’s stories – and changed a couple of characters’ names too. I wanted a professional who would stand before the block of marble of my writing, see the finished sculpture inside and give me the bag of chisels to get it out.
I first met Lee Brackstone in July 2009, a month after Faber bought the rights to the memoir of my life with the Pogues. Brackstone described a book of between 80,000 and 100,000 words. By the time of my first deadline nine months later, I had rendered the collections of notebooks, diaries, letters, commonplace books – twenty years of setting reminiscences down in black and white – down to 145,000.
I awaited the return of my manuscript. I imagined a thumbed, dog-eared pile scrawled with carets, deletions and transpositions and maybe a tea stain or too. I’d revise, send it back and we’d be done. When it came, there was indeed a bracket and strikeout or two, and a mug-ring on page 247, but nothing to help me shed the 45,000 words needed. This wasn’t Max Perkins. I didn’t know what to do. In the accompanying letter Lee described my writing as ‘cultivated’. I attended to his notes and then sat on my hands.
I met with him again the Christmas before last at a pub in Islington. We talked about my manuscript over a couple of pints, but it wasn’t until we were standing in the snow outside the pub waiting for a cab, that I got the note I had needed from the start. As we trod our cigarettes out, we agreed that some of the writing was pretentious and long-winded – cultivated indeed.
‘Cut out the writing that makes you look like a knobhead,’ Lee said. I couldn’t have wished for a better note.
In my writers’ group, we talk grimly about the editing process. We call it ‘killing babies’ – a misquotation, misattributed to William Faulkner, of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who wrote that a writer should whole-heartedly obey the impulse to perpetrate exceptionally fine writing, but should delete it before sending the manuscript to press.
‘Murder your darlings,’ Sir Arthur wrote.
I lined my darlings along the edge of the ditch and hacked them down – along with the knobhead, hoping he wasn’t just lying under the corpses faking not breathing.
After the slaughter, the 115,000 words I was left with went to the copy-editor. I never had so much fun as trying to best my copy-editor’s eye for detail, but he trumped me with the deletion of a possessive apostrophe in the name of a guitar shop in Manchester.
I’d been warned, though, about proofreading. ‘Snow-blindness’ and ‘self-disgust’ were just two of the terms that came up. It wasn’t long before I was staring between my fingers at what I’d written, haggardly perplexed that anyone would want to publish what, to me, had turned out to be the textual equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster.
‘How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe,’ Victor Frankenstein says about his creature, ‘or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath.’
I can’t wait for publication.
The memoir is coming out in the UK at the beginning of May. I’m in the proofreading stage at the minute. By way of illustration of this part of the process, here’s a bit from Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein':
‘How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe,’ Victor Frankenstein says about his creature, ‘or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath.’