Showing posts from 2013

Merlin's Return: When Ken Kesey Toured Britain with the Merry Pranksters (Part 2)

"I'm not proselytising for LSD anymore. There's not enough of the good stuff to go around" - Ken Kesey, 1999.

I was working in a care home in Kettering when the Pranksters came. I remember reading about their imminent trip in a newspaper; it must have been The Guardian because I didn’t go near any of the others. I’d read Cuckoo’s Nest years ago and at the time I was in the middle of another one, I think it was The Last Go-Round, the under-rated novel that Kesey wrote with Babbs. Somehow, although I was aware of the continuing existence of most of my heroes—Ginsberg had died two years before, but a great many were still with us—the fact that they were all in America made them as remote as death anyway. But Kesey was coming here, onto my streets, to breathe my air. That was, indeed, like being told Merlin had been seen in a peaked hat and a velvet cape dancing a jig on Montague Street.

I sat in the park in Kettering one day writing or sketching in my journal (it’s always…

Merlin’s Return: When Ken Kesey Toured Britain with the Merry Pranksters (Part 1)

Merlin wore many hats: he was a wizard or sorcerer, a prophet, a bard, an adviser and a tutor. He appeared as a young boy with no father. He appeared as an old, wise man, freely giving his wisdom to four successive British kings. He was dotting old fool [sic], who couldn't control his lust over beautiful women, who hold him [sic] in fear and contempt. He had even appeared as a madman after bloody battle, and had fled into the forest and learned how to talk to the animals, where he became known as the Wild Man of the Woods. Merlin was the last of the druid, the Celtic shaman, priest of nature, and keeper of knowledge, particularly of the arcane secrets.

In August 1999, legendary author and counter-culture icon Ken Kesey came to Britain with Ken Babbs and the Merry Pranksters in search of Merlin. That was the ostensible purpose of their month-long tour of British towns and cities, which was being sponsored by Channel Four as part of its Summer of Love se…

My Mother, Books And Me

Seventeen years ago in the early hours of July 1st, my mother Sylvia died. The details of her death and her life are for another time and place, but I’ve been thinking today about the influence she had on me as a reader of books.

If you’d looked at her bookshelves you might have thought her influence was a little tenuous. Musically we were cut from a very similar cloth (if that isn’t a mixed metaphor). But I don’t think I ever read one of her novels while she was alive.

Mum liked Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters; and she could devour a Dick Francis book in a day. I tried to read one of his on a train journey to Glasgow with my then-girlfriend once but I was bored to death before we reached the next stop. Perhaps the fact that we were going to watch the Rolling Stones had put me in too much of a rock and roll mood for a story about jockeys.

Long before I developed my own literary tastes, however, Mum had instilled in me a reverence for books as objects that I’ve never lost. Sometimes she wo…

BOOK OF THE WEEK: "Exit Nothing" by Pat King

Exit Nothing by Pat King. Kuboa, 2012. (
Pat King’s Exit Nothing has been around for a year or two now, but I suspect it will be around for a lot longer than that. It’s fabulous, a little classic novel of the counter-culture following its underground writer protagonist through cities, relationships, depressing jobs and the alternative arts scene. There we find a world of crazy poets, performance artists and new young writers determined to turn over the big table that the academics and the guys with the fat publishing contracts dine at. Even in the novel the success of their mission seems doomed, but it’s the doing of it that matters; having the passion, being alive enough to care. The narrator is alienated from his first wife, in fact, because she doesn’t have the courage to go all the way with her art. That’s part of it anyway. She’s good, but she won’t surrender herself to the life. And as Miles Davis said (or was it Charlie Parker?), “If you don’t…

REVIEW: "Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive" by Bryn Fortey

NEVER GET OUT OF THESE BLUES ALIVE by Bryn Fortey, Sad Face Press, 212 Caerleon Road, Newport, South Wales, NP19 7GQ. Price £1.50, cheques payable to B. Fortey.

Bryn Fortey’s slim chapbook NEVER GET OUT OF THESE BLUES ALIVE puts two of his great strengths as a poet on show: beautiful evocations of the lives of his favourite blues and jazz artists, and a demonstration of what their music means in our lives. Nobody—or almost nobody—can live without music. Bryn shows you why. How it becomes, to borrow a phrase I’ve used before, the soundtrack of your experiences, and an articulation of what you feel but couldn’t possibly say without shattering into thousands of tiny fragments when life really starts to hurt.

I’m not giving anything away when I say that Bryn’s been through some things in the last few years. It’s there in the dedication page for all to see. He’s not asking for your sympathy, but like the blues singers he namechecks in the poems, he’s telling you about his good and bad times,…

The Word From Headquarters: Suffolk Punch Is Moving House

The Bard Gaff, aka Suffolk Punch headquarters, is relocating to points presently unknown in the next two months. My landlord is selling, quite reasonably given that he can't buy a house down south where he now lives while he still owns this one. He’s a good guy, the first landlord I’ve been able to say that about without crossing my fingers behind my back. But life changes, people's needs change, and his need is to be in another part of the country with the person he loves. Good for him.

Of course, having to move means your nomad editor and his spiritual wife are now faced with a great deal of work on top of all our usual labours. I also have to suppress my natural preference for being left the fuck alone.Tomorrow someone is coming to paint the lounge and in readiness for that I’ve had to pile all my books up on my writing table. (Well, those I haven’t given to charity.) I sit here now at the laptop looking like a paranoid hippie inside a bunker made of the great works of the …

Elvis Presley: Bootleg Insights Into The Mind And Decline Of The King Of Rock And Roll

Whether you rate him as an artist or not, and many don’t these days, the one thing you can’t deny about Elvis Presley is that he was enormously influential. By using white musicians with a country sensibility to sing and play songs from the other side of town, he helped wake up a whole generation to the existence of some of the greatest artists and most vibrant, sexy, challenging music of the last century.
Some say he stole their work. I don’t know about the deals his manager Colonel Parker did—maybe there were rip-off contracts—but I’m fairly sure Elvis would have had no part in that. He was too lazy, too passive about the organisation of details. That was why he had a manager. When Elvis wasn’t working—i.e. making records/ films or touring—he wanted to play. And he played like somebody who had never left his late adolescence behind—if, that is (according to some of the books at least), he wasn’t hiding from his fear of failure and his self-lacerating depression by taking every presc…

Subversion In The Dream Factory

Strong Women And Other Crazy Ideas in Katherine Hepburn's "Sylvia Scarlett"

Hollywood is too money-driven an industry to be radical. Large investment means there’s an expectation of larger financial returns; and those are guaranteed, so the wisdom goes, by giving the audience “what they want.” Or what they are presumed to want, since a business with enough cash to bankroll a film has no more insight into the minds, the real minds, of the cinema-going, dvd-watching public than a booster for political change. That’s why we get “surprise hits.” A producer takes a chance on something slightly different, or a low budget movie gets good distribution, and the public everybody has been talking on behalf of picks the movie up and runs with it.
Representations of gender and sexuality have always been a problem in the mainstream, give-me-your-money cinema. Hollywood in its pursuit of the buck and its fear of causing offence to the “ordinary movie goer” tends to reflect the cultural c…

Lucia Joyce: I Know Why The Caged Bird Rages

William Butler Yeats, when he was riding the bus, would occasionally go into a compositional trance. He would stare straight ahead and utter a low hum and beat time with his hands. People would come up to him and ask him if he was all right. Once, his young daughter, Anne, boarded a bus and found him in that condition among the passengers. She knew better than to disturb him. But when the bus stopped at their gate, she got off with him. He turned to her vaguely and said, “Oh, who is it you wish to see?” When I think of what it means to be an artist’s child, I remember that story. JOAN ACOCELLA , “A Fire in the Brain”, The New Yorker, 2003.
Carol Shloss believes that Lucia’s case was cruelly mishandled. When Lucia fell ill, she at last captured her father’s sustained attention. He grieved over her incessantly. At the same time, he was in the middle of writing “Finnegans Wake,” and there were people around him—friends, patrons, assistants, on whom, since he was going blind, he was very de…

Sell-Outs & Hold-Outs: The Birthday Honours

Vanessa Redgrave, who declined a Damehood from Tony Blair.

I don’t like the honours system. If I were ever offered an honour, which isn’t going to happen, I would tell them to shove it up their arse. Politely. So it always depresses (and bemuses) me to hear that people who I think ought to know better have accepted one.
Today’s transgressor of my idiosyncratic moral code is PJ Harvey, famed indie (I suppose) singer, who emerged in the Nineties (I think) with some of the most raw and exciting music being made back then. The most recent prior offender (whose acceptance of the honour almost killed me, it’s fair to say) was Kate Bush.
The honours system is one of the more conspicuous symbols of the stratified British society we should have buried in 1945. I’m calling no one “Sir” in the country where I was born, thanks all the same. England was built on the labours of men like my grandfather and great-grandfather, who sweated their best years away in factories and on farms.
Give Fred Garnham…

Gimme Jack, With All The Trimmings: How Money Made A Turkey Of Kerouac.

According to the Allen Ginsberg blog, a collection of 59 letters and postcards sent by Jack Kerouac to his friend Ed White are going on sale in New York for an asking price of $1.25 million. The seller is book dealer Glenn Horovitz which handles literary artefacts by Ezra Pound and Sylvia Plath too, among others.

Maybe somebody with more knowledge about these things than Suffolk Punch can tell us where Glenn Horovitz got hold of the letters in the first place. From the White family? From the Kerouac estate? Surely the latter must have had some involvement in the sale, since the copyright on the writing is theirs. Right?
And if it was the Kerouac estate, have any preconditions been set on the sale? Will the letters, in their original form, simply disappear from view once whoever is rich enough to afford them gets his/her mitts on them? I believe the writing of any great author (or even any minor author) must be preserved for history, and in some kind of controlled way it should be access…

A Statement on the Bruce Hodder for the Chron Arts Section Campaign

It came to my attention recently that a fellow known by the curious sobriquet “Bartholomew Bard” had started a campaign on Facebook to have me installed as the chief columnist for the arts section of my local newspaper, the Northampton Chronicle. I thought this was a strange idea at first and considered refusing to co-operate with Mr. Bard’s undoubtedly very selfless labours. My writing is, after all, an acquired taste. I am sometimes intemperate, sometimes ungrammatical, my sentences are sometimes too long, and have too many clauses, and on occasion an idea will be perfectly clear and sensible in my head but read like gobbledygook on the page. My taste in the arts tends towards the new-ish and the Underground as well; I have little interest in the canon in literature or poetry (for example) other than in the sense that it can, approached with the right kind of critical irreverence, provide a springboard for intelligent new creations. Do the readers of the Chron want to be confronted …

Review: The Lowdown. A Literary Arts Annual.

The Lowdown. Street Corner Press, USA. 236 pages. $23 incl. shipping, $35 (American) overseas. Send dollars, American cheques or money orders to: Robert M. Zoschke, P.O. Box 38, Ellison Bay, WI 54210.

"After-image" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, cover art for The Lowdown
As for Mr. D. knocking at the back door, the poet’s not in, so fuck you for now (from “Mr. Death at the Back Door” by Norbert Blei)
I approach the idea of reviewing the literary arts annual The Lowdown with a sense of heavy responsibility in a way. As far as I know it was the last literary project Norbert Blei undertook, in partnership with poet Robert M. Zoschke, and that makes it significant, in literary terms. Norb was a heavyweight; his passing leaves a gap in the lives of a great many people who knew him in person, or on the page and the computer screen. When a light like that goes out, you want to write BIG enough to do it justice.
But leaving aside all that – I suspect Norb wouldn’t have much time for it anyway –…