Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Elephant Man: Joseph Merrick Gets a Lynching

I saw David Lynch’s ‘The Elephant Man’ for the first (and I would imagine the last) time the other day. I was more interested in watching Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds movies when it was released in 1980, being a late developer culturally in some ways, but I thought, at 48, that I was ready. Friends had told me it was terribly sad. Harrowing even. They said that the suffering of the famously disfigured John Merrick was almost unbearable to witness. Hmmm.

Call me a callous old bastard if you like but I didn’t find it that at all. It might have been, and I’m sure it was for the real man the movie was based on (who was actually called Joseph Merrick), but Lynch and John Hurt laid on the pathos of the Elephant Man’s existence with a giant trowel. He was so completely pitiful in his vulnerability I expected a syrupy children’s movie chorus from lamby glove puppets after every beating he took and every disappointment he sustained.

I would have liked to see how Merrick’s suffering had twisted him. It doesn’t matter whether the contemporaneous accounts they used when writing the screenplay gave any indication of this. Those accounts were written according to the conventions of their time just like anything else is, and the people who met Merrick ‘saw’ him with an agenda of their own. Being harshly treated makes people cruel and angry. I would bet money that once doctors and nurses, and then society folk, began to be kind to Merrick he responded with occasional bursts of temper and spitefulness.

 The real Joseph Merrick. Photographer Unknown. 

The movie has, of course, dated. Merrick’s make-up would have been more convincing if the film had been made in the last ten years; and Lynch’s Victorian-barkers-and-midgets-in-top-hats kind of surrealism, though undoubtedly a filmic surprise 33 years ago, when realism was more commonly used by directors, just looks transparent and precious now. It's something we’ve all seen before. The language of alternative cinema has been absorbed into the mainstream since the 80s. It’s routinely regurgitated nowadays in the form of music videos that flash by unwatched on tv while we’re talking to our friends.

So anyway, that’s one unanswered question from my youth finally answered. Is ‘The Elephant Man’ any good? For a slow afternoon when you have nothing better to do, yes; but don’t expect the grand emotion of an opera. I wonder if I should answer the other great question hanging over from those long-gone days and watch ‘Star Wars’. See what all the fuss was about there.

I think not. At the last reading Alan Moore gave, the great bearded one said 'Star Wars' was when SF started going downhill. I'll just take Alan's word for it and save myself the time, the money and the inevitable dribbling, remote-control-dropping, two hour nap that the movie would almost certainly cost me.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Judy, Waylon and Me

                                                       photo by Gerald Zoerner

I have spent most of the day at the university, tackling a horrendous assignment. It's an "explication" (which is a horrendous word) of an essay about gender by Judith Butler, the American post-structuralist philosopher. I don't get on with philosophy at all and I've been bashing my brains against Judy's (undoubtedly) brilliant wanderings for a week at least. I've also been trying to work out what the hell "explicating" an essay on someone's theories about gender has got to do with English literature. I know I'm studying women's writing this year, but we didn't have an essay about Karl Marx to do before we studied Dickens.

I had more fun this morning playing Waylon Jennings' Greatest Hits CD before I came out. Not the famous leather-look, gold-leaf-lettered one from the Seventies (although I bought that on vinyl when it was released and still have it in my spare room), but the one that RCA released many years later with about ten more tracks on it. I put it on as I was having my bath and engaging in the intense personal grooming I undertake before I come out every day. Waylon was glorious back then and still is, in my mind. A real philosopher king. He hunkers in there like Hunter S. Thompson, as an ideal; an ideal of self-realization and personal freedom that encourages me to be myself without apology (not that I can help it anymore). When I listened to him sing "Don't Y'All Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out Of Hand" this morning, it didn't matter that I was going to the university to spend the whole day sitting at a computer boring myself shitless. Temporarily I could have been ten feet tall.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Happy Birthday Janis Joplin

Today is the birthday of Janis Joplin, my mother's favourite singer (and one of mine). It's pointless saying how old she would have been because she isn't. And we don't need to crank any more tragedy out of her early death. Let's remember her life instead.

There were a lot of incredible artists in the second half of the Sixties, but none could wrench the passion out of a song like Janis. I'm not sure if she meant a word of what she was saying. Maybe she was just punching the clock like the rest of us do. But whenever the band wound up that fierce electric blues Janis made the words sound as if they were pouring out of her heart.

Maybe that's where the perception of her as a tragic figure rather than a dynamic one comes from, I don't know. Nobody sees Jimi Hendrix, my mother's other great hero, as a tragic figure, although he died at 27 just like Janis. But when Jimi was on stage he didn't sing the blues, not in the same way. Most of his stuff wasn't about feeling. It was about the virtuoso from the other side of space destroying evil armies with his wild sonic bombs. Something like that anyway.

Mum had a cassette version of the album Cheap Thrills and we used to sit in the kitchen together listening to it, loud, as we drank red wine. Sometimes we smoked her weed to make the sounds blasting out of her cassette radio even better. I was well into my twenties by then, if there are any moralists out there worried about youth being corrupted.

We shall not see her like again, to paraphrase some poet or other. And when I say that I mean my mother, and Janis. They are associated forever in my mind because of those nights we shared listening to the music. Two delicate - and difficult - souls, gone over to wherever the smoking, drinking souls go.

Don't worry, Mum, no crazy straight girl there is going to flush your marijuana down the loo.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


I’m re-reading Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test at the moment, and absolutely loving it. I should be putting all my concentration into the degree I’m doing but I’ve tried that. It made me feel psychotic.

Wolfe’s book is from 1968. My time, or at least the time my heart belongs to (I was only 6 years old when the 60s ended). It’s the story of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, that famous band of day-glo loonies who turned the world onto LSD.

Ken Babbs, who I published in my poetry magazine Blue Fred’s Kitchen, is in it, gloriously so. Allen Ginsberg, my ultimate hero, is in it. Hunter Thompson is in it. Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead are in it. Neal Cassady famously drives the Pranksters’ psychedelic bus Furthur. Even Kerouac makes a guest appearance at a party in New York early in the book.

These people have been companions and totems of mine for years. When I read about them it’s like someone telling me that all of the most dynamic and interesting men in the world have rolled into town at the same time. Everything becomes suffused with magic.

It might sound like I’m indulging myself, taking a break from “reality” by re-immersing myself (as if I ever dried off) in all my heroes. But I’m not. Actually I’m reminding myself what reality is when it’s not limited by fear or lack of imagination.

As Kesey himself said (I’m paraphrasing), everybody should be free to be as large as he feels he has it in him to be. Those are powerful words, and a heck of a challenge, not only to society but also to the people within it.

Have I become as large as I feel I have it in me to be? I haven’t even come close. But reading Acid Test reminds me how much I want to keep trying, and how much fun I’ll have in the attempt, even if I’m still nine-tenths unfulfilled potential when they wrap me in my winding sheet.

Better that than living someone else’s dream.

Alina's Imagination

Readers might want to know about an interesting blog I've found. It's called Alina's Imagination and it has some really nice, clear, clever, perceptive writing in it. http://alinasimagination.blogspot.co.uk/