Reviewed: ‘Mandy, Charlie and Mary Jane’ by Stewart Home (Penny Ante Editions, 2013)

The one thing it’s possible to predict with the publication of any new Stewart Home book is Home’s unpredictability, and his latest book to be published, Mandy, Charlie and Mary Jane is a suitably unpredictable and audacious assault on cultural studies – and a broad range of targets, as it happens.

Although Home is by no means an author who adheres to the adage ‘write what you know’, he does freely admit to drawing on his immediate environment for source material, having presented journal-like reportage in Memphis Underground and based countless characters on thinly-veiled representations of figures in the art scene throughout his career.

It’s for this reason that Mandy, Charlie and Mary Jane contains lengthy lists of films, and on-line DVD purchases that look suspiciously like the sort the author himself would buy, along with lengthy reviews of exhibitions written in the style of Home’s blogs, and screes of dialogue on trains and in lecture theatres that appear to have been transcribed from real-life scenarios almost ver batim, or otherwise exist solely to facilitate the expounding of some theory.

I’ve always been one to appropriate dialogue myself, because creating dialogue that reads like it might have actually been spoken is difficult. Ironically, in my experience, and as if to prove the adage that truth is stranger than fiction, my lifted dialogue has been criticised for not being credible. In Home’s hands, the absurdity is heightened by the incongruity of context.

There’s also the issue of the 7/7 bombings and the way Home ties this in with the narrator’s delusional quest for some vague domination. This particular event – as Home explained in one of his blog posts – features in the book primarily because it was happening at the time the book was being written and some of the observations on the event are from the author’s own experience of being in London on that day. Yet its inclusion is one of the reasons it’s taken so long for Mandy, Charlie and Mary Jane to arrive in the public domain. Recent history, when absorbed within the context of a postmodern novel, is just too sensitive and problematic for most publishers. Of course, Home’s contentiousness is a part of his appeal, and his portrayal of academic life is as likely to cause a stir in certain quarters as the terror thread of the plot.

I’m not referring to the countless sexual antics with students – real or imagined – but the narrator’s criticisms the university system in the UK. Of course, highlighting the issues of the effects of tuition fees and the squeezing of academic resources in the name of profitability is all part of Home’s ongoing critique of capitalism. However, where Mandy, Charlie and Mary Jane differs from his earlier ‘skinhead’ books which were overtly and explicitly political, is in the way the issues are addressed. Instead of using his third-person characters as parodic ciphers delivering blunt sloganeering polemic and slabs text by Marx et al, the first-person narrator of Mandy, Charlie and Mary Jane offers more subtle yet even more scathing observations from the coal face, as it were.

Home slings in large chunks of review, criticism, critique and theory in trademark fashion (echoing previous works, notably 69 Things to Do With a Dead Princess). The narrator’s Marxist reading of Deep Throat is as amusing as it is audacious, and is, of course, classic Home. By establishing his narrator, John – or Charlie – Templeton as a cultural studies lecturer with a chronic drug habit, these skewed academic musings are fitting, and what’s more, in Templeton, Home is also able to play with and dismantle notions of fixed character – even the narrator doesn’t know who he is at times and frequently contradicts himself throughout the story. It may revisit the character shifts in his 1997 novel Come Before Christ and Murder Love, and draw the more absurd elements from Memphis Underground together with elements of Cunt, but then formula has always been an integral aspect of Home’s output, and it never worked to the detriment of the work of any genre author, or Ballard for that matter.

And so the resurfacing of phrases that have appeared variously and numerous times in his previous works is all part of the joke. It isn’t supposed to be subtle, and by now, the reader is supposed to be in on the gag which centres around the fact that Home’s built a career on declaring himself a rampant plagiarist (and notorious / celebrated self-promoter) and now we see him appropriating from himself quite liberally.

Noting in one of his blogs that Mandy, Charlie and Mary Jane, like its predecessor Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie was written – at least in part – while installed as a university writer in residence, it’s therefore unsurprising to find Home use the campus as his novel’s primary setting. Equally unsurprising, Home’s choice of location, the City University of Newcastle upon Tyne facilitates the use of its acronym repeatedly throughout the text, adding the type of shock value Home is notorious for before immediately debasing it through endless repetition – which in Home’s eyes renders it all the funnier, in accordance with his recurrent citation of Bergson’s theory that suggests repetition is the basis of all humour. No doubt by the end of the book and the thousandth repetition of CUNT, Home had split his sides and jizzed himself to a husk at his own wit and genius. And rightly so: it was certainly my instinctive reaction. Because as one of the few authors to take postmodernism to a new level and turn its self-celebrating, self-collapsing theoretical existence back in on itself, Mandy, Charlie and Mary Jane sees Home remain several steps ahead of the game (even taking into account the fact that this book was written five years ago).

It’s not just the narrator who loses the plot as the book progresses, and what begins in a relatively grounded realist setting (d)evolves into surreal flight of fancy. The ending is, of course, a complete joke, but also – even despite Home’s previous flights into the surreal – a surprise that’s likely to leave you shaking your head. I’d argue that you don’t really read Home’s novels for their plots, however, so much as the explosion of ideas, and on that level, Mandy, Charlie and Mary Jane certainly doesn’t disappoint, and, equally importantly, it’s perverse, it’s funny and, put simply, a cracking read.

 

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Reviewed: Baron’s Court, All Change by Terry Taylor (New London Editions, 2012)

As Stewart Home emphasises in his introduction, Baron’s Court, All Change is something of a lost cut classic. Precisely how it came to disappear from the face of the planet for some forty-odd years is rather difficult to explain, but disappear it did. After its initial publication in 1961 and republication four years later, this first-hand account of the hippest cats on the drug-fuelled London Jazz scene at its most swinging, which drew a readership at the time and has obvious and broad appeal since as a historical work, fell not only out of print but out of memory.

Taylor’s first-person narrative has a conversational quality to it, and while he’s not big on detailed description, with some of the writing appearing rather hurried and a shade rough in the editing, these are actually endearing qualities and he draws vivid, earthy pen-sketches of 1950s suburban life in just a few simple lines.

His teenage frustration with suburban tedium and conformity still resonates now, and while some of the writing has a hurried, pulpy quality and many of the characters are little more than sketched pen-portraits, Taylor’s narrator is multi-faceted and displays a surprising degree of emotional depth. This is one of the book’s real strength, as the narrator portrays life as an insider but also an outsider in different social circles, and reveals the dichotomy between family ties and friendship in what could reasonably be called a ‘coming of age’ tale with a real warmth.

Some of the lingo is as priceless as it is necessarily dated, and so many of the cats are digging the scene, wigged by all the charge they’re smoking and the swinging tunes that if it had been written thirty years later it would seem parodic. But at the same time, the overall narrative style is remarkably contemporary and is striking in just how fresh it seems, and Taylor’s turn of phrase is credible and naturalistic in a colloquial way (for example, after an argument with his mother, the narrator immediately feels guilty, and writes ‘I felt like a right cunt’).

The insight Baron’s Court gives into the drug culture of the period is also illuminating, and while most of the characters are strictly hash smokers (the book could almost as readily have been called Baron’s Court, All Charge), LSD does receive a mention (the first in a work of literature) and heroin also features prominently.

‘Junkies fascinated me from the start and I found out all I could about them… His thing isn’t a kick, it’s a way of life,’ recounts the narrator around halfway through, at the same time echoing Burroughs’ line ‘Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.’ I can’t help but wonder how much information would have been available about junkies at the time, and would contend it’s not unreasonable to assume that Taylor had read Burroughs’ debut novel Junkie, published in 1953 in the US with a first UK edition, published by Digit Books of London in 1957. The text may not have been widely known, but hipsters have, as Baron’s Court reminds us, always been two steps ahead of the trend.

At a couple of hundred pages in length, Baron’s Court is a quick and straightforward read, and without doubt this is one of its great achievements. Whereas so many other books on drugs and drug culture are dry and unappetising and judgemental or otherwise agenda-driven, Taylor’s novel is vibrant, lively and above all entertaining.

 

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Dead Pop Stars: Amy Winehouse and Why the Media Loves a Fuck-Up

For a moment, I felt the same incredulity and momentary slip of the sprockets of reality as when I turned on the news to discover that Princess Diana had died, and, some years later, Michael Jackson. Amy Winehouse, dead? Surely not? The way these three stories reached me was different for each: Di was a Sunday morning, I turned on the television to find nothing but blanket coverage on every station… I was at a gig when Jackson met his end, and someone in the audience had received a text and shouted out to the band between songs. From then on, we got updates from the stage via texts to audience members. It was through Facebook and Twitter than news of Amy Winehouse’s death circulated like wildfire, although I still turned to the television for confirmation… just in case. And sure enough, it was the breaking news on all of the channels.

Well, why wouldn’t it have been? Winehouse was a celebrity, famous and notorious in equal measure…actually, that’s not quite true. With only two albums to her credit (which collectively spawned just one top-ten UK single, her biggest hit being a cover on which she featured as guest vocalist) – and with many casual music fans unaware of her her debut, which achieved only moderate success – she might have been a reasonably successful singer, but it wasn’t until she careered off the rails and got fucked up that the media really got interested. Like Courtney Love – who is very much still alive – she only went stellar when things went wrong. The whole media circus didn’t only eclipse the short-lived musical career but also became self-perpetuating. There’s no more powerful blocker of creativity than intense scrutiny 24/7, a bunch of paps in your face every time you leave the house and endless speculation and commentary over a person’s varying degrees of wastedness. And if you have a propensity for drink and drugs, how are you going to escape it all? With more of the same, of course. And thus it becomes a vicious cycle.

Pete Doherty’s band may have been NME darlings, but being a pretty mediocre, shambling, jangling shit indie band, they were never going to become a household name (something also true of Hole, only they were a half-decent alternative rock band, at least until Courtney lost it after Kurt’s suicide and the mess and mud-slinging that ensued, which was at least partly media created). It was only the drug-related carnage and dalliance with Kate Moss that propelled him into the headlines. It’s hard to tell how much of it is driven by the media and how much it’s driven by a genuine thirst for scandal, but however you look at it, fucking up in public is the way to hit the stratosphere in terms of coverage. The media love it, of course: pick your target and shadow it, with the guarantee that there’ll be something outrageous to report most nights of the week and you’ve got an easy way of filling time or column inches. Are the public genuinely interested, are they really that thirsty for salacious gossip about the not-so private lives of celebrities? Maybe the they weren’t but tell them often enough and they’ll become convinced that they are interested.

 

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The BBC had a reporter stationed at the cordon on the street where Winehouse lived. The reporter commented on the sixty-five or so fans who had gathered and remarked on her dedicated following. There’s no questioning the size of her fan-base: Back to Black has sold in excess of 10 million copies. But mainstream artists rarely have truly dedicated fans: were these dedicated fans the same ones who booed her off the stage not so long ago when she rocked up, wasted, stumbling over her feet and the lyrics and generally in no fit state to perform? Sixty-five people is hardly a crowd, and besides, how many of those loitering – when there’s nothing to see, so why not move along, now? – were actually fans? How many were police, and how many were media reporters and photographers? That’s a rhetorical question.

Most saliently, the number hanging around that street in Camden was significantly lower than the body count in Norway. Yet in the rush to give live, up-to-the-minute, as-it-happens coverage of another dead pop star, that story had plummeted off the radar. The hacking scandal was all but forgotten and I can only assume that the fact Greece – not to mention America, but that’s being kept strangely quite – is on the brink of financial ruin and there are wars raging across the globe are only of minimal significance in comparison. I’m reminded of Derrick Bird’s killing spree in Cumbria last year, which saw 12 people shot dead and 11 more injured before he turned the gun on himself. It was major news for a short while, until Raol Moat went on the rampage and the story was all but forgotten about. Despite a much lower body count, a siege was ready-made for live streaming news and much more likely to capture the nation’s imagination than something that was over before the cameras could be on the scene.

I’ll admit, I was never a fan of Winehouse’s work, and don’t think she was an ‘incredible talent’, and the monumental outpourings of grief on-line seem wholly disproportionate. In the same way that everyone loathed Jade Goody for being a fat racist ignoramus until she was diagnosed with cancer, when she was immediately presented with a halo and became a national treasure, it seems that dying young alters the mass perception to such an extent that all is forgotten. Seemingly, dying young it a tragedy no matter what, and makes one a better person, a hero, an instant deity. Thus, while I have no wish to disrespect the dead, I’m not going to suddenly change the opinion I held of her while she was living – a rough, skanky no-mark who got lucky.

But this isn’t about my opinions of Amy Winehouse or her music. I’m more concerned about taking an objective look at the media response – by which I also mean on-line media, interactive media. Sure, a lot of people did like her music, but did she and her work really touch the lives of so many, so profoundly, as to require the Twittersphere to become clogged and Facebook to become a no-go zone for those who want to read anything other than ‘RIP Amy Winehouse’ and what a tragedy it is that the world’s lost one of its greatest talents? Or is it simply an example of people being seen to do and say what’s expected of them, the herd mentality of not wanting to be left out? ‘Yes, me too, I never got any of her albums, but I really loved her music, so amazing, blah blah blah’.

It’s all a matter of perspective. It’s about time people started to think for themselves.

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