Saturday, 28 March 2015

First Party

I’m sure I had been to parties before – kids’ parties, with games and jelly and ice cream – that sort of thing. But this was the first party I can actually remember, and the reason I remember it so clearly was because it was a kids’ party which was pretending not to be one. I’m not sure what, exactly, it was trying to be: perhaps something like a child’s idea of how a bunch of fifteen year olds or sixteen year olds might party? Or perhaps, more precisely, a twelve year old’s idea of how a sixteen year old who was imagining a twenty-four year old partying, might party. I was nine at the time, and one of the younger ones. The year was 1970 and on the turn-table that night were the current picks of the pops – Bobby Bloom’s Montego Bay and Three Dog Night’s Mamma Told Me (Not to Come) – these at any rate were the songs I can remember.
I can’t imagine that there were many people at the party: ten, fifteen at the most. It was at a friend’s house and their parents were out. The party was just the neighbourhood children: brothers and sisters between the ages of about eight and twelve. We were tooled-up to party with our treasured collection of seven inch singles, with bottles of cherryade and R Whites lemonade, and with oodles of crisps. The record player was a hulking great teak cabinet with valves. You could stack five or six records at a time, though the more you stacked the looser the traction was: you often ended up with your final single sounding as if it was being dragged, wobbling, down in pitch by half an octave.
What I remember most was the lighting. It felt like a very different kind of party because the lights were turned down so low. Low lighting in an era where bright electrical lighting was easily achieved felt ludicrously debauched. If you didn’t have a dimmer switch you turned off the main light and obscured the brightness from a side light. If you were particularly groovy you might have a coloured lightbulb (red or blue) for the ambient light. Total darkness was always a possibility, but given the amount of crisps and the staining potential of the cherryade who would want to risk it? We did of course.
The Montego Bay single was a great favourite and had one of those sing-a-long choruses which didn’t entail having to learn any actual words just oohs (like the much loved Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye by Steam, and later covered by Bananarama). But it was the Three Dog Night song (which was a cover of a song penned by Randy Newman) that set the aspirational bar for that night and for any party since. Mamma Told Me (Not to Come) was like an obscure lesson in partying the bohemian way. It gave you no clear information about how to achieve the requisite level of partying, but gave you an exceptionally clear indication of what the desired outcome was: ‘This is the craziest party / That could ever be / Don't turn on the lights / 'Cause I don't wanna see’. What sort of a party could this be? So wild that it would terrify you to behold what was going on?
We were young and I have no recollection of seeing anyone snogging or even close dancing. But it was dark. I can imagine the terror for any adult who turned the lights on: children dancing by grinding potato crisps into the shag-pile. Oh the horror.

Monday, 23 March 2015


Like many children in the 1960s, I collected stamps. It was a relatively cheap hobby and there was always the possibility that one day your collection could be a treasure trove of rare gems. I still have my album and it is filled with Hungarian stamps (Magyar Posta) commemorating the 1960 Olympic games in Rome, butterflies, and Jurij Gagarin’s space flight; Polish stamps (Polska) commemorating the 1964 Tokyo games, the Grenoble winter games of 1968, and gliders; and Czechoslovakian stamps (Československo) commemorating Gagarin, flowers and birds. I guess I bought the stamps as pick-and-mix bags from the local newsagent. I can’t imagine that the good people of the village where I lived were in regular correspondence with their comrades behind the iron curtain and were passing their exotic stamps on to me.
During my brief term as a miniature philatelist there was one suite of stamps I particularly liked. This was the British Post Office’s 1971 collection of ‘Modern University Buildings’, featuring buildings from the universities of Southampton, Essex, Leicester and Aberystwyth. To my mind they have the same register and tone as the stamps from Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia – they welcome the future with open arms. And, little known to me at the time, it was my future they were welcoming: I spent too many chaotic nights as a teenager in the student union at Essex University ‘partying’ to Iggy Pop, Roy Harper, the Psychedelic Furs (and so on) – not as a university student (I was at the local FE College).
There is something perfect about a stamp: it is a form of money, yet it has only one particular task to perform – the task of transport. For a while the post office used to sell large-scale versions of their stamps as postcards. The postcards even had crinkle cut edges like the real thing. I wished that these postcards didn’t also require an additional stamp for postage, but they did. It never seemed to be possible that you could send the stamp postcard with an identical postage stamp on the back.  

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Everything Must Go

When the headache-coloured skies of winter descend, the ubiquitous advertising hoardings and illuminated shop fronts take on a new role. Giant backlit transparencies, neon signage or electronic screens punch holes in the drab, proximate environment. Amidst the sleety drizzle and along the wind-whipped pavements, you find sun-blushed, luminous visions that mock the dull muddy greys that fashion the neighbourhood. Through the general hangover darkness of mid-afternoon, you glimpse the gleaming Mediterranean blues of Davidoff Water (and Davidoff eyes); through the dank curtain of another overcast Wednesday you catch sight of Colgate’s smile, Nivea’s pout, and L’Oréal’s self-satisfied grin.
In the 1980s I was taught that this world of advertising needed decoding. Advertising was a text that smuggled in ideologies of a certain kind of life while flogging you unnecessary luxuries. But in many respects the dream-world of advertising is an easy one to interpret: buy this and become attractive; make people envy you by having a fitted-kitchen made out of floating minimalism. And it is easy to recognise that the world fashioned from advertising is made out of impossible bodies, improbably at ease with themselves and each other, living in environments untouched by the worldly forces of decay, disease, poverty, or even something as ordinary as rough, lined, mottled skin. All you have to do, after all, is to look out of the window of the bus and compare the ad-world and the ad-people with you and your fellow passengers. Perhaps rather than decode advertising we just need to see the scale of it. How could you do this? Perhaps some multi-billionaire will buy all the advertising space of a entire city, and all the advertising slots on broadcast media, all the algorithmic adverts on the internet and replace them all with one image: of fire, burning, consuming, crackling...
Rather than interpreting adverts I think I want to return to Raymond William’s 1960s notion of advertising as a magic system, conjuring illusions through misdirection and sleight-of-hand. To get some grip on advertising requires less attention to its manifest and latent contents, and more attention to its phenomenal forms: the way it chases you down as you waft across the internet; the way its impossible images belittle real affection; the way its grammars of value inveigles ordinary talk. It’s a bonanza and everything must go. 

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Scenography of Dreams

Freud, in his big book of dreams, claims that the grammar of dreams is a negotiation of the past and the future pressed through the preoccupations and happenstance of the present. A dream, for Freud, roughly follows patterns inherited from the past, driven by a wish for the future (that the dream might fulfil in some way), thrown together with what Freud calls the day’s residues (the remains of the day). You can see the truth of some of this when you work out that this or that bit of your dream is borrowed from last night’s barely registered television watching.
            More and more I think of the patterns of the past taking the form of distinctive cartographies. Over and over I’m locked into an oneiric commute, or else I’m having to deal with situations within a particular house. The trouble with these commutes and with the dream houses I occupy is that are determinedly impossible and unmanageable (or rather they follow their own dream logic). One of my dream commutes has me having to catch a bus ‘home’. I’m late of course and the last bus will be leaving soon. I know where the bus stop is, and all I have to do is go to that bit of town and catch the bus. The only trouble is that the dream confuses me as to where I am. I know the part of town precisely: it is a street that starts wide and gets narrower as it moves away from the centre of town; it has some shops (for instance a large furniture shop that is sometimes a musical instrument shop or a sweet shop), and the street gives way to more and more domestic houses, some very old, as the street narrows. It is not a salubrious part of town: perhaps students live here; perhaps some of the houses are used by small-time lawyers and insurance companies. I need to go either east or west but my sense of direction and my sense of the route I need to take is based on a quite different urban landscape. It’s as if I’m trying to find my way around Berlin using a map of Paris (an old Situationist ploy): or to get more of a sense of the regional scale of these dreams – it’s as if I’m trying to find my way around Colchester in Essex with a map of some other small regional town.
            The houses that I inhabit in dreams all seem very familiar. Perhaps an amalgam of houses that I lived in my twenties when I moved house a couple of times a year. The houses have too many rooms and there is always a room that throws the logic of the house out of joint: for instance a small terraced house might have a small container ship as part of the basement. The container ship might be small (for a container ship) but it is gargantuan compared to the scale of the house. [I get excited thinking that one of the containers would make a good studio.]
            My dreams are made up of the edges of things: the edges of town; the corridors between rooms; the patch of packed earth near a small copse on the edge of a playground. Whatever there is at the centre is of no concern of mine.