The Mysterium (Work In Progress)

The Mysterium

1.

Elizabeth Martin first saw the two men in black when she exited the British Library one bright July afternoon. She’d spent the morning rearranging pages of notes compiled for the opening chapter of her biography of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, and was still editing passages in her head as she emerged onto the Euston Road. Sub bass rumble from a passing car stereo broke her concentration and she gazed across the street – and found her eyes drawn directly to them. While the air was heavy with the swelter of a heatwave, they were both done up in dark suits and raincoats. Surrounded by the iridescent t-shirts and sunburned limbs of the King’s Cross crowd, they stood out like two onyx stones in a tropical fish tank.

One was yawning, while the second – taller than his squat companion, hair long and shaggy in contrast to the other’s close-cropped fuzz of greying bristles – was looking directly across the road at her. It reminded Elizabeth of the cover of the album Actually by the Pet Shop Boys. The thought made her chuckle, briefly. 

But the staring man, the Chris Lowe of the duo, kept his eyes fixed on hers for three, maybe four seconds while he retrieved a roll-up from behind his ear. As if, Elizabeth thought, he’d been waiting for her. 

Then all at once, he glanced down to cup a lighter to the cigarette; his friend spat onto the pavement; a gaggle of teenagers pogoed around them both and into the McDonald’s behind; and a bus lumbered past… And when Elizabeth finally had a clear view again, the men were gone.

 

It’s impossible to understand how much your parents love you until you have children yourself. Then there’s a slow realisation – when your son or daughter is causing your heart to balloon against your chest with every toothless grin and sonorous burp – that you must have inspired this same devotion yourself, 25 or 30 or 40 years ago, in the hearts of the people you then spent the next 25 or 30 or 40 years treating as embarrassing acquaintances. It can be heartbreaking, this disassociation from your younger self. Viewed through a prism of lived experience, they become a stranger. And, what’s worse, you know your own beloved progeny will soon regard you in the same way, as a spiritual foreigner – and you’ll become an exile in your own land.

Elizabeth thought about this as she walked towards Kings Cross tube station, still peering around in search of the shadowy pair. Her son Isaac, recently sent down from Oxford due to various cocaine-related transgressions, was currently making the transition from weary indulgence to outright contempt. Elizabeth was being patient with him, of course, because his father was only nine months deceased. Losing a parent at such a young age was bound to wreak havoc with the boy’s mental equilibrium (or so said the Vice-Chancellor, explaining to Elizabeth why Isaac was just being kicked out rather than marched to the nearest police station). Nonetheless, the frostiness of their current interactions – where Elizabeth’s attempts at basic information-gathering (“How are you?”, “Would you like some breakfast?”, “Do you think you’ll take a shower this week?”) were met by a Neanderthal concerto of grunts, sighs and muttered insults – was trying her patience.

She had to rein in her responses, muffle the things she really wanted to say as Isaac sneered and swore, because she understood that some of the frustration she was feeling was selfish. When her husband had died – suddenly, painfully (an explosive heart attack), and far too early (he’d just passed 60) – she’d been upset, of course. But also somewhat liberated, as he’d died (suddenly, painfully, and far too early) naked and priapic in the bed of an auburn-haired 27-year-old cellist, with whom he’d been conducting an affair (she found out, after the cellist had rung, hysterical, to ask for help with Henry turning blue beside her) since April the previous year. All at once so many of the things in her life that caused her disquiet – his diminished interest in any physical closeness, his impatience with her talk about the future, his purchase of a formidably expensive gym membership – suddenly made sense. She moved from blaming herself for failing to be more agile in adapting to his whims, to relief that it wasn’t she who was at fault for this chill in their 22-year marriage. It was him. It was all him. The cheating shit.

With relief came a kind of clemency, a mellow forgiveness of herself, for all the guilt she’d felt about being a bad wife, a bad confidant, a bad lover. And forgiveness then gave way to expectation: she was not only blameless, she was owed something. She deserved some kind of emotional reparation. As the man from whom she could extract that reparation was dead, she soon realised that the only person who could now offer her any reward was herself. From expectation, she then moved to liberation. She felt lighter suddenly, as she acknowledged that she’d regained control of her happiness. Her reality was no longer a negotiation with another’s. Her personal fulfilment was no longer – as Sartre would have it – contingent. She could do what the fuck she wanted. 

And then Isaac came home.

She loved him, she would remind herself during those protracted mornings when he was slumped in the living room, sockless and gangly, offering nothing more than the occasional murmured assent to her blandishments. He paid so little attention to what was going on beyond the glow of his smartphone that one day Elizabeth ordered an eclectic selection of Thai delicacies from Deliveroo, took in the bags from the clammy cyclist, decanted everything onto plates, and presented it to Isaac as her own work – and none of it registered in the slightest.

She loved him, yes. But there was no use pretending that he wasn’t an obstacle, getting in the way of her discovering what came next – what came next after liberation

He’d grown up in a house of art, music, ideas: the son of a conductor (and, lately, cheating shit), and a lecturer in English Literature who had decided, in her fifties, to fulfil an ambition of writing non-fiction. And had done so rather successfully. Elizabeth’s debut, a well-reviewed but poor-selling biography of Nicholas Culpepper, was published when Isaac was finishing his A-Levels. However, her second – a new history of Weimar Germany – landed on many broadsheet end-of-year lists (and almost entirely paid the rent for Isaac’s room in the four-floor Victorian house where he spent his final year at Oxford, she would occasionally remind him). In reaction to this upbringing of liberal intellectual exploration, Isaac decided, aged 18, that he wanted to go into politics. Elizabeth and Henry (oh, let’s not say his name, thought Elizabeth, as she headed down the escalators to the tube) were happy to see him commit to anything beyond Fortnite and online pornography. But by his second year, Isaac’s political leanings had moved abruptly rightward, and when he did deign to communicate with his parents, his conversation was of Hayek, Friedman, Thiel; he started to refer to himself as a “classical liberal”; he would respond to Elizabeth’s concerns about public sector cuts with glib references to “market competition” and “trickle-down economics”. He was – Elizabeth thought to herself one evening, a few months after Henry’s death, when she emerged from her study to find Isaac watching Question Time and snort-laughing at an audience member’s condescending comment about immigrants – turning into a bit of a twat.

His political predilections, however unappealing Elizabeth might find them, were not the source of her worries for Isaac, however. If he became a Tory, so be it – it wouldn’t impinge on her ability to embrace the new freedoms Henry’s death had revealed to her. No, the problem was that he was out of his depth. At Oxford, the only people he’d found who shared his worldview were the claret-cheeked, braying public school set, those chosen few set to glide from think tank to spad to assistant whip, thanks to recommendations from well-placed uncles and godfathers. As a lowly state school upstart, Isaac had his work cut out to integrate. His solution was to buy as much cocaine as he could afford from his London connections (which, after the success of Berlin Behaving Badly: A New History Of Weimar Germany, was quite a lot), and share it liberally with the Bullingdon boys. 

He was soon spending every other weekend at one or another Cotswold retreat, or Chelsea flat – and even once found himself partying self-consciously at a villa by Lake Como owned by the father (a Conservative Lord) of one of his most appreciative customers. Acceptance by such an elite clique did some fairly heavy damage to Isaac’s malleable young mind, as far as Elizabeth was concerned – more damage, she thought in more cynical moments, than the stuff he was putting up his nose.

Henry was unfazed by these developments. At the time, Elizabeth was of course not aware that her husband’s interest in their son’s radicalisation was in inverse proportion to his interest in the body of the auburn-haired 27-year-old cellist. She found herself baffled by Henry’s blithe dismissal of it all as “just a phase” – this from someone who’d disinvited a colleague from his 40th birthday drinks after finding out the man subscribed to the Spectator. Elizabeth put it down to the fact that Henry was a Blairite, and for him the Tories of Cameron and Osbourne were no great threat to his centre-left beliefs. By the time of Brexit and Boris he was completely disengaged, and couldn’t – or wouldn’t – see that the party his son was now cheerleading for was an entirely different (and, to Elizabeth, far more wretched) beast. Had he lived long enough to see how Brexit would curtail his ability to travel Europe with his orchestra, shagging the cellist in a different enlightened metropole every week, he might have changed his tune. But of course he never thought Brexit would happen. He had too much faith in what he called the “pragmatism of power”, in the essential arse-covering shallowness of the post-Blair generation, to imagine they’d do anything so revolutionary as cut Britain adrift from its continental partners. 

Well, we’ve all been left high and dry now, thought Elizabeth as she emerged from the tube at Vauxhall and climbed the steps to catch the overground to Barnes. I’m widowed, and the country’s widowed. Henry had his fun and got out just in time. Now Elizabeth had to carry on somehow, in a changed world, one in which her son regarded his mother’s liberal attitudes with scorn. Oh, let’s not sugarcoat it, she thought: he regarded her with scorn. She was facing a summer, a whole season, of scorn. And if she wanted to rescue the situation, she’d have to put any thoughts of moving on from Henry (whatever that meant in practice) aside. No 27-year-old trombonists for her. She was 58, cuckolded and grief-struck; her agent had serious doubts about the commercial viability of her next book; and her son was a twat.

She looked out of the train window at the sun leering down on West London. Then she pulled her notebook from her bag and began to read.

 

Alexander Scriabin never knew his mother. She died in 1873 when Scriabin was barely a year old, from tuberculosis contracted while convalescing from a lung infection in Italy. How cruel – thought Elizabeth, as the train rattled past Putney – for this woman to be asphyxiating under the Mediterranean sun, alone, her baby a thousand miles away. Lyubov Petrovna Scriabina had been a fine pianist and composer in her time, having studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory of Music under the tutelage of the great Theodor Leschetizky. Elizabeth liked to imagine the first sounds the foetal Alexander heard were his mother’s recitals – ripples across the amniotic fluid that he’d spend his life chasing. Perhaps, she thought, the grand vision for his final work – the consciousness-shattering Mysterium – was really just a desire to return to the womb, that place where music, motherhood and God all chimed harmonically, infinitely.

It was the Mysterium, of course, that had ensnared Elizabeth – had convinced her that dedicating a couple of years of her life to writing a book about an obscure Russian composer as the follow-up to a surprise bestseller was not a career-killing proposition. Henry had introduced her to Scriabin (she was increasingly irritated to remember) when the BBC had approached him about putting on a performance of Scriabin’s symphony Prometheus. The final work Scriabin completed before his death in 1915, Prometheus was a wild, dissonant affair accompanied by a light-emitting organ that would douse the audience in colours corresponding to particular keys and melodies. 

Notoriously difficult to execute, Prometheus had been put on in its intended form only a handful of times in the hundred years since its conception. By the time the BBC came to Henry the pandemic was receding, but the shell-shocked public were still wary about venturing to concert halls. For some reason, the Beeb’s new Head of Arts believed that exhuming Scriabin’s atonal whimsy was just the thing to get the Radio 3 set back in the private boxes. Henry’s opinion of the work – “plinky-plonky nonsense gussied up with a lightshow – Jean-Michel Jarring, you might say,” he’d chortled at Elizabeth – made him only slightly less enthusiastic than usual to take the corporation’s cash. In the end, it was not to be: the Daily Mail got wind (“Beeb Splurge on Russian Dirge”), the DG decided that a night of Land of Hope and Glory featuring cameos by various chart stars would be preferable, and Henry went back to his side hustle teaching kids to play Bach on the piano via Zoom. 

In the course of their conversations, Henry had told Elizabeth about Scriabin’s unfinished folly – the Mysterium. Where Prometheus was a tentative experiment in multimedia, the Mysterium was intended as a full-on assault on the senses. Elizabeth would realise, later, that Henry had only the vaguest understanding of what the Mysterium was all about. But the few things he did know set her mind ablaze. It was a piece intended to usher in the end of the world, he told her, a sort of Wagnerian reverie that would be performed for days on end in the foothills of the Himalayas, with music, dancing, lights, smells – a cacophony of the senses. “Somehow,” said Henry, “by the end of it all the spectacle would be so powerful that reality would be transformed, and we’d all become higher beings or something.” He’d paused then, and smirked (that bloody smirk). “But before it happened, the silly bugger got a spot on his lip which turned septic, and died. Imagine: death by pimple.”

Elizabeth had pressed him for more, but Henry was dismissive. Later, during her research, she came across an account from Mikhail Fabianovich Gnessin, one of Scriabin’s contemporaries, of a dinner party where the composer sermonised at length on the details of his grand vision. Gnessin’s response echoed Henry’s:

‘Someone asked Scriabin a question about Mysterium. He began to speak, gradually becoming more excited by his own dear fantasy: the changing race, world cataclysms, and the celebratory destruction of the present man to the sound of Scriabin’s music. At length he explained that what would happen over the six, or probably seven days of this Mysterium, was the destruction (and rebirth?) of the human race. Everyone listened, certainly, reacting differently to what he was saying, but it seemed that most were sympathetic to the prophetic whispers of the extremely talented musician. I remember Il’in turned to his neighbor and said “what a terrible look in his eyes!” And Scriabin kept talking and talking: “in such-and-such day mankind will better understand what occurred on its historical path; in such-and-such…” – I don’t really remember what else there was…’

Both of them, a century apart, made it sound ludicrous – but Elizabeth was entranced. While Henry forgot all about Scriabin and returned to admonishing surly eleven-year-olds about their fingering technique, Elizabeth began to Google. And the more she read, the more determined she became to unravel the mysteries of the Mysterium.

 

As she walked away from the train station across Barnes Common, Elizabeth forced herself to put thoughts of her research aside and focus again on reality: on Isaac. As punishment for being sent down, he was now locked down – forbidden to leave the house except to see a few vetted local friends, and curfewed. His only way out, Elizabeth had explained to him (or rather, explained to the door of his bedroom which he’d moments earlier slammed in her face), was to get a job. There was a practical, as well as ethical, reason for this, though Elizabeth was careful not to go into details. With probate still unresolved due to Henry’s disregard for such grown-up necessities as organising a will, the Martin household (such as it was) now depended on Elizabeth’s earnings – and after the initial burst of sales, the royalties from Berlin Behaving Badly were evaporating. Elizabeth was still negotiating an advance for her follow-up on Scriabin, and the once-distant prospect of selling the creaking Barnes house in which she’d lived for 20 years, where she thought she’d happily spend the second half of her life of late-blossoming literary renown, was suddenly glaring her in the face. Isaac’s allowance, she’d informed him solemnly, was seriously imperilled.

If there had been any advantage for Isaac in ingratiating himself with the Etonians and Wykehamists, now was the time for him to make good on it. Whatever obscurely-funded Institute for  Strategic Policy Research Studies would take him, he should find a way to be taken. Let him dive headlong into the shark tank, thought Elizabeth. However detrimental it was to his already stunted compassion for humanity, it was bound to pay better than Penguin. 

Elizabeth found herself sighing at her own cynicism as she turned the key in the front door lock. Is this what she really wanted for her son? He was supposed to be an artist, or a doctor, or… God, a snooker player, whatever – not some apparatchik of political gamesmanship. But then, she realised sadly, what choice did he have, with parents like his? An academic pursuing an obsession with a story no one wanted to read, and a dead conductor who’d lavished his meagre earnings on a girl only six years older than his son. It was enough to turn anyone into a Thatcherite.

“Isaac? I’m home.”

The house was quiet. Henry had filled it with noise, but now it was a just a place where thoughts went unsaid. But still, Elizabeth could usually expect to hear the chirrup of TikTok or the spasms of Netflix. 

“Are you here?”

I hope you are, she thought. She hadn’t spoken to anyone all day, apart from the cashier at the British Library cafe. Henry was gone, and all of that easy, mundane conversation, those sound waves that bounced off the walls and billowed past her body, proving she was real – all of that was gone too.

She stood in the hallway and called him on her mobile. It took a few seconds to connect, and then she heard the trill of his phone from upstairs. It went to voicemail. 

“This is Zack. Leave a message.”

He’d started calling himself Zack when he went up to Oxford. Some sweet, naive desire to ‘reinvent’ himself with a new crew (no one else from his school had managed to secure a place). Clearly, thought Elizabeth as she climbed the stairs, he’d not changed the message in the intervening three years, since he was very much going by ‘Isaac’ now. He’d forgotten all about it. No one called him, apart from her. No one under 40 made phone calls at all anymore. 

Elizabeth moved down the landing towards the bedroom, past a wall of photos illuminating a life that now looked, to Elizabeth, like someone else’s. She felt as if she’d been hit on the head, and woken with amnesia, and these pictures were intended as aids to piece together a forgotten past. Here was one: a woman who looked a lot like her, with her arms wrapped around a pale skinny child in shorts and nothing else, in a garden or park somewhere, both caught mid-cackle by an unseen photographer. Here, another: the woman again, and the boy – now older – and a man making a stupid face, all three of them standing in front of a Christmas tree. Who was she, thought Elizabeth, who was that woman? I don’t recognise her.

In every photo, there was Isaac. Blond-haired, then darker; small and chubby, then tall and lean; wrestling with his father on the floor, then towering above him; bright-eyed and happy, then gazing off to the side,  diffident. By the last photo – hanging wonkily by Isaac’s bedroom door, taken at a party Elizabeth and Henry had held just before he’d left them for university – he was looking ever more like his father: the deep-set eyes, the furrowed brow. And looking ready to leave, to get away, to be ‘Zack’, or whoever – someone else, unburdened.

He was an only child. Elizabeth regretted that. They’d tried so hard before having him – Elizabeth suffering a miscarriage, then Henry plunging into depression in his early thirties and spending a couple of years on pills that rendered him flaccid and frustrated. Isaac finally arrived when Elizabeth was 37; she didn’t believe she would ever experience happiness like it again.

She knocked. 

“Isaac?”

No answer. She placed her ear against the door and listened. Music. A phrase, then it stopped and repeated. I heard there was a secret chord – scratch – I heard there was a secret chord… Leonard Cohen. ‘Hallelujah’, on vinyl. Isaac had asked for a record player for his birthday, a couple of months after Henry’s death. Elizabeth had been surprised. Henry had given up on records and CDs years before, having become an evangelising convert to digital streaming. She remembered when he’d pulled her over to his laptop and scrolled through Spotify – “Everything Beethoven ever wrote, from every orchestra you could ask for, all available at the click of a button!” He’d beamed at her, face lit up with astonishment. She loved him in those moments, when his passion made him boyish, returned him to the man he was when she first met him, in the Dive Bar in Chinatown (she was a UCL fresher, he was about to graduate from the London College of Music) and he’d plied her with rum and Coke and talked about himself for two hours, but in a way that made her feel like she was a co-conspirator, the only person he could trust.

Inevitably, Isaac revolted. The digital conversion of music made it sterile, apparently. The only way to listen was analogue. There was much talk of “warmth” and “dynamic range” and “authenticity”. It might have been an affectation, but Elizabeth was cheered by it. Her son wasn’t wholeheartedly embracing the technologic mantra of the age. He could see there was another way. 

I heard there was a secret chord – skip.

Elizabeth knocked again, harder. Still no answer. 

“Five second warning: I’m coming in.”

She paused. Then pushed the door open, slowly. 

The first thing she saw was his bed, and the album sleeve placed on the mattress, and the smear of white powder, and the discarded five pound note that was almost imperceptibly unfurling by the pillow. Her eyes turned to the record player, where Cohen’s Various Positions looped under the spasming stylus. 

Then she saw him, her lovely boy: splayed out on the floor, his nose speckled with blood, the tip of his tongue poking past his teeth and dipping into the vomit pooling under his mouth. 

I heard there was a secret chord…

Skip.

Your Honor: A Pilot Masterclass

I just watched the pilot (and half of ep two) of Your Honor. The whole construction is a bit contrived, but ignoring my more cynical thoughts, it’s a masterclass in setting up a TV show. I decided to jot down why, in my opinion, it does so many things right. Here are those jottings…

What makes a show (more specifically, a TV drama)?

  • A problem that needs to be solved – and then the solution results in an even bigger problem that reveals the wider characters and the story engine. (Adam accidentally kills the son of a crime lord).

  • A new world we’re not familiar with, offering potential to go places we don’t expect – and give us new knowledge in the process. (New Orleans, justice system, organised crime)

  • Which leads to… the protagonist will use the skills he/she has gained in that world to solve the problem. (Protagonist: Judging? Judging skills? You know what I mean. And the antagonist: all the dastardly stuff he has at his disposal as a major crime kingpin).

  • Irony. The story engine is fuelled by the central irony of the situation. (Morally upright judge needs to protect his son who’s recklessly killed someone).

  • A moral/ethical question: what would you do in this situation? The story needs to present different sides of an argument. (What would you do to protect the person you love?) (You could say this applies to Michael and Jimmy).

  • A bunch of characters, all of whom need to solve the central problem. All motivated by solving it. (Who killed Rocco?)

  • Matter of life and death. The worst outcome has to be the one thing the protagonist will do anything to avoid. (If Michael fails, his son will die).

What else? Would love to hear your thoughts.

Seven Years of Screenwriting

It’s been seven years since I first decided to stop dreaming about being a TV writer and start doing something about it. I thought it would be utterly soul-crushing instructive to do a bit of an audit – a look back at what I’ve written and where I’m at.

It’s hard to write a script, even harder to finish one, even harder to let other people read it. Digging through my files I find I’ve finished quite a few of the buggers, which I’m pleased about. I’m not one for pride (it’s a sin, after all) – but I can, I think, allow myself a little pat on the back for having reached FADE OUT so many times.

I started off knowing nothing, and writing awful crap. I know more now – thanks to many books, mentors, patient friends, and a lot of reading of other people’s much better scripts – and can confidently say that my work is now definitely a bit less crap. The journey continues.

(Note: all of these are hour-long TV drama specs. Includes shout-outs to the fantastic people who helped turn nonsense into… well, less nonsense).

2013: Doggerland

My first completed script, inspired by my obsession with the hauntological myths of Orford Ness and the story of Doggerland. The script was an incredibly convoluted, multi-genre, era-spanning epic – the sort of nonsense you write when you don’t know what you’re doing. Entered into the BBC Writersroom competition: got nowhere.

2013: Kill Screen

A sort of Silicon Valley-meets-Occupy Wall Street mash-up that has the kernel of a good idea in it (genius girl coder is forced to work for her VC father who’s secretly creating tech for an evil regime, possibly North Korea, I hadn’t really thought it through tbh). Lots of fun to write, mostly dogshit (I would learn that those two things usually go together).

2014 / 2015: Hitmakers

Ah, the passion project. There’s actually two entirely different drafts so I’m counting them both. The first one was (guess!) crap. The second one was okay. Hitmakers is the story of the pop managers of the Sixties – Epstein, Oldham, Lambert etc. My idea was: let’s tell this story from the viewpoint of the puppet-masters. It’s Mad Men goes pop. I’d still love to get this made, although Vinyl (and the immediate demise of Vinyl) rather killed its potential. Entered into the BBC Writersroom competition: LONG LISTED! (Read the first 10 pages).

(I worked with the amazing Hayley McKenzie at Script Angel on this one).

2015: The Ruby Revolution

Inspired by a friend who ran as an independent in Stoke Newington in the 2010 election, this was a kind of House of Cards comedy drama about what would happen if a radical feminist reached Westminster. I just re-read it and it’s a mess, but the characters work and I think it still has potential.

(Again, I worked with the amazing Hayley McKenzie at Script Angel on this one).

2016: Running London

Running London is a crime drama, in which a tech-savvy kid from a small-time London gang takes on a powerful old school drugs boss, in a bid to run the city’s drugs business. It was my attempt to imagine a gangster show for the Uber era. I pitched it to Sky, who said they had something similar in the works – which I guess was Gangs of London (I dunno, I haven’t watched it – like whevs). Entered into the BBC Writersroom competition: LONG LISTED AGAIN! (Read the first 10 pages).

(I worked with the marvellous Karol Griffiths on this one, and also had input from the wonderful Yvonne Grace and a thumbs-up from Ashley Pharaoh.)

2020: Left Bank

Whoa! Hold on! That’s a big gap between scripts. Yeah, I had two kids alright? Makes this writing lark a little harder. Anyway, Left Bank was another passion project: an attempt to dramatise the lives of the existentialists Sartre, Camus, De Beauvoir etc. I know – commercial gold right!!? I worked my arse off on this one, trying to find the right approach. I finally found a way to write it as a thriller, following the struggles of a character based on Richard Wright as he navigates the Communists, the nascent CIA, and a gang of mad French monarchists in 1940s Paris. Entered into the BBC Writersroom competition: GOT NOWHERE FFS!

(Since completing, have received incredible notes from the wonderful Yvonne Grace – a rewrite will happen at some point.)

What’s next? Well, I’m on to the next one. What else can I do? I love it.

Here’s a teaser…

Mario’s Cafe

Note: this is an old post re-upped here in honour of So Tough getting some Tim’s Listening Party action on Twitter today.

1993 and I’m 16 and I have a blue Metro that my dad bought me. He taught me to drive and I passed first time. It wasn’t a sure thing. While he was a car man (I can see him now with chamois, wax, oil can), I was a bookish child with big feet and no focus. But in that moment, I was my father’s son: practical and in control. Now we had a point of contact – literally, because the deal was I’d be given the car, but in return I had to pick him up from the station every evening after school, and drive us both home, a 30 minute cruise from bromidic Tonbridge to the cloistral village where we lived.

He worked in London. And because of that, unlike many of my school peers, I knew London. Dad’s London, anyway, which was Soho, mainly. His office was on Wardour Street, and the train from home would take me to Charing Cross, where I’d snake my way up through Leicester Square, Chinatown, Brewer Street – and, if I was feeling brave, through Walker’s Court and the thrilling chaos of Berwick Street market – and up to his door at 101.



I was naively proud to know my way around this slice of the city. And more than that – when I stepped off the train and headed across the Strand, my stomach would settle, my teenage jitters would recede, and I would feel at home. My actual home, that place that caused such anxiety (for reasons not worth going into here), would fade away. I was in London, and I could be whatever I wanted to be. London was a vast promise, and at that age I knew I had years to fulfil it.



But still, I was aware that… well, London’s a big place. It’s a very big place. And Dad’s London wasn’t my real destination. That was somewhere else. I wasn’t quite sure where, until I heard an album by Saint Etienne called So Tough.



I bought it on cassette, after seeing the band perform You’re In A Bad Way on Top of the Pops. I played it endlessly in my blue Metro. The first track was called Mario’s Cafe – and one line, one single line, embedded itself in my mind and became the vision of my London life to come.



“Rainy cafe, Kentish Town, Tuesday.”



At 16, stuck in a parochial village, I couldn’t seriously think of anything more romantic and wonderful than the idea of sitting in a Kentish Town cafe on a rainy Tuesday. I didn’t even know where Kentish Town was. But it sounded like an oasis of melancholy idealism. Plus, the idea that you could sit in a cafe on a Tuesday! To not be at school, or at work, but sitting in a cafe, talking about music and girls and art, and London outside with all its promise – what more could anyone want?



I had no idea who the KLF were. I had no idea what the Racing Post was. But this was a song that conjured a world I wanted to live in. My goal in life was to get to London, find my people, and “meet for a while, Tuesday morning 10 am”, in some creaking cafe, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, planning how we’d absorb every last drop of London’s spirit.



I did it. And 23 years later I’m still here, and this song still inspires that same feeling. I will always want to live in Mario’s Cafe.
 

Favourite Albums of 2019

Kiwanuka – Michael Kiwanuka

It’s been a great year for retro soul (see below), but Kiwanuka transcends the genre and travels somewhere timeless. Cloaked by classic melodies, there’s a faultline of fractured rage and sadness hidden beneath that means however sure of where you are with it, you’re always finding new depths.

Richard Dawson – 2020

Dawson’s ability to meld the seemingly guileless with a complexity that never gets too clever is intoxicating. Outsider art with an insider’s skillset.

Yawny Yawn – Bill Ryder-Jones

An unadorned, just-piano-and-voice version of last year’s Yawn. A cavernously heart-rending record that sounds like he’s on the verge of, not falling asleep, but falling into restless dreams. 

Aviary – Julia Holter

An avant-garde pop-opera that’s not quite the masterpiece Have You In My Wilderness was (but then, what is?), but still contains enough adventurousness (and bagpipes) to make you think Holter is the Joni Mitchell of her era.

It Rains Love – Lee Field & the Expressions

Retro-soul brilliance, part 2. Grit-in-the-oyster stuff here, backed by the Daptones with that Studer drum stomp and liquorice bass no one else can equal right now.

The Tales People Tell – Kelly Finnigan

Retro-soul brilliance, part 3. Occasionally shades into James Morrison territory, but the hokiness is kept in check by Stax-sized melodies and utter, sweaty conviction.

Thanks For The Dance – Leonard Cohen

The songs are ill-served by bland arrangements, but the lyrics hit home regardless. No one else writes like this – I’m not sure we’ve even got close to appreciating the loss yet.

Titanic Rising – Weyes Blood

Like Aviary, this doesn’t quite live up to past promise. It sounds sensational – a sustained reverie of Carole King chord changes and string-drenched yearning. But in the end, the melodies aren’t all there. Still, a record to submerge into, even if you come out cold.

Bort Bort Bort – Joel Alme

If you don’t know Alme, go straight to Waiting For the Bells, one of the greatest attempts at Dylan-does-Dusty I’ve ever heard (I’ve never heard another tbh). This isn’t up to that standard, but boy can this Swede write a melody.

James Blake – Assume Form

James Blake happy! Yes it’s kind of weird. No question he’s better when he’s miserable (sorry dude), but even loved-up his production reaches the parts others cannot quite reach.

And finally, looking forward to the best album of 2020…

“I Am The Walrus, Goo Goo Goo Joob”: the Goons, the Beatles, and Sixties pop

The Goon Show was protest. The Goon Show was surrealist and therefore art, and the Goon Show was every National Serviceman’s defence mechanism, and was therefore pop.

Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture, 1968

Part of me would sooner have been a comedian, you know. I just don’t have the guts to stand up and do it but I’d love to be in Monty Python, you know, rather than the Beatles.

John Lennon, interview with Andy Peebles, 1980.

On the 5th September 1967, the Beatles entered Abbey Road Studio One for their first recording session since the accidental suicide of Brian Epstein, their manager, mentor, maker. Next door, the Zombies were adding final filigrees to Odessey & Oracle, while down the hall the Hollies were attempting to fashion their own modest freakout, Butterfly. It was the high noon of British psychedelia.

The group’s energies, having peaked with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a few months before, were dissipating. Epstein was dead and John Lennon was thinking, “We’ve fuckin’ had it.” The technicolour dream was washing out. Lennon had been tripping almost non-stop most of the year, but this song of his that the Beatles began that day was the sound of reality seeping through the acid haze, as the Summer of Love drained, Dali-style, into a bitter autumn. It was called I Am The Walrus.

Lennon had conceived the song at his sprawling house in Weybridge, Kenwood, a mansion on the edge of St George’s Hill. It was on this very hill where some other English eccentrics, the Diggers, had launched their own bid for universal peace and love (and farming rights) some 400 years previously, trying to lay the foundations of a true working man’s revolution amidst the dying embers of the English Civil War. From one Honest John to another.

A geographical coincidence, but a pertinent one, because I Am The Walrus is a song suffused with an English energy that resonates way beyond its particular late-’60s moment. One can imagine the ground beneath Lennon’s feet vibrating with the murmurs of long-dead ranters, as he plotted his final visionary masterpiece of the Beatles’ imperial phase. If the London flower children, for whom the Beatles were figureheads, had anything in common with those 17th century radicals, it was a desire to get back to some ideal England of the past (and the mind). For the Diggers, a bucolic pre-Norman ur-nation of liberated men at one with the land they tilled; for the hippies, a place located somewhere between the romanticised vistas of childhood memory and a Belle Époque world of secret gardens and magic rabbit holes.

In the opening line of Walrus, Lennon can be found still trying to evoke that spirit of prelapsarian communality: “I am he as you are he as you are me / And we are all together.” But this idealism is immediately diverted somewhere sinister: “See how they run like pigs from a gun see how they fly / I’m crying.” It was always going to be hard, in little England, to stop petty reality from breaking through the wide-eyed surrealism. Too cramped, too modest, too class-bound. Outside of London – somewhere like Weybridge, say – your Aquarian philosophy immediately bumped up against the rigidly normal, with neither sensibility coming out of the meeting entirely intact. It’s no surprise that the most visible British analogue to the Merry Pranksters’ great acid-drenched bus voyage around America was the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour – a short coach jaunt where the freaks were outnumbered by resolutely un-hip pensioners and small-town day trippers.

The very conception of I Am The Walrus is emblematic of the way day-to-day concerns encroached on the fantasy. The song’s melody had delivered itself to Lennon via the two-note keen of a police siren, out there in the quiet suburban lanes beyond Kenwood’s sunroom where he sat at his piano. Nee naw, nee naw; “Mis-ter ci-ty police-man…” Immediately this was a song making connections between that bucolic Digger-esque dream and the intent by certain members of Scotland Yard – notably Detective Sgt ‘Nobby’ Pilcher, immortalised in the lyrics as “semolina pilchard” – to smash that dream to pieces. From around 100 convictions for cannabis per year during 1945-59, there was a sudden rise to almost 2,400 in 1967 alone. In response, the government established the Hallucinogens Sub-Committee of the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence in April 1967, a wonderfully Python-esque name that reflects a typically English approach to any problem: get a group of people together to sit round a table and discuss the issue in-depth (then break for tea).

Lennon, like the many writers and comedians he drew influence from, revelled in that particular sort of English absurdism summed up by the Hallucinogens Sub-Committee. He’d seen it at work first-hand for years at Abbey Road, where bands like the Beatles and Pink Floyd explored the outer reaches of sonic experimentation in an environment often more suited to something like bank accountancy. Many EMI technicians wore lab coats, right up to 1969. There were strict rules. New bits of kit – amps, mixers, compressors – were stripped down to their constituent parts and then put back together, as if to ensure there would be no surprises when they were later used by these increasingly delinquent bands.

As with everything, the Beatles broke the rules at Abbey Road, but were always conscious of the fact that they might get a slap on the wrists for doing so. Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick recalled the session for Yellow Submarine in his memoir Here, There and Everywhere, where Lennon wanted to simulate the sound of the sub dipping below the surface of the sea. A milk bottle was filled with water, into which a microphone wrapped in a condom was submerged. At this point, Abbey Road’s officious studio manager Mr EH Fowler pops his head round the door – a man quite ready to fire you for the slightest deviation from EMI’s code of practice.

By the time he got close enough to see what we were actually doing, John had bolted from his chair, grabbed the offending milk bottle, and hid it behind his back. My heart started pounding as Fowler came closer.

‘Everything alright, lads?” he asked.

‘Yes, sir, Mr Studio Manager, sir, absolutely smashing, sir,’ Lennon replied somberly, standing stiffly to attention. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the others stifling their laughter – even George Martin.

By the time the Beatles were making I Am The Walrus, boundaries had been pushed considerably further, but the problem of staying in Mr EH Fowler’s good books remained. During the recording, Lennon informed Emerick that he wanted his voice to sound like it was coming from the moon. In response, Emerick overloaded the mic preamps to create the distinctive distorted vocal that defines the track – but notes that doing so was “in clear violation of EMI’s strict rules.”

This tension between the high chiefs of officialdom and those who enjoy pushing their buttons is a defining characteristic of British temperament, and I Am The Walrus is built on it: “Corporation t-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday, man you been a naughty boy…” Lennon had always been the archetypal naughty boy, kicking against authority from his school years, through the heydey of Beatlemania (ready to tell the aristos at the 1963 Royal Variety Performance to “rattle your fuckin’ jewelry”, though he ditched the swear word on the day), right up to September ‘67, where he plays I Am The Walrus to the group and Martin for the first time, with its lines about a pornographic priestess and letting knickers down; Emerick recalls Martin whispering to him: “‘What did he just say?’”

Gibberish was more like a secret language for Lennon, a code as powerful as the one Spike Milligan, through the Goon Show, had attuned an entire nation to during the 1950s.He claimed that he wrote I Am The Walrus as a way of taking the piss out of all those intellectuals who were – like the Quarry Bank kids poring over Strawberry Fields Forever – reading too much into the surrealistic lyrics of Bob Dylan (“Dylan got away with murder,” he later said. “I thought, I can write this crap too.”) But Lennon was too imaginative, too immersed in the comic writers of the past, to simply turn out crap.

He may have conceived the song as something of a “fuck you” to the pseuds, but what it ended up being was more of a cry for – not help, exactly (he’d already written that one), but empathy. He’s saying: this is how my mind works, when it’s fully off the leash, and it’s not pretty, it doesn’t make much sense, it’s childish and vulgar at times – but do you get it? Do you get me? It was, as Ian McDonald puts it in Revolution In The Head, “a song of self-definition amounting to a manifesto” where Lennon confronts “his boyhood dilemma over whether he was mad or a genius.” As Lennon explained to Playboy magazine just before his murder in 1980: “Surrealism had a great effect on me, because then I realized that my imagery and my mind wasn’t insanity; that if it was insane, I belong in an exclusive club that sees the world in those terms. Surrealism to me is reality.”

If you didn’t get it, Lennon was perhaps in trouble (he is, after all, “waiting for the van to come” – to take him away?) And again, this goes to the heart of another particular archetype of the British eccentric mind, and the British comedic tradition: of using wit to disguise the reality of the fact that, actually, you’re going quietly nuts here in your small corner of this strange dull country. Suburban insanity is a condition of numerous Brit comic characters from Tony Hancock to Basil Fawlty, people we laugh at and with – even though, deep down, they’re desperate, they’re crying out like Lennon but disguising it with a wry smile or a flight of fancy.

Despite his misgivings, George Martin found the perfect sonic representation for this sense of barely repressed mania. The backing vocals on I Am The Walrus are performed by the Mike Sammes Singers, a troupe of jingle minstrels who between the late ‘50s and early ‘70s recorded a huge number of TV themes (Supercar, Stingray), film soundtracks, and some fairly bonkers radio ads for the likes of International Harvester Tractors (sample lyrics: “The new hydrostatic 454-574 / Biggest tractor news in years, no more need for changing gears”). Martin no doubt picked them for their slick professionalism, but must’ve been aware that the words he was asking them to sing (“Oompa Loompa, stick it up your jumper”) probably wouldn’t phase a group used to warbling complex tractor information over incongruously jaunty easy listening soundscapes.

On Walrus, they sound ecstatically unhinged, but they also act as a bridge between the post-Epstein Beatles – liberated, acid-touched priests of a burgeoning counterculture – and the besuited showbiz professionals of the Beatlemania years. The remarkable thing about the institutions of entertainment in Britain – be that the BBC or EMI – is the way in which they offer playgrounds within which eccentrics can blossom. The very strictures they impose – whether that’s BBC censorship (they banned Walrus for the “knickers” line) or EMI’s creaky technology (the US studios already had eight and sixteen track tape machines by 1966, while the Beatles were still limited to four tracks at the time of Sgt Pepper in ‘67) – force adventurous minds to innovate. This is why we produce so much imaginative art in this country: we break things, and then we have to justify the mess to the men with clipboards. In doing so, boundaries are pushed a little each time.

Like so many innovators, the Beatles were at their best when someone – whether that was Epstein, Martin or Mr EH Fowler – was hovering in the background ready to tell them, “You can’t do that.” Post-Pepper, once those limits were relaxed, and technology and the whole entertainment industry began to catch up with them, the Beatles found themselves with nothing left to prove, and no one to kick against – and their music was diminished as a result. Walrus unconsciously comments on this conundrum. The Sammes Singers are pitch-perfect, straight-out-of-Lionel-Bart sparky, the epitome of session musician polish; but what they’re articulating is something just short of a nervous breakdown.

And what happens when you have a nervous breakdown? For some, there’s a retreat to a childlike state, a place in the recesses of their mind where they can regress and feel safe. Another piece of seemingly random inspiration for Walrus was a schoolyard rhyme Lennon was reminded of by his friend Pete Shotton:

Yellow matter custard, green slop pie
All mixed together with a dead dog’s eye.
Slap it on a butty, ten foot thick,
Then wash it all down with a cup of cold sick.

This becomes “Yellow matter custard / Dripping from a dead dog’s eye” in Walrus, the infantile grossness of the original turned sickly surreal. Lennon reaches back further to a childhood fascination with the work of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Carroll’s Walrus is, as Lennon later realised, the “bad guy” of the poem, but what Lennon’s evoking through this glance back to Alice In Wonderland is more important than the lit-crit specifics. As with many other artists of the psychedelic era, the Alice story is used by Lennon most glibly as a reference point for the acid trip – the pill that changes your perceptions, makes you small, then makes you big, and so on. But more importantly, Wonderland is a place to escape to, a place Lennon was escaping to from age 11, when he first received a copy of the book. It was as vital to him as the kingdom of the Goons was to Spike Milligan.

By some spooky serendipity, the song ends with a snatch of a BBC Third Program performance of King Lear – a play in which the titular hero has a four-hour nervous breakdown – added in by Martin on Lennon’s instructions as a bit of pop art randomness. The Beatles had all recently bought Brenell tape machines, following McCartney’s lead, which they used to create sound collages, mixing their own compositions with radio snippets and looney backwards effects (these experiments would reach a ludicrous zenith with Lennon’s interminable Revolution #9 on the White Album in 1968). Martin, of course, was adept at flying in strange noises at a moment’s notice, thanks to his experience cutting records with Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, the Alberts and other comedians in the late ‘50 and early ‘60s. With the play broadcasting live as Martin oversaw the final mix of Walrus, the scene that made it onto the recording is of Oswald’s murder by Edgar (“O untimely death! Death!”); the least cheery ending one could imagine for a song that vibrates with such brilliant energy.

But a perfect ending, leading the listener back, beyond the Goons, beyond Lear, beyond the Diggers, back to Shakespeare: word-conjurer, trickster, defender of this sceptered isle, madman, poet, the start of it all, and the voice we must return to whenever we speak of England. “I am he as you are he as you are me / And we are all together.”

*

What we’re hearing, then, when we listen to I Am The Walrus, is the drawing together of many of the key strands of British comedic and literary culture: madness in suburbia, the use of wit to undermine authority, the return to the comforting nonsense of childhood, a revelling in absurdist wordplay, an evocation of a vanished wonderland, the telling of truth disguised as eccentricity.

The most obvious starting point to understand the cultural tradition of which Walrus is a culmination, is wordplay. Lennon’s “crabalocker fishwife” and “expert, texpert, choking smokers” reach back to the Goons, back to music hall, and further back to Lear and Carroll. In the midst of Beatlemania, when the songs he performed did nothing more interesting with the English language than rhyme “working like a dog” with “sleeping like a log”, Lennon found an outlet for his Goonish sensibility by publishing a book, In His Own Write. Essentially a compilation of updated scraps from the Daily Howl, the pieces within showed Lennon was as adept as Carroll and (yes, even) Joyce at mind-scrambling malapropisms and portmanteaus. “That Liverpool Irish-English subversion of the ruling-class language,” as Jon Savage puts it in his introduction to the 1997 reissue of Write and its follow-up, A Spaniard In The Works – and it’s a key point. Richard Alexander, in his book Aspects of Verbal Humour In English, references a theory by semiotician Michael Halliday that suggests this sort of textual play has its origin “in what he terms ‘anti-languages’; the language of the underworld had a broader social function, namely that of creating and maintaining one’s identity in the face of the pressure to conform with the values of the ‘overworld’.”

The “pressure to conform” was one felt keenly by both Spike Milligan and John Lennon, and their rejection of it was wholesale. Caught between the underworld and the overworld, they both created their own peculiar universes in which an “anti-language” of riotous wordplay was a verbal tool to keep out the people who didn’t “get it”. For Milligan, this vocabulary was concocted as a response to what he saw as the absurdism of National Service. Filtered through a slangy jazz sensibility and a tradition of Lear-derived silliness, Milligan’s word-mangling amounted to a shocking break with a British “overworld” mindset still lost in the fog of Empire-era pettiness and politeness.

This revolution in thought, springing almost entirely from the loopy brain of one man, made a significant impact on the whole of British culture in the 1950s and beyond. As George Melly puts it in Revolt Into Style, his history of British pop art, “[the Goons] have to some degree affected almost all contemporary Anglo-Saxon attitudes.”

They are our effective surrealists, our democratic Pere Ubus, our sacred monsters. Beyond the funny voices (lingua franca of several generations of civilian NCOs), they have proved to be the agents of a profound subversion. We were still thinking of ourselves as a nineteenth century power. It was past time to admit that we were nothing of the sort, to stand back and start afresh. Among other services rendered [the Goons] provided pop with the key to its style – inconsequential and fluid.

Most importantly, this attitudinal revolt was being broadcast by the BBC, the voice of the nation, at a time when the radio was the pre-eminent entertainment source for postwar Britons. It literally altered the perceptions of a generation of kids who would create the defining art of the coming decade. All the most influential British pop stars of the ‘60s absorbed the Goons as children: the Beatles, Ray Davies, Pete Townshend, Syd Barrett, and on and on. A young Keith Moon, listening to the show with his disapproving parents every Sunday evening, “realised that his own nascent eccentricity was a trait to be encouraged, not repressed” (writes Tony Fletcher in Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon).

It wasn’t, of course, a straight transference from the wireless to the wider culture. In his book on Brit pop art and postmodernism, Burning The Box Of Beautiful Things, Alex Seago writes that “the Goon Show’s influence was particularly potent in the London art schools from the mid-1950s onwards and it was from these institutions that a large part of the new ‘underground’ culture emerged.” The first embodiment of this clash between art school theorising and Goonish mucking about was the conceptual musical comedy of the Alberts. Founding member Bruce Lacey was an alumnus of the Royal College of Arts, where a host of the most important British pop artists of the ‘50s and ‘60s – Blake, Hockney, Caulfield – were trained. Seago writes, “Like fellow Goon collaborators Michael Bentine and Spike Milligan, Lacey’s crazed, subversive humour was also deadly serious. In common with the works of the original Dadaists, it was born out of hatred of war, cruelty, and bourgeois pomposity.”

At the end of the ‘50s, Lacey teamed up with cabaret eccentrics the Grey Brothers to form the Alberts, a “cod-Edwardian jazz and performance group featuring Lacey’s maniacal hominoid robots.” Counter-culture icon Jeff Nuttall describes a typical Alberts show:

When they performed at Colyer’s, ravers staggered back from the blinding explosives flashing from the bells of their instruments and the sight of Dougie [Grey]’s magnificent genitals hanging in splendour as he sat in kilt and tam-o’shanter with pheasant plume, blowing the guts out of Dollie Grey, while Professor Lacey accompanied on the amplified penny-farthing bicycle.

You can draw a line from the Alberts, to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, and finish up with the Beatles’ very own Lacey-esque comedy “performance piece” You Know My Name (Look Up The Number) – all of it built on the fanciful foundations of the Goon Show. Seago describes the lineage: “Through personalities such as Screaming Lord Sutch, Dick Lester, the director of the Beatles’ films who worked with Bruce Lacey and Spike Milligan, the manic theatrical rock singer Arthur Brown, and Pete Townshend of The Who, a Goon Show-inspired London art school sensibility became mainstream by the mid-1960s.”

From there, this Goonish attitude was mixed with an Alberts-tinged predilection for Edwardiana, a regression to the nonsense narratives of Lear and Carroll, a bricolage style drawn from the pop art of Blake and Hamilton, and liberal doses of LSD, to create what we now call psychedelia. More so than even Sgt Pepper, the Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is the preeminent exemplar of this Brit-psych sensibility. With its title drawn from Wind in the Willows, its sonic textures made up of a collage of found sounds, tape loops and special effects, its songs composed by the Goons-obsessed, darkly humorous acid jester Syd Barrett – Piper is eccentric pop at its most evocative, a direct inheritor of the tradition of English absurdism.

Piper was released a month before the Beatles entered Abbey Road to begin I Am The Walrus. In that short space of time, the mood had begun to sour, and psychedelia would soon shift into something new, as the key British pop groups started rejecting Summer of Love whimsy for a more combative attitude. A different kind of revolution was on its way.

The baton of absurdism was passed to a new gang, one still deeply bound to the Goons, to pop art, to the counterculture, to music and, of course, to English eccentricity. By 1969, the new Beatles had arrived, and they were called Monty Python’s Flying Circus.