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Thursday, January 22, 2015

There are no endings, only beginnings

I can write this now, because he is dead.

In the mid-1990s, I was commissioned by Terry Clegg to write a pilot for a TV project. I don’t drop Terry’s name lightly. He’s retired now, but even the most cursory search would reveal that Terence A Clegg brought some of the finest British films to the screen, usually in tandem with Lord Attenborough, with whom he had a long and brilliant association. When the man who produced Gandhi comes calling, you pay attention.

The project I was engaged to write was a drama based on the memoirs of Albert Pierrepoint, probably Britain’s best-known public executioner. The Pierrepoint name is synonymous with death by hanging in Britain: Albert’s father and Uncle Tom both did the job before him. Albert – a cheery publican who was popular with his regulars and a great man for singing a song – escorted some of Britain’s most notorious villains to the scaffold. He was also known for his work in the immediately post-war Germany, where many of those convicted of war crimes and sentenced to hang were executed by him. In an oddly resonant way, he had a fleeting link to my own family. My mother, a German civilian working for the then occupying British forces in Germany, processed Albert through the equivalent of Arrivals at RAF B├╝ckeburg in Lower Saxony, probably on his way to Hameln, where 190 men and 10 women were eventually executed under his jurisdiction.

But this post is not about them, or about Ruth Ellis, or about any of the famous/infamous unfortunates Albert helped on their way to the next place. This post is about me and another lost soul.

In writing what eventually sprawled to scripts for six two-hour episodes based on Albert Pierrepoint’s life and work, I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into the minutiae of death by hanging and the mechanics of breaking someone’s neck by dropping them through a hole. If it sounds soulless, it’s because it must have been. Each candidate for execution had to be weighed and measured, to calculate the length of the drop. Sandbags would be hung on the rope overnight beforehand to stretch it to its optimum length to do the job cleanly. As I waded through photocopies of Albert’s notebooks and tables of figures, I realised that I had to objectify the dead. Their role in this drama was only to provide context. The theatre derived not from their misfortunes and tragedies but from the process by which their own lives were ended. The dead were, in a way, simple props used to dress the set on which Albert lived.

It was this realisation that made me stop and consider what I was doing. Underneath each execution was a human story, usually a tragedy. By stripping the condemned of their humanity and equating them with bags of sand, I realised that I was losing my own.

While the writing continued, I pursued a parallel agenda to rebalance myself. Even in these days when the internet was a relatively new thing, I was able to use it to find directories of Death Row prisoners who were seeking pen pals. I wanted to connect with someone in that situation. I needed to remind myself that whatever they had done, they were human beings too, as frail, vain and ridiculous as me. It was a selfish whim perhaps, to regain my own balance by reaching out a human hand to someone who had been reduced, in the same way I had reduced their historical counterparts, to weights, measures and numbers.

I struck up a correspondence with #999149. I’ll not use his name, it’s not really relevant. You can find out easily enough through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website, should you wish. I wrote him a non-committal but upbeat letter and waited.

Some weeks later, I got a reply and that began a chain of correspondence that fulfilled my selfish needs and, to a degree, his. I learned he had a child he rarely saw that was born after his arrest and incarceration. I learned that he was a talented sketch artist with an interest in dark things. I sent him money occasionally – airmail stamps cost money and $10 to an inmate is a fortune and is not much to me. He sent me a drawing. We never discussed his crimes or his appeals. Everything that passed between us was read by the authorities and our correspondence was based on that understanding. So, conscious in part of what he was alleged to have done and of the fact that he had been tried and convicted, I never asked any questions.

I learned that the densities of black and Hispanic inmates, particularly on Death Row, are much higher than in the general population outside. I learned that the possibilities for self-improvement or redemption for inmates are scant. And on Death Row, at the end of all this denial and oppression is the final denial itself. That’s the system.

#999149 and I kept up our correspondence. His big issue never overshadowed his little ones. He was interested in mine. Two men rapping about their families. What could be more natural? Through our correspondence I realised that violent crime is never inevitable, that in societies where success is measured by how much stuff you can acquire and where opportunity doesn’t knock very often if you’re poor, the easy-looking path must sometimes be appealing. I should point out that #999149’s conviction was for a violent coke-fuelled robbery that went tragically wrong. It was the pursuit of easy money that brought #999149 to Death Row. I would not have been able to correspond with anyone who derived gratification from the act of killing in itself.

And so I came full circle. I delivered my scripts (nothing ever came of them), #999149 delivered my balance. As I got to the point of being OK with myself about capital punishment again, I diverted myself by looking more closely into what #999149 had done. I shouldn’t have. While he never lied to me, I discovered (damn you, internet) that the foundation of our relationship was built on sand. There was a lot more darkness in #999149’s soul than he could allow himself to reveal. The main criterion considered by prosecutors seeking the death penalty is the ongoing threat to society if the offender was to be released. I understood, chillingly, why #999149 would not receive any mitigation in that regard. All his appeals failed.

But we’re not the jury here. I made my own judgement. Based on what I had newly discovered, I brought our correspondence to a close. That’s another denial. My decision to stop corresponding was harsh perhaps. Selfish? Definitely. I felt used and angry. My liberal rage against state murder was overlaid by fear and, frankly, a little revulsion. Now, with distance and sharpened by the fact that a man I kind of knew was killed on purpose, I'm solid on my opposition to capital punishment again.

I kept an eye on my former correspondent #999149. Maybe his sentence would be commuted after all. Would he have learned enough in the care of the TDCJ to avoid the wrong path if he had ever been released? We’ll never know now, because as of  about 12:31am our time 22 January 2015, he is dead.

Friday, July 11, 2014

What's next?

I have been holding off writing this blog for a while because it never seemed to be the right time to do it and it's just shouting into the void anyway, so is therefore a bit pointless. As I have made a small commitment to sharing my thoughts on things from time to time, I suppose I have to keep going.

When I celebrated my birthday last month, I hit a milestone that has been on my mind for forty years. On that day, I had officially lived longer than my own father did. He never made his 52nd birthday. I did. That sounds a bit morbid and yes, I am a bit maudlin and reflective tonight - and a bit drunk - but it is still important to me to record that I consider this to be an achievement.

I was 12 when Dad died. He was 51. He always seemed to be on night shift. We didn't really see much of each other. I don't know if that makes it easier or more difficult to lose somebody. As a bereaved 12-year-old boy I was, of course, angry and selfish. How dare he smoke himself to death just when I was beginning to realise that I needed a father figure? And so on.

Years passed, as they tend to do. I'm not a spiritual person, I don't hold any beliefs that relate to what lies beyond this earthly form. I have been a father myself for 24 years and all that time, I have thought "if I die now, what residue of me remains?" and "how cheated will my children feel for the loss of their Dad?" Those are largely imponderables, but to give some kind of answer to the first one, I would urge my children not to keep me in a pot in a cupboard somewhere - look in a bloody mirror! Half of you, my children, is what I am. Enjoy that much, for what it's worth. Would they feel cheated? I hope not. I've been on my own kind of night shift, but never out of reach.

Not that I intend to go any time soon. I have what the technology has hinted might be my first son to look forward to. That's going to be an adventure and, when he's old enough to absorb my words of wisdom, I'll make sure that he knows to live longer than me. If we can keep it going, eventually someone in my family is going to be properly immortal.

So, Dad, there are a couple of places where memories hang in the air, but they are not the cold ground in which you lie. I only have bitter memories of that place and that day. But if you stand up near the cemetery wall, you can look down towards the river where we used to go. Or I can look in the mirror.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

I'm sorry, John ...

Having spent an evening in the company of master wordsmiths Mike Garry and John Cooper Clarke, I thought I would try an homage to the latter. If you get a chance to see either of these brilliant men performing, grab it. Even if poetry is not your thing.

Anyway, here's a short one in the style of JCC. Sorry John.


Denim-clad, hormones in flux
I marked the days and all the fucks
I didn't give about the scene
Described in Smash Hits magazine.
I had my mum take in my flares,
I revelled in John's vacant stares.
I drank light ale, it made me drunk
The day that I invented punk.

'God save the Queen'. The village rang
With obscene strangled songs I sang
On adolescent foot patrol,
On fire with hate and rock n roll.
But no one heard the angry kid
Or felt the ennui I did -
They were indoors watching TV
The day that punk invented me.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Circle of Life

I had one of those days yesterday. One of those days when particular themes seem to come together. In the morning, we had our first antenatal appointment with the consultant. After the miscarriage last year, the past few weeks of very early pregnancy have been a rollercoaster, with every day ticked off as one nearer the sad landmark. Dare we be happy and optimistic? It's hard not to be, but underlying every little flutter of excitement is that dread. Particularly so when we had a scare last week. That was a bad night. We didn't really relax until we had had an emergency scan and could see the little pulse of life.

So we live in hope and fear. The appointment with the consultant was the regular thing, the 12-week scan. Baba was waving its tiny arm, a stark and happy contrast to the stark, still image we had seen last year and all the heartache and physical awfulness that followed. The joy at this movement, and the whooshing of the tiny heart, was tempered by the sobering advice for the older mother, the tests we could have, the odds and possibilities of genetic problems. We're not having any tests. What will be will be. No child will be loved any less, whatever the outcome. Sobering, but not enough to take the edge off our joy. Don't worry though, I'm not turning into that person that tweets every dull and dismal detail of their offspring's development. I was a new dad 24 years ago, the wonder has faded a bit.

Then I hit the road for Belfast, to show my support for a dear friend at a funeral. Whatever we say or wish for ourselves, whatever instructions we leave for those left behind, there is no getting past the grief and loss and, as an outsider, I felt the real love for the departed. The Minister, unwittingly but fittingly, found a resonance with my own thoughts about life and mortality on this day in particular. He reminded the gathered that life is fragile and limited. We all face death. I could not help drifting off into my own internal world of loss and renewal and I realised that the Minister was right - you have to live while you're alive. On the way home I was also reminded of something John Lennon said, paraphrased as: "life is what happens while you're busy making plans".

So, in summary, the universe had conspired to make a point to me: what will be will be, the result is the same. All you can do is change how you get there. I decided to stop worrying about stuff. One day at a time, sweet Jesus ...

Friday, September 20, 2013

What the Hell was Kate Bush singing about??

Kate Bush
She's so quirky.
I love Kate Bush. She nearly got me suspended from school once for bunking off to queue up for tickets to see her tour back in the 1970s. I also met some acquaintances of hers on a school field trip once. They said she was a pain in the arse. I think they were maybe just a teeny bit jealous. Anyway, When 'Wuthering Heights' was a new thing, it was quite unlike anything we had heard before. I knew it was loosely based on the novel of the same name.

But what the hell was she singing about? Well, now it can be revealed. Listen to this video and read these lyrics at the same time. If you can. Or listen and read. You know what I mean. Who Theo Kaffio-Concolman is may never be known.

Wuthering Heights

Out on the whiny, windy moor
Sweet Roland fall in brie.
You had distemper, like my jealous seed
Too hot, too greasy.
How could you leave me when I need a tube?
Possess you, I ate a chew
I loved U2.
Bat dreams in the night -
You told me I was going too loose, too polite
Leave behind my wuthering, wuthering, wuthering heights.

Here Cliff, it's Theo Kaffio-Concolman
So go-o-o-o, let me in, oh your wind! Oh oh oh oh!
Here Cliff, it's Theo Kaffio-Concolman
So go-o-o-o, let me in, oh your wind! Oh oh oh oh!

Ooh, a guest's dark, a guest's lonely
On the other slide from you
I pine a lot, I find a lot.
Paul's through without you.
Wanna bag now? Cool - he's Cliff
My wandering, myopic master.
Too longer room in the night
Come in't back to his slide
To pull it right.
Coming home to wuthering, wuthering, wuthering heights.

Here Cliff, it's Theo Kaffio-Concolman
So go-o-o-o, let me in, oh your wind! Oh oh oh oh!
Here Cliff, it's Theo Kaffio-Concolman
So go-o-o-o, let me in, oh your wind! Oh oh oh oh!

Ooh, Lemmy habit, let me grab your soap well
Ooh, Lemmy habit, let me grab your soap well
You'll always be crappy ...

Here Cliff, it's Theo Kaffio-Concolman
So go-o-o-o, let me in, oh your wind! Oh oh oh oh!
Here Cliff, it's Theo Kaffio-Concolman
So go-o-o-o, let me in, oh your wind! Oh oh oh oh!

Here Cliff, it's Theo Kaffio-Concolman
So go-o-o-o!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Brief encounters

Darren 'Wiz' Brown
You meet people from time to time who have an effect on your life beyond what you might expect. One of these, for me, was Wiz from Mega City 4 whom I was lucky enough to help interview for a student magazine in 1993. We spent probably twenty minutes with him in a corridor in a venue and he was lovely - open and down to earth. It was his music later that night that I really connected to. I love it still. When I read that Wiz had been taken ill and died in 2006, I felt I had lost something. Our relationship amounted to those twenty minutes, maybe a forty-five minute music set and my subsequent enjoyment of his music. I still feel sad that he's gone.

When I had a go at writing a novel, it inevitably drew on my lived experience. It was about an enduring love and I suppose I put a bit more of myself into it than is wise. The object of this enduring love was not based on a particular individual but was an confection of all my teenage crushes seasoned with a fair bit of imagination about how my fictional character might have dealt with such a situation. Fiction indeed, but what was true was the residue of emotion that those crushes left in the real me. These were people that had flitted through my life on the lightest of feet. But they had left heavy footprints.

So last Friday found me in the middle of a collapsing world, staring at a stark screen where, one week before, red and blue pixels had rippled with a tiny heartbeat. No heartbeat now, just the stark, silent fluorescing of the tiny bones destined never to grow and the gathering storm of grief flying around our heads.

Is there a silver lining? Of course there is. Things are a bit more vivid, I appreciate the good things that I have got. I am grateful in a way for the clarity, perspective and the feeling of renewal this grief has given me.

And I'm still sad. In that scrapbook in my heart where Wiz and the others who passed through have left a message there are a couple of pages dedicated to what might have been.

Life goes on.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Thomas Pynchon - his part in my tattoo

I haven't read any American literature since my O levels, back in the late 1970s. This was pretty much a choice. I didn't have the cultural toolkit to understand it. I felt, incorrectly, that film was somehow the cultural barometer. European films were cool and cerebral, British films were gritty and clever. Hollywood was crass and simplistic.

I was, of course, wrong. But I never had the chance to find out.

When Punk Rock found me, I was a blank page. More properly, I was a seething mass of adolescent tension desperate for something to latch on to. I never did the lifestyle. I was too middle class and timid for that. Saturday punk styling, cheap biker jacket from Camden Market ... But my head was awash with  the new thing. If you're thinking filth, fury and teenage rebellion, you're wrong. It's difficult now to disentangle the wheat from the chaff, the cartoon from the high art, the Plastique Bertrand from Buzzcocks.

And there we have it. Buzzcocks.

Something cataclysmic happened when the universe threw Buzzcocks and me together. Firstly, there was simply a thrilling energy to the music quite unlike anything I had experienced before. But that was just one facet. There was love and loss, yearning and triumph ... best of all, it was an instant text that I could relate to, a new intellectual buzz that transcended just words and music.

It's almost impossible to talk about punk now that you can buy glitter Ramones T shirts and Green Day albums. It's also a bit crass (see what I did there?) to claim some sort of punk moral high ground. It's also difficult to explain how energising the very idea of punk was. This was the ethos around Buzzcocks. A band - yes, but also a loose collective of hi-energy creativity. Linder Sterling, the young Stephen Morrissey, the great and the good of a particular place and time. If your understanding of punk rock is limited to Sid Vicious and spitting, our new-found friendship is, alas, over.

There's a core of intellect in the Buzzcocks canon. They gave us "Oh shit, I thought you and I were friends." They also gave us "I wandered loaded as a crowd, a nowherewolf of pain". Don't be fooled by the casual swearing and the distressed couture. Underneath all of that was a torrent of ideas. Ideas!

One of those ideas was the Secret Public. The paradox. A fan club, a society revelling in its own paradox. I never joined then. Buzzcocks was a solitary pursuit for me. My time with the Secret Public was to come later. But then, back then in the heady days, the scene was set. The icon of the Secret Public, that enclosed world within a world within a world was the muted post horn.

"In these times of contention it's not my intention to make things plain ..."

So somewhere in this weapons grade intellectual stew, someone had made a connection and repurposed the Trystero symbol from Thomas Pynchon's novella The Crying of Lot 49 to denote a new secret public society based on Buzzcocksworld. And that's how and why it eventually got on my arm.

The allusion is unambiguous. Essays longer than the book itself could be written to explain Pynchon's text. Through the Secret Public, I came to the symbol, and thence to the book. I like the parallels. I like the paradoxes. Can I explain the book? I cannot. It's a crazy trip. But not understanding is not a drawback. Some critics and even Pynchon himself hint that there is nothing to understand beyond the immediacy of the language itself and the loops and tricks it performs on your head.

I read the book. Twice. If you like language and if you can connect with the times from which it sprang and the labyrinth of references, you'll get more out of it than I did. But reading it made me feel different. The way punk rock did. I'll maybe read it again. Maybe.