Saturday, November 25, 2006

Miasma Generator

I once entered a side street shop in a Norfolk town, stalactites of peeling paint hanging from its fa├žade like a leper playing chance with Newton. Garish ill-matching blinds peered out from seared windows. Masses of filled jars and ephemera beckoned me in through doors that would ensnare the unwary in its beaded hangings and invoke tinnitus with a chorus of mezzo forte wind chiming. ‘Hobgoblin’s Garden’ I think it was called.

The first thing that struck me was that familiar smell. The aroma from university gigs; the tang of musty halls of residence; the passing whiff of a mad woman with unkempt hair; the stink of some feminist batik class; the pungency of old metal pans stained with the veneer of overcooked pulses. The place was empty. Or so it seemed.

A feint humming sound permeated the hollow random peals as a mad woman with unkempt hair materialised from behind a stack of posters that had long given up the fight to keep their vibrancy and submitted to yellowing in the passing seasons. The rustling of her cheesecloth grated my teeth in approach as she fiddled with the loose arm of her spectacles. She too had yellowed in the passing seasons as her sepia tint dissolved into the gauche patterns of her clothing and splayed out wildly into warped angular fingers of greying hair. The sense to recoil was strong, but like an erection or a forthcoming yawn when in delicate company, in time one develops the experience and strength of will to beat it down. She loomed towards me, framed eyes bulging like globes herniating from an Auschwitz lampshade, and stopped momentarily to elevate her sandaled foot and vigorously fondle a shedding fungal nail disorder.

By this time the recoil had surrendered to the welling desire to heave. Yet there was a homely reassuring quality to her. A sense that you could leave your dying incontinent dog and return to see her covered in liquid canine faecality, retaining that faraway buoyancy and caring wry smile. You could visualise her droning softly while tending to a limpid cactus. Yet with all primeval male impulses you’d sooner bleach your sinuses with sarin than pleasure her.

“Hi, is there anything I can help you with?” came the words, in the Doppler effect of a passing gnat’s ambulance. I’d only entered the shop out of inquisitiveness at seeing a stuffed kitten in a jar playing a kazoo, and a hat shaped out of an armadillo. “Well, I, er, was just, er looking around and….” Trailing off with little conviction, I had involuntarily left the conversational door ajar, allowing her to wedge her besandaled hoof into the gap. “Well, you look like you’re into music” came the retort as she craned forward, spying my disintegrating Led Zeppelin t-shirt. Into music? What the hell did that mean? Did I have some caterwauling seraph hovering above my head? My face admittedly is shaped not unlike a plectrum, but that doesn’t mean that I’m Jimmy fucking Page. Perhaps like Robert Johnson, all those delta decades ago, I had the essence of a hellhound on my tail.

Her comment reminded me of those awkward moments when an old aunt gave me a £1 record token for Xmas, or the time that my nan thought that I would like to take ownership of her clapped faux-walnut cabinet the size of a coffin that cunningly concealed a radiogram …just because I was into music.

With a multispeed semi-circular sweep of her hand like a bi-polar gay on points duty drying his nails, she beckoned my attention towards a haphazard row of vinyl squashed between some hand-painted bras from Bolivia and an ashtray hewn from the scrotum of an Inuit. “Have a look in there. See what takes your fancy.” I sensed a fleck of spittle projecting from her excited lips. As with all vinyl junkies, second invitations are as superfluous as a nosebleed in an abattoir. I stretched across the objet d’art, and using the unique dexterity evolved from years of browsing, fingered through the stack with clockwork gusto. It was mostly 70’s tat. Redundant effects albums (featuring church bells, cars and wildlife to herald ‘the superb wonder of stereophonic sound’) and trashy Hawaiian guitar adaptations of popular hits of the day (complete with suitable sunset beach sleeve art to enhance the exotica). All probably considered relevant and innovative for the time, but like a Vesta curry, now languishing in a distant memory cupboard marked: ‘tasteless shit’.

Nostrils flared, I felt that familiar thread of dissatisfaction starting to writhe in my stomach. I always get this when leafing through vinyl collections. So much so that it is assured to have a dysenteric effect every time. If ever I needed urgent colonic investigations I could save the NHS a few quid on chemical bowel preparations. All I’d require is a nurse wheeling in a rack of old albums to thumb through, and hey presto; gravy time.

So, there I was rummaging through 12” purgatory and needing a shit, when I came across a lavish-looking platter with a 4-page coloured gatefold sleeve, presumably designed by one of those ‘visionary’ album painters (Roger Dean, Rodney Matthews, etc.) that influenced sixth form art students to paint their common rooms in garish hues featuring nymphs on giant misshapen fungi. The album was called “Seven Caves to the Ice Palace” by Icarus Descendents. There is an obvious formula to this that runs as naturally as the climates, and can only be detected in the radar of old musos. You could wager your left kidney that it would (a) feature ex-university chums; (b) have band members called Nigel or Tony; and (c) consist of cleverclogs prog meandering, where half-way through the overlong concept based on some obscure Pratchett fable, the music would degenerate into a free-for-all of accapella sea-shantyism and the worst type of pointless flute parping. Great stuff I reckon.

But I digress. As I picked up the thick card cover and perused the gatefold, I looked closely at the band photos. These contrived snaps will always give you an idea of the type of music therein: moody youths chewing & leaning against lampposts will usually gob out an image of punk; sneering moustached men surrounded by the paraphernalia of Satanism –yet preening through flowing blow-dried locks- would suggest heavy metal; sepia-tinted confederate mock-ups always conspire to exhibit the worst type of country rock; and in this case a cabal of eccentrics, including a balding professor-type holding up a cor anglais with a gnome peeking out of the end, a lanky man in a gaudy tank-top trying to look bemused, and a bespectacled woman in a kaftan, wild fingers of greying hair…..

Hold on. Rewind. I did one of those Oliver Hardy double-takes and swallowed hard. To complete the set, all I needed was to step back into a large bucket of paint and receive a loose shelving unit full of large tins in my face. I rubbed my eyes, looked again. It couldn’t be. As I pondered such, I felt a waft of moist fetid breath on my nape. “Yes, that’s me” came the voice, and I turned to view a chilling rictus replete with bulging eyes as she jabbed her finger towards the sleeve in a staccato rhythm as if trying to punch a hole into worlds beyond. Rooted to the spot, a gurgling mash of vowels tripped from my lips as my focus came to and fro the photo and the shopkeeper. “I played the hurdy gurdy and fingerbells on most of the tracks. We were considered to be the big thing in Norfolk and Suffolk, and once supported Steeleye Span at the Ipswich Gaumont”. I dropped the album and ran out of the shop trailing air croutons as my sphincter slammed shut in fear. I tore down the road powered with adrenaline at the pace of a relay anchorman with a ralgexed arsehole.

Years later I drove through the same town and hung a left into the street of ‘Hobgoblin’s Garden’. It had been replaced by a charity shop for spastic donkeys. I urged to look inside to see if a whiff of memories past would hang in the air. It was mostly run by old jam mongers and middle-class teaching assistants, and had that familiar sense of order interspersed with chaos that one gets in a charity shop. However, I spied something familiar. It was a stuffed kitten in a jar playing a kazoo, with a price tag of £3 attached to it. As I reached in awe, a crinkled whisper hanging in the shadows behind broke the bustle: “you look like you’re into music….”

Friday, November 10, 2006


Childhood can sketch memories that race from cloaked corridors of the psyche to the forefront of your thoughts with the random unpredictability of an old drunk in a bus shelter. You could be sitting on a deckchair, and a distant waft of obscurity will bring back a picture of time and place. Your first fight; your first kiss; or even the time you got lost, and as the sun started its descent, the fear that you might never make it home for tea. Your heart starts to race and you could almost be in that place again.

Whoever could associate Tesco with such powerful memories of childhood? The corporate bastards have crushed any sense of cohesive society and community under their jackboot of consumerism. I hate the smugness of their commercials and feel a bolus of vomit whenever I see people misguided in the zombified stupor of using self-service checkouts -without realising the implications of it. Yet I cannot stay away because of a specific reason: memories of happier times.And it’s all to do with the fish counter.

Psychologists have long recognised the link between olfactory senses and memory: cut grass, burning wood, brand new plastic footballs, the rain on summer tarmac, etc. …but the bloody fish counter in Tesco? This has its genesis with a memorable summer spent at the local beach in the days when 10 year olds were allowed to wander for miles in the wilderness unshackled by parental fears of predatory pederasts, and free from the threat of an asbo. Older generations will always spout on at increasing revisionist length about how all summers were long and hot. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to disagree.

This particular season seems burnt onto my brain with a solar stencil. They may very well have been different summers, but to assist the embellishing of reminiscence when I’m finally chained to a commode dribbling a mulch of toast from the side of my abusive contorted mouth, I will put it in one pigeonhole: summer 1974. A million UV-scorched events: getting bitten by an adder; being chased by a tramp we caught wanking in a shed; climbing the ropes of a huge deserted marquee; getting a sly grasp of an older girl’s breast; hiding out in haystacks; building tree swings that would propel you through small forest fires. And a dead whale on the beach.

The latter episode featured an unfortunate creature who had presumably found its sophisticated sonar corrupted by a sargasso of industrial oil, used condoms and domestic sewage, and stranded itself on the deserted beaches behind the local steelworks. Word soon got around, and an army of delirious locals headed in rabid anticipation to the rare sight like a public hanging. Only thing is: we got there first. Nothing could best a Raleigh Chopper propelled across rough terrain by excited schoolkids.

Our imaginations spiralled with visions of a giant leviathon that would swallow the town whole; a maritime monster with the souls of lost seafarers imprisoned in its belly. Reality was a 12 ft pilot whale in an early state of decomposition being picked at by seagulls like some huge moulded smorgasbord. Of course the seeping oils and liquefying blubber didn’t put off a load of panting kids who couldn’t believe the sight before them. We climbed over the demised demon, slid down its brow, used its tail as a trampoline and attempted the fosbury flop over its spine and into the sandpools formed by its once-thrashing bulk. Meanwhile, the summer sun was calling in its debt and turning the poor bastard green. A noxious aroma curled at our noses and concocted pits of nausea. The novelty was beginning to drop off like the barnacles that had accompanied the beast on many cross-Atlantic journeys. And the adults were coming, with their earnest faces of disapproval.

I took one look back and realised that there was one area that we hadn’t exploited for our novelty. We couldn’t get at the teeth, and the gulls had harvested its eyes. Armed with a pointed piece of driftwood, I jumped onto its back and with a roar like the best pantomime Ahab, plunged the stick into its spout. A sickly squelch of twisted sodomy echoed from its midst. Removing the shank I bent forward to view into the aperture and was showered in a vast geyser of putrid mammalian lung water. It was the smell of death. No, the stench of a holocaust. I started to vomit, and those close by who were splashed with the spittle of beached doom also started retching. But we were laughing. Laughing at the stupidity and the idiocy and the retribution of disrespecting one of god’s great and gentle creatures. We were covered in cadaverous stagnation and we didn’t give a fuck.

It took days to rid that acrid stink. Dozens of baths and clothes changes. I can still smell the putrefaction it to this day. It’s a reassuring smell. A smell that tells of better times of no worry, no pressure, no responsibility. And sometimes this smell comes to me at the Tesco fish counter. Almost beckoning me to leap into the midst of dead wall-eyed swimmers & crushed ice, plunging a great stick into the void and heading back to the summer of 1974.