A lively tale of a charming bandit and proto-terrorist prompts Mark Simpson to wonder why we’re still thrilled by ruffians.
(Independent on Sunday, 5/1/2003)
Why, after so many years, are we still so hot for outlaws? As popular culture and news bulletins keep reminding us, Rebels, Robin Hoods, bandits, gangsters, serial killers and terrorists continue to exert a sweaty grip on our imaginations.
Is it because, to strike a Nietzschean pose (riding crop in hand), those who are not sadists are necessarily masochists? Are we all secretly itching to be held up, tied up and blown up? Is civilisation such a non-experience that we need a – preferably young, attractive and well-dressed – feral-eyed brute to slap us out of our dullard drowsiness?
Or is it because, having surrendered our own sadism to civilisation, we need someone who will rob and kill on our behalf? Someone who will, in other words, be “free” for us: an emotional lottery winner justifying our own pitiful, ticket-stamping repression – hence the need to make them very, very famous? Are “sociopath” and “psychopath” just names we like to call those who have more guts for life than us, but not enough education to know what we mean?
Jesse James, “last rebel of the American Civil War” and one of the first rebels of the modern age, didn’t have much of an education, but he certainly had an answer. “We are the boys that are hard to handle,” he declared in one of his many swaggering missives to the press, “and will make it hot for the party that ever tries to take us.”
Or, as Robert Pinkerton, the head of the famous Chicago-based detective agency humiliated by James after trying to “take” him, put it:
“His gang killed two of our detectives and I consider JJ the worst man, without any exception, in America. He is utterly devoid of fear and has no more compunction about cold-blooded murder than he has about eating his breakfast.”
High praise indeed from Mr. Pinkerton, whose men firebombed James’ mother in her home, maiming her and killing his young half-brother, and were to become the hired goons of strike-breaking US businessmen.
The passengers on the St Louis-Little Rock express flagged down and boarded at Gads Hill, Missouri, in January 1874 knew better than to try to take on Jesse, an irresistible mixture of sociopath and southern gent. “We do not want to rob workingmen or ladies,” declared the tall, handsome, finely dressed and feral-eyed outlaw to the stunned passengers on the express, “but the money and valuables of the plug-hat gentlemen are what we seek.”
Stunned not just at being held up at gunpoint, but that the gun in their face should belong to the famous Jesse James. As the celebrity outlaw walked down the passenger car, playfully exchanging hats with members of his captive audience, his elder brother Frank recited his favourite author, William Shakespeare, while their bandit buddies busied themselves unburdening the male passengers of their cash and valuables. When one man introduced himself as a minister, they promptly returned his money and asked him to pray for them, like the good Baptist boys they were. Likewise, after pocketing the conductor’s gold watch they returned it sheepishly when the baggage master protested: “For God’s sake, you won’t take it for it is a present.”
After courteously shaking the hand of the engineer and cheekily advising him always to stop at a red flag, the bandits departed on their horses in a cloud of dust and rebel yells. The crew then discovered the final and possibly most important act of the Jesse James Show: a prepared press release left behind with instructions that it be telegraphed to the St Louis Dispatch, a sympathetic Confederate-Democratic newspaper. “The most daring robbery on record!” it began modestly.
“The south bound train on the Iron Mountain railroad was robbed here this morning by five heavily armed men and robbed of dollars — There is a hell of excitement in this part of the country.”
The figure to be filled in the blank space would amount to $2,000 – not a vast sum of money, even back then, especially when divided five ways. However, as was often the case with Jesse’s performances, the hold-up was a priceless public relations coup.
Jesse and Frank were sons of a pro-slavery Baptist preacher who died in 1850 in the California Gold Rush when Jesse was just three, and a fiercely patriotic and dominating Southern mother, Zerelda, whom everyone seems to describe as “formidable”. Both brothers fought in the Civil War (1861- 1865), Jesse joining up at the stripling age of 16, serving with some of the most brutal and successful Confederate guerrillas, or “bushwhackers”. They conducted a war of annihilation against Unionists in Missouri, casually but systematically murdering their Federalist neighbours and freed or runaway blacks.
Missouri was a border state, and hence nowhere was the American Civil War more “civil” – that is to say, terrible. In the war of secession, civilisation lost to its malcontents and Jesse emerged a leader of these: despite the chivalry – and showbiz – of hold-ups like the one at Gads Hill, Pinkerton’s cold assessment of James was on the money.
As TJ Stiles’s Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War , billed as “the first major study of Jesse James in 40 years”, shows, James was both the product of this cataclysmic struggle and its legacy: after the South surrendered at Appomattox, ex-guerrilla banditry became a symbol of Confederate resistance to Reconstruction and the Radical money-men’s plans for emancipation in the South, as well as a political instrument of the Confederate wing of the Democratic Party. Without popular and political support, James’s criminal career would have been cut short much sooner; in fact he was only brought to account – a fellow bandit assassinated him to collect on the $20,000 reward posted by the railroads – long after his popular support and political usefulness had receded.
Stiles argues James was neither a Robin Hood (he didn’t always rob from the rich and certainly did not give to the poor), nor a Wild West figure (he was politically motivated), but instead a proto-terrorist:
“a transitional figure standing between the past and the industrial, violent, media-savvy future, representing the worst aspects of both”.
While this may be a convincing argument, it perhaps mistakes what a Robin Hood or an outlaw – or, for that matter, a terrorist – is. Mr. Hood was popular not because he actually stole from the rich and gave to the poor: rather, his popularity was expressed and excused in the myth of his stealing from the rich and giving to the poor; that is, the fantasy of him stealing and killing on our behalf.
Sure, Jesse James became a political symbol of resistance to Reconstruction, but more profoundly he also became a symbol, as all outlaws do, of resistance to civilisation and its repressions. The political resonance legitimised the enjoyment of his psychopathic freedom, at least to Confederates. Perhaps this is why his reputation of Southern courtliness was so important: courtesy and wisecracking from a man with a gun in his hand is perhaps the greatest expression of freedom, terror and, to ‘noble’ superiority.
Ironically, Jesse himself was anything but free. It was his ability to recognize and play the role assigned to him by society, history and family which guaranteed his lasting fame. Like other famous Good Bad Boy rebels that were to follow in his footsteps, from Elvis to Eminem, it was his momma he had to thank for that showbiz talent. The strength of Jesse’s narcissistic mother-son bond can be estimated by the fact that the woman he married was his first cousin and named “Zerelda” after his mother. As the Kansas City Times wrote of the original “Zee”:
“She is a woman of great dramatic power. The James family are nothing unless dramatic or tragic.”
It’s LGBT History Month. So I thought I would share with you my hitherto hidden love for my favourite ‘gay’ novel. The Heart In Exile, published in the UK in 1953, by Rodney Garland – real name Adam Martin De Hegedus, an Hungarian émigré.
Though as the date and morose title, the use of a nom de plume – and my fondness for it – would suggest, it’s not very gay at all. In fact, it’s thoroughly pre-gay.
Like the 1961 film Victim, it involves a suicide, but this time of a gentleman barrister, apparently over a bit of rough, rather than the other way around.
When this book was published, the UK was still on the ration. Margaret Thatcher’s favourite song ‘How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?’ was in the charts. The scuttling of Britain’s post-war imperial pretensions at Suez was three years off, the Wolfenden Report, with its charming ‘Huntleys’ and ‘Palmers’ euphemisms for homosexuals and prostitutes (to save the sensibilities of ‘the ladies in the room’), wasn’t to be commissioned for another four years – and its recommendations wouldn’t be enacted into law for another decade and a half.
The Heart In Exile is not so much a novel as a gumshoe tour of the now vanished twilight demimonde of post-war London homosexual life, or ‘the underground’ as the narrator, Dr Anthony Page, a psychiatrist (yes, it’s perfectly 1950s in every detail), dubs it, only slightly ironically, as he tries to get to the bottom of why his sometime (boy)friend Julian Leclerc, recently engaged to be married, killed himself.
A clandestine world of ‘known’ pubs, full of gentlemen, ‘pansies’, toughs, ‘criminal elements’ and young soldiers, sailors and airmen on leave and looking for a cheap good time.
(I think you are probably beginning to see the appeal.)
Known pubs that would eventually become rather too well ‘known’, thanks to the ‘undisciplined’ ‘screamers’ and other non-respectable types giving the game away, according the eminently respectable narrator. The police would raid, names and addresses would be taken, ‘one or two wanted persons detained’, the publican ‘warned to be more careful in future’. A warning he would heed, and then the pub would become unknown – and empty – again. The queer pub life-cycle beginning again somewhere else.
‘These meeting places of the underground changed all the time, like the publishing offices of clandestine newspapers, and the changes were usually abrupt. The underground took up a pub, and met there regularly, which mean that a good deal of the undesirable element came too. First of all the “obvious”, young and not-so-young pansies, who either couldn’t conform or didn’t wish to. This may have been due to social background: they had never had any training in discipline and they had little to lose. A few drinks did the trick: they got into high spirits, let their hair down, and screamed – and the underground was given away. Another unpleasant element that was often attracted to a pub of this sort consisted of those who lived on the fringe of the underworld: the near-criminal, the delinquent, the deserter.
As a consequence, the pub in question soon gained an unsavoury reputation. It was raided by the police. Names and addresses were taken, one or two wanted persons were detained and the publican was told to be more careful in future, otherwise his licence would not be renewed. He heeded the warning and, if next day a too-obvious-looking person turned up, he refused – with a heavy heart – to serve him. A few days later the pub was “clean” again, which meant that it was empty: the clientele dwindled to a few locals, postmen, commissionaires, charwomen and some respectable married men from other districts, who didn’t want to visit pubs in their own neighbourhood.
The underground, fairly well used to abrupt changes of their meeting-place, took up another pub after the raid, and the same cycle of events was repeated. It became crowded and famous, then notorious, and did very good trade; then it was raided and became empty again. In and near the centre of London there were comparatively few pubs which had not at one time or another been taken up by the underground.’
The Heart in Exile, (p.57)
Today, London’s established, post-Wolfenden, very gay venues, which once seemed as permanent as The Tower of London and the neon of Piccadilly Circus are also now fading into obscurity – once again thanks to too much information, but this time in the form of apps rather than police raids. The ‘underground’ is now so over ground, so connected and accepted, that it doesn’t seem to need actual, physical meeting places any more. Everyone is too busy cottaging and gossiping online.
With the odd effect that the business of pickups is perhaps now more ‘discreet’ than it was in the pre-gay era – while ‘gay sex’ is once again no longer quite so gay as it was in the post-Wolfenden part of the 20th Century, involving as it does increasing numbers of ‘bi-curious’ men who for the most part have no interest in the gay identity, just ‘no-strings discreet fun, yeah?’.
The Heart In Exile is also a study in class – because Britain before The Beatles was all about class, and so of course was ‘inversion’ (the narrator’s favoured term). As documented in Matt Houlbrook’s Queer London, gentlemen preferred ‘trade’ – ‘normal’ working class young men who were happy to be bought a few drinks by a classy fella, and maybe get noshed off later.
While this kind of dynamic is often characterised as ‘self-loathing’ these days, it was nevertheless a perfect economy of desire. The object remained exactly that, rather than competition. And like the class system itself, everyone knew their place. But at a price. As one of those gentlemen acknowledges to Dr Page, it was not exactly a recipe for domestic happiness:
‘“You see,’ he said slowly, “the trouble with all people like Julian and you and I is that life is made extra complicated for us. We don’t like people like ourselves. We don’t want anybody who shares our standards, I mean educated, middle class and so on. In fact, we want the very opposite. We want the primitive, the uneducated, the tough. Then we are surprised that satisfaction is so difficult to obtain and that our affairs don’t last because we don’t share the same culture. Things are far easier for people who are attracted to others like themselves. Possibly younger, but from the same background. They are usually happy. There are hundreds of dons, museum officials, clergymen, civil servants like that. They settle down to a happy, married life with younger friends. I suppose they go to drag-parties and dress up like Indian snake-charmers or Carmen Miranda, but they don’t hunt and tour the pubs…”’ (p.67-8)
Although the Carmen Miranda Tendency is mentioned in The Heart in Exile, Dr Page doesn’t actually encounter any members of it. Almost every male in the book is either pursuing trade or… trade.
Page does however talk to an ageing aristocratic queen, Lord Harpley (who seems possibly to have been based partly on Stephen Tennant) who reminisces about his trips to Chatham picking up sailors:
‘”…of course, it was usually the other way around and I got picked up instead, and there was actually an occasion when one of them gave me half a crown. Please don’t laugh,”’….“I say,” he continued in his usual inconsequential way, “do you know any American soldiers stationed in London? I’m told some of them are madly queer. I always like their underwear….”’ (p. 128)
There are lengthy discussions between Page and other middle (and upper) class men about why they pursue ‘toughs’, often exclusively, what the appeal of working men might be, that sometimes seem faintly comic now, and no doubt potentially offensive to some. And yet they contain sociological and psychological truths. One of the reasons I like The Heart in Exile is because it is essentially a shrewd psychoanalysis of the post-war middle classes.
‘”There are various explanations,” I said,’… ‘“It may be that the working class has been or still is more easily available and, in the past at least, was less troublesome if mistakes were made. My private guess on Freudian lines is that they have fewer anal fears than the upper classes, but I think more important is that the worker gives us the impression, sometimes quite wrongly, that he’s more masculine and virile than the man from the middle class. There’s something about manual work that gives him a kind of glamour and sometimes something more real than a glamour. Besides, manual work definitely develops certain muscles. Quite often overdevelops them. You get hypotrophically big hands, fat wrists, a large dorsal, wide shoulders…” (p.96)
Much worse – and probably even more powerful – than the objectification of the working man and his big ‘ands and dorsals, is the romanticisation. And I should know. In an exchange with ‘Ginger’, a married ex-squaddie turned mechanic, Dr Page receives this explanation for why this otherwise ‘normal’ man had an affair with Julian, an officer, when they were serving together:
“It’s like this. I couldn’t put it the way you would. I’m only a working bloke. I left school when I was thirteen like, but what I mean to say is this: if a working man likes someone, he’d do anything for him, wouldn’t he?” (p. 174)
This is Scudder on the ladder again. And who could resist?
The Heart In Exile does however acknowledge that times are changing, that the ‘trade’ economy is receding in post-war London. It posits that because young working class men now have money to spend on pleasures and girlfriends – and also on their clothes, hair and bodies – they are less available. Even as they have become more alluring. As Dr Page puts it, in conversation with Tidpool, an ‘upper class invert’ (and MP):
‘”Generally speaking,… the primitive, undistinctive type quite unashamedly goes in for ornamentation. Look at their haircut, for example. Today it’s pure Regency, but few people in the middle class would go in for it. I’m talking about the young, of course, the spiv and the millions who imitate him. Sometimes the effect is ludicrous, but occasionally a chap is so physically attractive that he gets way with a sky blue jacket with twelve inch shoulders and flowery tie.” (p. 98)
The early 1950s had seen the rise of a working class dandyish youth cult in South London which seems to have copied and adapted and elaborated some of the ‘New Edwardian’ post-war styles aimed at the upper classes by Saville Row. Originally dubbed ‘Cosh Boys’, the term ‘Teddy Boys’ stuck after a headline for a feature the phenomenon for the Daily Express shortened ‘Edwardian’ to ‘Teddy’ in 1953 – the same year this book was published.
The Heart in Exile is a good example of how homosexuals can be keen observers of masculine trends – perhaps the keenest. (See also Colin MacInnes.)
Little wonder Tidpool moans to Dr Page:
…”It’s an awful thing to confess, but I feel that a certain amount of unemployment would make things easier for us.” For a moment I didn’t know whether he was speaking on behalf of the Federation of British Industries or the underground. But he continued: “I mean, look at the West End today. The war years were exceptional. What a harvest,” he sighed; “but compare the years before the war with the present. You went out on a Saturday and between Leicester Square and Marble Arch you usually found something. Young men from the suburbs, from the provinces. They were yours for the asking. Sometimes it cost money, but not much. Boys accepted us because we were class; and not only that: they liked us because, unlike women, we didn’t cost them money. I suppose we made a fuss of them, which their girls didn’t. Anyhow, today they can afford women, and if they don’t want women they have plenty of money for other amusements…. And what’s more tantalising is that the young worker today is so good looking, so well-built, well-dressed…” (p. 99)
The decline in the availability of young working class men contributes to the emergence of a new type of homosexual, the outlines of which have been traced here by Neil Bartlett as the beginnings of 1970s/80s ‘clone culture’. Essentially, younger ‘inverts’ had begun to turn themselves into the trade they were looking for.
Page discovers a trend close to my heart:
‘“Do people often try to pick you up?” I said’. ….
‘“Well.” He began to think. “I don’t count the gym, because it’s full of queers.”
“The gym?” I said.
“Yes. Full of them.”
For a moment I felt surprised; then I remembered the occasion when Terry had taken me to a swimming pool. This was, I imagined, a new post-war trend in England. A considerable proportion of young homosexuals regularly went to gymnasia and swimming pools, not only to look at, or try to establish contact with, attractive young men, but also to improve their own physique, and thereby their chances of success.’ (p. 136)
It seems as if the increased spending power of young working class men in the post-war period that made them less susceptible to the charms of gentlemen (and which was to give rise to rock and roll and pop culture) also made it possible for young working class ‘inverts’ to have more options than in the past.
‘Terry’ is Page’s live-in male housekeeper, a young working class submissive ‘invert’ from the north who has reconciled himself to his sexuality, who dotes on Daddy Page – but Page is unable to return his love, and is anyway currently, and perhaps conveniently for the purposes of a very pre-Wolfenden book on homosexuality in which no actual sex occurs, celibate. Though he is at least able to admire Terry’s back muscles when scrubbing his kitchen floor. Terry goes to the gym, swims and has a familiar wardrobe.
‘Sartorially he was typical of at least one section of his generation all over the Western world. He had one suit, a single-breasted gabardine affair, for uneasy, representative occasions. He was more at home in blue jeans, lumber-jackets, moccasins and loafers, windcheaters, cowboy shirts, in essentially masculine, revolutionary, anti-traditional, almost anti-capitalist garments. All of which, oddly enough, emanate from the most demonstratively and aggressively capitalist state in the world.’ (p. 180)
But Terry and the proto-clone/hipster is not the star of this novel. No, the object of this novel is a proto metrosexual. A young Teddyish tough whose photograph Dr Page finds hidden behind a framed photo of Julian’s fiancé when searching his flat.
‘In real life his hair might have been reddish and, masking the top of the photograph with my hand, I tried to work out what he must actually have looked like. I was sure now that he was English, more likely from London than the provinces, and I was sure he was “normal”. He wore a dark jacket – obviously “semi-drape” – a spear point collar and a dark tie in a Windsor knot. He was the type some middle-class inverts look at at street corners with nostalgia, a type sometimes dangerous, but always uninhibited. He would spend a good deal of money on clothes as dramatic as his haircut – more than people like Julian or I or anybody in our social group. We would not be allowed to call attention to ourselves in such blatant if successful ways as Ginger. As so often, I began to wonder whether these young metropolitan working-class males effect this remarkable self-dramatisation for their women. Maybe, I thought, but it was doubtful. They wanted to assert their personality and wanted to be admired by both sexes.’ (p. 53-4)
‘They wanted to assert their personality and wanted to be admired by both sexes.’
Now, where have we heard that line before?
‘Ginger’ is both the star of both The Heart in Exile and of much of my own work. (Though, unaccountably, I didn’t actually read this book until c. 2006.)
Likewise he’s the real mystery of the novel, not Julian’s death. He is an absence for most of the book. Dr Page tours the London ‘underground’ trying to track ‘Ginger’ (as he thinks he’s called) down, ostensibly to try and make sense of the suicide. He shows a succession of middle and upper class men the photograph. Nobody recognises him – but everyone wants to meet him.
Without giving too much away the lad does finally make an appearance – right at the end of the book. He is of course everything the photo promised and more. He is however deeply mourning the loss of Julian – he was in love with him. Naturally, the young tough, bereft of his gentlemen, falls for Dr Page, who admirably, professionally – and entirely unconvincingly – refuses his advances, and recommends that he return to the normal life that he enjoyed before meeting Julian.
For his part, Dr Page resolves to be nicer to Terry and even take him on holiday with him. A glimpse of the settled private gay domesticity that Wolfenden was to successfully invoke as an argument for (partial) decriminalisation of male homosexuality – to get it off the streets and out of the pubs, and stop the corruption of ‘otherwise normal’ young men, however much they may have wanted to be corrupted.
At least until smartphones are invented.
De Hegedus himself however had no such moderately happy ever-after. Although The Heart In Exile was a great success, critically and commercially, and did much to advance the cause of the underground, he seems to have died by his own hand in the Bayswater area of London in 1958. Was there a ‘Ginger’ involved?
Alas, we don’t know. His death is clouded in obscurity. There was no Dr Page to solve the mystery.
This post originally appeared on Mark Simpson’s Patreon page.
Mark Simpson gets mixed messages on the High Street
(Another ‘lost’ Attitude column – this one from 1999)
It was one of those indecently mild Winter days. The sort that makes everyone feel a little bit naughty. As if you’re bunking off school, or cheating on your partner.
Walking down the High Street enjoying the feeling of my sap beginning to rise prematurely—and probably pointlessly—I notice an eminently humpable fellow in his late twenties bouncing towards me on his box-fresh trainers, sports bag slung over his shoulder. Unusually for me, I didn’t spot his signature on my radar screen before he crested the horizon. He is almost right in front of me before I see him. And then he passes me.
So I do a 180 clock, a discreet beat after he passes, meaning to cop a sly butcher’s at his arse.
And I catch him doing the same thing.
Our eyes meet and lock. Fuck!
Now, I am, without a doubt, the world’s worst street-cruiser. Probably precisely because the street is exactly where I wish I could meet chaps. I’ve always found impossibly attractive those you bump into for a second in the social Brownian Motion that is city life before they disappear off to somewhere you fantasise is more interesting than where you are. Many’s the time I’ve lost my heart to someone on the Up escalator as I ride the one going Down. If it’s easy to love what you can’t have, it’s even easier to love something the longer you look at the further it recedes.
And it never gets any closer with me. Friends of mine seem to have no trouble though, and talk constantly of meeting people outside Boots, on trains and in supermarkets. Though, if it’s Tesco Metro I have to tell them that, like Old Compton Street, it doesn’t count.
Joe Orton was so successful at it, if his diaries are to be believed, that he didn’t actually need to do all that hanging around in toilets he was so famous for, the greedy, jammy bastard. Joe just had to take a bus or pop out to the corner shop to buy forty Woodbines and Bob was his Queer Uncle. No wonder poor stay-at-home Kenneth bashed Joe’s brains out after reading his diaries. I would have done exactly the same—after I’d made him tell me how he managed to pull all those punters on Her Majesty’s Highway.
I’ve tried to work out why I’m so crap at street cruising. Is it that I scowl too much? Perhaps, but a few years ago, behind the safety of a double-locked door, anaesthetised with half a bottle of whisky, I experimented with smiling in front of my bathroom mirror and rapidly concluded that if I ever did this in public I’d probably be sectioned.
And before the letters flood in pointing out that I’m too ugly, let me remind you that one of the first rules of street cruising is that no one is too ugly to score on the street—another reason why I wish I had the knack. Am I not shameless enough? Well, I try my best, but don’t always meet today’s exacting standards.
But how to be shameless but without being tasteless? I should probably model myself on Quentin Crisp, whose obviousness brought him open contempt, but more trade than he could handle. But then, I don’t think my pale skin tone would be best complimented by hennaed hair.
It’s quite possible that I do in fact get cruised, but I’m so wrapped up in my own desire that I would fail utterly to notice anyone else’s. I think though, that the real problem is that I want things to be cut and dried in a way that picking people up on the street by definition isn’t. As Joe says to a hesitating Kenneth in the film of Prick Up Your Ears, after a young man in the street glances at him very briefly, “What are you waiting for? A bloody telegram?“
Yes, I am. And a detailed CV as well, please.
So, imagine my shock when I get that written application, in my hand, on my own High Street. There I am, looking right into the eyes of a lad who has turned to look back at me just the way I turned back to look at him. Even I have to admit that, on balance, he probably is interested.
After a second that seems to last longer than my relationships, we look away. At the same instant. Recklessly, I stop and half turn around. He stops and half turns around. I loiter. He loiters.
What are you waiting for? A voice shouts inside my head. Perhaps the spirit of Joe, raised from his bludgeoned slumber by my slaggy ineptitude.
The lad pretends – not very seriously – to look in a shop window, all the while darting scorching looks at me. But I’m still dithering. I’m still looking for some other explanation for his behaviour than the obvious. That voice in my head again, angry now:
Do you want a bloody telegram?
Okay, okay. Look, tell you what, I’ll conduct one last test. I’ll cross the road and see if he follows. If he does, then I’ll speak to him.
I cross. He crosses. He then pretends to look in another shop window, all the time looking at me.
Get over there and say something you silly slapper before he has to go and draw his pension!
But I need to rehearse the line in my head first: “‘Scuse mate, do you know where the tube is?” No, that sounds too arch.
Maybe “‘Scuse mate. Do you know the way to the Underground?” But The more I think about my opening gambit the more obvious and obscene it sounds, however I phrase it.
Finally, somehow I find myself in front of him. “‘Scuse me mate,” I begin, but before I can even complete my redundant question he’s cricked his head away from me at an angle of no less than 100 degrees, the tendons on the side of his neck flaring like the gills of a landed trout.
“I’m not interested mate!’ he blurts out of the side of his mouth. ‘‘I’M NOT LOOKING AT YOU!”
His whole body is rigid and trembling with the effort of not looking at me. He’s terrified, poor lamb.
The street is beginning to spin around my head. I seem to have forgotten what you do after you breathe out. The spirit of Joe has deserted me in disgust. “Oh… right….,” I gasp. “My mistake.” I walk off quickly.
Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.
As I walk back up the street, feeling the Winter air again and zipping up my jacket, I curse myself for misreading the signals so badly and terrifying that poor lad. He must have actually been looking in those shop windows next to me, perhaps looking for a gift for his lovely young wife and their beautiful, but perhaps slightly disabled small child that he takes time off work and misses football practise to help care for.
He probably only looked at me because he was wondering why I was leering at him. God, I’m such a lecherous old perve!
Then I notice out of the corner of my eye that Mr Not Interested Mate has followed me 300 yards up the street, and is peering intently at me again whilst pretending to look in another shop window.
Before the First World War, a bunch of Italian avant-gardistes called the Futurists, who didn’t get out much and got turned on by steam trains, thought technology offered the possibility of a revolution in human consciousness and believed that artists should produce propaganda which encouraged people to break with the past, abandon traditional forms and syntax and wear silly hats.
Before the Third World War, a bunch of Ohion avant-gardistes called Devo, who didn’t get out much and who got turned on by pocket calculators, thought that technology offered the possibility of a de-evolution in human consciousness and believed artists should produce propaganda which encouraged people to break with the past and abandon traditional forms and syntax and wear silly hats.
Apart from proving that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy the second time as pastiche, especially if you attend art history classes at Kent State University, the nerdy, cynical ’70s New Wave band Devo’s greatest achievement was to, quite simply, change the world. We are all Devo now. The ‘kooky’ blend of performance art, film, choreography, and music they pioneered mutated into MTV: nerds have come out of their bedrooms and knocked IBM into a cocked hat. Techno is everywhere, cynicism is a way of life and New Wave is back in vogue – verily the geeks have inherited the world.
However, Devo proved to be the embodiment of their own belief in the second law of thermodynamics – that everything is unravelling and cooling down. After the debut singles, the sublime ‘Mongoloid’ (1978) and the robotoid, sexless, ‘Satisfaction’ (1976), possibly the smartest, funniest, most blasphemous cover version in rock history – a kind of Mick Jagger for lab assistants – and two great albums, Q: Are We Not Men A: We Are Devo! (1978) and Freedom of Choice (1980), which attracted the attentions of Brian Eno and David Bowie, Devo petered out. Hastened by the huge and terrifying world-wide success of ‘Whip It!’ (1980). However, they went on to record another thirteen albums and toured up until the end of the eighties.
As so often happens when you change the world, the world turns out not to be so grateful or interested. Having accepted their fate back in 1990, Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale, the core members of Devo, are now Mutato Muzika, a factory producing music for TV shows, films and adverts, housed in an electric green flying saucer shaped building on Sunset Blvd where I am today, that used to be, appropriately enough, a plastic surgery hospital. Credits include Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Beakman’s World, Liquid Television and ads for Coke, Nike, Microsoft and scores for films such as Johnny Mnemonic.
Nice work if you can get it, I’m sure, but isn’t this all a bit of a come-down for pop stars – let alone avant-garde ones?
‘Not at all,’ counters Mark Mothersbaugh, his face, which was always strangely middle-aged, now actually middle-aged, but contradicted by his stainless steel thick-rimmed glasses, sneakers, jeans and slightly intense, slightly shy, slightly adolescent demeanour. ‘We’re very lucky. What’s a better gig than being paid to write music and do artwork every day?’
In a way you’ve mutated yourselves into… ‘…what we always wanted to be,’ interrupts fast-talking Mark, who has a habit of finishing sentences for you, in an impatient but friendly way. ‘And we influence more people than we ever did before. People don’t hear the name Devo or Mark Mothersbaugh, but you know that our music is being heard by millions and millions of people every day – of all ages. There’s a whole generation of people who know Bob and I as the composers of Rugrats and Adventures in Wonderland. Sometimes they say, “My dad used to listen to you twenty years ago when he was at college”.’
But after being regarded as the wave of the future, isn’t it all a bit disappointing? ‘No,’ reasserts Mark, politely. ‘I mean we called ourselves Spuds, we knew we weren’t Royalty. You know, we came from working class households and none of us went to clairvoyants and found out that we were Egyptian kings in some other lifetime.’
But, frankly, some people will look at Mutato Musika and just think: oh, has-been pop stars looking for something to do. ‘Yeah,’ agrees Mark with disarming honesty. ‘Everybody does! And it could be bar-tending. But somehow I was lucky enough that people liked my stuff enough for me to become a composer.’
The problem of growing old disgracefully as an ex pop-star, or for any of us nowadays really, is how to grow up but not ‘grow up’ – how to mature but not become your dad. Devo, like a whole post-sixties generation, appear to have achieved this by immersing themselves in juvenile pop culture – TV, film, ads, jingles – the pop culture that their music, in fact, de-evolved out of. Maybe this is why the offices of Mutato Musika, with their curved walls, Day-Glo colours, strange sounds, and proliferation of TV and computer monitors resemble a cross between a Dutch crèche and an American teenager’s bedroom. The de-evolution that Devo represented was ironically partly the traditional rock message of not growing up into what you were supposed to be – a refusal of manhood: ‘Are we not men? We are Devo!’
‘It was about choosing your mutation consciously – mutate don’t stagnate,’ explains Mark, still animated by his ideas after all these years. ‘Rather than letting things be thrown on you that culture and the world wants you to buy into, wants you to become a part of, wants you to get skin cancer and die – but which kills you long before that spiritually.’
‘This was what ‘Mongoloid’, our first single was about – kind of “breeders v. readers”
The difference between the people that just kind of bought into the rap and were able to sleep their way through life – the wad. Versus those that would consciously make a choice to go somewhere different. You’re probably too young to remember but in the early seventies your choice of music was disco, a beautiful woman with no brain, or hard rock, a big pompous over-inflated, you know, thing that went out and wobbled around on a stage.
‘And we were watching things fall apart all around the world. We were seeing things devolve. We were saying: wait a minute, things are not getting better, things are getting crazier! But we ended up being promoted by Warner Bros and Virgin as you know, like wacky, kooky clowns because instead of figuring out what we were about it was easier to market clown versions of what was going on.’
While Mark acknowledges the influence of the Futurists, he traces the inspiration for the title and motto of the band from a 1930s movie called Island of Lost Souls with Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi he caught on late night TV.
‘Laughton is this scientist on a tropical island and he’s trying to turn these animals into humans in a laboratory called the House of Pain, but they never quite become humans, so they become subhumans, kind of zombie-like, running around the jungle and generally unhappy and depraved. But when they began to get restless Laughton would stand on this rock and he would crack his whip and they’d all cower in fear. And he’d go “What is the law?” and crack his whip again, and they’d recite “Not to walk on all fours. Are we not men?”
And I’m watching this in 1972 on a little crappy 13 inch black and white TV in my bedsit and go oh my God! I know all those people! They all live in this town! All these hunched over subhuman characters looked like they were just falling out of the rubber factory after a hard day of work.’
Growing up in a town like Akron Ohio in the seventies can make you very weird. In its ‘heyday’ the Rubber Capital of the World, by then Akron was just a corporate, post-industrial, depressed, overcast dump full of overweight people who spent their spare time reproducing, listening to Foreigner and bouncing up and down on the heads of artistic people with ideas above their station – i.e. any ideas at all – like Mark Mothersbaugh. In other words, Akron Ohio was much like any other place in the seventies. Devo was Mothersbaugh’s revenge on ‘breeders’ everywhere. ‘We didn’t drive a van, we didn’t like hard rock and we couldn’t afford drugs so we had to form a band.’
Not surprisingly nobody wanted to hear their music in Akron. ‘We’d only get to play shows by lying and telling people we were a top forty band, but by the second or third song they’d know something was up, because we’d have like these janitor outfits on and there’d be all these hippies out in the audience. Then we’d say, OK, here’s another song by Aerosmith and we’d play “Mongoloid” and then the police would have to be called.’
Mothersbaugh’s mischievousness and anti-Akron sentiment lives on in Mutato Musika. Mark confesses that they are putting subliminal messages in their TV commercial sound-tracks.
‘The first was in an ad for Coke – I think it was “Biology, Destiny”. Then there was that candy commercial for kids and we put in the message “Question Authority”. The funny things is, we’d be a bit scared but then we’d go to meetings with ad agency people and they’d be sitting there snapping their fingers and bobbing their heads to the music going “Yeah, Yeah” and then I’d come in and say “Be like your ancestors or be different, so shall your species survive.” And I’d blush and Bob Casale would break out in a sweat and they wouldn’t hear it. Not once has anyone told us “take that out”.
Mark’s ambition is that Mutato Musika will become a world-wide franchise. But then the band of self-described ‘suburban robots here to entertain corporate life-forms’ will become a corporate life-form themselves. Which may have a bearing on a dream Mark tells me he had recently.
‘I was octopus-fishing on a boat out on Santa Monica Bay with about seven other people and we pulled in the net, but there were too many octopi, and too big – they chased us around. I woke up just as this one old guy that kind of looked like Popeye had an octopus wrapped around him which pulled his false teeth right out of his mouth.’
Maybe Mutato Musika is the octopus? ‘Maybe,’ shrugs Mark. ‘That would, I guess, make me the old guy having his false teeth sucked out.’
This year is the 25th anniversary of the launch of the much-loved UK sitcom Father Ted. This unpublished interview with writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews – in which I pointed out how many priests drop dead in their hit sitcom – was commissioned by Deluxe magazine in February 1998. The day after I handed my copy in, Father Ted, alias Dermot Morgan, 45,dropped dead of a heart attack. The interview was spikedand the series cancelled.
Every decade has its sitcom. In the Sixties it was Steptoe and Son – generational conflict between two junk men left behind by Progress. In the Seventies it was Are You Being Served? – class war, campery and skiving in a department store going to the dogs. In the Eighties it was Blackadder – doomed get-rich-quick schemes of an ambitious, selfish, spineless loser.
And in the Nineties it is Father Ted – crap priest exiled to a crap house on a crap island by the crap Italian-based multinational he works for, which forces him to mouth a crap corporate dogma which, try as he might, he can’t quite sound convinced by.
But Ted, now about to air its third series, is not just the best sitcom in years. It’s High Art. This is Beckett, but with better gags. Ted (Dermot Morgan) and his Holy Fool sidekick Dougal (Ardal O’Hanlon) are waiting for a Godot that will never come in a wasteland of frustration, bereft of any certainties, any values, any purpose or any decent night-clubs. A place where the only consolation is an endless supply of hot tea from Mrs Doyle which you didn’t ask for.
Father Ted is so inspired that even Ted’s hair, with its enigmatic greyness and mysterious, shifting voluminousness, is a character in itself. Naturally my first question to the writer-creators Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan is, was it scripted?
Arthur: ‘It came with Dermot’.
Graham: ‘Dermot suggested it’.
Arthur: ‘Dermot suggested his own head’.
Graham: ‘And it was just as well, because we were going to go for someone else’s head.’
Despite their occasionally Beckettian conversation, they seem like nice if slightly naughty Irish boys. They look the approximately the same age – thirty going on fourteen – but Arthur is actually ten years older than Graham who is 29. Graham talks more than Arthur, and seems more confident, but it’s not clear who wears the trousers in this relationship. Arthur grew up in Drogheda, a country town; Graham in Dublin. ‘I’m the City Slicker and Arthur’s the country boy,’ explains Graham. ‘I provide the hip cultural references and Arthur provides the authenticity.’
‘Thanks,’ says Arthur sarcastically. ‘I think that what Graham is saying is that it’s helpful for me to be from the country.’
‘And it’s helpful for me not to be,’ adds Graham.
They met when working on the Dublin listings mag Hot Press; Graham as a writer, Arthur as art director. After experimenting with a U2 pastiche band called The Joshua Trio they moved to London and wrote some sketches for Alas Smith & Jones before writing a very surreal series called Paris for Alexei Sayle in 1994. It wasn’t a hit.
Says Graham: ‘If you’d put it next to Ted and asked me which one was going to be a hit, I don’t know I’d have given you the right answer. I think perhaps it didn’t work because it didn’t have as many rules as Ted, and we didn’t realise that the central character is never as funny as all the satellite characters.’
Like Mrs Doyle, for instance, who is a seer and a prophet and deserves to be worshipped. Why don’t they give her more lines? There’s so much more that needs to be said about tea and sandwiches.
‘It’s funny you should say that,’ responds Graham, ‘because in this series we’ve tried to work a plot around each character and you get to meet Mrs Doyle’s friends. Who are, of course, exactly the same as she is. I’m sure you recognise some of your mother in Mrs Doyle…’
You know my mother??
Graham: ‘Well, you know the sort of thing I mean – you go round to your friend’s house and their mother….’
Arthur: ‘…will almost kill themselves if you ask them to nicely. “Would you mind killing yourself?” [Putting on a Mrs Doyle voice]: “Well, I don’t know…. Okay, I will.’
What do our dynamic comedy-writing duo like about one another?
Arthur: ‘Graham’s a perfectionist. To a fault. He knows what works – he has really good instincts.’
Graham: ‘What do I like about Arthur? Er, well, it’s kind of like an imaginative haemorrhaging. He’ll sit down at a typewriter and millions of ideas will come out. That is so useful when you’re trying to get started. Arthur also has a lovely feeling for the way that priests talk.’
Where did the idea for Ted come from?
Arthur: ‘Growing up in Ireland we were surrounded by priests, of course, and so we didn’t have to look very far. The other day I saw a TV documentary from 1964 about Mods and there was a clip where we saw priests blessing their scooters. Now that’s pure Ted.’
Graham: ‘Arthur also used to do Ted as a stand-up character, so that makes writing for Ted very easy, because Arthur just has to start putting on his Ted voice and we’re away.’
It seems that the Irishness of Ted is the key to its success. Croft-Perry classic shows like Are You Being Served? and Dad’s Army, which Ted is very much in the tradition of, depended upon a repression which no one would really believe in if it were set in ‘classless’, individualistic Nineties Britain.
Graham: ‘I think that British repression is kind of dull now because it’s been done. But no one knew what a repressed Irish person would do.’
Arthur: ‘And in Ireland, of course, Catholicism takes on the role of class. Everyone’s very deferential to the priests.’
The lads claim Ted isn’t anti-clerical, and certainly Ted’s bungling, agnostic vanity (i.e. his human-ness) is probably a PR victory next to newspaper headlines of be-cassocked kiddie-fiddling. But I put it to them that priests do tend to die on the show like flies. Every time Ted calls a dog-collared mate on his mobile another one bites the dust.
Graham: ‘S’funny, no one’s pointed that out before. But… people dropping dead is funny. In a comedy.’
Arthur: ‘As opposed to a drama. Where it’s not.’
Come on, you don’t see many people dying in comedies. It isn’t that funny. But dead priests are for some reason. [At this, Arthur laughs very loudly]. Maybe it’s because they wear black and talk about death all the time. Or maybe it’s because they’re just not very real people….
Graham: ‘Well, we certainly trade on unreality in the programme. We’ve constructed a kind of mythology around the priesthood. Because being a priest is a closed book to most people you can make up stuff…’.
Or as Ted put it: ‘That’s the wonderful thing about Catholicism, Dougal. It’s so vague that no-one really knows what it’s about.’ If Catholicism were a movie, it would have to be a cartoon. And there is a very strong cartoon, ‘surreal’ element to Ted.
Arthur: ‘We’re big cartoon fans. Especially of The Simpsons.’
I can see there’s some Homer Simpson in Ted, but isn’t there more Daffy Duck?
Graham: I’d say it was Rain Man and Daffy Duck. We had a joke which we never used where Ted drops some toothpicks on the floor and Dougal instantly says, ’4,777’ and then cut-to an hour later and Ted, whose been counting them, says: ‘4,777 indeed. It’s 4,776, actually.’
Catholicism also provides a useful reason why Ted and Dougal are stuck together and why they share the same bedroom in such a big house – like Laurel and Hardy and Morecambe and Wise.
‘Yes, there’s something that connects them all,’ admits Graham. ‘It’s as if they were non-sexual lovers, as if they were co-dependent brothers.’
Or just married – most marriages are non-sexual and co-dependent.
‘Maybe,’ laughs Graham. ‘I always hoped we’d get a gay following for Ted, in the same way as The Golden Girls did. But it didn’t happen.’
Probably because you don’t have enough drag-queen female characters. Will you be having a fourth series, now, boys?
‘You have to be careful not to outstay your welcome,’ hedges Graham. ‘We have to make each series better than the last. And that gets harder each time. At the moment we’re not sure.’
Go on. Go on. Go on, go on, go on. Just in yer hand. You will. Go on.