Here they come, marching north out of Spitalfields, stride for stride in hallucinatory ordinariness, the celebrated living sculptures, Gilbert and George. It’s an English spring afternoon and they have dressed for it in country formal outfits: stout boots, long, brown chequerboard coats with too many buttons, furry headwarmers that flap down over their ears. They look worried – like posh herdsmen who have lost their reindeer. At Shoreditch Church, they dress to the left and march west under the railway bridge. It’s not difficult to guess where they’re making for: their new gallery, Jay Jopling’s White Cube2 in Hoxton Square. You don’t really need to go inside the sugar-frosted box to see what’s happening. You can get it from the street. This is top dollar, scratchcard art. Either it works in one hit or forget it. If it doesn’t jab you in the eye as you drive past in your cab, keep going. The names involved in this pitch are so hot, you might as well frame them and leave it at that. Now the cultural ambulance-chasers know where Hoxton is, they won’t leave it alone. This is here and this is it. The back-story is more complicated.
Shoreditch dragged comfortably through a few centuries living down to its name: a diesel tourniquet, a ha-ha filled with refuse, sawdust from repro furniture workshops, casual prostitution, single shoes exhibited on Sunday pavements, Italian rip-offs wholesaled in the week, black-windowed caves punting Elvis memorabilia, pubs touting exotic lunchtime entertainment, while boasting that Bill Shakespeare had been a regular. (Bricklayer/playwright Ben Jonson of the customised moniker, it’s true, killed a man in these streets and got off by pleading benefit of clergy.) Shoreditch survived as a prophylactic, an interzone protecting the City of London from the liberties of Hoxton, the seething immigrant hives of aspirational Hackney. Pick any road, any lock-up under the railway arches (such as the spot where the former million-pound footballer and Barnardo boy, Justin Fashanu, hanged himself), and you can uncover the usual sub-metropolitan mix of high and low; a Darwinian realpolitik of twisters and twicers getting their retaliation in first. Wander down Curtain Road and you have a trajectory that swerves from London’s first purpose-built Elizabethan playhouses (the Theatre and the Curtain) to the Security Express building where Ronnie Knight, Clifford Saxe and the boys were alleged to have pulled off the robbery that funded the Brinks-Mat job at Heathrow. Knight was once married to Barbara Windsor, soubrette, Carry On whoopee cushion, diminutive EastEnders matriarch. Windsor was of course born in Shoreditch, before escaping to the wannabe suburb of Stamford Hill.
Hoxton and Shoreditch were on the wrong side of the Roman wall, a dog-end territory of street markets and unlicensed boxers. The 1990s had seen the area – birthplace of Lenny ‘The Guv’nor’ McLean, the Kray Twins et al – mutate from a criminous warren, twinned with the Jago, to a user-friendly film location. The sort of place Neil Jordan could shoot The Crying Game without paying protection money. A million ghosted memoirs (golden-hearted mum, dad on the trot from the Army, thieving from bombsites, clip around the ear from PC Plod, Borstal, Parkhurst, kneecapped by Ronnie, joins Firm, TV anecdotes, celebrity pallbearer, shakes hands with Vinnie Jones) had done their job, turning poverty fables into designer villainy. On Hoxton Square, if anyone cares to notice it, is a blue plaque for the local physician, James Parkinson, who identified and described the neurological disease that carries his name. But now, with ever increasing speed, the memory traces of market gardens, madhouses, priories, holy wells, 19th-century radicalism, are being wiped out by the new hip, SoHo, loft-living, sofa bar, circus school, art-scam makeover. The Magistrates Court on the north side of Old Street, where the Krays were frequently arraigned, has sunk into torpor; the adjoining police station has been closed down. Civic ambition, or its Xeroxed millennial version, is represented by the shabby grandeur, the misplaced Portland stone pomposity of the defunct Shoreditch Town Hall; a Renaissance palazzo, strident with towers, Ionic columns, allegorical figures and upbeat sloganeering: ‘More Light, More Power’. The scale of this structure, its link with Shoreditch Church broken by the railway bridge, distracts the restless knot of citizens who hang about on the opposite pavement, in expectation of the phantom bus that will carry them east down Hackney Road or north towards Dalston Junction. This is one of those nodal points where seemingly unrelated temporal strands knot and twist, forming a provocative obstruction. The muffled echo of speeches from the council chamber, notions of social engineering and poor relief, debates on refuse incineration as a source of street lighting, can still be imagined by determined sentimentalists.
The urban stroller finds it hard to resist a detour (this after all is what urban strolling is all about, inventing excuses for getting lost), a quick scan of Shoreditch Town Hall in its latest incarnation. It is no longer a public space, but is operated by a charity, the Shoreditch Town Hall Trust – which means locked doors (as with most of the churches outside the City walls). It also means that the building has opted out of the rough and tumble of street life and rebranded itself as a zone: ‘Cigarette Free Zone’. Which doesn’t imply that cigarettes are gratis, on demand, for passing nicotine junkies. It means that the site is protected against whatever lurks outside. It becomes a self-contained module, art-friendly, Web-friendly, vegetarian and open to offers from film companies. The decontaminated civic space (rescued from blight) is the contrary of the Paris described in Apollinaire’s ‘Zone’, which celebrated a cartography of casual detail, whatever he wanted to notice in a drift across the city: ‘You read handbills catalogues posters singing aloud.’ The Shoreditch Town Hall zone is more wary: ‘No Dogs (Except Guide Dogs)’ and a cute little silver postbox placed at the right of the entrance to swallow cigarette stubs. Buzzed into the grand hall, the visitor faces a desk and a rack of flyers advertising local events and booklets highlighting significant episodes in the history of the building. The problem is that since it’s a charity the operatives say they can’t accept cashmoney, and they aren’t equipped to deal with credit cards. If you want a four-pound Hackney History, which includes a chapter on ‘The Victorian Values of Dr Tripe’, you’d better carry a chequebook. Shoreditch Town Hall may well be the last place where such an anachronistic object serves any useful purpose, in these days of obligatory standing orders, cashback supermarkets with low-level barter and traded promissory notes for those outside the credit system.
What goes on here? The building’s official past as a vestry, a town hall, is remembered and recorded. The work of the architects (Caesar Augustus Long, William Hunt, A.G. Cross) responsible for its development and redevelopment is acknowledged. More recent exploitations of a building denied any proper function since the 1980s are ignored. No notices commemorate ‘Whirlygig’ club nights when New Age ravers packed the Assembly Hall to enjoy world/trance/house, and to experience the ‘parachute set’ – clubbers were enveloped in a wall-to-wall, touchy-feely environment of parachute silk. No talk of art squats and guerrilla shows. The Town Hall, in its own quiet way, embodies, through separate cells (charity, art biz, tofu), the spirit of Shoreditch/Hoxton: the zone beyond the Wall. It’s like East Berlin being taken over by opportunists from East and West: a state building, with all its secrets and files, captured by the mob, by first-time capitalists and designers capable of restoring the Assembly Hall to a pastiche of its Edwardian glory, so that it can act as a set for a film about a convention of hairdressers.
Here are a few of the operations that coexist in the building with the sealed glass doors: the offices of the Shoreditch Town Hall Trust, the offices of PEER, an independent charity that ‘commissions artists’ and is busy assembling a document which ‘will reveal the range and depth of debate surrounding the arts’ function in society today’. The Rongwrong Café (formerly of Hoxton Square) run by Hans Schneider, who ‘shops for his fresh product daily by bicycle’. Visit this café and you’ll be granted access to the finest ladies’ lavatories in the borough. The concept of the public convenience is as remote as the municipal horse-trough, the granite gutter filled with dead leaves. There is a PR company, a splash of ‘up-and-coming clothes designers’, a photo studio, a Website developer (‘Planet Hackney’) and an artist in residence. Jane Simpson’s brief is to provide work which ‘responds to the building’.
Despite all this furious mercantile and creative activity, the high-ceilinged hallway is deserted. In a splendid street-facing room there is an art manifestation, an exhibition by Mark Reeves, tagged Glamour, which consists of groups of monochrome prints, photographs of photographs. In the Zone there are essentially two types of pitch: small photographs (such as these) or very large photographs, such as those by Marc Atkins in the Foundry, on the corner of Great Eastern Street.Both are self-conscious, uneasy about the urban landscape, careful to avoid the bathos of head-on romanticism. An art filter takes the edge off reality. Reeves has assembled a collection of shots of peeling and layered posters, leeched of the colour of the versions that can be seen through the window. By collating random, torn, defaced, fly-by-night examples of commercial art, and granting them the status of an exhibition in a quiet, meditative space, Reeves neutralises the original energy. The audience is invited to contemplate images which would otherwise act as an irritant, smiled at or ignored. But there is no audience, neither here in the Town Hall, nor in the cellars beneath the Foundry where Atkins is showing a number of vast prints, photographs of his own photographs scattered across riverine London. Shoreditch has franchised the no-show show, the perfect way of emptying rooms and secret spaces, slaughterhouse cellars, former banks, the struck sets of the Industrial Revolution. This art is designed to repel browsers. The private view or first night piss-up is the event. The rooms are then too crowded to allow anyone near the exhibits. After that, the show has a posthumous, hangdog air; solitary wanderers, often with rucksacks, track rapidly around despoiled spaces, musing about how much better they would look without these egotistical excrescences on the walls.
Everything that’s happening here, in all its upbeat, hard-sell confidence, wears the aspect of the temporary, the tolerated, the last dance before the big boys move in. Shoreditch Town Hall has the feel of those charity shops that take up the slack when serious commerce pulls out of pedestrianised, Kentish shopping precincts, killed off by the Bluewater retail landfill operation. Creeping stealthily in, behind all the art blather, are the developers. Now heritaged poverty is a selling point, the more garretlike and terrible the better. Check out the fabulously partial photographs in the estate agents’ window and note the ‘Clockmaker’s House’, a weather-boarded garret, bare as a Spitalfields weavers’ loft, at £800 p.w.
The aim of the Hoxton/Shoreditch creative marketing nexus is to create a buzz, a honey trap to attract the listings magazines, the style journalists. Before you know it, Shoreditch has its own Holiday Inn bang alongside the revived Hoxton Square with its cinema/gallery complex and its frock conceptualists. Columnists do their lowlife, front-line journals, bars are packed and every pre-development bunker shows video pieces with redundant explanations printed on cards. In fact, mooching through the area, it’s impossible to tell which are the galleries and which are the design offices and the Net bandits with sub-Saatchi Britart on the walls. ‘Generating content’: that’s all we’re good for in this backwater nation, so one of the new Website visionaries told me. Product is launched in the Balkans or Havana – low rent, low regulation, Third World addresses of convenience – and aimed at the great white solitaries of the USA, credit-rich geeks, surfers with trembling fingers. The ones who are currently sampling Stephen King. When the investment pays off, the nouveau plutocrats buy into old-fashioned bricks and mortar. Property prices soar. Clerkenwell booms from the Euro-rinsed Smithfield meat market, through Cloth Fair, back to Hoxton and Shoreditch.
The psychic sickness, the bug in the system, expresses itself as a plague of art, an exploded gallery; look-at-me-shrieks on fences, defaced posters, photos of photos of photos, infinitely reductive chains of commentary. The rage and twitch of the streets – cyclists hammering on car roofs, motorbike messengers carving up cabs, stressed bus drivers screaming at pedal-power anarchists – is amplified by all the freelance snappers, the camera gangs and semiotic muggers who are roving the area, putting together enough sampled madness to make up a show. Unofficial art proliferates throughout the fringe territories, while official art stakes out the river, colonising power stations and poisoned peninsulas.
Loping up the steps of the Old Street underground station, pot of yellow, household paint in hand, comes the tall, country-dressed, purposefully under-arranged figure of the writer Bill Drummond. Drummond, so he admits in his serial memoir, 45, avoids mirrors. And collects photographs. Some of which remain facing the wall in his work room (he won’t use the word ‘study’). The man lives to be contrary, to run with some modest proposal, such as the notion of hanging a pair of dead cows from a pylon overlooking the M25, hiring the transport, reccying the site, then changing his mind. The practical inconveniences of schemes like this, or of his attempt to hand out thousands of cans of Tennent’s lager to street folk on Christmas Eve, tend to leave Drummond, when his plans are aborted, with quite a lot of baggage: gas-filled bovine carcasses, infuriated hostel managers and the like. But his stop/start dramas make for a strong narrative line and a driven prose that swings between remembrance and revision of things past. He finds it difficult to forget, until the bad karma has been written out. 45 belongs to the black-souled Scottish tradition of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. It’s a great trick if you can pull it off, and Bill can, confession and justification in the same tale.
45 is a very attractive object, an intermediate production that stands somewhere between the booklets and quick turnaround squibs produced by the author’s own Penkiln Burn press (literary singles) and the full-blown docu-fictions (concept albums) that Drummond has brought out with his collaborator Mark Manning (a.k.a. Zodiac Mindwarp). Drummond argues, very convincingly, the case for the 7-inch single. He loves songs that define moments of time and then self-destruct. He distrusts the inflationary pretensions of the post-Pepper LP. So he has overseen the production of a book that is like a heap of EPs, a juke-rack of porridge-coloured singles with 45 stencilled on a plain cover. Decent quality paper, clean typography, austere design, fold-over flaps: the book is good to handle and easy on the eye. No author photo, the blurb condensed on a removable sticker: ‘At the age of 45, Bill Drummond is less concerned with setting the record straight as making sure it revolves at the correct speed.’
Drummond’s age is a little beyond 45, but that doesn’t matter. And 45, numerologically, carries a charge: the revolver (both senses), the last rising of the Highlanders. The single digits added together make nine, a cardinal (and magical) number. A standard interpretation of the Nine of Pentacles in the Tarot pack speaks of ‘success, accomplishment, certitude’, balanced by a reversed reading of ‘roguery, deception, voided projects’. Which is pretty much the story Drummond tells: the child of a Scottish missionary couple, born in South Africa, boyhood in Wigtownshire, transplants to the steel-town of Corby in the East Midlands; art school and theatre design (for Ken Campbell) in Liverpool; seizure and proper exploitation of the post-Punk pop industry (by way of certain SF/paranoid notions of interstellar ley-lines connecting Iceland, Liverpool and New Guinea); chaos theory management (with Echo and the Bunnymen), followed by the cleverly sampled chart triumph of ‘Doctorin’ the Tardis’; art situationism (anti-Turner prizes, money burning, slogans painted on the Festival Hall); the establishment of a life, and a place, in which he could write.
Which leaves Drummond, notebook and pencil in pocket, paint pot in hand, striding down Great Eastern Street towards Bingles Snack Bar, the kind of place in which he is comfortable, anonymous, stoked up on black coffee; ready to attack the blank pages. The rituals of the day, the pots of tea he brews in his own kitchen (coffee is for travel), the public writing spaces, are important to Drummond. If they become misaligned, if his cover is blown, he can’t return to that particular café, that area of town. On his own turf, in Aylesbury, he’s thrown into despair when a waitress on a happiness franchise in Beatties department store asks his name – and he tells her. ‘I can never come back here again. I thought I was invisible, I thought I sat at my table and nobody saw this dishevelled man scribbling in his notebook. But now I have a name. Bill.’
This is in a wonderful Drummond story in 45, ‘My Modern Life’, like old radio (as it never was), like those elegantly balanced, ironic, single-breath, present tense, synthesised diary-takes by one of the great Americans; Frank O’Hara on his lunch hour from the Museum of Modern Art; Douglas Woolf driving somewhere, between jobs; Fielding Dawson. Drummond speaks of the pieces that make up 45 as ‘stories’. Some of them are very short, a set of acknowledgments dropped into the middle of the book. The ad hoc, collaged assembly is reminiscent of the books put together by poets who ran their own presses in the 1960s, Tom Raworth’s Goliard Press, Asa Benveniste’s Trigram. It was a sharp-witted, transatlantic style. Raworth’s A Serial Biography is the 78 to Drummond’s 45: doctored memory files that pay close attention to the particulars of the breakfast table, strategic wandering, documentation stressed until it emerges as a form of privileged fiction. Drummond has Raworth’s eye for the cityscape as an exhibition of signs and symbols, messages disguised by the cosmetic overlay of popular culture. When he sets out on a bus journey, the 68 from Euston to Norwood Garage, he instructs his companion, the photographer Marc Atkins, to spurn nostalgia. ‘Old things are boring,’ he writes.
I like billboards, especially the one with Jackie Chan advertising Rush Hour. I like signposts with instructions about what you can and can’t do, traffic lights, backs of buses, shop signs, especially the fast food ones. Definitely not the old ones. KFC, Land of Leather, Perfect Pizza, Cash City Amusements, Kwik Fit, Tennessee Fried Chicken, that sort of thing. Not people as individuals, just the general swarm – I like cranes and bus stops and petrol stations that have just been opened and solicitors that advertise 24-hour call outs and moneybrokers and lots of buses. I like signposts that tell us where we are heading and where we have been. I’m not interested in the burnt-out misery in the people’s faces or the uncrushable spirit of the up-against-it underclass.
I don’t say that Drummond is influenced by those poets, or that he has ever heard of them. He’s an Ernst Jünger man. He gives a nod in the direction of the commodity lists in Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. He carries a copy of The Unabomber Manifesto on a walk north along the River Lea. He scavenges, as all writers do, for what he needs; he reads for information, research, echoes of projects that are already in hand.
Drummond’s programme, fierce, engaged, self-questioning, is resolutely provincial. ‘My Modern Life’, with its gatherings of street signs, its account of a work routine involving bus trips, tracking shots through garages and shopping centres, a special desk at the library, the shape of the journey to the public conveniences (coat and rucksack left at work table), sketches a fine psychogeographic portrait of Aylesbury (a town previously celebrated in Tim Binding’s novel, A Perfect Execution). The neurotic transcription of absurdist notices (‘The car park staff are fully trained and will endeavour to assist you in most situations’) allows Drummond to complete an affectionate field report on somewhere that isn’t London. London with its massive self-regard, its endless recycling and pastiching of the back catalogue of dark history, its sound-bite novellas by fruitfly celebrities, is no longer the sole generator of content. Alan Moore, with Voice of the Fire (1996), has done the job for Northampton. One of Drummond’s collaborators, Mark Manning, demonises working-class Leeds in Crucify Me Again.
The centre is broken and Drummond relishes its discomfort. In a piece called In Praise of Council Houses, he discloses the secret magnificence of Dagenham, where he has a studio on an industrial estate. He also locates not just the general area, the street, but the very pub from which the ur-slapper, the Essex girl, steps forth. He has a visionary sense of the transcendent melancholy of non-league football grounds, Dagenham and Redbridge, or his own beloved Aylesbury: silverblue nightlight, concrete slab walls, killing fields on the edge of nowhere, slogan-plastered paddocks waiting for Big Mal to be choppered in, waving his fedora and puffing a rolling-pin cigar.
Dagenham is one of Drummond’s alternate worlds. It’s there, but he sees it as more than itself – just as he invents names for bands, titles for albums that never existed, but which have a stranger and stronger presence for being mythical. The world as he reads it is a conspiracy which must be countered by the immaculate gesture: premeditated spontaneity. Hence the pot of yellow paint carried through the streets of Shoreditch: Drummond has noticed a slogan painted on a fence and he is troubled by it. In part it’s the colour, the dense Rothko black of the wooden slats, and the golden alchemy of the lettering. In part it’s the words, the lyrics, a broken bit of something. The quote is set off by an ellipsis, painted in like Céline’s three dots as a generator of energy and movement. ‘IF I JUST TURN/AND/RUN.’ This is the Art Zone, so the calligraphic street poem, the post-Hamilton Finlay fence doodle, is signed with a corporate logo: ‘©LACK’. The strategy is not quite as throwaway as it seems: Drummond has noticed layers of primer beneath the dripping runs of yellow. More rehearsed spontaneity. That’s good. And the words themselves, they bother him, he knows how to construct pop lyrics that burn like sweet acid into the brain, but this is personal. ‘Somehow these words seemed to be directed towards me. It triggered something in me, and I couldn’t help but respond.’ So, as Drummond explains in his 1998 Penkiln Burn pamphlet Lies (which is not part of the 45 collection), he composes his own response: ‘I/will/love/you/for/ever.’ Which he derides as ‘the most trite lines in the language of love’. It’s not enough to add his coda to the original composition, then to turn and run (that’s the nagging power of the phrase, the way ‘run’ is enclosed in ‘turn’). Around the corner from the fence in Ravey Street is another gallery, the 108, which is currently showcasing the Stockists and their polemic exhibition, The Resignation of Sir Nicholas Serota. There are no other browsers when I visit the place, but the custodian is babbling on the phone: ‘It was a very cheap way to do up this building which was redundant.’ Drummond, responding to the requirement to argue, record, remember, commissions a photographer, Francoise Lacroix, to make a record of his brushwork. Naturally, before the prints arrive at his farmhouse, he has changed his mind. He returns to the Zone (another journey to the city, more travel cards, white lies to the family) and paints his slogan out. So that now, if nobody else has got in on the act, there is a Bill Drummond artwork (no logo) on an uncollected wooden fence; an extra layer of black paint (bruising to purple) that doesn’t quite match the grey-based undercoat. This, too, is photographed.
Walking across the fields from his farmhouse to the bus stop, where he will pick up his regular morning ride into Aylesbury, Drummond is at ease, decoding the countryside with an unforced expertise; a casual glance tells him that Dutch Elm disease is back. He moves through the weather, ‘glad to be part of this living and dying thing’. Confronting the density, the scrambled noise and competing slogan-assaults of the city, pushes him into a more confrontational mode. He is muddy Volvo Estate man trespassing in white Transit van territory. So he walks the outline of his name into the map.
I was playing a private game with myself and my London A to Z. But the best thing about these walks was that they took you down streets, up alleys, across back gardens, over ditches that you would never normally have visited. You would discover things: shops, cafés, old saucepans, skips full of discarded treasure ... and secret signs. The secret signs were always the best.
One of these structured drifts takes Drummond to the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, where he spends some of the loose change unconsumed by his infamous million-pound barbecue on a Richard Long print, A Smell of Sulphur in the Wind. ‘Technically, the photo was shit. The shitness added power.’ What attracted him was the bleak neutrality of the location – Central Iceland – and the title, which brought back the taste of Corby and the steel mills, air you could cut like a cake. The act of buying the piece becomes another artwork, another way of exorcising the cash karma. The burning of all that KLF loot on the Isle of Jura wasn’t a stunt or a conceptualist prank. If anything it worked (despite the taping of the event and the subsequent public and private screenings) as negative PR: nobody wanted to know, nobody cared. Burning the money wasn’t even an occult exercise. I think Drummond simply wanted to see what it looked like, this orange-red bonfire of folded royals; what it felt like to watch that (once) mythical sum crinkle and burn. ‘Those black and white photographs of German citizens burning mounds of almost worthless Weimar Republic banknotes to keep warm had always been a boyhood inspiration,’ he wrote.
Drummond is left contemplating a brick of ash, the compressed residue of the money-fire. Much of 45, this sorting and sifting of the past, is about the exorcism of unquiet memories: Scottish patriotism (through a trip to a World Cup match in Paris), childhood (by revisiting a cave that had haunted him for years), his identity as a pop celebrity and marketing man, the contradictory impulses towards fame and faceless anonymity, spectacular public gestures that can be viewed from a safe distance. ‘I must never let on,’ he writes, as he lets on, lets the reader in on the twists and flaws and petty deceptions. He has to confess that he won’t confess, won’t come clean about having to tell the truth. ‘All writers are liars,’ Marc Atkins reassures him. But Drummond can’t manage it, he’s too much of a Calvinist; he outs himself at every turn. He can only hold it together by sticking to the rituals of the kitchen table, Farming Today, feeding the dogs and cats and chickens, contemplating a view that he has to stop himself from painting. His moral judgments are stark, everything is either ‘shite’ or ‘fab’. The conundrum remains: to understand how it is possible to be ‘fashionable (in an unfashionable way)’.
Introducing a 1998 reissue of The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), a canny primer by Bill Drummond and fellow KLF superhero Jimmy Cauty, the rock scholar Jon Savage asserts that ‘the biggest contradiction in late-period pop may well lie between calculation and intuition, between knowledge and the deepest innocence.’ Savage is interested to discover what happens when you ‘know stuff which you can’t unlearn’. Drummond’s career as a writer has been a process of unlearning, writing himself out of the story while remaining the figure in the foreground. He begins with what he did and he tries to find some way of reworking an apparently fixed history. He refuses in the end to accept that what is known is all there is to be known.
Drummond and Mark Manning don’t want their books to be read simply because of who they were and the stunts they pulled – but these are the things they themselves focus on. They find themselves issuing forth, like Auden and MacNeice, to do the travel-through-icy-wastes book: the voyage to the North Pole with an icon of Elvis Presley which is described in Bad Wisdom (1996). That trip, trashing the conventions of the genre, is more Hunter S. Thompson than Paul Theroux.
Manning’s Crucify Me Again is a hysterical deconstruction of his days as a star and self-proclaimed ‘sex god’; he let rips with the mania that Drummond is so careful to control. Manning is very good, in a methadone and wormwood way, at subverting the Loachian heroics of life on a Leeds council estate. The tour bus is genuinely apocalyptic: setting fire to sheep, rampant misogyny, psychotic roadies, and the traditional props – drugs, drink, Danish porn, iron-jawed groupies. But all the time, through the bad nights, lost wives, tattoos, delusions, nightmares, the virus is devouring him: he has to become a writer. Which means, obviously, checking into the Zone: ‘I’ve ended up in this secretive borough of Clerkenwell, that only reveals itself little by little over the years, with the poetry of its secret names, its silent courtyards, churches and hidden paths.’ Zodiac Mindwarp, tracking the buried Fleet River, dossing down near Smithfield Market, finds himself following in the footsteps of John Betjeman and his Cloth Fair blue plaque.
It’s impossible to get away. Legions of the infamously famous, settling on a pleasantly obscure corner of London in which to ferment quiet subversion, find themselves part of the franchise: the freedom offered by business to art, the Faustian pact. Drummond and Manning, opposing the vacuousness of Britart, Britlit and Kool Ken Kultur, are seen as exploitable generators of content. They’re trapped in the hive, chained to their word-processors: that’s the deal. ‘Shock us.’ Deliver your word count. The paintedout lyrics on the wooden fence at the corner of Great Eastern Street and Ravey Street are just a competing element in the perpetual exhibition that is Shoreditch. Drummond’s cancelled text may not be labelled yet, but the rest of the art stuff is – on a free map available from the Town Hall, assorted cafés, wine bars and bookshops. ‘Hamish Skeggs will be exhibiting his most psychotically induced work to date.’ Let the city drive you crazy, then float that madness as a commodity. Mark Manning launches his book with a reading at the New Foundry (once a bank). ‘Pints, Poets & Piss-Artists. All Sexes Welcome,’ says the notice in the window. The reading is sponsored by Absinth (absinthe.com). Classic heritage marketing, hit that boho-gutter millennial lifestyle.
There’s a potted plant on the pavement outside the Foundry and through the window the dim interior glows with fluorescent artworks, spelling out words like ‘FIRE’. The rumour is that these are pieces by Bill Drummond. And there’s not much doubt who is responsible for the manifesto placed in the window of the bar: pb POSTER 28. The classic Penkiln Burn typography and the tell-tale phraseology (‘We don’t care if you are totally shite, derivative or an undiscovered genius’) is as good as an announcement of authorship. The message of the poster is delivered with Drummond’s characteristically messianic brand of altruism with a sting in its tail. No sponsored artists need apply, no work that has already been peddled elsewhere is required. Otherwise, pretty much anybody who can crawl to the door is welcome. Sink or swim. ‘We are not interested in taking any sort of cut.’ All the artists have to do is donate one item to the Foundry’s collection, the collective memory bank.
It’s a loud bar for afternoons, not a place in which to talk. Shoreditch pubs, now that they have been noticed, are being sanitised. Rough and ready strippers will have to be properly licensed, and probably put out of business. The major operations – business suits, clean shoes, mobiles bulging – will thrive. Some of the dancers are already forming a collective to tell their stories: they want to rebrand as writers, put out an anthology. On their leather loungers, off-duty traders are necking bubbly. Alongside the Foundry, on a disregarded traffic island, is a Victorian artwork erected by the Shoreditch Vestry, the forerunner of the Town Hall. The lettering around the base of the plinth is weatherworn and illegible, but the artwork survives. A column of pink Scottish granite giving the finger to a dreary sky.