Secretly Sublime

Iain Sinclair

  • Vital Signs by Ian Penman
    Serpent’s Tail, 374 pp, £10.99, February 1998, ISBN 1 85242 523 7

One of the myths that fuzzes the shadowy outline of Ian Penman, a laureate of marginal places, folds in the map, is that Paul Schrader, the director of a sassy remake of Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, admired Penman’s review so much that he invited him over to Los Angeles to talk product. Penman in California was truly the vision of a man who fell to earth, a pale alien in an X Files landscape. Wasn’t that the dream they all had, the gob-for-hire scribes, the cultural commodity brokers? That Abel Ferrara or Wim Wenders or Fassbinder or Jean-Pierre Melville would recognise that they were the only ones who understood the secret text, the story beneath the story. And they would be whisked away, club class, to an air-conditioned suite to collaborate on some long-incubated millennial masterpiece. They would pass through the curved window of the cinema screen, critic (tolerated fan) to artist in one snort. American Express voyeurs ripped out from the scratch-card world of overnight prose into a rippling surface of starlight on swimming-pools, Mexican gardeners; dreamtime transfusions of tequila and cocaine. From institutionalised prose to celestial poetry. (They hadn’t read, these promoters of the Penman in Hollywood fable, Michael Moorcock’s minatory letters to J.G. Ballard, the grind of lost years and aborted projects.) So, obviously, when I met Penman, this Schrader yarn was the one I put to him. Why did he come back? Where did it all go wrong?

The truth was less romantic. Penman had, it’s true, vanished for a while. Things had got a little complicated in the city. He’d gone home to Mum in Norfolk. Still shaky, on his return, he’d met an acquaintance in (inevitably) the toilet of a club, who put the Schrader story to him. Penman was too far gone to deny it. With the haemorrhage of time, he became increasingly unsure whether he’d taken his sabbatical in Palm Springs or up on the bleak, north Norfolk coast. Some edge of the golf course, out of season resort like Sheringham – where Patrick Hamilton dried out, on a regimen of no booze before lunchtime, Hopalong Cassidy novels, and the occasional glimpse from behind net curtains of schoolgirls on horseback.

They should have known the real story, because it was there from the start. Staring them in the face. I. Penman. A modest assertion, registered anonymity. George Gissing reborn on the cusp of punk. Penman was gifted with a Grub Street membership card at a time when Grub Street had been decommissioned. The slender ego of that single initial protected the man from any possibility of worldly success. Puffed up with some redundant middle-English middle name (like those cricketers whose superfluous initials signal careers of fretful indecision), Penman might have been tempted by hubris. He could have come to believe, along with Julie Burchill, who kicks in an Introduction to Vital Signs, Penman’s eclectic retrievals from time lost, that he had become a ‘signature’. A logo. A mark. A neon sign that culture buffs will chase without worrying too much what he is writing about. One of those elephantine Hunter S. Thompson, self-cannibalising careers that define the point where it all went wrong, where the floating signifier began to get above itself and spit like a snake. Penman’s value lies in the way he occupies this clerical post, as reporter, commentator, without feeling the need to devour or diminish his subject. He doesn’t sulk when the jaded (doped, deranged, terminally dim) interviewee refuses to perform. He accepts his role in the scheme of things, servicing the nearly famous, or formerly famous, in hotel rooms; listening to their broken sentences, drinking with them, then going home to make a shape out of this transient experience of chaos. Penman trained himself to become technically competent in the art of rendering incoherence – stuttering egos, pre-breakdown confessional monologues, epic self-justifications, psychobabble – as text. In however many words he was asked to deliver. He is one of the only writers I’ve met who relishes the prospect of being edited. It’s the masochist in him. He admires discipline. Not for him the dreadful inflation of the broadsheet, the hysterical trawl of diary prose graced by an outdated photograph (from a period when the Name still had hair and cheekbones). The celebrity columnist is anathema to Penman. Desperate fame-chasers who vampirise the self-impersonators they are sent to profile. Hacks who acquire status by association, until print media is too cool to hold them and they are transubstantiated into television. These calculating strategists made Penman, who was, first and last and always, a writer, flush with rage. He was an elective invisible. The artisan, the artificer. John Bayley, describing James Joyce in a review in this journal, called him ‘the penman of the family’. Praise indeed. A curse from which there is no possible abdication, a lifelong task, and one which Ian Penman has accepted with quixotic and sharp-witted stoicism.

So what does Vital Signs do? And why would anyone publish it? Because, in a sense, it’s an unrequired project: every line of it has appeared elsewhere. Penman says that he altered nothing ‘beyond the odd comma’. What he is exhibiting, raw, is a culling from the body of reviews, profiles, enthusiasms and deflations that he has perpetrated from his beginnings with the New Musical Express in 1977 to his present non-eminent (but legendary) status with the hipper glossies. On the back of more heavily puffed recyclings by other NME veterans such as Nick Kent and Julie Burchill, that brief pre-Thatcher Waterloo sunset in the IPC tower has taken on a rosy apocalyptic glow. These are not the uncorseted, feelgood ramblings of Sixties survivors (Howard Marks, Richard Neville et al), but the in-your-face, out-of-your-skull, trust-nobody, swallow-anything limbo that acted, it has become clear, as a curtain-raiser to the free-market excesses that were to follow. Punk auditioned the dark night of Keith Joseph and Norman Tebbit. It turns out that none of the punk parasites much liked the sounds or the bands who produced them. They were career anarchists, varnishing their leather armour while they waited for an offer from the Daily Mail. Essentially, NME ‘new journalism’ was no more than a form of benign prostitution, product placement, the glamorising of commodities: records, films, the rising and declining stocks in a cultural futures market. And on the back of these small shifts in reputation, the hacks would themselves become valuable products, busking for transfer to the mainstream. Provincial Marxism to parodic capitalism. Julie Burchill’s fabulously gabby monologue, I Knew I Was Right, would be the blow-out item that placed all this temporal sentimentality in the right slot on the shelf, up against Jean Rook and the ghosted confessions of Diana Dors. Burchill believes, a heroically blinkered notion, that she is the only working-class female who has managed to tell it like it is: the Candide (or Candy-flavoured) ascent from somnolent Bristol to the sofas of the Groucho Club and the view from the balcony of the Metropole Hotel in Brighton.

It is very different for Penman. He delights in his lack of status, lack of choice. His phrase-making is so casual, you have to force yourself to stop in the rush, go back and sample it for a second time: ‘camera-daubs of city anomie make New York look like humanity’s wallpaper.’ Not for him the product placement by which the aspiring journalist places himself (or herself) alongside the product. Martin Amis got Saul Bellow and Madonna’s anteroom, while Penman grafted the standard profiles with which all the amphetamine gunslingers proved their manhood: Jim Thompson, Harry Dean Stanton and Robin Cook (a.k.a. Derek Raymond). Penman was the writer who isn’t in the book, talking to people who are, or were, or ought to be. His patch was cinema arcana, curating the ‘sessions men’ as he calls them, jobbing actors with faces full of motel moonlight. Professionals who might drink (drug) to the edge of coma when off-camera, but who could be relied on to hit the mark without falling over. Penman was interested in gathering speech from those whose silence was virtually geological. The finish of this stage of his career came with his report of a mammoth drinking session with Nicolas Roeg. The NME was under new management, most of the late Seventies faces had moved on, or out, or under, by the time the diktat filtered down that copy would have to be delivered on Friday, rather than the usual last ditch, finish-it-in-the-cab Tuesday. This was the end (for Penman and his employers). Roeg had begun by handing him, when asked what he wanted to drink, a bottle of whisky. He spoke in flavourless fragments (or so it seemed to Penman as he went under) that were impossible to transcribe, having no beginning and no end. A voice out of the past (say, a war damaged prep-school headmaster or a revenue assessor with a taste for Borges) that kept coming at him, over the top of a fizzing tumbler of G and T. (Playing one of his favourite pub games, the snap challenge, no chance for reflection – ‘What’s your favourite film?’ – Penman had no hesitation in nominating Roeg’s Eureka! A high fable of gold, alchemy and voodoo madness.) The infinitely wearied journalist wanted time to do justice to his subject. He’d been binging on a raft of French stuff (Lacan, Barthes, Derrida) because he couldn’t find anything of interest in contemporary English letters. He had a savagely allergic reaction to the productions of the Norwich School, Malcolm Bradbury’s over-eager cadets who were then consummating their assault on the glittering prizes. (The subtext to this is that Penman was on the run from Norfolk, an airbase childhood. He was the bright grammar-school boy who passed up his place in art school for the chance to get at the city. Any city. But London would do for starters. That was the new life: transcription. Nights on the drift, clubtime noise, then the real high of turning experience, the very next morning, before it disappeared, into serviceable prose.)

If everybody loved Penman on Paul Schrader, on James Garner, scraping the formaldehyde off Jack Nicholson, then the Roeg improvisation hit the wall. The advantage of deadline delivery in the old punk days was that pieces went straight into print. That’s what, looking at this collection, this fat blue chunk of his life, Penman missed. The tarted-up paperback is nice to have around but the words are in pages, not columns. They don’t play off smudged photographs and corner of the eye glimpses of other reports over which he had no control. Penman liked the William Burroughs moment, reading the tabloid spread as a single unit. There was something subversive, communal and hopefully dangerous, about the whole enterprise. Now all that was over. Penman had crossed the line and become a version of the thing he was discussing. The Roeg text was a demented cut-up of quotation, a dialectically unbalanced construction that refused to deliver comfortable Polaroids of its subject. It was, in itself, an artwork. A portrait in the form of a resignation note. The editors agreed, published half the piece and sent Penman his P45.

Then began the wilderness years, lost time in which he concentrated on his own work: the sounding of nothingness, a zero philosophy of drugs and television. What Penman left behind, and what Vital Signs preserves, is a discreet autobiography. Life in the form of an abbreviated scrapbook of cultural responses. He offers glimpses of himself alone in the curry house meditating on Roland Barthes. He visits film directors, goes to clubs, takes a trip to Paris to catch up with Robin Cook. He’s sparing with personal details, but they creep in. And you come to realise, taking the book as a whole, in its undoctored and nakedly unrevised form, that you are dipping into a diary, an unsentimental education. Here are all the nervous ticks of speed writing, the compulsive puns (‘having your wake and eating it’ on Fassbinder), the false energy surface, jauntiness in the face of entropy. The text that is scored for speech: hysterical italics, the incontinent stutter of periods (...) that derive from Tom Wolfe, not from Céline. The apologetic language droppings (‘pardonnez-moi’) and compulsive Americanisms (‘rimshot time in Vegas’). The temptation with this fast-food prose (‘People don’t drop their haitches, they drops Es’) is to become a lie-down comedian, a sofa wit, a floor-level moralist, abdicating all social responsibilities, honing language to a solipsistic spasm. The aim is to achieve a fake intimacy, a bloke talking to blokes (of both sexes). Conservation rather than literature. But Penman always remains the writer. The reflex nudges and whispered asides are loose brushstrokes, part of his signature.

The slogan Penman saw as defining the aims of the red dirt, pulp novelist Jim Thompson became the motif of his own lost years: ‘nothing to lose, nothing to prove’. It became increasingly hard not to talk about the author of Vital Signs as if he were dead. His book has that effect, it’s an exercise in time travel, a posthumous confession. Penman found places where it was prudent, if not comfortable, to live: Finsbury Park, Hackney. He let the journalism slide, nobody had his number, calls went unreturned. He was rumoured to be working on a magnum opus (he started the rumour), a book of essays on Billie Holiday and the blues. This was a real investment, the abyss of the uncommissioned. A publisher who had expressed some interest was confounded by the extracts that arrived. Penman became a spectral tourist in his own autobiography. Sometimes it took him a year to unfinish a profile, months to polish a paragraph. In a climate where newspapers folded between green light and delivery, Penman became a master of the unread. Thirty thousand words typed on water, scribbled with a trembling finger on a dusty mirror. His peers spoke of ‘doing’ Penman, as if his customised prose was the drug of choice. Meanwhile, the man cultivated his cats, or walked his dealer’s kids over to the swings in London Fields. He began novels. With his material, the hard-won knowledge of the city’s underlife, it should have been Penman who patented that title: London Fields. It was his book, the one he never wrote. Not in words. The form didn’t suit him. Film-scripts, he felt, came more easily. They flowed. He saw life in those terms, from the far side of an opaque screen. Like Polanski’s scriptwriter, Gerard Brach, he knew about ‘windows becoming your world’. He was addicted to television. He watched without discrimination, without judgment. TV, he recognised, was a perpetual state of ‘gummed-up breakfast time’. Skin over the eyes. No praise, no blame. He understood that it was all the same; there were no highlights, nothing was respectable. Tranquillised light, a narcoleptic daze, low-level solace. The essence of drift. The absence of fracture. Let it happen. Television as an intravenous drip, with the sound down, or with other sounds, urban effects, overdubbing a random FX track. Sirens, drills, screams, broken glass.

Penman knew that beneath all this floating immateriality, this interference, was a coded story, a magical incantation. He dabbled in psychiatry. He saw signs everywhere. He understood that everything was drugs or television, that was the coming communality. ‘Drugs,’ he wrote, ‘are one of our last sources of the secretly sublime, the sublimely secret, the clandestine: it’s the last place we can go to escape the relentless publicity of modern life.’ He looked for a non-discriminatory addiction, the crisis management of overwhelming experience: concrete overpasses, feral dog packs, inner city grass. Dead light. He sought to duplicate, through a regime of remorseless soap operas and game shows, the psychopathology of ketamine abuse, as it has has been described by John Hannon in a journal extract published in the Bristol magazine, Entropy. (Hannon describes how David Jay Brown and John Lilly in Mavericks of the Mind ‘discuss the notion that ketamine renders the brain directly susceptible to TV transmissions.’ And goes on that ‘Lilly even claims that he once found himself inside a TV soap opera while on ketamine, and was taking part in it as if it were reality.’) Penman’s way of seeing became a privileged flaw, a TV stigmatism. The screen was hierarchically sectioned, as if to make room for cabbalistic subtitles. James Garner’s face, according to Penman, ‘especially the top third of it ... is the uncut and uncloving stuff of addiction’. Who else, outside the path lab or the forensic bunker, divides the human face into strips? Penman is an insomniac, compulsively reshaping what he observes into broken bands of misinformation. Mundane documentation is fed into an Avid, a low-definition editing facility. That’s his fix. Looping riffs from I Love Lucy. Tracking in, without leaving the sofa, so close to the texture of the image that it disintegrates into a kind of anaemic tartan. He doesn’t need physically to sample ketamine, that ‘weird’ anaesthetic, because he is already travelling through a ‘near death’ parkland. Human consciousness as morning television. Anything connected to everything. Unsynchronised voices from all sides of the grave. Weather reports in alien tongues. Petrochemical wars and brilliantined golf courses. Bob Monkhouse and Saddam Hussein. Penman explores this post-publicity, post-exploitation ghost world better than anybody. He becomes a ghost to do it, a figure more talked about than seen, an ectoplasmic presence with an in-built taperecorder. A man addicted to language. To the invisible. The bruised, the demented. Cosmetically enhanced losers with an autocue dependency. Penman seemed to the outsider, glimpsed during these lost years, passing through a Sunday afternoon book fair, to be the copy of a copy; his life-force duplicated to the edge of extinction. The self-consciousness of print prostitution reduced his visibility to the point where light became sound. A low-frequency hum that Hannon calls ‘post-acoustic’. The wail of ‘lost cyber-souls in a bizarre electronic bardo realm’. Penman, in off-piste pubs, cradling his orange-juice bottle of liquid morphine. Penman resurrected through the recovery of old newspaper clippings, jaunty put-downs from the past Days when he could call Norman Mailer ‘a phenomenal boho beard that now looks like nothing less than a perpendicular hairy outgrowth of Ego’. Extinct jokes that have shrivelled beyond recognition. The jackal days were over, the feeding on permitted celebrity. Penman lived inside a parallel zone of purgatorial television imagery; the subterranea of addiction, a mapping of the city that depended on contacts, connections, deals. Troubling, over-remembered conversations. Flats with metal doors. And it was here that he stumbled on, or into (because that is ketamine consciousness) some contraband TV footage. Police surveillance tape of a drugs raid on a suburban Essex house. Real time with the stutters. A world in which he felt instantly at home. Extreme violence at the end of a grey telescope. Replays. Rushes. A story waiting to be told. A film script was assembled, loosely based on a recent, steroid-rage, drug revenge killing. The bloody Range Rover in the country lane.

Everything he’d written in Vital Signs appeared, with the passage of time, like found footage. The obvious way out was to become the Nick Hornby of drug consciousness, where Irving Welsh had already become the Roddy Doyle. But the obvious was never Penman’s thing. A piece originally published in Arena that might have done the trick, humanising and domesticating the processes of exchange and controlled derangement, bringing chemical exoticism down to the takeaway and home for Match of the Day level, was mutilated when it was rerun in the broadsheets. The Penman photo took up most of the page. But it could still happen for him. His commuter gangland film-script might stumble through the right production window. Wong Kar-Wai’s energetic cinematographer Chris Doyle was rumoured to be aboard. Vital Signs was about to appear and Penman had moved his base closer to the action, to Spitalfields. He’s been hyped by his publicists as ‘the coolest cultural critic on the planet’. So cool in fact that he is cryogenic, a ventriloquised stiff from another era. His resurrected journalism throws out venomous sparks but the cast list are already well on the way to being reforgotten, the last ‘micro celebrities’ before an age of visible anonymity, shorttermism, ordinary dysfunctional citizens famous for impersonating themselves in some lazy slice-of-life documentary. With luck, Penman is perfectly placed to be the Mayhew of a CCTV future at that millennial instant when the computers miss their heart-beat.