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Category: Journalism

Brian Sewell: Forthright and formidable

The title of Brian Sewell’s new book of criticisms is a revealing one. Naked Emperors – a play on Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes – pre-emptively informs that the material contained within pertains to swindlers and imposters unmasked by a single-truth telling individual. Some of these are world celebrated contemporary artists, others belong to the curatorial establishment; all are subject to Sewell’s vituperative evaluation. Sewell has been the art critic for London’s Evening Standard since 1984, almost as long as he has ”locked horns” with the ”successive chairmen, panjandrums, secretaries and Councillors of the Arts Council”. This, he says in a pointedly entitled chapter, A Nest of Vipers, is due to their ”Byzantine methods of selection and appointment, their often outrageous exploitation of appointment for professional advantage, their buddy-boy and back scratching patronage and subsidy”. Unsurprisingly, his repetitive enquiries and interest in this particular institution have been obstructed and deemed “malevolent”. But neither one nor the other has disparaged Sewell in his quest for veracity, or has stifled his stentorian cries at the fact that the public has been duped into gazing “in adoration on works of art in the mediums of human blood, semen, urine and the fluff discovered in an artist’s navel”.

Sewell’s distaste for what is nowadays foisted as art is palpable throughout the collection and only outweighed by his anger, which reaches its pinnacle in a chapter on Tracey Emin and her “retrospective celebration of unmediated autobiographical relics and self-centred sentimentality” at the Hayward Gallery in 2011. The critic duly informs the reader that he has previously “said very little of Miss Emin” since her debut in 1997 due to the fact that he had hoped that even “our insane contemporary art world would have enough common sense to let her fade into obscurity”. But alas it has not thus Sewell’s erroneous assumption is perhaps as much a reason for his vehement hostility toward Emin as is his objection to her patchworks, her tumbled bed and her general “misery reconstructed in self-pity”. The chapter on Emin, which spans all of three pages, is replete with gratuitous name-calling and ebullient contempt for the “art’s Jade Goody” who, according to Sewell, has made her name through “cunning exploitation of ignorance, irascible emotion and raw sex” while playing the “drunken slut” for the benefit of the popular papers. Sewell’s bile toward his subject – with whom he feels “not the slightest sympathy” over her sexual and personal tribulations – is unmitigated, unrestrained and borderline sadistic. On the other hand, his grievances regarding her art are credible and validated. He’s right; crude images of bladder emptying, masturbation and neon signs telling one to “FUCK OFF AND DIE YOU SLAG” and “PEOPLE LIKE YOU NEED TO FUCK PEOPLE LIKE ME” is the stuff of a “teenage girl besotted with boy bands rather than the serious business we might reasonably expect of a famous woman of forty-eight”.

Now in his 80s, Sewell is perhaps both most maligned and celebrated – depending on your stance on conceptual art – for his scathing reviews of the “intelligence-insulting, cynical, exclusive, manipulated and fraudulent” Turner Prize. He attributes the award’s success to its elements of perversity and freakishness and the public’s inexorable interest in the “enjoyable frissons of dismay, incomprehension and distaste”. But Sewell laments it all the more for its “exclusive approach to art, for its blindness to the quality of anything not definable as cutting-edge…for the secrecy that surrounds it and the evident mismanagement of the results”. Simon Starling, who won the Prize in 2005 for Shedboatshed, is a prime example, says Sewell, of someone who was awarded the accolade for the sheer “eccentricity of the idea” rather than its connection with “ancestral forms of art”. Starling dismantled a shed turned it into a boat sailed to Xanadu and then turned it back into a shed. And that won this unassuming genius £25,000. Sewell quite rightly points out that the whole project was an exercise in carpentry rather than art, the very definition of which he questions throughout the collection. He does this scrupulously as he ponders one “incomprehensible postmodernism” to the next, produced by the likes of Anthony Caro who for the past decade has been “toying with the student exercise of making three dimensional tableaux” from the paintings of old masters; Damian Hirst whose “imagination is as dead as all the dead creatures” suspended in formaldehyde; David Hockney whose “portraiture has been unworthy even of the street painters of Montmartre” for the last couple of years and a handful of others favoured by the art establishment.

And here the establishment is as vehemently lambasted as the individual artist. ‘‘The Whitechapel Gallery is,” writes Sewell, “to anything pretending to be a work of art, the most flattering space in London.” Tate Gallery ranks lower than “a minor museum in provincial Germany,” the Arts Council is “an irrelevance to the great majority of working painters and sculptors,” the Royal Academy has “fallen on hard times…complacency [and] indolence,” and the Saatchi Galleries are run by a proprietor whose taste is “crudely literal, bizarre, grotesque, sexual and calculatingly offensive”. Sewell also sneers at compliant journalists and submissive broadcasters espousing uniform and uncritical praise for artists of international calibre but little skill. His astringent disposition was famously challenged in 1994 when 35 art world signatories wrote a letter to the Evening Standard accusing Sewell of prejudice, homophobia, misogyny, hypocrisy, demagogy and “formulaic insults and predictable scurrility”. Sewell retorted in kind and with a letter from 20 other art world signatories condemning the accusers for their attempted censorship. As a critic Sewell is both forthright and formidable, as a man he often appears quite vulnerable, somewhat wounded, perhaps, by the fact that the industry considers him an outsider, even if an esteemed one. His commentary, however biting, bitchy and belligerent, is insightful, interesting and supported by over 30 years of expertise which lends itself to understanding individual works as well as their place in history.

Naked Emperors is a shrewd and witty book charting a man’s interest in and changing perceptions of art as well as the industry’s shifting values, ethics and standards. It is also a book which makes it easy to see why many take objection to Sewell’s brand of criticism. His is not a subtle approach, but it is astute, intelligent and humorous. Sewell studied Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art under celebrated historian and disgraced Soviet spy Anthony Blunt. He graduated in 1957 and after a stint in the National Service worked at Christie’s auction house, specialising in Old Masters. He has since been a regular commentator on television and radio, and has won several prestigious awards including the George Orwell Prize for his column in the Evening Standard. Naked Emperors gathers Sewell’s reviews of exhibitions by contemporary English artists, most of which were written exclusively for the London paper. They are arranged chronologically under artist and institution and coalesce into a comprehensive and intelligent record of how “ancestral conventions of painting and sculpture” have been discarded for the sake of shallow, vulgar and fatuous installations and daubs, which have made the Naked Emperors undue millionaires.

Publisher: Quartet Books
Publication Date: October 2012
Paperback: 368 pages
ISBN: 9780704372825

Jonathan Meades: An indefatigable deipnosophist and a polyhistor

“There is no such thing as a boring place,” says Jonathan Meades. And let’s face it, he should know having spent a lifetime “writing about it in different media and in different ways: polemically, analytically, essayistically, fictively”. Place, albeit not exclusively or singularly, is also the subject of his new collection, Museum Without Walls. The sturdy hardback – boasting 54 prose pieces and six film scripts – delivers some genuinely droll and outré views and ideas, all backed up by an astonishing wealth of knowledge. Meades is an indefatigable deipnosophist and a polyhistor, who often veers off course to fascinating ends. Writing about architecture, for example, in Hamas & Kibbutz he deviates from the topic at hand to the subject of football, pondering: “If it is a national game how come we always lose?” He writes more amusingly, however, about one of the game’s biggest stars, saying: “A buzzard is an avian analogue of the even squeakier David Beckham,” who will “always be a wrong voice, a treble in a tenor’s body. That for me is his defining characteristic. He is to be filed, ultimately, alongside Alan Ball and Emlyn Hughes in the Sportsmen Posing As Castrati category”. Yet jocund badinage aside, Meades really knows his stuff from seventeenth century literary dicta to the ineptitude of an untutored architect, from the demerits of the Theory of the Value of Ruins to the capital’s imperfect traffic and transport systems. Meades is a redoubtable social critic and nouveau historian with an intrepidly facetious streak, humorous and clever without being glib.

Much of Museum Without Walls is dedicated to Meades’ monomania, which he has spent 30 years cultivating in numerous television programmes, books and journalism features. Here, in this collection, are some of his most interesting texts pertaining to London and its monuments, both the memorable and the unremarkable. “Of London’s major set pieces,” writes Meades, “St Paul’s Cathedral is the most distinguished, though not, I suspect, the most loved: it is too stately, aloof and worldly to excite the sort of affection granted to such exercises in quaintness as Big Ben and Tower Bridge”.  Further in the collection Meades ruminates over the subject again, praising St Paul’s for its “swagger and urbanity and temporal grace,” which stands at odds with its function as a church, “a monument to unreason…a musty repository of ancient mysteries and incomprehensible superstitions” and the residence of “the fearsome, jealous, tyrannical wrath-monger called god”. Meades continues his deadpan fulmination against the numinous deity in the brilliantly irreverent Absentee Landlord. God is “an absurdity whose existence it is absurd to deny,” he says, “because God is omnipresent, God is in believers’ minds or souls or hearts or wherever it is they know he is”. In fact, he is a “fantastically successful invention.” And if an idea ever had legs Meades muses, “this one has run and run and is still full of puff”. 

Next, he tackles the church. The Church of England to be precise or rather “the Church of Convenience,” as he calls it, “founded to sanction a king’s polygamous lubricity and his Bluebeard appetites”. Speaking from an architectural point of view, however, he avers that churches as buildings cannot be denied. Most of these putatively sacred structures are lumped together as Gothic, because they predominantly are and have been since the Middle Ages. “The Gothic is an agent of de-secularisation, it is an architectural means of achieving sacredness,” Meades explains, “it made schools, law courts and railway stations into quasi-religious building which were thus invested with added authority: we thanked God for selective education, for the wisdom of judges, for making the trains run on time.” Interestingly, Meades goes on to note that “Atheism, unlike Christianity, possesses no architectural type or decorative style which is peculiar to it.” And yet he daydreams here a little, saying: “Still, had atheists built they could have built at no more propitious a moment than during the middle years of this century, when nearly all architecture had broken with western Christian precedent, when architecture was so ideologically determined that it was itself a cult or religion.” Sadly this is no longer the case, as Meades laments in Postmodernism to Ghost-Modernism because modern British architecture died when Margaret Thatcher assumed power in 1979 and thus dismantled the “economic and cultural apparatus that had supported it”.

And, it only got worse under the tenure of Tony Blair, “the most bellicose prime minister of the last 150 years”. There is something of the Uriah Heep that Blair’s “corrupt regime” has banqueted to Britain, says Meades. But what he really takes objection to are the “block upon block of luxury flats” despoiling different cityscapes across the country. In On the Bandwagon talking of Blair’s government, Meades says that the decade-long rule “will be recalled as much by its architecture as by its low dishonesty”. But the architectural legacy is Meades’ primary concern, so much so that he has coined a neologism for the particular type of structure associated with New Labour. A sightbite, the analogous equivalent of a soundbite, is “characterised by its hollow vacuity, by its sculptural sensationalism, by its happy quasi-modernism, by its lack of actual utility”.  These “dangerously vapid” buildings found mostly in municipalities undergoing regeneration, from London’s Docklands to Cardiff Bay, are fully representative of the government who authorised them. A government this particular auteur takes to task where others have not dared. Meades’ spellbinding enthusiasm, his acuity and his crafty prose in writing about social, political and religious issues – which he contemplates with wit, deft and gravity, depending on the exact nature of the topic – are surpassed only by his uncompromising candour.

This candour also extends to his life, his childhood and formative years, references and anecdotes of which punctuate the collection.  Occasionally, these sketches are plaintively nostalgic as those, for example, in Fatherland, where Meades remembers places associated with his father, which he says “coalesce into a memento mori whether I like it or not”.  Thus places, like certain smells and sounds, are able to solicit small and inconsequential but also exigent and momentous reminiscences and are therefore an integral element of our emotional life. A great number of these places for Meades are – in a very quintessentially English way – pubs, or more precisely their parking lots, where he whiled away the hours eating crisps and imbibing fizzy lemonade, waiting for the grown-ups. “I spent the 1950s in pub car parks,” he confesses, “in summer I kicked gravel, walked perilously on the wall tops, scaled trees. In winter which is what it usually was I sat in my father’s car watching my breath condense, mining driving, scrutinising the underside of Issigonis’s dashboards, reading maps”. Here like elsewhere in the collection Meades pays tribute to his father, a biscuit salesman with whom he travelled from town to town, taking-in the beautiful, the grotesque and the commonplace which, in his own words, grew to seem extraordinary. Unbeknown to young Meades at the time his edacious interest in his surroundings would not only develop into a lifelong fascination but also into a brilliant career, both in print and in television. The six scripts gathered here give unprecedented insight into the filmmaker’s pedantic precision and attention to detail. Surprisingly – surprisingly because Meades’ television programmes appear so wonderfully spontaneous – every nuance and scene, every screen-shot and take is meticulously scripted, attesting to Meades’ proficient showmanship.  Just as Museum Without Walls attests to his talents as a writer with an exciting and varied body of work of which one hopes there is much more to come.

Publisher: Unbound
Publication Date: September 2012
Hardback: 352 pages
ISBN: 9781908717184

Phil Baker: The skilful biographer

In his eponymous study of William S. Burroughs (published by Reaktion Books in their Critical Lives series) Phil Baker skilfully chronicles this most controversial and illustrious counterculture figure’s life from his boyhood in Show-Me-State St Louis, Missouri; through to his galliard years in Europe; his days as a junky on the streets of New York; his spell in Mexico City; his nomadic roving in Morocco and South America; to his senescence and eventual death in Kansas in 1997. Burroughs died a cult icon, a figure of worldwide acclaim with a status akin to that of a rock star. And almost two decades after his death, he still remains as fascinating as his auctorial prose, which shifted nebulous boundaries between fact and fiction. The fescennine nature of his work, and the attempts to censor it, has also generated considerable interest in the man himself. Chronicling the early years, Baker notes that Burroughs was almost exclusively attracted by the unorthodox and the occult. Excited by the sight of a maid smoking opiates young Burroughs said to himself: “I will smoke opium when I grow up.” True to his word he first tried drugs (chloral hydrate) while still at school. Burroughs didn’t like school, preferring to spend time on Market Street, “the skid row” of his adolescent youth.

Burroughs’ early experience of “tattoo parlours, novelty stores [and] hock shops” came to constitute the ambiance of much of his prose. But his chief impetus to write was actually literature. Baker notes that aged 13 Burroughs “encountered the book that was to have the greatest effect on his writing… the autobiography of a criminal, Jack Black’s 1925 You Can’t Win.” Speaking of it later, Burroughs remembered being “fascinated by this glimpse of an underworld of seedy rooming house, pool parlours, cat houses and opium dens.” Due to his idiosyncratic interests, Burroughs came to be viewed as an outsider and this sense of exclusion not only characterised his early life but also followed him when he went to Harvard in 1932 to study English Literature. Despite the odds firmly stacked against him, he received “a good education.” Baker explains: “He attended George Lyman Kittredge’s then famous Shakespeare lectures, learned a great deal of Shakespeare by heart, and took a course on Coleridge’s imagination with John Livingstone Lowes, author of the classis study The Road to Xandau.” He even “saw T.S Eliot give one of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures”. And yet despite complete immersion in academia, Burroughs felt compelled to explore the underground subculture of New York City, Harlem nightclubs and sex. Burroughs was unpopular at Harvard; he kept a ferret in his room and a “gun, against regulations” once narrowly escaping a lethal accident.

After leaving Harvard in 1936, Burroughs travelled to New York where he was introduced to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Joan Vollmer. Burroughs and Vollmer became lovers in 1945 and were soon living together as common-law husband and wife. Joan was later famously a victim of one of Burroughs’ most notorious capers. “I guess it’s about time for out William Tell act,” Burroughs reportedly said to Vollmer after an evening out in Mexico City. “Joan was fairly drunk and she giggled as she balanced a glass on her head,” Baker writes, “Burroughs took aim at the top of the glass and fired, with the shocking sound of the gun indoors. A moment later the glass was one the floor but still unbroken…There was a small blue hole in Joan’s forehead, four or five centremetres to the left of the centre. Joan died on the way to the hospital. Burroughs was detained by the police and later sentenced to two years suspended, minus 13 days. According to Baker “Burroughs never stopped turning the event in his mind. He even thought of trying to write something about it but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He was afraid…not so much of finding the ‘unconscious intent’ but something altogether wider.” Burroughs recorded his own feelings in a journal, saying: “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I never should have become a writer but for Joan’s death. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control.”  This need was indeed evident both in his life and in his work. During this period Burroughs was travelling a lot, he “was changing. His politics were mellowing; he stopped using the word ‘Liberal’ as a term of abuse…His comic talents were sharpening.” Not only that, Burroughs was also experimenting with yage, a drug that made everything “writhe with a peculiar furtive life.” He later recalled that it was like “space-time travel,” something he had longed for but hadn’t previously found.

In 1953, Burroughs returned to Mexico City but unable to settle went back to St Louis and later to stay with Ginsberg in New York. The two became embroiled in a sexual relationship, which ended abruptly and saw Burroughs leave for Tangiers, a place where “fact merges into dream, and dreams erupt into real world.”  Burroughs was missing Ginsberg and in a letter to Kerouac wrote that “the withdrawal symptoms are worse than the Marker habit. One letter would fix me.” In absence of the epistolary panacea, Burroughs was getting fixed on Eucodol and a young Spaniard, who was to become his lover for the next several years. Quietly dissatisfied with his new life, lonely and sequestered, Burroughs felt old (now in his 40s) and just as alone as he had done in his teenage years. He saw himself move through the world “like a ghost” who would end up as a “crazy old bore somewhere in a bar”.  Burroughs’ addiction to Eucodol was also spiralling out of control. He was injecting every two hours and “could now spend eight hours staring at his shoe, periodically sticking a needle into his grey fibrous flesh.” These details of an addict’s lifestyle later made it into his work, which had come to a halt until he fled to London in 1956 to seek help. Clean, he went back to Tangiers and began writing, fuelled by inspiration that came like a “great black wind through the bones.”

Two years later, Burroughs followed Ginsberg and his new lover Peter Orlovsky to Paris. By February 1958, Burroughs was once again developing a drug habit by way of Codethyline. While in Paris, Ginsberg and Burroughs went on a pilgrimage to meet Louis-Ferdinand Céline and “walked straight into a Celine novel”. It was from him and his “style telegraphique” that the Beats “took their free use of dots” to capture the spoken word effect. Among other notables, Burroughs also met Jaques Stern, “a millionaire, French junky intellectual, crippled by polio” whose prose fragments were later inosculated with Burroughs’ cut-up prose most notably in The Soft Machine. Burroughs also became better acquainted with Brion Gysin, a “regally smooth artist” whom he first met in Tangiers. His interest in the “irrational occult” deepened due to Gysin, who replaced Ginsberg in Burroughs affections, and the new lover fortified for Burroughs the belief in “super-surreal consolidation of reality and dream.” The following year, Burroughs began to experience numinous visions and “paranormal occurrences were coming so thick and fast he could barely get them down on paper.” At one point he reportedly saw “his own hand turn completely inhuman, thick, black-pink, with white tendrils growing out where the fingertips had been.” He also took to crystal ball gazing and saw “flying saucers like flat fish full of black fuzz”. Burroughs was writing Naked Lunch and Ginsberg was trying to get it published, which he did. The work made Burroughs both famous and infamous. He later recalled seeing a review in which “they had a picture of me in a suit, saying ‘He has the appearance of a Protestant minister or a banker, but actually he’s very subversive, dedicated to subverting all decent values.” Oppugning rather than subverting, perhaps, but Burroughs’ prose is so multidimensional, so full of anacolutha and fragmentations that it is often susceptible to misinterpretation. Naked Lunch is hostile and brutish yet it is also a considered and intricate study of the human condition.

Not long after, Gysin came up with the cut up technique which “would dominate Burroughs’ work for the next decade.” By 1960, the cut up method produced two collaborative efforts. One between the key Beats, Minutes to God, and the other between Burroughs and Gysin called The Exterminator. Around this time Burroughs took to travelling again, and while in Paris met Samuel Beckett. Although interested in Burroughs, Beckett was less enthused about the cut-ups, remarking of the method: “That’s not writing, that’s merely plumbing.” He did, however, compliment Naked Lunch, telling Burroughs: “Our despair is total. Total! That’s what I felt in Naked Lunch and why I like it.” Later, Burroughs travelled to London where he became involved in barmecidal spiritualism and new mind-altering-substances, including pilocybin and DMT which resulted in grotesque visions of “green boys with purple fungoid gills” and “white ovens”. Burroughs was well received in Britain but his reputation and the sales of Naked Lunch were going agley in New York. By 1963, the book was deemed obscene by the courts due to too “many baboons” and insurrectionary ideas. It was perhaps Burroughs’ provocative lifestyle as well as prose – the drugs, the ostentatious degradation, contempt for convention and law – that many middle class Americans found an effrontery. As Baker says, Burroughs’ prose landscape was “an unmistakable place, with its penny arcades and vacant lots, China blue skies, 1920s movies, a smell of woodsmoke and piano music down a city street, train whistles, frayed light from a distant star, rose wallpaper and brass bedsteads, ginger haired boys with red gums, deformed fish snapping lazily at jissom on the surface of a black lagoon, and lesbian agents with penises grafted on to their faces, sitting outside a cafe in white trench coats, drinking spinal fluids from alabaster cups.” That was Burroughs and it was decidedly not America.

By 1966, after a stint in New York Burroughs was back in London. He was growing stranger and more paranoid as the decade went on, becoming increasingly superstitious and developing an interest in Scientology, which he later abandoned for politics. By 1968, Burroughs was metamorphosing into “a revolutionary thinker, dreaming up left-field guerrilla tactics for the overthrow of society.” He became more erratic during his public appearances talking about: killer whistles, camel endorphins as painkillers and the abandonment of one’s biological brain. Burroughs’ time in London was rather troubled and “he hated the licensing laws and the British class system.” For him, London was a grey city full of bad service. Depressed and largely alone except for an occasional “dilly boy,” Burroughs was visited by Ginsberg. Dismayed by the state of affairs, Ginsberg arranged a teaching post for him in New York City Collage and Burroughs left London in 1974. He found New York to be “one of the most polite cities” he had ever inhabited. While there, he met a young man called James Grauerholz. The two became lovers, but soon the affair dissipated and Grauerholz took on a role as Burroughs’ manager, using his experience of “organising rock gigs to give Burroughs a financially viable career in live performances.” By now in his 60s Burroughs was “becoming one of the world’s foremost celebrities, lionised by rock stars,” hanging out with the likes of Andy Warhol, Joe Strummer and Mick Jagger. But he was also surrounded by parasites and sycophants, and fed up with the lifestyle decided to move to Kansas in 1981.

With London, New York and Paris behind him Burroughs preoccupied himself with his interest in firearms and spent many an afternoon “blasting away at targets and refreshing himself with vodka and Coke.” His emotional coenaesthesis was finally dispelled by a new found love for animals, cats in particular. “Burroughs’ cats reminded him of people he had known,” writes Baker, “He felt them as autonomous, struggling, mortal beings, and he found again the sense of essential contact that he had always sought in relationships.” He even had a sticker on his front door in case of emergencies, alerting people that there were cats inside that must be saved. This paints a very different picture of “the sheep killing dog” and the “insane German philosopher in exile” that Burroughs was often portrayed as. Most of his later work revolved around his renewed interest in “occult style astral travel” and mystical devices, documented in Bodies of Light, Western Lands and Education: A Book of Dreams. Some thought the old man was going senile, but Baker says “many of Burroughs’ beliefs are easily paraphrased in psychic terms, but this doesn’t explain their cultural significance or why varieties of the same paranoia were central to the work of several American writers in the same era, including Hunter S Thompson, Thomas Pynchon and Philip K Dick.” Perhaps they were all onto something. In the last couple of decades, Burroughs remained en vogue, appearing on television and in film as “filth flder par excellence”. Highly cherished in his adopted home-town as a lovable “old gink” he trudged on into old age, wryly attributing his longevity to “healthy living.” He also said he no longer felt lonely or unloved because he had “his familiars,” his friends and his cats. So in the end the most unpopular boy from St Louis had actually found something he had been looking all his life, the “most natural painkiller what there is. LOVE.”

Julian Maclaren-Ross: A Bloomsbury flaneur and colossus of freelance literature

Julian Maclaren-Ross’ Collected Memoirs are a master-class in autobiographical writing. His recollections strike an off-beat chord, shifting between dolefulness, mirth, vulgarity and the genuinely outré. Published in a beautiful moss-coloured paperback by Black Spring Press, the book showcases Maclaren-Ross’ talent as a great wit, and a man of intellect and erudition. Often remembered as a Fitzrovian gadabout, a fine raconteur and a literary mendicant, Maclaren-Ross remains an esoteric figure, revered among a select number of fellow writers but largely forgotten by the reading public. His Collected Memoirs are full of experience; his childhood in the south of France, wartime army barracks, down-and-out boarding houses and subfusc sordid little pubs scattered around the midnight metropolis of London. As with much of his fiction, Maclaren-Ross uses informal, colloquial language to convey his life in all its fascinating detail. This use of a demotic vocabulary constitutes a literary style, redolent of cigarette smoke and drink, which is entirely his own. Booze was a lifelong crutch in Maclaren-Ross’ life, so much so that he seemed unable to face the world without it. Accordingly, he could usually be found holding court in one of the many infamous saloons in the nub of Soho, partaking in the revelry that has come to define his work.

In the 1930s Maclaren-Ross worked as a hapless vacuum cleaner salesman in Bognor, a part of his life that was later documented in the novel Of Love and Hunger (1947). He recollects: “I was there because I had answered an advertisement which began INTELLIGENT MEN WANTED, and found out too late that it meant learning to sell vacuum cleaners. The firm, however, paid an advance of £2-10 and the fare to London, find your own digs, so I’d enrolled at the training school.” Needless to say Maclaren-Ross didn’t quite make it as a salesman. He did, however, while not selling vacuum cleaners in London, meet several publishers. Among them was Jonathan Cape, who would prove instrumental in getting Maclaren-Ross to write more short stories, which his House would undertake to publish. Maclaren-Ross’ reminisces: “Jonathan Cape has been dead for some time now, but I have never forgotten the white head and charcoaled black suit, the tall square figure standing on his doorstep in Bedford Street, one hand raised to wave good-bye and point the way to where I could best catch my bus.” Yet despite this encouragement, it was really the war that provided him with the necessary material to write. After a short stint in the army from which, following desertion, he was eventually discharged due to mental health problems, he published a book of topical shorts called The Stuff to Give the Troops (1944).

At the peak of his penurious fame, he was producing reviews, radio scripts and journalistic features by the dozen, working through the night after hours of drinking and converting wild impassioned pub discussions into fascinating vignettes. Although forever scraping by on the charity of friends, acquaintances and publishers, Maclaren-Ross was known as much for his writing, his formidable intellect, as he was for a lifestyle that often saw him broke, sometimes homeless and perpetually in poor health. A typical denizen of nocturnal Soho, he was once described by friend and fellow writer Anthony Powell as having the “air of a broken-down dandy, though just what breed of dandyism was not easy to define.” It seems, by and large, that Maclaren-Ross’ talent and career was impeded by self-destruction, a theme that runs through the Collected Memoirs with a kind of abject theatricality. These reminiscences often include stories about his time on the battlefield, but the snapshots of war he relays tend to tell human stories, rather than document the atrocities of combat. Here he is in one entitled Company X: “I remember one night standing in a trench next to a corporal when all sounds of strife had long since faded and any danger was clearly past, both of us frozen to the bone despite long woollen underpants, battle dress, greatcoat, balaclava helmet and woollen gloves…when I cursed our lot the corporal stolidly replied: ‘Could be worse mate.’ I said: ‘How could it be worse?’ We’ve been here two bloody hours frozen solid…so how could it be worse?’ The corporal said stolidly: ‘Could be bleeding sight worse mate. Could be pissing down with rain as well.”  Maclaren-Ross talks of his time in the army with reluctant fondness, despite the fact that he was almost killed while working on a firing range. A wayward bullet had caromed off his helmet, and he recalls that “For years I carried this bullet about as the One with My Name On it, possession of which, according to army superstition, guaranteed immortality, at least for the duration.” He later lost it down a city street drain.

He also lost many friends; but then he made many too: Anthony Powell, George Orwell, Nina Hamnett, Henry Green, Eric Ambler, Joyce Cary, Brian Howard. And (perhaps the closest of these friends) Dylan Thomas, whom Maclaren-Ross met in 1943 while working as a screenwriter for Strand Films (producing short, government-funded propaganda). The two became regular drinking partners, and could often be found at the Wheatsheaf, a popular pub near Oxford Circus. Inspired by the bustling bohemian subculture of 1940s London, Maclaren-Ross resolved to write his memoirs, destined for serialisation in the London Magazine. The first instalment depicted his friendship with Thomas, and it is here that we learn of their initial, and slightly awkward, meeting: “…in the office assigned to us”, Maclaren-Ross recalls, “Dylan and I stood uneasy and shame-faced, like two strange children sent off to play alone by a benevolent adult, in the belief that because they are contemporaries they’re bound to get on well.” But they did get on, encouraged to do so by the Strand’s boss Donald Taylor. Eventually, Dylan confessed to have read Maclaren-Ross’ work long before the two were introduced: “He didn’t tell me, nor for a long time did I find out, that he’d read the stories aloud to Taylor, insisting that I’d be taken on at the Strand when discharged from the army: that in other words, I owed my job to him.” This quiet fraternity encapsulates the nature of their relationship, and Dylan’s unrelenting belief (“You’ll pull it off one day”) in Maclaren-Ross’ talent.

And pull it off he did. Posterity hasn’t been kind to Maclaren-Ross, depriving him off his deserved prominence in English literature, but his work speaks for itself. The Collected Memoirs contain a considerable range of topics, anecdotes and incidents written in a variety of styles. The highly literary childhood reminiscences in The Weeping and the Laughter, with their evocative descriptions and vivid narrative syntax, recall the work of Vladimir Nabokov. They are full of brilliantly eccentric characters, numerous idiosyncrasies, acutely deadpan humour – in fact, these qualities pepper the memoirs throughout. Lackadaisical passages slowly unfold with droll interpositions and qualifications, vibrantly recapturing the fears and fixations that define the lives of “delicate” children. And then there is Maclaren-Ross’ father, the most important of the book’s characters. Speaking of him in The Coloured Alphabet, he recalls: “He discouraged, even in wartime, anything likely to promote hatred between nations and would not countenance the use of the term Boche nor allow me to draw the Kaiser’s head on the shell of my breakfast-egg and then smash it in with a spoon, as other children did. This attitude, combined with his dislike of all militarism, which as an ex-officer wounded in the Boer War he felt entitled to express whenever he liked, was apt to be misunderstood when aired in public, and led to his half-strangling a man on a bus who accused him of being unpatriotic and pro-German.” Another character of note is Maclaren-Ross’ nanny, who was Belgian and whom he called Nanna. We learn that “She had an accent in speaking English not dissimilar from that of the French governess in Uncle Silas, if what she said were phonetically rendered and though her disciplinary methods did not resemble those of this fictional prototype, they were at the time quite severe enough to keep me in check. She also had a moustache which prickled unpleasantly when she kissed me; this did not happen often, luckily, as all demonstrations of affection were kept for public exhibition only: in private our relations were on a strictly practical plain…Unbeknown to me, however, Nanna’s days with us were numbered. It was a passion for atrocity stories that finally earned her the sack.”

This facility in depicting the eccentricities of character is evident throughout, yet Maclaren-Ross’ is especially perceptive when it comes to describing the people he knew best among them his fellow drinkers. In Regulars, Wits and Bums, talking about the hierarchy of boozers in the Wheatsheaf, he explains: “They made up the background and the unsung chorus and occasionally, on an off-night, the entire cast. These fell roughly into three categories: Regulars, Wits and Bums. Regulars, of whom Mrs Stewart was the doyenne, included the old Home Guard who though extremely old wore on his tunic medal ribbons of more campaigns than even he could possibly have served in: it was thought that the tunic or the ribbons had been handed down to him by his grandfather, and I was using him as a model for the old sweat in the Home Guard film which Dylan and myself were then writing. Then there was the Central European sports writer, now relegated to the middle of the counter from which it was not so easy to get a drink; the orange faced woman (so called because of the many layers of make-up which she wore which made it impossible to assess her age), whose presence in the pub made it sound like a parrot house in the zoo and who was reputed to have silk sheets on her bed (though no man was brave enough to investigate the rumour); and Sister Ann, the tart who was more respectable than many other female customers: she mostly moved in a no-man’s-land between public and saloon bars and patronised both as it suited her . . . Wits came in various shapes and sizes, but could be distinguished by the fact that none was ever heard to say anything witty: indeed one elderly Irishman, who wore a grey wideawake hat and was supposed when young to have written a very witty book, never said anything at all . . . Bums (some of whom under their new designation as Beats are still about), were of two kinds: (1) young men and women just down from provincial universities and wrapped in college scarves which after going several times round their necks were still long enough to hang down behind: these were known to us as the Slithy Toves since members of both sexes resembled facially the curious corkscrew-like creatures depicted by Tenniel in his illustrations of Alice [in Wonderland], and (2) a number of shaggy bearded types who had managed to dodge the service and lived communally in the cellar of a blitzed building, where they made lampshades and toy animals out of pipe cleaners while dealing in the black market on the side for a living. Their leader was known, for obvious reasons, as Robinson Crusoe and they called themselves the Young Anarchist Movement. None of them had any political convictions.”

Even when Maclaren-Ross is entertaining, much of his writing is underpinned by pathos. This, to a certain extent, was a product of his frustration with the absurdity of the world, and this frustration occasionally prompted sessions of morbid introspection. These feelings, however, were not new: as he himself documents, they had been with him since childhood: “The solitary, the strange and the withdrawn always fascinated me as a boy; perhaps I recognised in them a foretoken of my future self.” Speaking further of his childhood in The Coloured Alphabet, Maclaren-Ross’ remembers how he had been “born with red hair. Later on this fell off and brown hair, which became progressively darker, took its place. My father had started life with auburn hair and my mother’s was black, so presumably both parents were satisfied: though not always with my subsequent conduct. Indeed there were times as I grew older, when my father expressed the opinion that the Devil had got into me, and my mother that I took after my uncle Bertie: a relative (her brother, incidentally) for whom a bad end had frequently been predicted, and who did finally figure in a case that achieved international publicity.”

When Maclaren-Ross’ isn’t regaling the reader with accounts of meeting the famous (“I glanced around and as I did so Graham Greene himself appeared quite silently in the open doorway. I was startled because not even a creak on the stair had announced his approach. Seeing me there gave him also a start, and he took a step back. He was wearing a brown suit and large horn-rimmed spectacles, which he at once snatched off as if they had been his hat.”) or expounding about his rambunctious nightly adventures, he writes quiet – and beautiful – stream-of consciousness prose. It feels like the reportage of an observing spectre. Here he is in the End of a Perfect Day, sitting sedately in the reading room at the Plaza Mickey Rooney, watching the world around him: “I settle down to write, someone plays the same tune over and over again on a piano in the games room. Men step over your feet with plates of cakes and cups of tea slopping into the saucer. One trips and drops the lot. Shattered china and a steaming brown puddle on the floor. An incredibly old man with a purple nose peddles newspapers: Anyone like the latest? A lance corporal asks me for a light; some men start singing to the piano; a girl of about 16, daughter of one of the servers, sits down in the next armchair and talks. I kissed her once under the mistletoe at Christmas and she’s never got over it. It’s impossible to work here, I decide to go back and type out what I’ve written.” And what this Bloomsbury flaneur and colossus of freelance literature has written is a spectacular body of work.

Charles Bukowski: A barroom bard who lived the picaresque

Speaking about Charles Bukowski, fellow poet and Open City magazine contributor Jack Micheline simply said that he was “an American postage stamp,” his name as popular as his first novel, Post Office, which has now been translated into 15 languages. A little while ago, I reviewed Bukowski’s collected journalism, published under the blanket title of Notes of a Dirty Old Man. The book, first printed in 1969 by Essex House (or a “porny publisher”, as Bukowski liked to refer to them), brought him a worldwide cult following, but it only contained 40 of the hundreds of pieces he had submitted under the Dirty Old Man rubric. A selection of the previously unpublished Bukowski columns has recently been issued by the San Francisco based publisher, City Lights. More Notes of a Dirty Old Man began as a personal, 15 year-long quest by its brilliant editor (and Bukowski scholar), David Stephen Calonne. Writing about Bukowski’s prose in the Afterword, Colonne posits that it “was a product of years of labour.” And he is right. In the course of over 40 books, Bukowski transformed himself from a drunken losel to an underground litterateur, aligning himself with a literary tradition inauguarated by the likes of Céline, John Fante and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Despite his chronic drinking routine Bukowski’s work ethic was incredibly assiduous and often saw him sit at his typewriter for 10 hours straight; a beer by his side, and frequently a woman languidly convalescing in the booze soaked, smoke infused monochrome phantasmagoria. There was always a woman somewhere in Bukowski’s life and his fiction, and these newly published works are swarming with them. The third piece in the collection opens on this very subject: “I was going over my old Racing Forms, having a beer and a smoke, really hungover, shaky, depressed, gently thinking suicide, but still hoping for a lucky angel when there was a knock on the door…IT WAS A WOMAN and What a woman in that 9p.m rain – long red hair down the back, jesus; tons of red miracle. And the face, open with passion, like a flower ripped open with fingers from the bud, a kind of fire-cheating, and the body was nothing but SEX, sex standing still, jumping, singing, looking, flowing, humming in the 9 p.m rain.” One look at the libidinous redhead and Bukowski could hardly walk, impeded as he was by “enough hose to put out a forest fire of napalm.” In true Bukowski style the story proceeds to relay impassioned “miracle and madness” fucking: “I had her nailed in the centre of the rug”, he says, “And then BANG the walls shook, a man on the street stepped on a grease spot, fell and broke his ankle, and we slid apart like worms going in different directions. Then I had to piss. I went to the bathroom…came out and she was…gone. Fast like that. No goodbye. Nothing.” He continues: “I looked north where I figured she lived with some fine intellectual chap…I took the green earing [she had lost] and threw it north, hard, high in the dark sky, it flew out of sight in the neon mash of lights from sunset Boulevard a block north and I said ‘Here, baby, your earing back and your life and all the rest, baby baby. But thanks for the splendid grade AAA fuck.”

The women who chanced their way into Bukowski’s life had no idea he would use them as material for his work, and he certainly never asked permission, preferring to labour under the aegis of literature. Bukowski frequently dealt with his female characters in a derogatory and near-misogynistic way, but, as the aforementioned shows, this was not always the case. Nor was he any more sympathetic to his male characters, or any less forgiving to his fictionalised self. In Women, for example, while speaking to a lover, he says: “I am more or less a failed drizzling shit with absolutely nothing to offer” – an opinion he upheld most of his life. In another immolation of self-criticism, Bukowski refers to himself as a “peepfreak and a jack-off artist”, but at least one who “has finally grown a little wiser” and realised that women are nothing but trouble – that following that post coital “walk from the bathroom” one starts “sharing a little two person hell”. Yet despite his bawdy outlook, Bukowski loved women: their voluptuous curvature, their allure, even their shortcomings. Recollecting a time he was heading to Valhalla, he bemoans the lack of female company: “There was nobody. Not a cunt under 40 within 400 miles. Life could be bitter. Even for a mindless savage.” Self-deprecation was always one of Bukowski’s strong points. It manifested, in part, from his early life, which was notably atrabilious, and of which he remarked: “A twisted childhood has fucked me up. But that’s the way I am so I’ll just have to go with it.”

And go with it he did – by turning it into semi-fiction. The crucial episodes in his autobiography are reworked time and again in his poems and prose; his oeuvre is, essentially, his story. Bukowski’s parents met in Andernach, Germany, shortly after World War I. His father, Sgt Henry Charles Bukowski, was serving with the US Army. His mother Katharina Felt was a local seamstress. The family immigrated to the US in 1923 following the collapse of German economy. When Bukowski was three, they moved to Los Angeles, the city in which he was to spend the remainder of his life, labouring in its low-rent milieu. According to various personal accounts his upbringing was shaped by The Depression, and his terrifying and sadistic father who took out his frustrations on his wife and son through terrible beatings, brutally inflicted for minor transgressions. The family eventually moved to Longwood Avenue, which Bukowski later referred to as “the house of agony the house where I was almost done in.” His adolescence was defined by isolation, the cruelties of other children and the stark indifference of his parents. It is perhaps, therefore, no wonder that he found it difficult to like people, felt contempt for humanity, preferring a largely solitary existence with intermittent periods of barroom conviviality, fucking, gambling, corpuscular brawls or any permutation thereof. Writing in another column on the subject he says: “I’m crazy. I like solitude. I’ve never been lonely.” But he had often felt like an impostor, and in the same columnhe characterises himself as “a bum, playing the role of Charles Bukowski,” before concluding: “Outside the cats played, the butterflies flew, the sun kept working. The party was over. Charles Bukowski was Hank again. Rent was needed. Food. Gasoline. Luck.”

Throughout his life Bukowski seemed to have just enough luck to sustain his precarious way of living, despite the evictions, the skid-row hotels, the hard-drinking, the desolation, the heartbreaks, the belligerent women, the unrelenting self-destruction – despite even Jane Cooney Baker’s death, after which he was so depressed he felt compelled to hide all the razorblades in his apartment so as not to kill himself. In fact, it seems as if the writing and the beer were the only two things that kept him trudging on. He knew the low-life odyssey, the hardships of the ordinary working class men, and wrote about them with more precognition than any of his contemporaries. Speaking about it in a two page column, he says: “It’s a world, it’s a world of potential suicide, well I speak mostly of the United States, I don’t know the rest, but it’s a place of potential and actual suicides and hundreds and thousands of women, women just aching for companionship, and then there are men, going mad, masturbating, dreaming, hundreds and thousands of men going mad for sex or love or anything, and meanwhile, all these people, the love-lost, the sex-lost, suicide-driven, they’re all working these dull soul-sucking jobs that twist their faces like rotten lemons and pinch their spirits out, out, out…somewhere in the structure of our society it is impossible for these people to contact each other. Churches, dance parties only seem to push them further apart, and the dating clubs, the computer Love Machines only destroy more and more naturalness that should have been a naturalness that has somehow been crushed forever in our present method of living (dying).” Bukowski’s scabrous and sturdy prose about the social and economic subjugation of the urban underclass is matchless: every word is loaded with experience, a badge of authenticity. For Bukowski knew what it was to have led the life of a factotum, drifting from one menial job to another, working graveyard shifts, going hungry, going crazy, before manumitting himself from his personal gehenna by quitting his most stable and long term job at the US post office in order to write. Accordingly, when he writes about the underclass who work eight hours a day doing “an obnoxious thing for their own survival and for somebody else’s profit”, engaged in activity which might see them in madhouses “full of occupationally-destroyed people”, his judgements carry the weight of direct experience.

But it’s not the mere fact that Bukowski has the ability to deliver his words like welcomed backhand blows; it’s the fact that his canon has a personal philosophy running through it which encourages liberation from the drudgery and oppression of modern living. And it is delivered by a simple, common man who happened to be an authentic and genuine barfly bard. Elsewhere in the collection, Bukowski elaborates on this philosophy: “If there is any secret to life”, he says, “that secret is not to try. Let it come to you: women, dogs, death and creation.” And so it was with writing, which he remarks upon in a poem called So You Think You Want to Be A Writer: “if it doesn’t come bursting out of you/in spite of everything/don’t do it/unless it comes unasked out of your/heart and your mind and your mouth/and your gut/don’t do it” concluding: “when it is truly time/and if you have been chosen/it will do it by/itself and it will keep on doing it/until you die or it dies in you/there is no other way/and there never was”. It certainly seems to have worked for him. Today, Bukowski stands alone in the history of American literature as someone who actually lived the picaresque – for as he admitted, his work was 93 per cent autobiography and the remainder merely “improved upon.” He produced a substantial, distinctive, widely admired body of work. And in a testament to his popularity, at a time when most books can’t be given away, his are perennially ranked among the titles most frequently stolen from bookshops. Bukowski once said that he wrote largely for himself in a bid to try and understand this “godamn life”, to avoid “going crazy”. In writing this way, and in living as he lived, he more than justified his own assertion that “brilliant men are created from desperate circumstance.” More Notes of a Dirty Old Man is a worthy edition which completes the legacy. And “there is something in it for everybody, the touts, the nuns, the grocery clerks and YOU.”

Charles Bukowski: A scuzzy rhymester with some dirty stories

Sitting inertly in the mid-afternoon sun, after a night of hellish revelry, I tried to shut out my companion’s comical cooing by losing myself in a book. I have been a little slack with my reading lately, thus needed a metaphorical kick up the posterior to propel me out of the lethargy. Earlier in the day, I had chanced upon A.A. Gill’s review, of some trendy eatery or other, replete with customary witticisms about the victuals and the somewhat unexpected topic of misogyny. I cannot recall the theoretical imperative which prompted Gill’s spiel but it got me thinking. There have been many writers throughout history accused of being less than favourable in their treatment of women, and more often than not Charles Bukowski has featured on the list. I personally don’t see it, but then perhaps I’m somewhat biased due to my unwavering love for the man. Inspired by the above thought, I picked up Notes of a Dirty Old Man and spent the remainder of Sunday devouring the collection of Bukowski’s newspaper columns for Open City, which by Bukowski’s own definition was, at the time, “the liveliest rag in the US”.

The “liveliest rag” in the land was a perfect match for the liveliest writer of his generation, who infiltrated the somniferous rodomontade of the literary world with his own brand of irreverent penmanship. The snapshots of Bukowski’s life, gathered in the book, cover a multitude of sins from “fucking up to, fucking out” from dying to live to living to die. Pondering the contentious topic of suicide Bukowski, says: “Suicide seems incomprehensible unless you yourself are thinking about it…I think it was in 1954 that I last tried suicide. I closed all the windows and turned on the oven and the gas jets…I stretched out on the bed. I went to sleep. It would have worked too, only inhaling the gas game me such a headache that the headache awakened me. I got up off the bed, laughing and saying to myself ‘You damned fool, you don’t want to kill yourself…some hangover, some column”. Some column, indeed. Unfortunately, there aren’t many columnists like Bukowski nowadays, fewer still labouring in the tenebrous brume of a hangover like some of their readers. It is a bit of a shame that modern day papers are filled with anesthetised and insular expositions about organic rhubarb compote, the dimensions of one’s carbon footprint, psychologically contented chickens and other suchlike middle-brow fixations.  And, don’t even get me started on the credentials of the excerebrose scriveners and pseudo-intellectuals churning this bullocks out.

But, perhaps everyone is indeed entitled to their opinion like the doctors at the county general hospital who told Bukowski “one more drink and you’re dead”. That didn’t stop him, not for a long while. He continued living “surrounded by full and empty beer cans, writing poems, smoking cheap cigars…and waiting for the final wall to fall.” That didn’t happen for a while either, at least not before he got hitched – on a whim. She sent him gnathonic letters bewailing her impending fate as a spinster; Bukowski took pity and prompted by some eleemosynary instinct proposed. He remembers: “I met her at the bus station, that is I sat there drunk waiting for a woman I had never met, spoken to, to marry. I was insane. I didn’t belong on the streets.” Luckily, she turned out to be “a cute sexy blonde…all ass and bounce”. A quick round-trip to Vegas and the two were wed-locked and bound for her home town in some smoggy part of Texas. She was a millionaires and a self-confessed nymphomaniac, he “the city slicker who had hooked the rich girl,” with nothing but a “very tired cock and a suitcase full of poems.” Eventually, the two went back to LA to live in a dingy bedsit, Bukowski recollects, very candidly: “When we fucked the bed would shake the walls and the walls would shake the shelves, and then I’d hear it: the slow volcano sound of the shelves giving way and then I’d stop. ‘No, don’t stop, oh Jesus, don’t stop.’ And then I’d catch the stroke again and down the selves would come, down on my back and my ass and head and legs and arms and she’d laugh and scream and MAKE IT.” Unfortunately, being a nymphomaniac she would also “make it” with others. “Every man believes he can tame a nympho but it only leads to the grave,” in Bukowski’s case, however, it led to a divorce. She later remarried a fisherman, or as Bukowski put it: “I once lost a million dollars to a Japanese fisherman.” There’s always humour in Bukowski’s sadness, and an admirable resignation to take the knockbacks with a drink, because “the waste and the terror, the sadness and the failure, the stage play, the horseplay, falling down, getting up, pretending it’s ok, grinning, sobbing”  is all part of the “grandiose romanticism” and politics of life.

In another column Bukowski relays meeting “[Jack] Kerouac’s boy Neal C[assidy] shortly before he went down to lay along those Mexican railroad tracks to die.” Neal was berserk like a girandole “jogging, bouncing, ogling” and singing like a cranky “cuckoo bird”. Bukowski recalls: “He never sat down. He kept moving around the floor. He was a little punchy with the action but there wasn’t any hatred in him.” There’s a sense of melancholy in Bukowski’s tone, and one gets the distinct impression that Neal was already too loaded on the “Eternal High” and  too quick on the pedal in the drag race towards death. Upon hearing news of Neal’s passing, shortly after their first and only meeting, Bukowski turned his column into a eulogy for the last of the Beats, saying: “All those rides, all those pages of Kerouac, all that jail time” and for what? To “die alone under a frozen Mexican moon,” like his life meant nothing to anybody, not even himself. And yet, it did mean something, in part, thanks to the “dirty old man” who wrote about it in his column, and felt the loss. In Notes of a Dirty Old Man, Bukowski ploughs through a phantasmagoria  of topics from the erosion of democracy to the aching of scraped knuckles, from psychotraumatic childhood memories to the “tragicomedy of fucking”, but always in a unique argot of a scuzzy rhymester and in a style entirely his own. Fucking features heavily throughout Bukowski’s work, but as he says: “I don’t write about it as an instrument of obsession. I write about it as a stage play laugh where you have to cry about it, a bit, between acts.” And he sticks to his word, crying and laughing intermittently in the subtext of every page while regaling the reader with some botched tryst with a whore and her interfering elephantine lesbian pimp. He does that, he cries and laughs, and then pours himself a drink before falling unconscious and letting the “world go by”. But not for long as there’s far too much loving, boozing, fighting and writing to do.

Notes of a Dirty Old Man is a bawdy, intense and candid book, diving into the ugly, the awkward, the tearfully funny and the heart-breaking without holding back. And one soon gets sucked into the frenzied coprolalia of Bukowski’s prose written with a recognisably dark sense of humour throughout. The collection offers a sublime insight into Bukowski’s psyche and the dizzying myriad twists of the writer’s life. Bukowski surmises it himself in the introduction by simply saying: “I am just an old guy with some dirty stories.” And he’s right, but he is also someone who writes about the “upside down, romantic, explosive things that seem to give chance to no chance,” and someone who loaded with an arsenal of beer cans and women power-drilled through minds and column inches affronting, offending and galling thin skinned Middle America because “sometimes you just have to pee in the sink.” 

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