Public Image Limited.Named after a Muriel Spark book.I found their first record when I was in my prime. In those days if you wanted to find this kind of gem you needed the tenacity and sleuthing skills of a truffle pig. My keepers didn’t approve of music that wasn’t made with a 50 piece orchestra composed by a dead German, preferably the deaf one. Spending money on pop records was thought to be not just frivolous but seditious. So for some years my pop music education was largely visual, I would peruse every album cover in the music section of the department stores, rifling through the stacks of vinyl. I could look but I couldn’t listen. My knowledge of pop music was piecemeal, but my knowledge of album art was encyclopaedic.
I was forced to study classical piano music. My family weren’t musical, their abilities in this field was fairly evenly divided between grunters and free ululators. Free in this context doesn’t refer in any way to the improvisatory skills of free jazz, I mean free in the sense that they effortlessly freed themselves quite completely from the shackles of music notation.
So I studied classical piano and the pressure and expectations of this investment were enormous. I was the only person in the entire bloodline with any singing or musical ability and so I was to compensate for this deficiency of pedigree that my overlords felt about themselves. I was compelled to perform a piano recital for everyone who crossed the threshold or who even dared to knock at the door. Travelling salesmen who thought they were onto a winner when they were invited in to demonstrate their vacuum cleaner or double glazing deals would soon be racing for the door leaving behind all their gubbins and gadgets as though they were fleeing a…well, a vacuum cleaner salesman. By the time I was 9 we had an an extensive collection of abandoned vacuum cleaners. One for each room in the house, and a spare for the car, and the front and back yard.
All during my Romantic composer days the press was full of negative stories about The Sex Pistols, and I found it all fascinating. They would never be played on the radio. This was Vancouver, a city that prides itself on it’s liberal open mindedness, but as far as the arts goes it was neither very liberal or open. And it’s definitely not mindedness. Television, radio and the press was controlled much like I imagined Stalinist Russia was. With less samizdat.
Punk? The only punk I knew of that could be spoken about openly was Glen Gould who was as about as shocking as Canadian audiences could stomach. He dared to use a recording studio like a musical instrument and the fury and outrage this provoked lasted a generation. I wish I could say “divisiveness” but from where I stood everyone was united against him, so much so that he went into hiding, and refused to do interviews. The public hated him for that too. So the British “punks” were a new foe to be loathed with the same effortlessness that the Glen Gould phenomenon had cultivated. I was fascinated by Glen Gould, I thought that there must be something in this character if everyone is talking about him even though it is all bad and nothing ever good is said about him. I thought in clumsy sentences like that when I was young. Verisimilitude. Despite, or because of only encountering negative press, I was enchanted by the punks. When I say punks there was really only Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. No one else seemed to be deemed worth the derisive reporting we so craved as much as those two. And Sid’s name and image caught the spirit of contempt and disgust like no one since Glen.
When I was 10, my local drug store decided to expand and they opened a record department. The very first display they had when they opened was as genius an art installation as I have ever seen. It consisted of alternating copies of “Never Mind the Bollocks” and the Grease soundtrack, all placed at floor level and winding around the entire store. I was impressed and awe struck by the audaciousness of this installation, it gave a credence, an acceptability to the band who the adults all sneered and scoffed at. I understood immediately the magic irony of these 2 records side by side. The Sex Pistols album wasn’t in any other mainstream stores. It was my local conservative drug store that became host to the iconoclastic album that everyone was talking about but no one had heard. I pored over the album artwork, mesmerised by the garish crudeness of it. Thank you Jamie Reid. And thank you London Drugs for what was for me a small but powerful revolutionary act. This was the grim summer of 1978 the summer when lazy idiot adults decided that they finally had a subject that they could patronise young people with and during that summer the subject was invariably Grease. Have you seen it?Do you like it? You young people like it don’t you? My neighbour’s kids have seen it twice. They know all the songs.What do you want for your birthday? Do you want the Grease soundtrack? Really? Everyone your age wants it. N.O. spells no. Your recycled 50s garbage means nothing to me. I can’t even listen to the music of my own era. If I told you fusty old adults what I most wanted, it would shock you to your very core, it would be like announcing that I drink the blood of kittens, I dare not mention it for if I shared with you the thing I most desire I will be chained to a chair and be made to practice my scales until I have worn out all 88 keys. You all lack the generosity of spirit to even dismiss my request as an example of youthful inquisitiveness you will feel the need to punish me for expressing a curiosity about what those teenagers from London managed to record that has for some reason outraged the whole adult world. I boycotted Grease and I haven’t seen it to this day.
I remember sitting on the floor outside the cell that I had my piano lesson in and I was reading a paper, and there was a tiny picture of Sid Vicious. He had died. This tiny picture of Sid held so much weight for me. It was clear to everyone in the adult world that he was a monster as if from Greek mythology, a sick evil drug addict and murderer. His death was itself a form of justice for them. But I was sad that he was dead, and I didn’t even know why. I know now.
Thank god for the Walkman. My knowledge of music expanded exponentially with the advent of the portable sound system. Of course my family understood that they were an evil greater than the atomic bomb, and so there was no chance I would find one under the Christmas tree with my name on it, but they could be borrowed from kids at school. They could be hidden from adults and listened to under the covers late at night. Gradually my contemporary music vocabulary expanded. The tastes of most of my peers was conservative, but there were some exceptions. The grapevine shared with me the information that Johnny had started a new band, but it was impossible to find anything by them unless you knew the import shops.
Surreptitiously I began to frequent the import shops, and it was much the same experience as my earlier visits to the mainstream shops. The visual stimulus was much stranger and more evocative but I still had no insight into what anything sounded like.
Cut to the chase. I found a 7 inch single of Public Image by Public Image Limited. Cheap enough to buy and small enough to hide. I listened to it in awe. All elements designed to fit together like a sonic weapon. I liked to imagine Glen Gould listening with me, wearing his gloves to keep his hands the correct temperature at all times, allowing the beginning bass notes followed by the echoing drums, and Glen then pausing the record, rewinding like a selector and playing that guitar sound again and again which sounded like nothing we’d ever heard before and muttering to himself “How does he make that sound?” And I’d have to say – “it’s the creme de la creme Glen.”
Muriel’s Ration Book. To ration was no longer the fashion by 1954.
Muriel did some hand modelling for the Ministry of Food during these lean times. She was paid in cooking fat which she often used to grease her body to enable her to squeeze through her tiny bathroom window – her frequent egres/ingress to avoid detenction when she was under curfew. On these clandestine evenings she would often go to the Proms or walk to Primrose Hill with her industrial binoculars in their velvet lined box in the vain hope of seeing Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay scaling Everest.
On June 2nd, 1953 she may have tried to attend the Coronation surreptitiously dressed as Nikita Kruschev.
No tatties for Muriel tonight. Muriel goes into a reverie, the sign triggering an involuntary memory from her school days when she burned her mouth while eating chips in the shade of Edinburgh Castle, the smell of dung and vinegar filling her conk. Temps perdu. She did it Swann’s way. Sentimentality wasn’t the only luxury that she couldn’t afford.
Time In Muriel Spark’s writing is seldom a simple continuum. Her narrator is omniscient, and exercises this god-like power by conflating present and future as is her wont.
In “A Far Cry From Kensington” Martin York is the director of a publishing firm and is briefly outlined as a sympathetic character when the narrator suddenly discloses that he will be jailed for fraud in a few months time. In “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” as we become acquainted with the children we learn that “Mary McGregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman, who was later famous for being stupid and always to blame and who, at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire…” We learn of her brutal death in the same sentence we are introduced to her. In Spark’s writing there need be no hint of comeuppance. Spark’s prolepsis needs no justification, in fact it is more powerful and effective when it seems senseless, irrational or unjustified. Existence itself may be the foreshadowing of punishment or retribution. Innocence is brief in Spark. She shows that a ferocious future lives side by side with the present moment. Despite this, Spark shows that hope still exists – if only in the manner, the wit and the countenance of her characters.
One of our creditors, a small printer, had taken the difficulties of Ullswater Press so personally as to employ a man with a raincoat to stand in the lane outside our office windows all morning and afternoon, staring up.
That’s all he did: stare up.
This was supposed to put us to shame.
In the coffee break we did a certain amount of staring back, standing in threes and fours at the window with our cups in our hands.
Excerpt from "A Far Cry From Kensington" Muriel Spark Read More →