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A Nihilism of Movements

Updated: Sep 20, 2022

‘Forget the centre: the margins are where the signals are coming from.’ Ian Penman, The Wire, 1995.

The Thameslink to Peterborough screeches romance on a mid-morning through acres of patchwork arable land and capricious industrialism, peppered with concrete farms and logistics warehouses and the odd railwayside social housing estate. Peeling through Hertfordshire, the sun on the wheat paints one’s closed eyelids a warm shade of grey, exacerbating a lack of air conditioning but the whole experience is winsome. There is—or there used to be, at least—a piece of graffiti on a wall in Kilburn, visible as the London Northwestern began to Watford Junction from Euston, which read NIGHT ON MY MIND.. Most on that route will know what I mean, the mesmerising capitals and incomplete ellipsis and the dominance over the other discordant colour. I have not found the piece for a while. It has either passed while I was looking elsewhere or the council or someone else has overridden it.

Now the month is June—in November, I caught a gig after the arduous hike up Alexandra Palace. There were the current standard-bearers Black Midi at the end of their opener and the start of an hour that left me with a sense of age. A lay historiographer, one even with the slightest inclination to read art in context, would tell one that the idea of a ‘new wave’ is deficient—that disenfranchisement eludes totalisation while remaining a constant through the history of class. This is no guaranteed prerequisite for revolution, look at the last however-many years of British politics. Generational samsara as a recurrent grudge against the present modes of expression has yet to shuffle off a vanguard rich and eager enough to capitalise on the margins and consolidate influence. There is no soul in Black Midi. There is no soul, either, in the myriad outfits which accompany them in representing the disillusionment of often-middle class, often-Southern, often-overeducated youths with modern life. If anything, the vacancy of spirit in these groups has only exacerbated the conditions they claim to revolt against. Richard Hell wrote of the blank generation—I could take or leave this.

Viewing no limit to my own disillusionment with London and the scenes therein, I am off for a patch of country between ceremonial Cambridgeshire and historic Huntingdonshire, an ever-unassuming part of the world. Two years ago, I had a chance encounter with Jiři at a performing arts festival—Jiři is who I am visiting this afternoon. I alight at the market town St Neots and take a taxi to Perry, a nearby village of approx. 1,800 on the overcast shores of Grafham Water, the third-largest reservoir in the country by area. Sailing catamarans line the horizon and a rowboat carrying two retirees trawls along after zander or redfin perch, poor man’s rockfish. Otherwise, aside from the waterfowl nesting in the reeds, the water is still. As I wait on a bench overlooking the water, I recall asking Jiři what he was doing and he had said he was trying to find a path which does not become trodden in an act of the righteous artist, but opens up to him. I asked if he had had any luck, he said no, not yet, I don’t know, and there we left it. Now, after a few failed attempts to contact him by post, I am here, having received a postcard of the water requesting I meet him, here, now.

I believe Jiři to have been gesturing at something new with his remark about the path which opens up. I saw Jiři perform with his band at that festival, a few hours after our encounter queuing for the holes dug in the soil which served as our communal urinals. Jiři sang and played a Gibson SG, a cymbal, a sort of percussive glass harmonica fashioned of old Coke bottles, and with his foot he operated an intricate pedal board as though it were a modular synthesiser, ripping and re-administering connections throughout his ninety-minute set to organise a long suite which seemed to emerge from an assemblage of orchestrated and aleatoric movements. At one point, three strings broke at once on his Gibson—he sequestered a drumstick from the altogether superfluous band and played the remaining three to turn the device into a hybridised ‘cello-whamola. The music was soft. I walked away from this in a fugue state, questioning whether Jiři’s stream of maximalism constituted another anodyne attempt to usher in a ‘new wave’ or whether, instead, he was experimenting with libidinal discharge, what Jean-François Lyotard called the ‘extreme movement’ of emotion, to the ends of locating his opened-up path as a matter of potential. Wherefrom this path would open, and onto what, remained obscured.

Perry is a marginal village, domesticating the fringes of an aqueous melanoma in the Cambridgeshire countryside. There are mechanics, bait and tackle shops, a sailing club and reams of semi-detached former council homes, not quite the garish modern cottages of outer Kimbolton and Stonely though products all the same of the safe Conservative seat of Huntingdon once occupied by John Major. Jiři meets me on the bench around three o’clock and leads me back to a semi on Hawkins Close, bought from the parish council before his time. Why we could not have met there is unclear. Jiři occupies a resin shed behind the house which, in the macramé and rattan style, remains a shrine to some bygone relative. We spend the necessary time crossing into the garden, step over an untended buddleja and enter Jiři’s pied-à-terre—he has two keys on a ring, tries the first and then succeeds with the second. An ochre corduroy settee is beset on both sides with stacks of rotten paperbacks— Apollinaire, Mallarmé, Wyndham Lewis, with keystone monographs and retrospective catalogues of Victor Pasmore, Berthe Morissot and, for some reason, Matisse. The sole article of furniture aside is what appears a small fridge with a glass door, as one would find in a pub, filled with unmarked jars of kimchi. Jiři tells me all he eats is kimchi and an Indonesian fruit called salak, “snake fruit,” which has the appearance of scales and, when peeled, of garlic. Jiři offers me salak, ordered from a grocer in Bethnal Green, and I accept. The fruit also has the texture of raw garlic, tastes of faint milk and gives me an acid stitch in the hinge of my lower jaw. When asked my opinion, I smile.

Jiři demonstrates a few such idiosyncrasies, none of which enthral me to a considerable extent, but some of which I will detail here for the sake of possible interest. I recall an article in The Guardian wherein a columnist visited the home of cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek in Ljubljana and found himself struck that the only decoration in the subject’s living room was a full-sized poster for the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops. A commensurate experience arises in Jiři’s shed, when I am faced with a poster advertising Mötley Crüe and Whitesnake’s 1987/88 American tour, and no other endeavours at decor. Indeed, he reveals, his favourite band is Whitesnake, and his record collection demonstrates as much, comprising every studio release, live release, extended play and, almost, every 7” single. The fact that his collection remains incomplete inspires neither frustration nor aspiration in Jiři—he knows where to go to fill the gaps. Otherwise, the collection is all trance compilations. On occasion, Jiři will express a vague desire to learn Welsh—”Yr unig iaith â rhuglder go iawn, rwy’n credu yn y rhuglder hwnnw,” he tells me. There is no conversation about his own music, which he tells me that “to discuss would be to condemn,” to extrapolate meaning beyond the affective would be ouroboric ad mortem. Something about all this, whether the shrunken sense of being radiating from all this information or the swelling in the neck, craned to avoid the collar tie, gives me a turn in my chest as though I know, I believe, that this young man, scarce of frame and too bloated of character and exhibiting more comfort in greater success than I should ever hope to see, that he has attained his path.

In the late afternoon we head to a Greene King gastro, The Wheatsheaf, weakest of a triumvirate around the Huntingdonshire district, completed with The White Horse at Tilbrook, which offered an ample duck l’orange before the ownership changed hands, and The George at Spaldwick, where portion sizes are ridiculous enough to warrant a warning from the service staff before each order. There we drink pale ale at £3.29 a pint and Jiři allows me to record our exchange. I stare at the cheap sunglasses low on his nose and he begins to talk:

“We had three fields at school, a bank between each one. No one wanted anything, really, but slide tackling each other down the banks, into the thistles. I’ve not gone into town for anything, I don’t think. Formed the band after school, we never wanted to go to uni or get jobs. It worked. In the shed, I feel like a cricket, bouncing around off the walls and it’s not much better in the brother’s garage. It works, though. It’s cheap. We thought we had ants because the old amps would be putting cracks in the ceiling, hairline fractures but still worrying. Not a biological brother, he’s just the drummer. What I’m essentially after is an extreme consumption. What I want is to cut through a hedge with my teeth. There was a bit in Kafka’s diaries where he’s opening a window, like the window in Metamorphosis that opens onto the grey expanse. I want to eat the grey. Have you ever been on a plane and seen a break in the clouds? I want to live in that break, between the kilometres of water and bathed in sun [...]”

The remainder of the afternoon and the evening is punctuated with local residents’ greetings, a protracted game of darts in which one dart is thrown, on average, once a half hour, and these breeds of paragraph. I tell Jiři after long enough that the last train to London will leave St Neots before I finish the umpteenth beer and he offers to pay for my taxi. We do not shake hands as we part ways, but there is no hint of animosity—he simply does not see me. Spinning on the train home and praying not to fetch up at Stevenage, I am myself consumed with the thought that Jiři has not broken through to his path, but will forever be in a process of tearing through his clouds, his hedge, whatever imagined matter stands between his ambition and his abilities to conceive a purpose. That constant act of rending a gap, depriving the kimchi retailers of the East and South of their wares and perpetuating the Discogs Whitesnake economy with his rehoming, is, perhaps, all he needs. More than can be said for most, I think. At home, I vomit and sleep in my shoes.

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