Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter seventeen

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chapter seventeen

No chalk lies in the earth beneath Chalk Farm. Once there was a farm and fields where gentlemen fought duels. But beneath is only London clay and it has been wrenched up to brick the district over. Chalk Farm is now a sooty, ochre graveyard, tenements of grimy brick leaning over ramshackle second-hand shops, colossal mounds of mouldering brick warehouses smelling of damp, decapitated brick arches, the sopping brick linings of the canals, dripping bricks lining the tunnels driven through the London clay from which they came for the North-Western railway more than a century ago. A miasma of rotting odours and ashy grit seeps from the deep, bricked sewers and the piles of rubbish stacked on the slippery cobbles. Squatting amidst the desolation like an abandoned round brick oven from a giant’s kitchen, the mouldering red-brick Roundhouse is the focus of this abandoned district. Later, the turntables where locomotives were turned around were housed in conventional rectangular buildings, but when the railways were young, roundhouses really were round. This one was bound in cast iron, and wrought iron girders swept up to support its domed roof of slate. When the Roundhouse was new there were bowers for reading and smoking scattered around the surrounding tea gardens at Chalk Farm, according to the young author, Charles Dickens. Smoking persisted now within the Roundhouse, the exotic aroma of burning hash permeated the gloomy interior. The locomotives departed long ago. Under its big dome, the building had slumbered through the turn of the century as a bonded warehouse for Gilbey’s Gin and was then abandoned until just recently, when Arnold Wesker established Centre 42 here — deriving from Article 42 of the trade union movement, which states that the arts should be for everyone.

It was now a crucible of the performing arts for the alternative society, a furnace where the iconoclasts roared defiance: Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Peter Brook. Stephen had escorted Claudia here to Richard Neville’s ‘fun revolution’, the launch party for Oz magazine. Antonioni arrived with his star Monica Vitti, because Antonioni had just done Blow-up, and Paul McCartney came dressed as an Arab. The Roundhouse was the venue, too, for The Dialectics of Liberation Congress. R.D. Laing, Herbert Marcuse, Alan Ginsberg and Stokely Carmichael all took the stage in this vast, damp, leaky underworld of exposed brickwork to disembowel civilisation and read its entrails. The squat, brick building was just a short walk across the bridge that crossed the railway track that still divided grotty Chalk Farm from the more genteel decay of Primrose Hill. It was a symbol, literally a hub, of the new, liberated classless society. It was the natural home of agit-prop theatre.

“I’ve got a gig for you,” Belinda had said.

“It’s a speaking part,” Roy chimed in.

“You’re perfect for it,” said Simon.

“Why me?”

“You’re built for it,” Roy cooed.

“They need someone who can really fill a jockstrap,” Simon explained. “Except you won’t be wearing a jockstrap.”

“What will I be wearing?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

Grotesque images slithered up the brick wall into the gloom like giant multicoloured amoeba, gently transforming in endless mutations of drifting shapes. Stroboscopic lights froze dancers in spasms of moody movement. Thumping erratic rhythms reverberated throughout the vast chamber, but the musicians gyrating under the spotlights seemed disconnected somehow, doing their own thing in their own space. There was a great feeling of peaceful unity. Everyone in this draughty black cavern — the players, the dancers, the figures sprawling on the ground or wandering around the makeshift stalls — all were bound together by the deafening music, the swivelling beams and stabs of light, and the sweet, thick sandalwood scent of hemp and incense that curled through the atmosphere like unspooled rope. The mixed sensations, the constant throb, the disconnectedness, the sapping of energy, the lazy suspension of will — it must be like taking dope, thought Jake. The effect was not mind-expanding, but a dulling of sensation, a stifling of emotion. He felt like an observer from Mars, immersed in the ambience, but with possibly the only clear head in the house. Yet he was the only one who was stark, bollock naked.

His speaking role came later. Well, a shouting role. For now all he had to do was to walk around the amphitheatre and smile at everyone he met. He felt no embarrassment. Most of the audience played it cool and directed their eyes above hip level. With broad, vacant grins. His only fear was that he would have an erection. But that had not been a problem. As he paraded around the vast auditorium, he passed through shrivelling eddies of chill like dipping into cold pockets of water in a lake. And parading in public, where everyone else was fully dressed, dampened all eroticism. Claudia’s house was just around the corner. He could pass by afterwards and steal a glance through the lighted windows. After he got dressed.

The music ended. People stopped dancing and stood, wavering. Six or eight bearded men and lumpy women, white, black, brown and merely swarthy, dressed in black loose-fitting shirts and trousers, with long colourful scarves floating from their necks or twined about their heads as turbans, had been chanting lyrics to the music — words he couldn’t make out. Now they suddenly leapt from the stage. Shouting abuse, they stamped through the audience, confronting the punters, screaming in their faces urgent calls to fight the system. This was his cue. Jake leapt on a box in the midst of the audience and shouted his lines. “You’re all boring, bourgeois fuckwits. While you deny your naked primal selves and your thirst for liberation you are helping enslave the whole world.” After that he was free to improvise on the theme, words pouring out unbidden, his face contorted with anger. Unfortunately, the promised spotlight never found him; his naked primal self was unseen and in the general cacophony, the rant from his fellow actors and the clatter of fold-up wooden chairs collapsing and falling over, his phrases flew up unheard to the grime-encrusted girders in the vast loft of the former engine shed. In any case most of the audience were heading for the doors. Jake took a breath, stopped his harangue and looked about him. The incendiary protest fizzled out, apart from a face-to-face shouting match between an irate audience member and one of the bearded actors. Marshals intervened. The aroused spectator was bustled off and the actors retreated to the stage, hurling scattered taunts like a retreating band of school children in a snowball fight. As the music began to thump again, only a few people remained in the central seating area, spaced out druggies or die-hard masochists.

Jake stepped down from the box and wandered off into the darker margins in search of his clothes. Someone pinched his buttocks. Figures sprawled on the ground like the fallen trunks in a petrified forest, lifelike but immobile — each in its private reverie turned to stone. Belinda was sitting on the holdall containing his clothes. She patted the cobbled paving next to her.

“Can I have my clothes, please?”

“We like you just the way you are” Roy simpered.

“Feeling the draught?” another voice cackled from the gloom.

“No. He’s dodging the draft.” That was Simon. Everyone laughed.

Belinda refused to move, but pushed a piece of cardboard across the grimy stones and Jake squatted on it. With unfocused eyes, she muttered to no one in particular. “Fascists. Pigs.”

“Right on,” one of the prostate figures croaked, a male voice Jake couldn’t identify. “They repress us. They gag us. They draft us.”

“Who?” asked Jake.

“The establishment.”

That was the name of the basement club in Greek Street where the mocking satirical group ‘Beyond the Fringe’ had performed. What it had to do with fascist repression, except to mock it, was a mystery. “You mean Peter Cook and Dudley Moore?”

“The British fucking establishment. They depress us. They shag us. They draft us.”

Jake took offence. “You don’t have any draft here.”

Roy cackled into life. “That’s why he’s over here. Overhung and over here.”

Jake went on. “And you can say almost anything you want. Look at Speakers’ Corner.”

Belinda spoke again, forming her words slowly. “Pigs. It’s fascist repression.”

Jake raised his voice. “What repression? You don’t live in Eastern Europe or Spain or Alabama. What have you got to rebel against in England?”
“Fucking British society,” someone growled.

Belinda shouted. “I’m not talking about fucking British society. I’m talking about the alternative society.”

“Hang on,” drawled Simon. “That’s us, isn’t it?”

Roy laughed. Belinda sneered. “It’s supposed to be a working class movement. And it’s undemocratic.”

A new male voice arose from the depths. “We’re totally democratic. We’ll fuck anyone.” Laughter and sniggers followed.

“It’s totally sexist,” Belinda declaimed. “You’re not offering any alternative for women.”

“Well, there’s on your back, on your knees, on top . . .” someone growled and then ran out of imagination.

“You want to overthrow society. But you’re still the bosses. We’re still the typists. Good for rolling joints, for nodding our heads, for fucking and putting the kettle on.”

“So,” said Jake, “why do you buy into it?”

“I should buy into this materialistic society instead? Buy a washing machine? Put on a pinny? Make some snotty-nosed kids?”

“You don’t need this brainwashing. You’re creative enough to think up your own philosophy.”

She couldn’t think of an answer to that right away. It pleased her that he had acknowledged her creativity, and what he said appealed to her. And it was of cosmic significance. If she followed his advice it would change the course of her life. But who was he to lecture her? So she said “Fuck off.” That seemed inadequate, and so left a residue of dissatisfaction with herself, which discharged into resentment. “Fucking Yank,” she added.

Simon passed her a joint. “Here, I rolled this for you. And I’ll put the kettle on next time.”

“Don’t you dare fuck her,” screeched Roy in falsetto.

Belinda took a drag and passed it up to Jake. He delivered it straight on to Roy. Belinda eyed him with a look that was probably meant to have been contemptuous but, because she was stoned, was merely vacant.”You don’t smoke?”

“I’m working.” A bottle of wine was passing the other way. He gave it to Belinda.

“You don’t drink?”

“I’m working. Besides, I think the world is comical enough the way it is.”

Belinda shifted her gaze.

“Simon, you should take him in hand.”

Roy camped it up. “Oooh, I’d be so furious.”

Simon replied without opening his eyes. “Jake already has a headmistress.”

Belinda turned her empty gaze back to Jake. “You do fuck, don’t you?”

“You know, for a lady, you’ve got a dirty mouth,” Jake replied.

Belinda stuck out her tongue.

“You don’t know where it’s been.” Suddenly she launched herself on top of him. She licked his lips like a dog. Roy, Simon and the other hangers-on hooted with amusement. Jake pushed her off and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“If you really want the part, try that on the wicked witch.” Belinda waggled her tongue at him, a dog lapping water. “After you get her knickers off.”

 

Why did she always talk dirty to Jake? Because he pissed her off. He was politically unconscious. She wanted to prick his complacent ignorance. The ignorant prick. And yet when the actress ran up and grabbed his hand and pulled him to his feet it put her out of sorts. Maybe it was not his ignorance that disturbed her. Maybe it was his pendulous prick.

They were doing a riff on Antonin Artaud’s piece, The Theatre and Plague. Well, that’s asking for it, she thought. When he performed it himself in a hall at the Sorbonne in the 1930s almost everybody walked out. Anäis Nin was one of the handful who stayed to the end, which tells you something. It was supposed to be a seminar and he was arguing the idea that the during the great plague there had been a burst of intense artistic activity. People had become obsessed with their own mortality and so had sought immortality or sublimation through creativity in the arts and theatre. Then, in the middle of his presentation, Artaud abandoned his discourse and began to act out what it was like to die of plague.

He was in agony, Nin reported, his face contorted, screaming, dying slowly and deliriously. At first people gasped, then they began to laugh, and then they got up and left, hissing and booing. Nin says he wanted to give his audience the raw experience, to shock and awaken them to the futility of their pretensions. Because they did not realise they were totally dead. All right, he was a diagnosed schizophrenic and an opium eater, but he had a point. The modern plague was bourgeoisie indifference to art. The human spirit died slowly, agonizingly, from the corrosion of mediocrity and commercialism. Artaud wanted to make them aware that they were dying and force them into a state of transcendence. The hostility that he aroused only proved his point.

His error was that he lacked an instinct for drama. A man standing up in the middle of a meeting and feigning the convulsions of death could be mistaken for somebody choking on a polo mint. That’s farce, not tragedy. The trick, she appreciated, when the performers, now naked, began to move like zombies into the audience, is to multiply the experience. Replication and repetition: the oldest of stage tricks, the reason we have corps de ballet, the Greek chorus, synchronised lines of chorus girls and twenty violins in a symphony orchestra, and why adverts at Christmas always show manic shoppers descending on shops in droves. One person’s performance is always personal; a group acting in unison makes a universal statement. Together, the actors began to die, acting out prolonged, agonized, writhing deaths. One by one, they dropped like dominos and lay as stiff as spears in deep rigor mortis.

Some members of the audience were profoundly affected. Like zombies themselves, in the silence and the gloom they drifted from their chairs, stripped off their clothes, and lay down alongside the actors. They knew what to do because we had all read the reviews in Oz or the International Times. The common interpretation was that the mass dying represented the Holocaust. Which would mean Artaud was something of a visionary. Although in Vienna it was interpreted as some kind of mass, universal orgasm. Well, they would, wouldn’t they, in Freud’s home town. In America, the audiences felt they had to go and comfort the dying. Americans don’t dig the finality of death, but they wallow in the sentiment of the deathbed. There is a meaningful artistic distinction here. Comforting the performers is a way of sharing human values, but it retains a sense of separate roles: the chasm between the dead and the quick cannot be bridged. The act of sharing death, on the other hand, completely refutes the duality between actor and audience. It’s a healing ritual celebrated by a monastic community of souls — audience and actors — embracing within the womb of the theatre. It implies that there is nothing further to say, nothing more to do except express human solidarity. Dying with the performers is the ultimate expression of audience commitment.

She realised with distaste that some members of the audience were not accepting the terms of the performance. People heading for the exits deliberately poked dead actors with their feet. A girl bent over and tickled one bloke and he had to laugh. Another dimwit was flicking a cigarette lighter in the face of a dead actress. Her hair was frizzy and suddenly it caught fire. She screamed and someone threw a blanket over her. But what was performance and what was audience reaction? That was the thrill of participatory theatre.

In the commotion other actors came out of the shadows. They began to lift the rigid bodies by the shoulders and feet and carry them on to the stage where they stacked them in layers. Slowly a funeral pyre grew on stage under revolving blobs of coloured lights. Some audience members joined in. Two teams of volunteer pall-bearers crossed in front of her. A door opened and they carried their prone cargoes out into the cobblestoned alley under the night sky, with the apparent intention of depositing them in the Grand Union Canal. This is not just mischievous. This has to be interpreted as a hostile act.

Belinda watched the building heap of bodies begin to writhe and moan. The trouble with sex is that it means surrendering your identity to someone. But that pile of twisting limbs is a community in which the individual retains her anonymity. She moved towards the stage, undressing to the pulsing rhythm as she went, skipping the light fandango, turning cartwheels ‘cross the floor.

 

The actress was naked, breathing hard, her squat, fat-dimpled body glistening with sweat. She tugged him to the stage, where disco lights played upon a wrestling match. Climbing onto the stage, still holding her hand, he saw it was a different kind of sport. A pile of naked bodies writhed in a multi-coloured tangle of limbs and heads, a Medusa’s maggots’ nest. Some people in the audience were shaking their fists, eyes popping with rage; others were hugging or kissing each other; a few opportunists were stripping off and urging unlovely bodies forward to join the scrum. Jake’s companion launched herself on top and pulled him in afterwards. He was engulfed by wet flesh, assailed by a wave of odour of unwashed bodies, clumps of hair releasing swampy methane mingled with the sickly sweet smells of the ground floor of Selfridges. What could Horatio Alger do in a case like this? Or, for that matter, Hawkeye?

A wide-hipped mottled buttock crossed with peeling sticking plaster pressed against his face. He swivelled his head and inhaled the garlicky breath of a grinning upside-down bearded face. He felt a sharp pain in his ribs. Gasping for air, he caught a glimpse of a familiar tattoo, the spread wings of a tattooed yellow and blue butterfly, as it burrowed into the heaving, soggy layers of ill-smelling flesh. Something closed around his limp penis — a hand, a cleft, a mouth? He started to get an erection.